Exhibit chops down Washington myths

Published: Sunday, Dec. 6 1998 12:00 a.m. MST

NEW YORK -- George Washington liked the ladies, despised tardiness, had conflicting thoughts about slavery, and was a big believer of buying American-made items.

Oh, and his famed dentures weren't made of wood.Those are just some of the tidbits in the traveling exhibit "Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed." The tour, which opened in late November at The New-York Historical Society, honors the 200th anniversary of Washington's death in 1799.

Why an exhibit on the nation's first president, whose face people see every day when they use one-dollar bills?

According to James Rees, director of Mount Vernon, Washington's Virginia estate, Washington is misunderstood and -- as the years go by -- more and more people know less and less about him.

"We've done several focus groups and I am shocked that they often end up coming to the conclusion that Washington was great but a little boring," Rees said. "In fact, in the 18th century, nothing could be further from the truth."

"When George Washington walked into a room, everybody wanted to talk to him," Rees said. "He was considered not just the most powerful but the most interesting man."

The exhibit features personal items such as Washington's clothes, toothbrush and dressing gown, as well as paintings, letters and gifts.

One of the first things visitors see is Washington's dentures, an uncomfortable-looking contraption made of lead and fitted with human teeth, as well as some cow teeth and teeth made from elephant ivory. President John Adams blamed Washington's toothlessness on the "cracking of walnuts in his youth," according to the exhibit.

Washington's gold pocket watch is featured, along with the anecdote that he was always punctual and delayed dinner parties for only five minutes to accommodate late guests. He had a ready excuse for latecomers: He blamed the start of dinner on his cook who "never asks whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come."

Washington also tried to buy American-made clothes, Rees said. A brown wool coat and breeches made in 1793 are featured.

On a more serious note, the exhibit discusses Washington and slavery. He became a slave owner at the age of 11, when he inherited 10 slaves from his father. The exhibit says Washington never questioned slavery until the Revolutionary War, when he saw black soldiers and talked with abolitionists. In his will, he ordered that his slaves be freed.

The exhibit, sponsored by the Ford Motor Co., will be in New York through Feb. 22 -- Washington's birthday -- before moving on to San Marino, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; Atlanta and Chicago. It closes on April 23, 2000.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS