Introducing Southern Material Culture at Prestwould Plantation
As we drove up the tree-lined road to Prestwould Plantation, one of my classmates remarked that it was like, “stepping back in time.” Prestwould, located in a rural setting outside of Clarksville, Virginia, was every curator’s dream: the house retained much of its eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century furnishings, along with considerable documentation. Its rural environment had largely insulated it from extensive change, and original slave quarters, dating back to the 1790s, still exists on the property. As our first stop on the Southern trip, Prestwould challenged my preconceptions about Southern decorative arts: that survival is rare due to the Civil War and the climate. While this generalization has some truth to it, Prestwould demonstrates that some Southern sites retain as much of their original furnishings as their Northern counterparts.
Prestwould’s longtime director, Dr. Julian Hudson, gave us a tour of the 1797 house, which was built for Sir Peyton Skipwith and stayed within the family for multiple generations. The extensive documentation that accompanies the property – Skipwith family account books, inventories, and letters – allows the site to be placed into its broader trans-Atlantic context; the Skipwith family purchased objects both locally and internationally, and they certainly benefited from the slave trade.
Slave quarters at Prestwould Plantation
While the house and its contents were fascinating in their own right, I was happy to learn more about the slave quarters that were on the property, including one building that dates from the 1790s. The WPAMC students were particularly interested in what was described as a “stump bed,” a bed built by enslaved individuals likely for an elderly member of the community; Dr. Hudson thought it was one of only a few objects of its kind. It is only by visiting the slave quarters that the true costs of the plantation and its objects can fully be understood, and our visit to Prestwould Plantation certainly served as a wonderful introduction to the study of Southern material culture.
By Trent Rhodes, WPAMC Class of 2018