Summertime for the Lees



Historic house museums offer unique challenges. We want to keep the displays dynamic and entice visitors to come back and not just say “I’ve seen it already”. One of the ways we try to keep the rooms exciting is by changing them periodically to reflect the seasons or a particular story that we want to tell. Although we are halfway through summer, we will be installing summer scenarios on Friday morning that will allow our interpreters to talk to visitors about seasonal habits and housekeeping tasks in the 18th and early 19th centuries.



At my house, summertime means cranking up the air conditioning. For the Lee family, however, summertime would have meant doors and windows were left open to invite cross-breezes; heavy wool carpeting was removed in favor of bare wood floors or grass mats; gilded frames and mirrored glass were covered to protect the delicate surfaces from fly specks (debris left by the flying pests); and fireplaces were cleaned out, andirons stored away, and the fireplace opening either closed up with a decorative fireboard or used to display a potted plant.


Faux (fake) foods have recently arrived from Henri Gadbois in Houston, Texas for use in these new scenarios. Henri is a skilled artist who makes faux foods for museums out of materials that are safe for use with historic objects – earthenware, resins, and acrylic paints. I recently contacted Henri to help with our summer installations and he sent a wonderful collection of fruits known to have been at Stratford during the 18th century:pomegranates, figs, and plums (pictured below).


Summer fruits were eaten out of hand, cooked in puddings and cakes, or preserved or pickled for later use. In the Kitchen we’ll be illustrating the ingredients for a pudding recipe found in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1798): “Put into paste, quartered [plums], lye in a cloth and boil two hours, serve with sweet sauce.”


I can just imagine the joy that must have accompanied summertime at Stratford – the longer days, warmer weather, and plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables. Summer fruits like pomegranates and figs are mentioned in multiple Lee family documents, such as the diary of Lucinda Lee, who records on October 3, 1782 during a visit to Stratford: “sat about two hours under a butifull shade tree, and eat as many figs as we could…”



Like today, gifts of food were also common in the 18th century and Stratford mistress Ann Carter Lee makes such a gift to Mrs. Richard Bland Lee in 1799, writing: “You will receive three kinds of Plums, they are remarkably fine, particularly the red plum…”


We hope that you’ll come and visit to see Stratford as it would have appeared during those hot Virginia summers the Lees knew so well. Come take a walk around our gardens and orchards; take a tour of the house and see if you can spot the figs, pomegranates, and plums!