More than 6,000 visitors flocked to Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens last weekend to step back in time and take part in one of the prime social event of a bygone era — the 18th Century Craft Fair. It was a place to learn the news and gossip of the day and exchange or acquire necessary merchandise and supplies, all while enjoying good entertain, good food, and good friends.
Each year Mount Vernon's recreation of that environment and its atmosphere does not disappoint. And, this year there was something new for visitors — a lesson in how George Washington and others of his day were able to enjoy the decadence of chocolate.
Gail Cassidy, a Mount Vernon District resident who has been volunteering at Mount Vernon Estate for 17 years, started an endeavor known as Foodways about 10 years ago to support the volunteer/reenactment program. The group prepares various food items associated with the 18th Century during special events.
Then Colonial Williamsburg started delving into how chocolate was introduced to the colonies, according to Cassidy. That got her attention and she decided to add that to Foodways' list of colonial delicacies.
Last weekend she and her assistants were one of the highlights of the 2008 Fair as they literally made chocolate to the delight of spectators crowded around their tent. "This is how chocolate would have been made in the 18th Century. It's the type of chocolate that Washington would have enjoyed," Cassidy said.
"All the chocolate of that day was dark chocolate. Milk chocolate did not come into being until the 19th century. And, when it did it was created by just adding basic milk to the dark chocolate," she said.
"Although, we don't know exactly what chocolate factories looked like in the 1700's we do know that in 1770 there were 50 of them in the colonies. Half of those were in Pennsylvania," she said.
"At the same time, there was only one chocolate factory in all of England. The reason it was so much more bountiful here is that America was closer to Central and South America -- the primary source of the cocoa bean," Cassidy explained.
The recipe for 18th Century chocolate was actually developed by the Mars Candy Company headquartered in McLean. All the supplies for the Mount Vernon exhibit, including the chocolate, were supplied by them. In 2003 Mrs. John F. Mars joined the Mount Vernon Ladies Association as the Wyoming Vice Regent.
"There's been a lot of misinformation on chocolate and its development. But, most of that should be cleared up in November when a new book on the subject will be introduced at the Smithsonian Book Fair," Cassidy said.
Although the chocolate was not being sold at the fair, samples wasted no time in being consumed to the delight of visitors. It joined the other fair delicacy, which is sold for $7 each -- the large roasted turkey leg that could be considered a meal in and for itself. This year, also for the first time, there was barbecue.
MOUNT VERNON'S 18th Century Fair has been hailed as the most authentic and diverse event of its kind. It combines the talent and workmanship of more than 50 juried artisans, working in colonial attire, with entertainment and the mustering of a Revolutionary War militia contingent.
Visitors not only have the opportunity to purchase the handmade products but also watch their purchases being created. Everything from fine wood furniture to exquisitely hammered silver to clothing and candles to blown glass by Shelton Glass Works, and much more was available throughout the two-day event.
Shelton offered a limited edition "Jamestown Commemorative Series" of three blown glass bottles each containing an original scrimshaw image of one of the three ships that brought the original settlers to Jamestown -- Godspeed, Susan Constant, and Discovery. Each bottle had been free-blown, hand shaped, signed by Shelton and came with a certificate of authenticity. They were produced in cobalt blue, green and amethyst.
In the category of amusements there were offering for all ages including a classic Punch and Judy show, sword swallower and fire eater, a magician, and a quartet of harmonizing, hearty seamen singers. Crowds sat on bales of hay under the shade of a canvass stretched roof shielding them from a day that felt more like mid-August than mid-September.
Since the Fair is included with regular admission to the Estate, those who wanted to get away from the tropical humidity and heat could also visit the Donald Reynolds Museum/Education Center and Ford Orientation Center as well as the Mansion.