In the middle of the night, while the earth lay dark, Betty Washington Lewis and her husband, Fielding Lewis, were up. Like most Americans before the advent of cheap electric light, George Washington’s prosperous sister and brother-in-law slept in four-hour blocks and woke up for an hour or two in between at Kenmore, their home in Fredericksburg. They might have spent that hour writing letters, and talking about their day or current events like the Revolution.
The surprisingly active nighttime lives of the 18th-century inhabitants of Kenmore—people like George Washington, Fielding Lewis, Betty Washington Lewis, their families and enslaved workers—will be explored through talks and a dramatic interpretation during “A Night in Washington’s Day” on Saturday, according to Zac Cunningham, manager of educational programs for The George Washington Foundation.
The enslaved people who lived at Kenmore would also have been talking about current events during their waking nighttime hours, called “watch.” In 1775, they might have discussed running away and seeking freedom with the British. A theater scene will explore how Rachel, an enslaved cook, and Hetty, an enslaved house servant, might have discussed just that during their middle-of-the-night clothes washing.
Along with the theater scene between Hetty and Rachel, there will be presentations on other aspects of nightlife. Cunningham said it will also center on the evidence that early Americans had different sleeping patterns, sleeping four hours after dark, waking for an hour, and then sleeping for four more hours. During that hour, they might have read by candlelight, written letters, visited neighbors, and if it was a full moon, farmers might even have worked outside.
Megan Budinger, curator at Kenmore, will discuss lighting technology in the 18th century such as lanterns and chandeliers.
And Cunningham will talk about constellations. The night sky was a sort of a library for stories everyone would know, such as Greek and Roman mythology. These are stories and stars that George Washington and Fielding Lewis would very likely have known, he said.
Events about the nighttime lives of the Washingtons have been offered before at Kenmore but were previously interior guided tours. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this event is being offered outside.
In order to safely come together, Cunningham said attendees should buy advance tickets online. Space is limited, but the area can fit about 100 spaced appropriately. Wearing masks is encouraged and attendees should bring lawn chairs or blankets to spread out on the Kenmore lawn. In the event of rain, the event will be canceled, and refunds will be issued.
Other events and lectures are going on at Kenmore and Ferry Farm now. The museums have opened for regular guided tours but have limited capacity and have spacing requirements in place. Advance ticket purchase online is required for the tours, as well, to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Just like active and social nighttime activities, pandemics were not foreign to the Washingtons. George Washington contracted smallpox in his late teenage years on a trip to Barbados with his brother Lawrence. Cunningham said a receipt exists for ointment after his return to Fredericksburg, and it is thought that his mother, Mary Washington, bought it to sooth his pox marks. Distance and travel restrictions, even then, were part of life.