Reinterpreting & Furnishing the Parlor at Stratford

Since its restoration in the 1940s, Room 202 has been furnished and interpreted as a parlor. The original c. 1946 restoration of the room (including furnishing acquisition) was made possible through the Princeton Fund, with funds raised by Princeton alumni (Henry Lee III was a Princeton alum) and donated to the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation (now Association).

As far as the historic furnishings for this room, the Stratford household inventories of 1758 and 1776 provide only a small portion of information, as this room was a new creation of c.1795 (the space was a bedchamber before this time). Period inventories related to Richard Henry Lee’s estate (1794) and other Chesapeake contemporaries have provided helpful parallels in compiling the list of furnishings. Cazenove Gardner Lee, Jr., in compiling family histories of the Lees and their houses, stated of Stratford during Henry Lee’s time: “While we can account for the portraits, the whereabouts of the other Stratford effects—the furnishings, books, pictures, china, and silver collected by the masters of Stratford for three generations, are for the most part unknown.”

Archaeological Evidence for Furnishings and Interpretation
Limited archaeological information is readily available to help interpret the lives of the Lee family and residents of the Great House proper. A preliminary examination of finds recorded by John Milner Associates, Inc. in a 1998 excavation reveal typical household goods that may date to the late 18th or early 19th centuries: window glass, undecorated porcelains, refined earthenware, tin-glazed earthenware, creamware, pearlware, green wine bottles, and clear table glasses. The 1994-1996 field schools from Mary Washington College identified portions of a trash midden that developed “between the American Revolution and the 1820s” in the upper terrace of the East Garden. Artifacts found during these excavations included extensive architectural debris that may date to the renovations of the main house in the 1790s. Of particular interest is the “domestic garbage” also found alongside the building rubble in Units 44, 55, and 56. Further research and examination of these finds (now housed at the University of Mary Washington) is revealing some useful information and potential future digs may reveal even more.

Furnishings and Context
Neoclassical design in the architecture of the parlor belies Henry Lee’s purposeful acceptance of this overarching style, fashionable in the 1790s. At this time, “furniture exhibited a striking shift in form, becoming lighter and rectilinear; ornamentation featured clean surfaces embellished with rich veneers and intricate inlays, rather than rococo heavy carving. With a reawakening of interest in antiquity, neoclassicism appealed to republicans looking to establish associations with the great republics of classical Greece and Rome.”

The geographical source of furniture in the new Parlor in the 1790s is unknown, although the cabinetmaker Andrew (Joseph) Villard has been linked to the Lee family and may have been a ready source for fashionable furnishings locally (Westmoreland County). Furniture included in the furnishings of this room include a variety of tables, chairs, a piano, looking glasses, and a sofa (not yet installed). For silver, ceramics, and glass, we find some clues in the extant records of the Lee family and its associated objects. A silver plate teapot (later engraved “Lee”) is one such object now on display in the parlor. Other objects are based on period fashions and some clues found in the archaeological record.

The works of art chosen for display in the parlor reflect information gleaned from family recollections as well as knowledge of extant paintings that passed from the Lee family to the next owner of Stratford. According to the recollections of Charles Carter Lee, one of the primary works of art in this room was a large portrait of William Pitt by Charles Willson Peale (now in the collection of Westmoreland County). A reproduction of this portrait is slated for display in the parlor alongside other notable figures that we know to have hung at Stratford, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, Peyton Randolph, Sir William and Lady Berkeley, and Henry Lee III.

Soft Furnishings
No evidence survives indicating the use of window curtains in the parlor during the first campaign of paint colors. Evidence for carpeting is stronger, but still undergoing research. During the preliminary stages of research, one carpet tack (with fibers) was discovered and sampled, and although identified as wool, no color was indicated. In addition to window and floor coverings, as furniture is placed in the room it is being covered with protective slipcovers in a color/pattern that stands in contrast to the green and white wall color.

Room Use & Interpretation
In addition to surveying extant probate inventories, period diaries and accounts detail the use of such rooms and their furnishings, specifically the placement of furniture around the perimeter of the room and its movement when needed. “Drop-leaf Pembroke (breakfast tables, fold-top card tables, and hinged-top tea tables and stands were specifically designed for such boundary positions along the walls and in corners…Tables and chairs were brought out into the room for use and subsequently returned.” The chairs were typically in sets of side chairs with sometimes one or two coordinating armchairs; the seats and backs of these chairs stiff and uncomfortable, dictating social behavior within their forms. The height of their backs would have been in accordance with the height of the chair rail, protecting the upper wall finish from the damage of moving furniture.

Although used for seating at their positions along the wall in some instances, chairs could also be moved into the room to create a circular formation for tea and other gatherings. Frenchman Ferdinand Bayard observed in Virginia in 1791 a group of ladies “’arranged in a semicircle on the right of the mistress of the house,’ and looking ‘as grave as judges on the bench.’” Visitors to Stratford today can see the Parlor set up for one of these “festive” tea parties.


– Gretchen Goodell Pendleton, Curator