Real and Replica

Real and Replica: Constructing The First Oval Office Project

Museum staff and volunteers reproduce elements of Washington's wartime field headquarters.
Museum staff and volunteers reproduce elements of Washington's wartime field headquarters.

In 2013 and 2015, the Museum of the American Revolution partnered with The Historic Trades Department at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to reproduce elements of Washington’s wartime field headquarters complex as The First Oval Office Project. In collaboration with experts at many other institutions, Museum staff and volunteers conducted research and used original objects, documents, paintings, and other evidence to determine how to recreate the tents and furniture that General George Washington used. The First Oval Office Project had three aims:

  1. To create exact replicas of Washington’s tents to be used as “stunt doubles” for films for the forthcoming Museum and to test the support structure for the real Washington’s War Tent at the Museum, in anticipation of the opening of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 19, 2017

  2. To conduct and interpret this work of historical replication in front of the public as an educational program, based in the Secretary’s Office at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia.

  3. To answer questions about Washington’s War Tent that we could not investigate using the fragile historical objects that survive in museums today.

Follow the evidence and compare “real and replica” in these feature stories, which highlight some of the many components you may see on a visit to the Museum. You are invited to handle replica First Oval Office Project objects at a special Washington’s War Tent Discovery Cart and in the field when The First Oval Office Project travels as part of the Museum’s outreach program.

Real and Replica: Linen Side Walls 

Left: Detail of theater scrim replacing the left side wall in Washington’s War Tent, which reveals a replica inner chamber during the film at the Museum of the American Revolution.  Right: The First Oval Office Project hand-stitched large pieces of linen to replicate the three side walls, roof, and inner chamber of Washington’s War Tent.

At left, a view of the theater scrim replacing the left side wall in Washington’s War Tent, which reveals a replica inner chamber during the film at the Museum of the American Revolution. At right, the product of The First Oval Office Project’s work to hand-stitch large pieces of linen to replicate the three side walls, roof, and inner chamber of Washington’s War Tent.

One linen side wall of Washington's War Tent has been missing since before Reverend W. Herbert Burk acquired it in 1909. Burk regretted its absence in letters to Mary Custis Lee, but the missing wall provided a creative opportunity in 2016 for Museum staff and Donna Lawrence Productions. In the Alan B. Miller Theater, a contemporary theatrical scrim replaces the missing wall. In the same moment that guests notice a pacing shadow of General Washington, the film's lighting on the scrim briefly reveals a recreation of the tent's "inner chamber." For preservation and conservation reasons, it is not possible to project this kind of light on the remaining original side wall. This interior tent (shaped like a milk carton) offered privacy and divided the outer tent's interior into three multipurpose spaces. The original inner chamber is on display at the Yorktown Visitor Center at Yorktown Battlefield, part of the Colonial National Historical Park (United States National Park Service). 

Real and Replica: Wool Binding and Iron Hook and Eyes

Left: Red wool binding showing post-conservation treatment by Virginia Whelan on Washington’s War Tent, collection of the Museum of the American Revolution  Right: Sewing hooks and eyes and finishing the red wool binding in 2013 with The First Oval Office Project.

At left, red wool binding showing post-conservation treatment by Virginia Whelan on Washington’s War Tent, collection of the Museum of the American Revolution. At right, an interpreter sews hooks and eyes and finishes the red wool binding in 2013 with The First Oval Office Project.

We don’t know the names of who stitched Washington’s War Tent. However, during the Revolutionary War, tents were typically made by men who worked as upholsterers, sailmakers, and tailors, and women were employed by these establishments to add finishing details. A 1778 letter about the tent’s construction noted that "His Excellency's marquee is all done to binding & fixing the hooks and eyes, this is made by women." The tent’s decorative red wool binding protected the cut edge of its scalloped roof valance, though today the original wool binding is the most fragile part of the tent and almost entirely gone. Iron hooks and eyes were used to suspend the tent walls from the roof like curtains. Members of Washington’s staff in the field headquarters could easily unhook the walls, turning the enclosed tent into an open awning.

Real and Replica: Valance

Left: Detail showing valence painted by Charles Willson Peale in his portrait of Walter Stewart, 1781, collection of Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. Credit: Yale University Art Gallery.  Right: Detail of replica valence on roofline of Washington’s War Tent with The First Oval Office Project

At left, a detail showing a valance painted by Charles Willson Peale in his portrait of Walter Stewart, 1781, collection of Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, Credit: Yale University Art Gallery. At right, a detail of the replica valance on the roofline of the sleeping marquee  replicate by The First Oval Office Project.

Based on artwork created during and directly after the Revolutionary War, it is almost certain that a painted canvas “valance” once shielded the top of the tent's roof from rain (and made it look good!). It disappeared after the War ended 1783, probably because painted canvas was more inclined to rot and disintegrate (that’s one reason the whole tent wasn’t painted). As part of The First Oval Office Project, craftspeople made a new painted valance based on those visible in paintings from the Revolutionary War, like the portrait of Colonel Walter Stewart by Philadelphia artist and veteran Charles Willson Peale in 1781 at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Real and Replica: Pins and Tensioners 

Left: Tent pins and wood tensioners, collection of the Museum of the American Revolution  Right: Replica tent pins and wood tensioners with The First Oval Office Project

At left, tent pins and wood tensioners, collection of the Museum of the American Revolution. At right, replica tent pins and wood tensioners with The First Oval Office Project.

When Reverend Burk acquired the tent, he also purchased tent poles, ropes, wood “tensioners,” and the tent stakes, or wood “pins” that secured ropes to the ground. Some of these pins may date to the tent’s Revolutionary War usage. Museum staff worked with wheelwrights and joiners in The Historic Trades Department at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to saw and hew new pins from pieces of oak.

Real and Replica: Portmanteau

Left: Portmanteau, collection of the Museum of the American Revolution   Right: Replica leather portmanteaux and bed linens with The First Oval Office Project

At left, Washington’s original portmanteau, collection of the Museum of the American Revolution. At right, replica leather portmanteaux and bed linens with The First Oval Office Project.

An original leather portmanteau, or storage case, was acquired by Reverend Burk with Washington's War Tent and is also on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in the “Winter Patriots” Gallery. After Washington’s death, in the nineteenth century, two of Washington’s portmanteaux protected the tents. Craftsman Jay Howlett at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation studied and reproduced two replicas of the original portmanteau, which Museum staff use to transport mattresses and linens for a replica of Washington's camp bed.

Real and Replica: Canteen

Left: Canteens, collection of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, W-350/B. Credit: Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860.  Right: Replica canteen, furnishings, tent poles, and camp equipage shown with Museum staff and volunteers at George Washington’s Mount Vernon with The First Oval Office Project

At left, original canteens, collection of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, W-350/B. Credit: Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860. At right, replica canteen, furnishings, tent poles, and camp equipage shown with Museum staff and volunteers at George Washington’s Mount Vernon with The First Oval Office Project.

Washington’s wartime baggage included many more items than The First Oval Office Project has recreated, especially record books and paperwork, clothing, and foodstuffs. Three leather “canteens” survive in the collection of Mount Vernon and were probably used to transport bottles and eating equipment during the Revolutionary War. To interpret one element of how food and drink was available to Washington’s field headquarters, The First Oval Office Project recreated two leather canteens that retain heavy carrying straps and interiors lined with fabric and tin.

Real and Replica: Stool

At left, an original Washington folding stool. Credit: Courtesy of Tudor Place Historic House & Garden. Photograph by Bruce M. White, 2015. At right, a replica camp stool with The First Oval Office Project.

Washington travelled with a large quantity of “campaign furniture” that collapsed for easy transportation. The First Oval Office Project recreated his camp bedstead based on the original in the collection of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, two folding tables based on the one shown in the portrait of Washington painted by Philadelphia artist and veteran Charles Willson Peale in 1784 at the Harvard Art Museums, and 18 camp stools based on the original surviving stool in the collection of Tudor Place Historic House and Garden in Washington, D.C. Based on a close study of this original camp stool, woodworkers called “joiners” in the Historic Trades Department at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation made 18 replica stools that fold up easily into 3 large wooden crates.