Notions of Comfort in the Early Colonial Chesapeake


In previous papers we have sought to use archaeological data to rethink some of the reigning assumptions about life in colonial Chesapeake, and move toward a new vision of an early colonial Virginia “frontier.” Our work has focused principally on a few sites in the Virginia tidewater and along the upper reaches of the Rappahannock spanning the years between 1640 and 1760. Last year, for example, we used the artifactual and architectural data from a circa 1690 Rappahannock plantation to argue that the existing models of the “frontier” informed by Frederick Jackson Turner and Emmanuel Wallerstien do not account for the combinations of housing and assemblages we are beginning to see on these sites.

Today we will examine a corollary theme, that the Virginia colonial hinterlands were rough, reduced versions of the heartland. This de facto Core-Periphery model suggests as one moved away from the heartland, isolation, impoverishment, and cultural and material simplicity took hold. Users of this model frequently suggest the frontier was a land of make-do, where colonists cobbled together limited resources and lived simply life regardless of their social station or wealth. Relying mostly on probate data, these scholars have argued that rich and poor alike shared what Aubrey Land called a “rude simplicity” which leveled material class distinctions and meant that differences between rich from poor were marked by the amount of simple possessions people owned, and not the quality of what they owned. This vision of material Virginia has been most recently restated in John Crowley’s The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America, which explored how modern concepts of comfort took shape in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British Atlantic world.

In this paper we use eleven sites complied funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities to look at how some of the key indicators of comfort (as described by Crowley) played out in Virginia and Maryland. Comparing these eleven sites suggests that like England and New England, Chesapeake settlers had real architectural and material choices over how their homes should look and function. Rather than lagging behind other parts of the Atlantic World as Crowley and others have suggested, Chesapeake planters incorporate many of the elements of comfort, including forms of domestic heating, security, illumination, protection from fire, pest-control, privacy, aesthetics, and hygienic living. We argue that this ability to partake of these metropolitan trends places Chesapeake planters of many socio-economic groups solidly in the then- current Atlantic World mainstream. Planters were able to, and did, employ a range of material embellishment based on their particular desires. The vast majority of these embellishments do not show up in probate inventories or other historical records; we see them only through archaeological excavation.

Comparative site study reveals the regional spread and social depth of these domestic trends. We have divided our eleven sites into four categories defined by the social ranking of their interpreted owners. At the bottom of this truncated hierarchy are sites occupied by tenants, servants, and slaves. Just above them are poor to middling planters followed by county-level elites, and at the top are colonial-level elites. Members of each of these groups appear in varying degrees in the Comparative Chesapeake Project’s collected sites. The rest of our time today we will devote to discussing the eleven sites hierarchically and outlying how the site’s features and assemblages reveal seventeenth-century settlers participating in the elements of comfort.

Cite this Record

Notions of Comfort in the Early Colonial Chesapeake. Philip Levy, John Coombs, David Muraca. 2005 ( tDAR id: 6092) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8028PXW

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Temporal Coverage

Calendar Date: 1600 to 1700

Spatial Coverage

min long: -77.498; min lat: 36.633 ; max long: -75.41; max lat: 39.368 ;

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