Can the clothing of master and enslaved serve as a microcosm of 18th century thoughts on race, place, and social position?
What can clothes teach us about life and perception on a Virginia plantation?
How did slave-owners use clothing to reinforce their position?
How did the enslaved use clothing to navigate beyond their position?
Those are the big questions I’ll be asking this summer as I live and work on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. A few weeks ago, I got the good news that I was chosen as a Lifeguard Teaching Fellow for 2017-2018 and will get to spend three weeks in Alexandria researching and creating lesson plans for use by teachers through the education wing of Mount Vernon.
Screenshot from Mount Vernon website
This will be my second time at Mount Vernon. I was accepted into a week-long George Washington Teacher Institute in 2016, where I was able to explore Washington as I think he preferred to be known: an innovative farmer/entrepreneur. The week featured talks by Ed Lengel, author of “First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Build His-and the Nation’s-Prosperity,” and other guest speakers. In addition to content-rich talks by scholars on Washington, Mount Vernon, and 18th century commerce, the participating teachers were given open access to the estate, toured the house, distillery, mill, upper and lower gardens, and Pioneer Farm with interpreters and historians, and collaborated with each other on ways to bring Washington’s personal world into our classrooms.
I learned about the Mount Vernon Lifeguard Fellowship during the first couple days of the GWTI in summer 2016 and immediately began thinking of areas related to Washington that I’ve had a long-standing interest in. I spoke with the library staff about a few ideas and was given suggestions for books to help narrow my focus.
My proposed project is “Clothing as Culture: Material Culture and Race at Mount Vernon” and will explore how the clothing of the Washington family and the enslaved defined social standing, reinforced 18th century ideas of racial superiority, and how the enslaved used clothing to navigate society on and off the estate. Through production and purchase accounts made by the Washington family, archaeology evidence from the house for families, and surviving clothes and cloth, I hope to create a course of study for teaching object- and place-based history to students at the middle and high school levels.
I've created an online research journal at mvfellow.edublogs.org and will be writing about new information I discover, links to resources, and how living and working at Mount Vernon is shaping my research. I'll be cross posting some of those entries here at Live American History. Though primarily created for my use in collecting and curating content for my lesson(s), I hope the MV Fellow blog will serve as a resource you can use to add more object- and place-based history education, and more George Washington, in your classroom.
Glad to have you along for the trip,