Saturday, June 8, 2013

Making Washington's Tent, Week III: Knapsacks

In 1755, lexicographer Samuel Johnson defined an "artificer" as "an artist; a manufacturer; one by whom any thing is made." (see here). It's a word related to "artifice" that emerged from Latin roots. As early as the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term also referred to skilled military artisans and engineers, the men who felled trees, constructed fortifications, made accoutrements, and repaired equipment for the army. Colonial Williamsburg has a small artificer shop in the back of the Magazine that's worth a visit if you're in town.

Joseph Privott, Nicole Rudolph, and Gwendolyn Basala at work in the Secretary's Office.

Meanwhile, over the in Secretary's Office, the First Oval Office crew has been hard at work on a variety of artificer tasks. We sent several hands down to the Deane wheelwright shop this week to make tent pins, or stakes (more on that in a later post). As we awaited the arrival of linen for the Washington marquee, we put the finishing touches on the ceiling of that tent's inner chamber, including hemming the valances and installing hooks for the chamber's eventual suspension within the larger tent. We also finished our first common tent (check out last week's entry for more on that).

Michael Ramsey and Aaron Walker at work on the inner chamber ceiling.

Aaron Walker and Joseph Privott putting the finishing touches on the common tent.

With so much great linen around the shop, we've been experimenting with knapsack construction this week as well. During the American Revolution, Continental and British soldiers carried their blankets and perhaps a few other small items such as a spare shirt in their knapsack. In the tent shop, we're copying the knapsack of David Uhl, a captain in the Dutchess County (New York) militia during the war. This unique relic belongs to Washington's Headquarters State Historic Site in New York, and you can find a basic diagram on page 30 of Sketchbook 76. It's actually one of only two documented Revolutionary War knapsacks that survive, the other belonging to another New Yorker, Benjamin Warner, now in the collection of Fort Ticonderoga.

The tent crew finishing the inner chamber and common tent.

One of our David Uhl knapsacks (before buttons) and the rolled common tent.

The Uhl knapsack is easy to make and involves only two hems, two seams, two straps, and three buttonholes. It's just the sort of thing that Williamsburg's artificers produced during the war, along with countless cartridge boxes, shoes, uniforms, and tents. Speaking of the latter, here's an image of our completed hemp canvas common tent spread out in the yard.

Aaron Walker and Brendan Menz with the common tent.

One of the things we discovered this week was that your average common tent can actually fit inside your average David Uhl knapsack. Although baggage wagons typically carried soldiers' tentage and often their other camp equipment, it's interesting to speculate on whether any American soldiers ever packed up their canvas in their knapsacks. Over the next few weeks, we'll be setting up our common tent periodically and seeing just how well it does in rain and shine.

Brendan Menz demonstrates the surprising capacity of the Uhl knapsack.

As always, you can keep tabs on our project via facebook and the live webcam (9-5 Saturday-Wednesday).

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