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Recreating an American Treasure: The First Oval Office

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It was George Washington’s home for much of the Revolutionary War — a large oval-shaped tent that was his bedroom and office — the first “oval office” occupied by the first commander-in-chief of American military forces. Now Linenblue is helping to re-create it.

The original tent - a national treasure of the United States - will be displayed in the new Museum of the American Revolution when it opens in Philadelphia in 2016. This summer, it will be reproduced by Historic Trades tailors as part of a new partnership between Colonial Williamsburg and the Museum of the American Revolution. Once complete, the reproduction tent will be used by the Museum of the American Revolution for a variety of educational and museum outreach programs in advance of the opening of the Museum of the American Revolution.

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Historical records suggest that the original sleeping and office tent was one of a pair of marquees made for General Washington in early 1778, at the end of the Valley Forge encampment. Washington returned to his Mount Vernon home with his tents and other military equipment in December 1783 after he resigned his commission. Following his death in 1799 and the death his wife, Martha, in 1802, Washington’s military effects, including the tents were sold at private auction to Martha’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. The tents were displayed periodically at the Custis home, Arlington House, during the ensuing decades until his death in 1857. While Union Army units occupied Arlington House during the Civil War, many of Washington’s military possessions were taken into federal custody until they were returned to the Custis/Lee family in the early 20th century. Various elements of Washington’s field headquarters are now held by institutions including the Museum of the American Revolution, the National Museum of American History, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and the National Park Service.

“Unlike most military commanders, George Washington stayed in the field with his army through the entire War of Independence, spending just a few days at Mount Vernon between 1775 and 1783,” said Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, director of collections and interpretation for the Museum of the American Revolution. “For much of that time, he lived under canvas. With the surviving elements of Washington’s field headquarters scattered among various institutions, the reconstruction project is an exciting way—perhaps the only way—for visitors to experience the “other home” of George Washington.”

Fashioned from 160 yards of linen — woven to three different widths—and 90 yards of linen from Colonial Williamsburg’s Weave Room, all of the fabric for the reproduction tent is being woven to as close a match as possible to the original cloth. 

From mid-May through mid-August, Colonial Williamsburg guests will be able to follow their progress publicly in the Secretary’s Office next to the Capitol in the Revolutionary City as tailors Mark Hutter and Neal Hurst along with six other seamsters as they assemble the linen canvas of the marquee and its chamber—the large outer tent and an enclosed smaller sleeping and office tent.

“It may seem surprising to have tailors make a tent, but it was actually part of the trade’s work until the late Medieval Period,” Hutter said. “By the 18th century, no tailor in America was making tents. When the American Revolution began, Williamsburg’s many tailors became deeply involved in supplying uniforms, flags, and tents. A couple of thousand tents were made by the capital city’s tailors.”

Several of Colonial Williamsburg’s trade shops also will be actively involved in reproducing the tent and its pieces. Carpenters and joiners will fashion wooden poles to support the structure. Blacksmiths will forge iron hardware and pole fittings. Wheelwrights will carve small wooden items and stakes to anchor the tent. The completed marquee will measure 22 feet long, 15 feet wide and ten feet high.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to use our expertise in the 18th-century trades,” said Jim Horn, Colonial Williamsburg vice president of research and historical interpretation. “Our guests will be able to see and experience the construction of the marquee, and we are delighted to partner with another museum to tell the story of the American Revolution on this project.”

The reproduction of the tent, and associated research on General Washington’s field equipment, is funded in part from a generous grant to the Museum of the American Revolution from the Acorn Foundation Fund for History in Memory of Alexander Orr Vietor.

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