November 15, 2013

Small and Sturdy

One of the primary goals of The First Oval Office Project is to better understand the construction of George Washington’s marquee before mounting it in our museum. The tent consists of numerous parts: a roof and walls, poles, ropes, and tent pegs—among others. Some survive and some have been lost. Today, we look at the smallest surviving elements of the marquee: several hundred hook and eye closures that fastened roof and sidewalls together.


Ghost marks in the form of rusty stains on the original canvas of George Washington’s marquee mark each location where fasteners were attached before their removal for conservation. Our restoration project has revealed a surprising amount of detail about the creation and functionality of such a modest design marvel—the hook and eye.

A utilitarian’s dream, the hook and eye has been a trusted tool for 700 years. Hooks and eyes were originally handmade from wire, then later machine manufactured. By the 18th century, colonists in British America imported and manufactured both brass and iron versions of these textile fasteners. They were used for fastening clothing items like corsets—and also as tent fasteners.

In May of 1776, George Washington’s military aide, Colonel Joseph Reed, requested materials for the “making of a large Dining Marqe[e] with Double Front” and “Making another large Marque with a Cham[ber] tent of ticking” for “His Excellency George Washington.” Reed also requested “2.5 Gross large hooks and eyes,” which translates to approximately 360 sets.

Reed’s list refers to an earlier pair of marquees that Washington used during the Revolutionary War—ours is part of a second set used by Washington from spring 1778 through the end of the war—but we can safely assume similar materials were used in both.

Today, 144 hooks and eyes survive from the marquee in our collection. Taking into account the components that are missing from our tent (either a single or double wall panel and possibly an interior dividing wall), plus the hooks and eyes used to make the inner sleeping chamber currently on display at Yorktown Battlefield, we estimate the original number of hooks and eyes to be between 250-275 sets. The tent reproduction project at Colonial Williamsburg will help us confirm this estimate.

There are things we know for certain. Although at first glance the hooks and eyes in our collection appear to be similar, they do not have the uniformity and precision of mass-produced objects—they were hand-made. This makes sense because, though England possessed machines for creating hooks and eyes, the colonies did not—and once the war began, access to British imports was terminated.
And since this was how the original tent was constructed, our fabricators also made every replica hook and eye by hand.

We believe the original fabricator used two different sets of pliers to make the loops in the hooks and eyes: round nose pliers (which today we would call needle-nosed pliers) to create a rounded shape and half-round nose pliers (today called long-nosed pliers) to create a straight section at the end of each loop. The typical tent hook was started by bending a 5-inch length of 16-gauge wire at its center, to make two parallel sections. The bent end is not completely closed. Possibly this was a stylistic feature, but we suspect that because of the brittleness of the wire, a sharp, tight bend would have weakened the fastener at that area. Leaving a gap likely minimized the risk of breakage.

Our fabricators mimicked the six different types of hooks and eyes discovered on the marquee—created through the same general process, but with some slight variations in technique. For example, hooks used at the entrance of tent, which had to endure repeated wear, are made from larger gauge wire. We also identified two different types of eyes.

The surviving hooks and eyes now appear to be bare iron, with no visible evidence of rustproofing. As part of our ongoing research we had to consider whether age or a previous conservation effort in 1978 eliminated evidence of an original surface treatment. Rustproofing iron was a common practice in the 18th century. Two procedures were popular: “tinning,” where hooks and eyes were “washed over” with pewter, a tin alloy, that prevented the underlying metal from rusting, and “japanning,” where a colored varnish, usually black, was painted on as a rust inhibitor.

In exploring whether these fasteners were originally tinned or japanned, we examined the deep marks in the wire to see if we could discover any vestiges of the original finish. Simple magnification showed no traces of plating particles, so we sent a sampling of the hooks and eyes to Dr. Jennifer Mass, Senior Scientist and Laboratory Director at the Winterthur Museum Art Conservation Department, eager for clues.

Her report was inconclusive. X-ray fluorescence analysis revealed no evidence of tin plating, suggesting the fasteners were not treated, but left plain. It still left open the possibility that a lacquer finish was stripped away during the previous conservation effort. We may never know for sure. But one explanation in favor of no rustproofing is that the treatment was deliberately skipped in order to meet a wartime production deadline. The appearance of haste is also indicated by other characteristics of the surviving hooks and eyes—particularly a degradation of uniformity in some sets compared to others. And so, our reconstruction project will use untreated iron wire fasteners, allowing us to observe how closely the pattern of corrosion staining on new fabric mimics that which is observable on the original tent.

Those rusty marks mentioned at the start of this post might prove the final clue in properly replicating a small, but essential, aspect of Washington’s marquee so that museum visitors can be sure what they see is undoubtedly the real thing.

Credits: Image at top of reproduction tent hooks. Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg and the Museum of the American Revolution.