The magnitude of the charge of such an estate can be better understood
when the condition of a Virginia plantation is realized. Before the
Revolution practically everything the plantation could not produce was
ordered yearly from Great Britain, and after the annual delivery
of the invoices the estate could look for little outside help. Nor did
this change rapidly after the Revolution, and during the period of
Washington's management almost everything was bought in yearly supplies.
This system compelled each plantation to be a little world unto itself;
indeed, the three hundred souls on the Mount Vernon estate went far to
make it a distinct and self-supporting community, and one of Washington's
standing orders to his overseers was to "buy nothing you can make within
yourselves." Thus the planting and gathering of the crops were but a small
part of the work to be done.
A corps of workmen—some negroes, some indentured servants, and some hired
laborers—were kept on the estate. A blacksmith-shop occupied some, doing
not merely the work of the plantation, but whatever business was brought
to them from outside; and a wood-burner kept them and the mansion-house
supplied with charcoal. A gang of carpenters were kept busy, and their
spare time was utilized in framing houses to be put up in Alexandria, or
in the "Federal city," as Washington was called before the death of its
namesake. A brick-maker, too, was kept constantly employed, and masons
utilized the product of his labor. The gardener's gang had charge of the
kitchen-garden, and set out thousands of grape-vines, fruit-trees, and
A water-mill, with its staff, not merely ground meal for the hands, but
produced a fine flour that commanded extra price in the market In 1786
Washington asserted that his flour was "equal, I believe, in quality to
any made in this country," and the Mount Vernon brand was of such value
that some money was made by buying outside wheat and grinding it into
flour. The coopers of the estate made the barrels in which it was packed,
and Washington's schooner carried it to market.
The estate had its own shoemaker, and in time a staff of weavers was
trained. Before this was obtained, in 1760, though with only a modicum of
the force he presently had, Washington ordered from London "450 ells of
Osnabrig, 4 pieces of Brown Wools, 350 yards of Kendall Cotton, and 100
yards of Dutch blanket." By 1768 he was manufacturing the chief part of
his requirements, for in that year his weavers produced eight hundred and
fifteen and three-quarter yards of linen, three hundred and sixty-five and
one-quarter yards of woollen, one hundred and forty-four yards of linsey,
and forty yards of cotton, or a total of thirteen hundred and sixty-five
and one-half yards, one man and five negro girls having been employed.
When once the looms were well organized an infinite variety of cloths was
produced, the accounts mentioning "striped woollen, woolen plaided, cotton
striped, linen, wool-birdseye, cotton filled with wool, linsey, M.'s &
O.'s, cotton-India dimity, cotton jump stripe, linen filled with tow,
cotton striped with silk, Roman M., Janes twilled, huccabac, broadcloth,
counterpain, birdseye diaper, Kirsey wool, barragon, fustian, bed-ticking,
herring-box, and shalloon."
One of the most important features of the estate was its fishery, for the
catch, salted down, largely served in place of meat for the negroes' food.
Of this advantage Washington wrote, "This river,... is well supplied with
various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year; and, in the spring, with
the greatest profusion of shad, herrings, bass, carp, perch, sturgeon, &c.
Several valuable fisheries appertain to the estate; the whole shore, in
short, is one entire fishery." Whenever there was a run of fish, the seine
was drawn, chiefly for herring and shad, and in good years this not merely
amply supplied the home requirements, but allowed of sales; four or five
shillings the thousand for herring and ten shillings the hundred for shad
were the average prices, and sales of as high as eighty-five thousand
herring were made in a single year.
In 1795, when the United States passed an excise law, distilling became
particularly profitable, and a still was set up on the plantation. In
this whiskey was made from "Rye chiefly and Indian corn in a certain
proportion," and this not merely used much of the estate's product of
those two grains, but quantities were purchased from elsewhere. In 1798
the profit from the distillery was three hundred and forty-four pounds
twelve shillings and seven and three-quarter pence, with a stock carried
over of seven hundred and fifty-five and one-quarter gallons; but this was
the most successful year. Cider, too, was made in large quantities.