Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: July 22, 2011
Byline: Joseph A. Slobodzian

National Constitution Center exhibit offers new views of George Washington

First, let's clear this up: George Washington did not have wooden teeth.

Actually, wooden teeth might have been more comfortable.

You can see the real ones — an ingenious nightmare of 18th-century dentistry — at "Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon," open through Sept. 5 at the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall.

For years, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the group founded in 1853 to buy and rescue Washington's iconic but deteriorating mansion in Virginia outside Washington chose not to exhibit the dentures.

Though visitors often asked about the teeth, association officials apparently felt displaying them was a little unseemly given the image of the "First President and Hero of the Revolution."

Today, said James C. Rees, president and chief executive of Mount Vernon, unseemliness is the least of his problems.

Speaking of the sacrifices made to create the United States of America, Rees said, "We can't recognize the Founding Fathers enough."

"We've been short-shrifting American history for decades," Rees told visitors at the exhibit's June 30 preview. "Some of the stats are absolutely horrible. . . . As [historian and author] David McCullough says, time and time again: 'We're raising a generation of historically illiterate children.' That's really the 'why' behind this traveling show."

David Eisner, president of the National Constitution Center, explained that the polishing of Washington's image began at his death: "It's very, very hard for us to understand who is the real man. This exhibition shows the real George Washington."

Look at those teeth — lead upper and lower forms fitted with human and cow teeth and others carved from elephant ivory, held together by brass wires and steel spring-loaded hinges — and you can almost sense the physical discomfort in the face captured in the famous Stuart and Peale portraits.

The teeth, however, date from the last decade of Washington's life, before his death at 67 on Dec. 14, 1799. Most of the exhibit tries to illuminate Washington's earlier life, from when he first worked to make his mark in the world as a surveyor and soldier on the American frontier. The exhibit includes early surveying tools and Washington's personal compass and spyglass.

The exhibit also shows the evolution of Mount Vernon, from the struggling tobacco farm he inherited through his half-brother, Lawrence, to the much larger farm he developed as a science-minded "agriculturist" who kept detailed notes about his experiments in crop diversification and expanded into fishing on the Potomac River and distilling whiskey.

Washington was an ambitious, inventive farmer, but much of Mount Vernon's expansion was made possible because of his 40-year marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow and heiress to an important Virginia fortune whose two children Washington raised as his own. The exhibit includes reproductions of Martha Washington's wedding dress and slippers and original pieces of her jewelry, china, silver, and glassware.

And there are several life-size models of Washington at various ages, forensically re-created using state-of-the art computer software based on measurements from the plaster "life mask" of Washington's face, created in 1785 by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon for his famous bust.

Much recent research into Washington and his family, especially in Philadelphia, has focused on the Washingtons as slaveholders. The exhibit includes tools and personal artifacts excavated from slave quarters at Mount Vernon. Visitors can watch a video featuring interviews with historians and descendants of Washington's enslaved Africans.

In Philadelphia, explorations of Washington's evolving and complex relationship with slavery have been fueled by excavations across Market Street during the creation of the President's House exhibit on the site of the Washingtons' residence when he was president from 1789 to 1797 and Philadelphia was the U.S. capital.

Originally planned to illustrate the lives of the first two presidents in Philadelphia, the uncovering of foundations and artifacts from the work areas and slave quarters at the President's House riveted the attention of historians and the city's African American community.

It also led to a campaign by Philadelphia lawyer Michael Coard and his Avenging the Ancestors Coalition to ensure that the stories of Washingtons' nine enslaved Africans, who served the family in Philadelphia, were included in the final exhibit at Independence National Historical Park.

One indication of how the President's House site has captured the imagination of Philadelphians and others is a companion exhibit at the National Constitution Center, "The President's House: Their Untold Stories in Quilts." The exhibit has about 20 contemporary quilts by artists inspired by the stories of the enslaved Africans who lived with the Washingtons in Philadelphia.

Michelle Flamer, a city attorney, quilter, and curator of the quilt exhibit, called it a "path of remembrance, healing, and, most of all, homage to the nine human beings enslaved by George and Martha Washington."

Flamer said she began thinking about the quilt exhibit when her job as an assistant city solicitor involved in commercial law and contracts got her involved in the planning for the President's House site.

She started sending out a few e-mails to friends who were also quilters and before long had drawn interest from quilters nationwide.

The quilts at the National Constitution Center include her own, "President's House: God, Geometry and George," and work from such well-known masters as Carolyn Crump and Susan Shie.

Other quilt entries are at the Independence Visitor Center across Arch Street and in the African American Museum at Seventh and Arch Streets.

Among the quilts at the museum is "Freedom's Circle," done by the Covenant Youth Quilters, eight schoolchildren from the Covenant United Methodist Church in Houston.

The quilts do not denigrate the Washingtons, Flamer said. Instead, they portray "the truth in all its complexity as it existed in 1790."

 

Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more