The Gentry of the Eighteenth Century

The gentry of eighteenth century changed the New World in many different aspects by the time of the colony matured.  They built churches, plantations, endorsed the latest London fashions, and enforced the law. All of these helped change the physical and cultural landscape of Virginia in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

In order to change the physical landscape of the colony the gentry altered the nature of land that they owned as well as the public buildings adjacent to their properties. They did this by removing large amounts of clay topsoil in order to make brick for the construction of large buildings such as plantation homes and even churches. In the late eighteenth century attending church was mandatory. As the Rhys Isaac writes in his now classic work The Transformation of Virginia, “Churches were the important centers for community assembly, dispersed at the most frequent intervals in the countryside” (Isaac, 58). Though building and endowing a church like Christ Church was out of reach of even many of the wealthiest gentry, Robert “King” Carter nonetheless demonstrates the social and economic potential of the eighteenth-century Virginia gentry.


The outside of Christ Church. Taken by Paige Hildebrand.

Christ Church was one of the first churches to be built in a cross-like style that was introduced in the 1730’s (Isaac, 59) by Carter. Inside, the pews were different sizes and all had high walls. The size of the pew that a person was seated in depended on their wealth and status, the larger the pew the higher the wealth and status. The largest – and most central – pews were kept for the two largest families, the Carters and the Chases, these pews were often also decorated to show their wealth and power even more than what the size of the pew actually represented. The middle class used the average sized pews; where as the small pews in the corners were for the lower class. The high walls on the side of each pew prevented people from looking around at others; only the minister would be able to see each parishioner.

Robert Carter may have had several reasons for building the Christ Church. Carter may have been truly devoted to the lord or another reason could have been he simply could have wanted to show off his wealth and power. Whatever his reasons, church was used as more than just a church, it was used as a social gathering, a place to meet for less important business, and a place to hold announcements (Isaac, 60).

After church was over, if he was lucky, a gentleman might be invited to one of the area plantations for dinner, even if this did not happen at Christ Church, this practice happened at several churches in areas around the Tidal region of Virginia. Some plantations such as Shirley or Westover were built along the James River. Constructing the plantation along the river may been a means to awe the wealthy people traveling along the river to different plantations, to attract merchants, or to simply show off the their wealth and power. Other plantations that were not directly on the river, such as Rosewell, visitors would be fetched from the waterfront and brought to the Great House. This may also have been an elaborate measure to show wealth or to show hospitality. The importance of hospitality was

Rosewell ruins. Taken by Paige Hildebrand

Rosewell ruins. Taken by Paige Hildebrand

widely stressed because a man’s, or woman’s, home were considered extensions of himself, or herself (Isaac, 71).

The greatest plantations also controlled extensive dependencies, including numerous auxiliary farms, structures, and outbuildings. These might include practical buildings like dairies, smokehouses, laundries, and kitchens, but more unusual buildings like multi-seat privies were not uncommon either. One of the most elaborate privies is on the Westover plantation property. With 12 feet by 12 feet dimensions this privy had five seats and a fireplace. As Michael Olmert notes of the Westover privy, “Inside, you notice the fireplace and mantle on your left, flanked by two children’s commodes. Opposite the fireplace, and somewhat higher than the children’s seats, is a great semicircular commode box, with three holes (192).”

All of these examples show how the wealthy changed the physical landscape. In order to construct large buildings, such as churches and plantations, bricks had to be made from the clay from the plantation land thus changing the physical landscape. Plantations like Rosewell used anywhere from 750,000 to 1,000,000 total bricks, and others like Fairfield plantation used approximately 500,000 bricks. Out of every batch of bricks roughly 40% were deemed unusable, this shows that making bricks was a laborious job and could not be done very quickly. Most plantation owners often brought brick masons from England to properly instruct slaves on how to make bricks. On Rosewell Plantation up to 300,000 bricks were made were not used and in Fairfield approximately 200,000 of the bricks that were made were not used.

There were also many ways that the women gentry helped change the cultural landscape.  Ladies were always attempting to keep up with the latest style in England and constantly updating the household to match the architecture to the latest trends in England. One of the most paramount examples is Elizabeth Allen’s renovations to Bacon’s Castle.  Mrs. Allen changed the architecture of the house so that her already impressive house could be more spectacular to visitors. She built a wall so that there would be a central passage instead of one open room when someone entered through the front door. Mrs. Allen used this new space to separate a parlor and a drawing room. While improving the entryway of the house, the exterior of the house was enhanced by moving a window to become more symmetrical while keeping in the Georgian architectural style.

It was not just the women that were always attempting to stay on the top of the social hierarchy. Men would send their sons away to school in hopes of them being the next economic power house, or being appointed on the Justices of the Court.  Political positions were deemed the highest honor and social statuses within the colonies.  Most women of this era were not well educated in the art of reading and writing.

Gentry with the means would tutor their children at home, the young men would be sent away to college to study further while the young women’s education would not continue beyond the basics.  This allowed the gentry of the colonies to become well practiced in things such as law and served the colonies in a proper manor. Some would run for office and some were appointed as the Justices of the Court. These people conducted court once a month; this was used to define social rank, mutual obligation, and shared values.  Court was also used as a social event, however you would never forget who was in charge (Roeber, 30). The male gentry, who were representing the law, were seated above everybody else, enforcing the laws and making decisions.

In conclusion the gentry were extremely powerful people that influenced the ever-changing colonies. They built churches, plantations, endorsed the latest London fashions, and enforced the law. All of these helped change the physical and cultural landscape of Virginia in the late 17th and 18th centuries.


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