Sunday, November 17, 2013

The First Oval Office: Reconstructing George Washington's Marquee Tent

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Isabella reporting:

In the past, when I've written about the work of the tailors from Colonial Williamsburg's historic trade department, I've shared coats and jackets and other garments. But this year the tailors have been engaged in a much larger project in conjunction with the Museum of the American Revolution: recreating the 18th c. marquee, or tent, used by General George Washington during the Revolutionary War, c. 1778-1782.

Outfitting an 18th c. army was a major undertaking, and when war broke out in 1775, the nascent Continental Army was starting from scratch. In addition to the obvious requirements of weapons, gunpowder, uniforms, food, and everyday supplies, the new army was in dire need of tents to house the troops. Everyone who could wield a needle was pressed into sewing. Tailors, sail makers, upholsterers, and seamstresses went to creating tents in all sizes, using thousands of yards of linen and hemp fabric. There were no sewing machines; every stitch was made by hand.

As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, General Washington's tents (he had two) served as his offices as well as sleeping quarters. He likely used the larger marquee as a gathering place for his aides and guests, for dining as well as meetings. The tents were furnished with eighteen walnut camp stools, three walnut camp tables, and Washington's folding camp bed. While the marquees were probably the largest in the American Army, they were not the most elaborate (some wealthy officers rivaled Washington for elegance) and were modest compared to their British counterparts. Nonetheless, their symbolic significance was clear: this was headquarters. In the painting, above left, the general is shown standing outside his marquee.

But like every other tent used by the army, these received considerable wear and tear in the course of the war. The first set of the general's tents only last for the first two campaigns, from 1776-1777. The second set, made in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1778, inspired the current reproduction, which will be used for education and exhibition. The original marquee - now fragile from general age as well as from frequent "appearances" over the last two centuries - remains in the collection of the Museum of American History in Philadelphia; this was studied and copied by the crew at Colonial Williamsburg. The dining marquee is in the collection of the Smithsonian.

Using the same techniques as their 18th c. predecessors (and dressed in the same way, too, below), the team of accomplished tailors and seamstresses worked through the summer and into the fall creating the new tent. They cut and stitched linen fabric, some of which was hand-woven in Colonial Williamsburg's Weave Room, and while their hours weren't quite as long as those of the 18th c. seamers (who would have worked as long as there was daylight), their progress was impressive, averaging 13 feet of seaming a day at a gauge of 6 stitches per inch. Granted, the earlier seamers wouldn't have worked before a constant stream of Colonial Williamsburg visitors watching and asking questions, but then the modern seamers did have the advantage of working in air conditioning.

Finally, on Friday, the completed marquee was raised, lower left, - an impressive achievement! For more information about the project and many more photographs, see the blog on the Museum of the American Revolution's web site, and join the project's Facebook page here.

All photographs courtesy of Mark Hutter - many thanks, Mark!

Top left: Washington, Lafayette, & Tilghman at Yorktown, by Charles Wilson Peale, c. 1784. Maryland State Art Collection.


Rosi said...

This is great. Thanks for telling me about it.

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