Item of the Month, September 2009: George Washington’s order for supplies

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By | Early Medicine

George Washinton's order for supplies. Wellcome Images No. L0028476.

George Washinton’s order for supplies.
Wellcome Images No. L0028476.

Laudanum, Sago and Glue for the Father of his Country

Two hundred and fifty years ago, on September 20th 1759, a young member of the landed gentry in Virginia sent an order for supplies to London.

The document, now held in the Wellcome Library as WMS/Amer.91, is an interesting indication of the degree to which the colony, although now well over a century old, still relied heavily on imports from the (then) mother country. Medical supplies rub up against hardware, veterinary supplies and cookery ingredients. Adding particular interest to the shopping list is the identity of its author: the young gentleman farmer is George Washington, and twenty years later he will be embarking on his first term as President of the newly-independent United States.

Of this, of course, Washington could have no inkling at the time: he could have been forgiven for believing that the dramatic chapters of his life were over and he was now settling down. Born into the Virginia gentry in 1732, in the early 1750s he was beginning a career as a planter in an economy driven by large slave-worked tobacco plantations. He was also an officer in the Virginia militia. During the 1750s, tensions between the French and British settlements in North America, over who would control the Ohio valley beyond the Appalachians, erupted into war, and the young Lieutenant-Colonel Washington had distinguished himself: in 1755 General Braddock’s Monongahela offensive ended in disaster and Braddock’s death, but his aide Washington rallied the remaining forces to minimise damage and effect an orderly retreat. In 1758 British forces returned to the Ohio valley, with Washington – now a General – taking part in the expedition that expelled the French forces and turned their Fort Duquesne into the new British base of Pittsburgh.

After these wars in the Ohio valley Washington, now 26, resigned his commission and settled down. In January 1759 he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, whose dowry, combined with lands he had been granted beyond the Appalachians, made him a wealthy man: the newly-married couple settled at Mount Vernon, overlooking the Potomac downstream of the recently-founded town of Alexandria (and downstream of the site of the capital city that was to bear his name, years later). The order for supplies held at the Wellcome Library dates from the early months of their life at Mount Vernon and demonstrates the pattern of trade from the Virginia plantations: luxuries and infrastructural supplies imported from Britain, paid for from the proceeds of a cash crop (tobacco at this stage, although in the mid 1760s Washington moved over to cultivating wheat).

Washington, household & plantation supplies, 1759.  Wellcome Images No. L0021245.

Washington, household & plantation supplies, 1759.
Wellcome Images No. L0021245.

The order Washington sent out nine months after his marriage is a long and detailed one, and the sheet held at the Wellcome Library may not even be the whole of it. There is a long list of tools at the start, for surveying, joinery and so forth. Items plucked from the list include “2 long plains [planes]”, “1 handsaw, 1 Pannel ditto, 1 Tenant ditto…”, “6 dozen steel compasses”, “1 dozen augers sorted from 2 Inches to ½ ditto”, “25 lb Glew [glue]” and “12 inch chizzels”. It is an indication of the equipment needed on the plantation and of the way that the colony was not yet able to match the workshops of Sheffield and Birmingham in supplying it.

Below this Washington moves to medical and culinary ingredients. Interestingly, these are mingled together in a style similar to that of the 17th and 18th-century recipe books held in the Library, without clear distinction between food and medicine. Some ingredients, of course, clearly belong in one category or the other: “6 Bottles Turlington’s Balsam”, “5 oz. liquid laudanum” and “5 oz. spirits sal ammoniac” are obviously medical, whilst four pounds each of pearl barley and sago and five pounds of white sugar candy leads us to the kitchen. But there are other items that could be for either purpose – “4 oz. best rhubarb” is almost certainly there as a medicine rather than a foodstuff, and one might surmise the same about “12 oz. Venus treacle”, but there is no clear distinction.

At the end of the order comes a distinct section of veterinary supplies, in which Washington allows his supplier to use their discretion: “40/- worth of Medicine proper for Horses – among which let there be – 4 lb. flower of Brimstone; 4 lb. Anniseeds… & such others as are most proper.” It is to be hoped, however, that the list of medical/culinary supplies prior to this also includes things ordered for veterinary purposes: in it we find “4 oz. Spanish flies”, which are chiefly used when encouraging farm animals to mate (when crushed the beetles irritate the lining of the urethra) but also have a long and often disreputable history as a purported aphrodisiac for humans.

One sheet of paper, signed one afternoon 250 years ago by a soldier who thought his fighting days were over: but it opens vividly the world of the Virginia plantations and the colonial society whose last days were ticking away.

Chris Hilton

Chris Hilton

Dr Christopher Hilton was until August 2017 a Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library.

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