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The Fairfax County Park Authority’s Museum Collections are home to:

  • More than 5,000 museum objects (chairs, quilts, baskets, machines, clothing)
  • Thousands of archival items (photographs, maps, letters and other documents)
  • Upwards of three million artifacts (archaeological discoveries such as spear points, pottery)

They are the stories of Fairfax County.

Sully Fire Screen The Purpose of Fire Screens

Fire screens shielded people from the light, glare and heat of a log fire, which could be intense for those seated close to a fireplace. The screens were made of wood (mahogany), glass, and/or brass and could be used to display needlework or paintings. Those with elaborate ornamentation could be covered with glass to protect the satin, silk, velvet or wool artwork. They could be round, oval, rectangular or shaped like a shield, and some had small shelves mounted below the screen. A fire screen such as this one, called a pole screen, could be attached to a pole and possibly lowered or raised to match the needs of the user.

This photo depicts a fire screen at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly. It’s not original to Sully, but was donated to the site in 1985 as an artifact to help interpret how people lived in the early 19th century. Records indicate it is made of walnut and pine framing a silk screen that is protected by glass. It is English, of Hepplewhite style (George Hepplewhite was a London cabinetmaker in the 1700s), and likely was made in the early 19th century.

Glass Wine Bottle Seal  Glass Wine Bottle Seal with 1 inch scale
More Than Broken Glass

It looked like just a broken piece of glass lying in the ground. But there was more to it.

Two and a-half centuries after it was shaped and filled we have a pretty good idea of what was in it and who owned it.

In 2011, the Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) recovered this olive green bottle seal. It was resting just above an intact pit feature at the cemetery in Old Colchester Park and Preserve.

The seal bears the initials "P.W." That tells us a lot. The seal means it was a wine bottle, and the initials lead us to suspect it belonged to Peter Wagener, a one-time owner of properties near the archaeological excavation, including the land that was developed into the Town of Colchester. Wagener purchased the Mason Neck land in 1748. He died, still with interests in Colchester, in 1798.

Wine bottle seals were popular throughout Great Britain and its colonies from the mid -17th through the late 19th centuries. Custom-made seals, like this one, were placed on wine bottles by adding a glob of glass to the still-warm bottle and impressing a mark into the glob to create a seal. The seals were a mark of wealth among the elite and were made for gentlemen, but have also been found associated with merchants and tavern keepers.

Follow CART's exploits at cartarchaeology.wordpress.com .

Sully Mirror Reflections of History
Peer into history through a looking glass.

Sully Historic Site is home to a late Federal-period looking glass that was missing from the site for nearly 200 years. It was returned in 2008 and now rests in the parlor of the 1794 home of Richard Bland Lee, northern Virginia’s first congressman. Records indicate the glass was owned by the Lee family.

Looking glasses similar to this one were very popular in homes of wealthy Virginians such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The whereabouts of this 46-inch tall and 25-inch wide mirror had been unknown until it appeared on the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York. A gentleman from South Carolina purchased the antique looking glass, and former Fairfax County Park Authority Collections Specialist Jeanne Niccolls contacted him to see if he would loan Sully the mirror to display with other Lee family artifacts. Fascinated by the mirror’s historical importance, in 2004 the gentleman donated it to the Park Authority.

Sully Mirror PanelThe original manufacturer of the mirror remains unknown. Thanks to funding from the Sully Foundation, Ltd., the mirror underwent restoration by a company in Richmond, Va., from 2006 to 2008 before being returned home to Sully in 2008.

A reproduction painting that depicts a water scene with a boat and men fishing adorns the top of the mirror. The glass panel is decorated with a technique called eglomise, the art of painting on the back of glass and allowing the picture to show through. The original glass panel was too fragile to undergo treatment for display in a permanent exhibit, so it was conserved and is stored in the Park Authority’s collections at the Walney Visitor Center in Ellanor C. Lawrence Park.

The frame is giltwood, which is wood with a thin layer of gold leaf or foil applied to it.

The mirror is on display at Sully Historic Site.

Moonshine Mash Pot Moonshine Mash Pot
Mysterious Object, Cryptic Note
By Kathryn Blackwell

'Twas a bewildering way to regain a piece of the site's history.

Many years ago, in the dead of night, someone left a tilted pot at Colvin Run Mill Historic Site. With it was a note that read: “This object, whatever it is, was removed from here over 20 years ago. NOW RETURNED.??

So…. What is it?

The pot is metal with a spout on one side at the bottom. The inside is covered in enamel, the outside is rusty, and there is a hole in the bottom. That bottom is not flat, but rounded, so that the object doesn’t stand on its own.

The most promising idea is that this is part of an illegal moonshine still. That would make sense. It’s easier to carry corn in a jar than in a heavy sack. Grain, especially ground corn, is an integral part of making moonshine, and tradition says a still was found at Colvin Run around 1970 when restoration work on the mill began.

We have contacted many museum professionals across the country, uploading photographs and descriptions of the item to email listservs and asking what people think it might be. We were directed to curator Melody Worthington from the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in North Carolina. That museum and restored homestead preserve the history and cultural heritage of eastern North Carolina. The site includes living history demonstrations of traditional tobacco farm life at the turn of the 20th century. Melody conferred with colleagues, and they agreed that it is probably a moonshiner’s “mash pot.??

The hole in the bottom is most likely from where the pot was held over the heat source.  The coating on the inside assured that the flavor or quality of the moonshine was not affected by the metal pot. The bottom spout would be used to drain out liquid and spent mash when the distilling process was completed. There would be another object on top of this bucket that would trap the alcohol vapors rising out of the soupy mash concoction. The vapor would be then funneled into a “worm,?? a coiled piece of metal that would be cooled by running water (another valuable and accessible resource at a mill). That would cause the alcohol vapor to condense into liquid. The alcohol then could be either collected in containers or distilled again by running it through a “thumper barrel,?? which is a heated barrel that would trap the vapor.

And a mystery is likely unraveled. With that, we raise a glass of thanks to the unknown person who returned a piece of history to Colvin Run Mill.

Clock Face Sully's Tall Case Clock
By Barbara Ziman

You flick your wrist, glance at lighted numbers on a dashboard, or pull out a cell phone to check the time of day. But not too long ago, during the Federal period (1795-1820), clocks were still considered a luxury for most people.  They were becoming more readily available, but even the well-do-do usually had only one clock in their home.  A clock was a status symbol suggesting a certain standard of wealth, and some wrist watches today retain that image. 

Tall Case ClockSully was built in 1794 for Richard Bland Lee, northern Virginia’s first congressman and an uncle of General Robert E. Lee. As part of his furnishings, Mr. Lee would very likely have owned a clock.

A part of the permanent exhibit at Sully Historic Site includes a tall case clock from the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Museum Collections.  Complementing the parlor décor of Mrs. Lee’s sofa, pianoforte, and tea table, the clock is a popular artifact with both staff and visitors.

Sully’s clock is in the Chippendale style and is dated to 1760-1770.  The clockworks are attributed to clockmaker John Guild and were originally made for Judge Joseph Reading. The dial is inscribed “Joseph Reading, Hunterdon County, New Jersey.??  According to Dr. David Sperling, a well-known antiquarian horologist, the clock’s cherry wood case is a product of Bucks County, Pennsylvania cabinetry. During the 18th and 19th centuries, clockworks and cases were manufactured by craftsmen who specialized in their respective media.  The works were then placed inside the case that was made to hold them. 

Typical of clocks at that time, the face has Roman numerals.  The shape of clock hands changed over time, an indication of the time period when they were made.  Sully’s tall case clock fits into 1760-1775 time frame with its “owl-eyed?? hour hand and spear-shaped minute hand. The clock case is topped by a broken pediment and finial, a design commonly used in Chippendale pieces.  The lower part of the case, which would accommodate the chains used for “winding?? the clock, is paneled, and each section of the case is trimmed with dentil moldings.

You can see the clock on tours at Sully Historic Site. The site is open for guided tours daily except Tuesday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.  During your tour, look for the tall case clock in the parlor.


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