An Inventory Tells Us About The Objects In The Cloverfields House c. 1784
The Cloverfields house is being rebuilt so that, in a few years, it will look pretty much as it did in 1784. It is in that year that wealthy planter, politician and Revolutionary War patriot, Colonel William Hemsley (1737-1812), is believed to have completed the decades-long redesign and expansion of his grandfather’s 1705 dwelling. While the current rebuilding takes place, the Cloverfields Preservation Foundation seeks to understand how Col. Hemsley furnished his ancestral home.
Historians and decorative arts specialists know the type of furniture and range of objects a family of the Hemsley’s status typically displayed in each room, but however deep their general knowledge of eighteenth-century decor, the answer to specific questions requires extensive research. To learn, for example, how many chairs the Hemsleys kept in the dining room, if they placed a carpet in the entry hall, or how many family members slept in a particular room, the Foundation’s research team is turning to historic estate inventories records.
Inventories, taken shortly after a person’s death as part of the probate process, list almost every object of value owned by the decedent, and provide the best, and usually only, source of information on a house’s historic furnishings. Estate inventories also reveal important information about agricultural practice, domestic production, and outbuildings. Did workers at Cloverfields make cheese, distill spirits, spin yarn, or make candles? Did the Hemsleys enjoy the luxury of an ice house? From the objects listed in Col. Hemsley’s inventory, the answer to those questions is “yes.”
Sherri Marsh Johns has been doing historical research for the Cloverfields Preservation Foundation. She is the principal investigator at Retrospect, LLC, a private consulting firm specializing in architectural documentation and historic preservation. She acquired Col. Hemsley’s 1813, twenty-three page, hand-written inventory from the Maryland State Archives and shared it with the project’s furnishings and decorative arts specialist, Heather Ersts.
Usually, inventories provide a room-by-room account of objects. In this case, however, assessors chose to arrange Hemsley’s belongings by category, for example listing all furniture, linens, or silverware, etc. together and in doing so, prevented Ersts from knowing where in the house the listed items were located.
In an extraordinary bit of good fortune, Marsh Johns later found what appeared to be a partial second inventory. The two-page, undated document appeared in a massive cache of deteriorating family papers discovered by Adam Goodheart and his history students from Washington College. Goodheart and his team found the documents in the attic and outbuildings of Poplar Grove in Centreville, which was the 18th-century home of the Emory Family. The papers are now at the Maryland State Archives and known as the James Wood Poplar Grove Collection. The partial inventory belonged to Col. Hemsley’s daughter, Anna Maria Hemsley Emory (1787-1864). The top of the first page reads “In Mrs. Hemsley’s room” followed by contents. In the absence of a date, it was unknown which Mrs. Hemsley or what house the document referenced.
Heather Ersts closely examined the second document and compared it with the 1813 inventory and concluded it determined was for Mrs. Hemsley’s room at Cloverfields. In the video above, Ersts and Marsh Johns discuss the story of the Poplar Grove papers and how Ersts reached her conclusion.
The Poplar Grove Papers were discovered just a few years ago. They were I think in a garage in the attic in this house at Poplar Grove. One of the Hemsley daughters had married into that family, the Emorys, and as a result, some of the Hemsley family papers ended up in the Emory family collection. And so one of them was a partial inventory of “Mrs. Hemsley.”
And of course, there were a lot of “Mrs. Hemsleys” over time. But we looked at it, and there was a list of the items in her bedroom and some of the downstairs rooms.
And it was undated, and it was incomplete, but Heather [Erst], when I sent it to her, she was able to look at the items, and try to know when the items were used and how they would have been presented in the house, able to break it into a room-by-room inventory even though there were no room designations on the document. And from her analysis, I got a more nuanced understanding of what would be where.
Now we know that Anna Maria (Nancy) Tilghman (1750-1817), the third wife of Col. Hemsley, was the “Mrs. Hemsley” referenced in the Grove Papers, but Marsh Johns did not know that when she found the paper. As it was a list of furniture and household objects, she knew it would be of interest to Ersts.
So, what was super exciting about that fragment of paper that Sherri found was, as she said, it was amongst all these other papers. It really has no… It was just a piece. And she says: “You might be interested in this, it’s a bunch of stuff that someone’s listing in someone’s house,” and it was one of these pieces which kept pushing, kept pushing back: “You know you need to look at me more closely.”
And as Sherri and I talked, there were so many “Mrs. Hemsleys.” Now, which “Mrs. Hemsley” could this possibly be that is referenced in the document?
But was really fantastic about it is that it does have…, it is room by room, to a point, and the parlor, and the dining room; specifically noted is an entryway, with these objects in those spaces.
Ersts then clarifies that she was able to determine that Nancy Tilghman is the “Mrs. Hemsley” referenced in the Poplar Grove Papers because of the similarities between the items listed in the papers and the ones listed in the colonel’s final inventory:
So, as Sherri mentioned, what I did, was take that list, we transcribed it, and then started comparing it to the Colonel’s final inventory for his household. And initially, some of the pieces are very…, are mundane. You’ve got chairs, you’ve got dining room tables, what everyone’s house has.
But it was as the pieces starting matching up more and more running through that list and then highlighting on the colonel’s inventory. And it was really when we finally got to the garret, that three servants’ beds show up on both lists, and four glass saults. And some of these really specific numbers and objects.
And the other one that was kind of the clincher were the number of swing glasses which were your glass, are your mirrors that are on your dressing tables.
Once all those all matched up, there were too many places where they were matching up perfectly with the numbers and the objects that it became apparent that this was a probably a very early walk through the house, probably right after the colonel has passed away.
“Mrs. Hemsley’s room,” as we kept calling it “Mrs. Hemsley’s Inventory,” except that that was the first line there, “Mrs. Hemsley,” and it was hard to figure out what that couple of words were.
The inventory of the third wife of Mr. Hemsley starts with her room, which, Ersts explains, is not the same as Mr. Hemsleys’:
It starts off with her room, and again from the work that Sherri’s done in the archives, of finding the early letters back and forth to Tilghman in Philadelphia, and reading those, you realize that Mrs. Hemsley is quite ill most of her…, most of the time they are married, and you get the nuances in the letters that obviously when they are first married, they are sharing a bedroom and a bed. It comes through in the letters, and then later on as she is more and more sickly, you get the sense that she’s moved into her own bedroom. And then again, it makes sense that she is in her own bedroom, as he is now passed away.
After the inventory lists the objects in her room, it goes through the rooms on the second floor, and then it inventories three first-floor rooms: the parlor, the entryway, and the dining room.
And then it runs through the rooms upstairs; they are numbered: number one, number two, number three; no delineation of which rooms, but then you get down to the parlor, the dining room, the entryway, and then it actually finishes, stops with the dining room. The dining room is not noted specifically, but you see they are in the dining room.
What’s fascinating with, and harder with, the colonel’s inventory is that they have not gone by room by room, which would have been lovely. Instead, for his inventory, they have grouped the furnishings together. So all of the beds are together; all of the chairs are together; all of the case pieces are together. So that’s where this fragment of an inventory that was started is really important for this house because it gives us those rooms and it gives at least a place to start within 1812 of what’s in what room.
Archival Research Confirms The Existence Of An Ice House
In the video, Marsh Johns and Ersts then go on to discuss the ice house which used to be located some 30 feet away from the Cloverfields house during the eighteenth century.
We discussed details of this ice house in a previous newsletter, and the archaeologists of Applied Archaeology and History Assoc. wrote an informative note about it.
The ice house is yet another example of the outstanding results that interdisciplinary teamwork can achieve in this—and any—preservation project. As Marsh Johns reflects:
You know, it’s fascinating to research, and it’s very rewarding. The whole team is fascinating because everybody has their own part of it, but as a team of incredible experts, it’s amazing to see what’s being pulled together, and the full picture that’s being painted. It’s really rewarding, I think.
The full picture of the ice house is being painted by Dr. Horsley, the archaeologists of Applied Archaeology and History Assoc., Marsh-Johns and Ersts. With his ground-penetrating radar, Dr. Horsley found a disturbance in a section of the lawn of the Cloverfields house. The archaeologists then decided to dig in that area. They found the foundations of a building which, they suspect, is an ice house. By watching the video, we now find out that the archival research conducted by Marsh-Johns and Ersts confirms that the foundations are, indeed, of an ice house. With that confirmation, my team of architects and historians and I could go on and draw the plans for an ice house, which could, in the future, be built by Lynbrook of Annapolis.
Marsh Johns explains that even before the archaeologists told them about the ice house, Ersts and her knew about it:
I remember a couple of weeks ago you were going through the inventory, and you found ice tongs, and pales, and you go: “Oh, there’s an ice house”—and that was the same week that the archaeologists found an ice house and a diary. And we were, “Yeah, we know.”
So, you know, it’s just interesting that we were looking at the description of the items that were in the very same ice house that they found just a few days later.
Not only is there a list of objects from the ice house, but there are also documents telling us about a woman that worked in the ice house and the diary. Ersts tells us about her:
Yeah, and even the conversation this morning with them about the ice house and the dairy combined, it was the fact that someone made a comment, “—Oh, there wasn’t anything in the inventory.” “—Wait a minute, yes, there is.” There’s a whole list of dairy objects, that were in the dairy, and obviously all together, as well as we know from the archival research, are the people very much associated who were working in the dairy.
The colonel, in the family history, talks about that anyone coming to visit the household, you have…; there was an older couple living here who were servants in the household who you always checked in with.
But the woman of that… was always in the dairy, and it notes specifically, you had to find her. It was… Her realm was the dairy, and taking care of the milk products, and the cream, and the butter, and producing them for the household, as well as probably for extra sale in the neighborhood.
With Annapolis being the first city (that we know of) where ice cream was served (in 1744), Maryland has a distinguished spot in the history of ice cream. Here we are finding clues that Cloverfields may be part of that early history of ice cream too.
The historians plan to continue to work as a team with the archaeologists:
I am super excited about getting to the artifacts that the archaeologists are finding because again as I am going through the inventories, I have… I know there’s cream wear, with a cream-feathered edge.
Well, I am pretty sure I know how that looks like, and I can pull images of what probably that is, but I have no doubt that the archaeologists have found some of that, so it’s now coming back. Working with them, okay, “Here are the couple of pieces I want to see,” or also seeing what they are pulling out, finding as artifacts, and then able to identify what those pieces are in the household, to be able to start pulling those, both the archival research back together with the actual artifacts, it’s going to be really exciting when we move down the road.
Marsh Johns and Ersts found two lists of the furniture and other objects which were in the Cloverfields estate during the eighteenth century. If in the future the Cloverfields Preservation Foundation decides to furnish the house, the inventories will guide the acquisitions and the decision on where to present each acquired item. In this sense, the items fill the spaces I design as an architect.
Sometimes, the items also guide the design. We can find the foundations for a building, but if we ignore what it was used for, it will be hard for us to design it so that it can be reconstructed. Thanks to archival research, we can confirm what it was used for, say an ice house, then I have some precedents on which to base the design.
Objects give life to rooms and outbuildings, and sometimes, by determining their function, they contribute to writing their history, and even participate in decisions about their shape and look.
By: Devin S. Kimmel, AIA, ASLA, of Kimmel Studio Architects
For: Cloverfields Preservation Foundation