Way back in 1797, John Gadsby, owner of Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria Virginia decided it would be nice to give the president George Washington a birthday party, or Birthnight Ball. Washington did not attend the first since he was still President and living in Philadelphia, the capital. In 1798 and 1799, the retired general lived at Mount Vernon next door and he attended. The Tavern was restored in 1976 as a restaurant and museum and since then the museum has made an afford to recreate the Birthnight Ball to celebrate Washington’s birthday. This is an event I have always wanted to go to but never had the chance because the date often conflicts with the OAS Viennese Waltz Ball. Since we are not dancing right now, this was the time.
The ball includes English country dancing, dinner, lots of toasts to the General and a lovely dessert table. If you are so inclined, you can take lessons before the ball to learn the steps. Matt is not comfortable dancing so we skipped that part. We were greeted at the front door by Mr. Gadsby who invited us in. We were shown upstairs to the meeting area where a gentleman took our card and, after pounding his staff twice on the floor to get everyone’s attention, he announced our arrival to the ball, “Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt of Maryland!” “Huzzah!” responded the crowd and in we went.
The invitation had said that period costumes were encouraged. When I asked at the museum, they said there was no place available so I wore a gown but nothing that related to the period. Matt wore black tie. There were many people there in period costumes, think Jane Austen movies. Some people spoke to us but we just kind of sat back and took it in.
The ball began with cocktails and appetizers as we waited in anticipation of the General’s arrival.
While we waited, toasts were given all round by various gentlemen who were re-enactors, or as we were told they are called, “Historic Interpreters.” There was a toast to the president, John Adams. There was a discussion of the war in France.
Soon the General arrived and he was toasted by many in the room. We all then directed to the ball room so that the ball could be opened with dancing. A couple performed the minuet. Once that dance was completed, more of the interpreters joined in to perform various dances and a cotillion, the General’s favorite dance.
The dancing exhibition over, we proceeded to dinner. I bought seats in the main dining room with the General so we could see all the goings on. We were not seated at the General’s table (which required a much larger donation) but we were seated with a couple in period costume. Apparently I was seated next to Sally Fairfax, friend of the Washington family, although I did not figure that out until much later. At first, she was just annoying. She talked and talk and talked about all of the happenings in 1799 and in the last war and those terrible French people. I just figured she was a guest that would not shut up. It finally dawned on us that she was an interpreter seated with us to make our dinner more interesting. Once we caught on, we were firing history her and her escort to see if we could catch them in not knowing their history. Matt did it of course. He asked about Lafayette’s son and protested mightily about the Alien Sedition Act denouncing it as unconstitutional. I got to get into Indians and the General’s terrible experience in my homeland of Southwestern Pennsylvania and Fort Necessity, which at the time was in Virginia.
The dinner was surprisingly fantastic and completely current to the 18th Century Colonial tavern we were dining at. First course was a madeira soup, then smoked duck on a bed of salad, followed by perfectly cooked beef tenderloin, rockfish, oyster stuffing and roasted vegetables. I ate every morsel.
After dinner we made our way back to the meeting room for desserts and more toasts to the General. Matt was given a pre-written toast which denounced Congress and do-nothings. Nothing has changed.
By this time, the guy playing Washington was out of character and Matt spent a lot of time talking to him about Lafayette. Another gentleman who stayed in character seemed to enjoy talking to us, mostly bawdy innuendo about my charms. Oh, the 18th Century was so much fun!