A Real Rat’s Nest

The term “rat’s nest” makes you think about a real mess – be it a hairstyle or a messy room. But in our world, the term can be a welcome one, especially when the rat in question had such good taste in what she collected.

Like other historic houses, Stratford’s Great House has hosted a variety of residents through its history – from the Lee family, to the enslaved and servant population, to later owners like the Stuart family, to domestic animals and so-called vermin and pests. One such resident (or series of residents) during the 18th century was a rat who moved around the house, collecting scraps of fabric, ceramics, glass, nails, animal bones, and a pewter button. Her nest was discovered in the 1980s in the attic above the Great Hall. We’re not the first historic house to find a rat’s nest. Curators love them – the contents can tell you so much about the lifestyle, furnishings, and foodways of a house’s residents.

Black roof rats were the typical sort of house rat making such nests in 18th-century coastal Virginia. Rats at that time were venturing across the seas on cargo ships and setting up colonies where people and their foodstuffs were plentiful. The Lee family was importing goods on ships and would have brought these goods directly from the ship into their home, likely storing the crates, barrels, and boxes in the lower level storage rooms.

When completing work in the Great House in 1984, architectural historians Paul Buchananand Charles Phillips located a rat’s nest behind the paneling of the Great Hall and accessed it through the floor of the attic. Brave board member Ellen Hunter, who was then head of the House Restoration Committee, reached her hand into the small opening to remove some of the artifacts.

Right now I’m working on cataloging the removed artifacts. So far, nineteen artifacts have been examined, photographed, measured, and described. Large ceramic fragments and heavy wooden objects were found at the same time; possibly these were collected by a very strong rat or perhaps there is a human element at work here. I’ll continue my research and let you know what I find out!

For more information, see Travis McDonald, Rat Housing in Middle Virginia: The Diffusion of Everyday Life
Photo of store room by Terry Cosgrove.