Friday, June 15, 2012

Keeping Cool in John Marshall's Richmond

Writing this, as I sit in my cool, air conditioned office, I ponder what life was like for those who lived in the days before such luxury, before electric, artificial cooling systems; before breathable short sleeve cotton blend shirts and capris were acceptable attire and before iced coffee refreshed the short, steamy, humid jot to and from the parking garage and work; where you are actually faced with the the reality of Virginia's summers.

The John Marshall House is tackling this topic with their new installation, "Summer in John Marshall's Richmond". Site coordinator, Bobbie LeViness and John Marshall House guide, Alyson Taylor-White have put together a thematic summer tour that goes into the details of how to keep cool in Federal era Richmond.

Some of the changes to the house include removing the coal from the fireplaces and replacing it with floral arrangements which would of made the house smell nice and look pretty all at the same time.
No coal in the summer!
Of course, without air conditioning you would want to keep the windows open and a breeze flowing as much as possible. In many houses of this period, the cross breeze occurs best in the central passage of the house. The back and front doors would be open, creating a cool air flow. This idea was not lost on the Marshall family, as the back and front doors are aligned to create just such an occurrence.

Like any modern family, the Marshall's would of used the rooms in their house to suit their personal needs. So while John Marshall may have typically used the large dinning room or his own bedchambers to work, during the summer, he most likely would of taken advantage of the cross breeze and set up a desk in the back stair passage.
A cool spot for John Marshall to focus on making the judicial branch equal to the legislative and executive branches!
Keeping the doors and windows open does have it's disadvantages. Bugs! Just like today, if you leave a window open, in come the flies! One of the most devastating impact of flies is something called a "fly spot". Fly spots occur when flies land on gilt picture frames. Their sticky little feet adhere to the gold leaf and create little black specks all over the frames. So to combat this, during the summer months, families like the Marshalls would cover all their gilt frames with gauze, like so:

Note the covered gilt mirror
 In the picture of John Marshall's family dining room you can also see the white linen seat coverlets on the chairs. These are added for personal comfort. The upholstery is wool, stuffed with horse hair. In the hot sweaty summer months, this is not the type of chair one would enjoy sitting down to meal! So, they would be covered with a light, breathable coverlet.

While it is difficult to see in the above image, the table is also set with seasonal, local fruits. So trendy now, but in Marshall's day, you ate what was in season, and you ate what grew nearby. So the family desserts would consist of summer stone fruit, cherries and berries.

To learn more ways Virginians of days gone by kept cool, come to the John Marshall House for a visit!

Preservation Virginia welcomes you to take a tour of the John Marshall House's new installation. "Summer in John Marshall's Richmond" will be up until Sunday, August 26th. The John Marshall House is open Friday and Saturday, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.


Dan said...

Was there any evidence that "fly wire" or "fly lattice" (screen) was used over the windows? Maybe a series of small nails driven around the exterior of the opposing window frames.

Jen Hurst said...

While the window frames are very early construction, if not to the original 1790 construction of the house, we have not noticed any pattern of nail holes. This is not saying they did not tack some sort of fly screening to the windows, but we do not have any evidence of it in existence today. This was a fabulous question, thank you for asking!