Children too small to eat at table in an 18th-century house like Carlyle, stood
It is difficult to imagine a more well-situated historic house site than Carlyle House in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. It is both well-preserved and easily accessible, and the neighborhood it sits in is a National Historic Landmark District. This designation protects the eighteenth-century Georgian mansion, while the neighborhood endows it with an authentic eighteenth-century atmosphere despite the contemporary businesses that surround it.
The Carlyle House was built in 1753 by one of the founders of, and first landowners in, Alexandria, John Carlyle. (He lived there with his first wife Sarah Fairfax, until she died eight years later giving birth to their seventh child.)
According to the Carlyle House’s own literature, the story of the house “parallels the early history of Alexandria, colonial Virginia, and America.” It was restored in 1976 for the Bicentennial, and is today owned and operated by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.
A well-known story surrounding Carlyle House is that of the British using it in 1755 as a headquarters to plot against the French. British General Edward Braddock held the historic Governors’ Council with five colonial governors, asking them not only for military strategy, but also for help in financing the war. The governors warned him that their local assemblies would repudiate this attempt at taxation, an early indication of the tension between the American colonies and Britain, according to the congenial docent who led me on the tour.
Carlyle House also offered up several surprising stories, such as that Alexandria was the eighth largest eighteenth-century port city in the colonies; that the wallpaper was painted green with a varnish overlay to maximize lighting; that the chairs and furniture were kept against the walls until they were needed (very utilitarian, I thought); that all of the rooms had multiple uses (not unlike Ottoman houses in the same period), e.g., that the small dining room the family used when not entertaining doubled as an office; that china was kept locked in the closet and washed in the room after meals to prevent theft; that if children were too small to eat at the table, they stood; that doors were shorter not necessarily because people were smaller but in order to prevent heat loss; and finally that the master bed, which was strung with yards of ornate imported fabric and was a gift from Carlyle’s father-in-law, was considered a status symbol, like today’s top-of-the-line BMW.
On the second floor, the docent pointed toward the Potomac River and said it was hard to imagine what life would have been like for Carlyle, his family and his many slaves, as the house the day we toured was quiet.
“There were thirty-five people here,” he said. “The blacksmith shops ran along the river, and began their day at seven AM. It would have been hard to sleep in.”
Despite the wealth of the house, its belongings, and the surrounding land, it becomes clear that John Carlyle’s most valuable property was his slaves. In an introductory video we are told, “There are no slave cabins outside [of Carlyle House], and never have been, so it’s easy to assume there were no slaves.” Not a bad set up, for we of course learn otherwise.
We also learn what many people don’t always realize: that slavery in America existed before the cotton gin, and urban slavery was more rampant in some areas than rural slavery. Also, depending on time and location, a slave’s relationship with his or her own labor varied. Some of the slaves in the Carlyle House did not only perform menial tasks, but also learned trades such as coopering and tin smithing, and would have, alongside free blacks, indentured servants, and others, hired themselves out for their skills.