A pocket-sized ornament gives monumental insight into the private life of America’s best-known General: George Washington.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. Our guest today is Janine Skerry, who is Curator of Metals at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. And Janine’s here to talk with us about a very special artifact of George Washington’s.
Washington is a figure of the American Revolution, he’s synonymous with the American Revolution. He’s really larger than life. What’s special about the artifact that you’re here today to talk to us about is that it’s something small and something personal. You’ve described this as the most exciting artifact that you’ve ever worked with. You said it gives you goosebumps. What are we talking about?
Janine Skerry: Well, Colonial Williamsburg is now the grateful excited owner of George Washington’s watch seal. It’s a small object made of gold set with a citrine, which is the chemical or technical name for a stone that is often described as Topaz. It’s a yellow colored stone. This small item dangled from the watch chain or watch ribbon of a gentleman’s timepiece.
This is a watch seal. It’s only about 2 inches tall, maybe a little bit less. It is very beautiful, but mostly I am in love with it because it is one of the most well documented objects I have ever worked with in my curatorial career. All of the pieces of the puzzle are right there in letters and correspondence. It’s amazing!
Harmony: So this is a decorative object based on what would have been a seal that someone might have used to seal correspondence or letters, but our evidence shows that this probably was never used for that purpose.
Janine: That’s correct. A watch seal engraved or cut with a coat of arms or a monogram could I suppose in a pinch, be used to seal a document, but I like to joke, and if you’ll pardon the pun, say that, “A watch seal was more about making an impression on the viewer than it was about making an impression in a blob of sealing wax.”
Harmony: I love it.
Janine: Sealing wax was usually impressed with what is called the “seal with handle.” We know that George Washington owned two at the time of his death. They are much larger in size, the head or face of the seal is very deeply cut for a seal with handle. And the handle is usually ivory and sometimes wood. It makes a larger impression than what you would get from a watch seal. A watch seal is really a piece of jewelry. I like to think of them as “boy bling.” Although women wore them occasionally, too. We know that Martha Washington owned one as well. But mostly a male accessory.
Harmony: I realize I think I probably should be explicit when we’re talking about a seal, we’re talking about when people dribble a blob of melted wax onto a letter or an envelope and then impress a stamp or a seal in that. People can probably picture that in their minds.
Harmony: So with Washington’s seal, where does this story begin? You’ve said it’s perfectly
documented. What’s the beginning?
Janine: Well, it begins in Williamsburg in 1771. Washington of course was a member of the House of Burgesses. And in July of 1771, he was in Williamsburg for a meeting at the capitol. There were a lot of things going on that needed to be addressed by the burgesses, but Washington was also conducting some personal business while he was here in town.
Now, as a wealthy tobacco planter, most of his finances were tied up in bills of credit with various merchants over in England. One of the merchants he frequently worked with was a man named Robert Cary, or Robert Cary and Company. Washington would order goods on credit from Robert Cary in return for the value of his tobacco crop.
On July 18, it was a Thursday, 1771, George Washington wrote a very long letter to Robert Cary requesting a whole range of household goods. It’s a really diverse assortment of things. It includes nails, padlocks, Irish linen, both some men’s gloves clearly sized for himself, lady’s gloves for Martha. He ordered some foods, including French olives and anchovies. But there’s one entry in this very long document that really stands out.
He writes, “A Topaz or some other handsome stone fixed in the gold socket sent, with the Washington arms neatly engraved thereon. Another stone fixed in the other gold socket with the Washington crest, and the watch chain repaired.” Now at the very end of this order, Washington signs his name, and then he adds a postscript. “NOTE: The watch chain and seal sockets were given to Captain Peterson.”
Now, rootling around in “The Virginia Gazette” and other records, it’s clear that Captain Peterson was a ship captain who very regularly transported Washington’s tobacco crop to England, and who would in return, frequently bring back some of the goods that Washington had ordered from his various factors or agents. Captain Peterson sailed a number of vessels, but at this point in time, he was most frequently sailing a ship called “The Rising Sun.” That had arrived in the York River from London in May of 1771.
So in deciphering this reference to a topaz or some other handsome stone fixed in the gold socket sent, it’s really the postscript that was my starting point where he says, “The watch chain and seal socket given to Captain Peterson.” And I thought, ok, what is a seal socket, and that’s when I began to realize that the term “fob” was not used for this little piece of jewelry. They were called seals. And the gold socket sent was a reference to the actual gold, what today jewelers would call “finding” or “mount” for the stone. Washington had acquired that in Williamsburg, presumably, and was sending it via Captain Peterson. These two gold sockets for seals. He was giving that to Captain Peterson and entrusting him to deliver the gold along with the watch chain that needed to be repaired to Robert Cary to complete this order.
So I began to do research about the seals and discovered that watch seals become fashionable in the early 18th century. They’re more commonly owned beginning in the second half of the 18th century. They’re primarily male jewelry, but women did occasionally own them. And by the last quarter of the 18th century, men of fashion might actually wear 2 or even 3 watch seals dangling from their watch chain at the same time. So this is really, when I say it’s male jewelry, you’re meant to have a fair bit of equipment hanging off of your watch chain and kind of making a little big of flash and show. So going through Washington’s correspondence, we were then able to find the order where the goods that Washington has requested are finally being delivered. There’s no FedEx or Amazon or overnight delivery at this point in time, of course. So it takes quite a while.
And it’s more than 7 months later that Captain James Pages arrives in the Potomac River from London. He’s sailing a ship called the “Trimley.” And on February 27, 1772, he finally is able to arrive in port. He’s bringing the things that George Washington had ordered from Robert Cary. And the nice thing is that Robert Cary and Company, when he ships goods, he sends a very long transcription of all of the invoices from the various subcontractors that had filled the order. Among his invoice, by the way, Robert Cary’s invoice was dated December 3, 1771. So that gives us an idea of the time sequence. You order it in July of 1771, by December 3 he’s got at least part of the order put together, it’s loaded on a ship, and it arrives in Virginia in February of 1772.
Harmony: So that is not three-day shipping.
Janine: It is not three-day shipping. Absolutely! Well the invoice includes an order from a wholesale jeweler who worked in London at 114 Wood Street, and his name was Benjamin Gurden. And Benjamin Gurden charged “To a topaz and engraving a coat of arms on ditto, 2 pounds, 7 schillings, and 6 pence. To a new bezel and setting a gold seal, 10 schillings. To a gold seal with a crest engraved ditto, 1 pound, 13 schillings. And to repairing a gold watch chain and 3 new swivels, 1 pound, 3 schillings.”
Harmony: So there it is.
Janine: So there it is. Now we don’t know what happened to the second seal, the one Washington wanted the other handsome stone, apparently what he got back was something gold and had his crest. A crest is a part of a coat of arms that I think of as being sort of like a person’s monogram. Many people have the same monogram, but very few people have the same name. The crest is the monogram, the coat of arms is the full name.
Harmony: You talk about the excitement of this artifact being in its absolutely perfect documentation and we know the entire provenance. To me, what’s impressive about it, or what’s special about it, is that it’s a small personal item, a little piece of jewelry. And it speaks to, like, vanity. And you think about Washington as this great hero, and Washington in battle, and Washington as a leader. And to me, this is such a personalizing artifact.
Janine: It is. It is a very personal object. When I thought about it, I realized I needed to know a little bit more about what was happening in Washington’s own life at this time. When he sent the order, he was 39 years old. By the time the seal arrived, he was 40. He’d been married to Martha for 12 years. He was a prosperous tobacco planter. He was well recognized as a leader in his community having been elected since 1758 onward to the Virginia House of Burgesses. So he was given acknowledgement as being a person of some standing and political power. And he was also, by this point of course, recognized as a military leader. He’d not yet become the commander of the Continental Forces, but he was a leader of the military in Virginia.
So I think this object, it’s personal. It reflects his sense of family history using his coat of arms. It reflects his awareness of fashion and style and good taste. It also is a prop, if you will, that he can use to further signal that he is a member of the gentry. You dress for the job that you want. Well, in Washington’s case, he was dressing himself for the job that he had and perhaps aspired to, in terms of greater social, political, and leadership opportunities. This is part of that accessorizing, if you will. So it’s a very personal object in many respects, and yet it’s also a very strong social signifier.
Harmony: How did we come to possess such a spectacular object?
Janine: We are very, very fortunate. A local family, Mike and Carol McNamara, acquired this seal. It descended by the way, in private hands, into the 1990s. We believe it was given by Martha Washington most likely to Chief Justice John Marshall, then descended through the Marshall family until it was discovered in a jewelry box in the 1990s by a woman who was cleaning out her mother-in-law’s estate. This was a family that was connected to at least 8 different important Virginia families of the 18th century. She recognized that it was the Washington coat of arms.
Well, the McNamaras were able to purchase this object and presented it as a gift to Colonial Williamsburg. They love Colonial Williamsburg, they love American history, and they love George Washington. For them, this is something that had to be shared. So it’s already on display now at the Dewitt Wallace Decorative Art Museums, at the museums of Colonial Williamsburg. You can see it and read all about it and enjoy it. That’s very much what the McNamaras wanted.
Harmony: I feel like I say this so often when I talk to a curator, but so many of the objects in the museums, all of them, the closer you look, the more you learn. So this is one of those objects that I can really see appreciating so many different stories; the economy, the jeweler, who Washington was, what jewelry meant. So this is one of those great artifacts that carries so many stories. We’re excited to have it here.
Janine: Very, very much so, and you’re right. I promise you, close inspection will be rewarded.
Harmony: Janine, thank you so much for being here today.
Janine: My pleasure.