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Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Society of the Cincinnati follows china

The Society of the Cincinnati headquarters building at 2118 Massachusetts Avenue/Patricia Leslie

At The Society of the Cincinnati with national headquarters over on Mass Ave, only men (!) are
admitted to membership, and they must be "qualified male descendants of commissioned officers who
served in the Continental Army or Navy and their French counterparts."

What about "qualified female descendants"? There is no such thing. They don't matter.

You know when the Continental Army and Navy fought, don't you?* Good. I knew it was an educated
bunch that swarms these parts.

Ladies are welcome to visit Anderson House every afternoon between 1 and 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, when other non-descendants are invited, too. The mansion was constructed in 1905 to be the elegant winter residence of Larz Anderson, an American diplomat, and his wife, Isabel, an author and benefactress who lived in it until 1937 when he died. Mrs. Anderson later gave it to The Society of the Cincinnati where every night may be an adventure, if one is amenable.

What do you make of this?  Wooden walls with secret doors? A heavily-decorated jewelry box? It's the ceiling in the ballroom of the Anderson House/Patricia Leslie

It was there, in the not too distant past, that I met "Prospero," a man not of proper lineage to be
a qualified member of The Society of the Cincinnati most assuredly but, nevertheless, "qualified" if
you catch my drift, being of the World Bank and of too sound mind and brains since he knew exactly
everything I was going to say before I said it, and who absolutely knew everything I knew, and what good
is that? What's the purpose in conversing? I couldn't see the point either. Then, why bother with dinner?

He was a cheap braggart, to be kind. The one time he invited me to join him for repast, it was a Dutch treat. And somehow paid for the desserts. Somewhere on 20th Street, I think it was. Fooled again. Imagine. So long, Prospero, which you are, and I am not.

George Washington presides over The Society of the Cincinnati.  The statue by Jean-Antoine Houdon after the official marble statue in the Virginia State Capitol.  Dedicated 2008.  Presented by Anita Graham and Frederick Lorimer Graham/Patricia Leslie

Next stop, china, as in china china, not China, but "the rare Chinese export porcelain service decorated
with the Society's insignia" which belonged to President and Mrs. George (Martha) Washington and the Lees of Arlington, as in Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. (They all owned it at one time or another, however, the Washingtons and the younger Lees did not dine together since they lived about 100 years apart, but did you know that Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee (who had a name, after all) was the great-granddaughter of Martha (Mrs. George) Dandridge Custis Washington, also with a name. Martha Washington
left the china to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who moved it to Alexandria and passed it along to his daughter, Mary Anna, and Robert. 

One of the plates from the George Washington Porcelain Service/The Reeves Collection, Washington and Lee University
Mary Anna Randolph Custis before her marriage to Robert E. Lee by Auguste Hervieu.  Anonymous loan and Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial ARHO 5840


To continue:

Before she left their home, the Custis-Lee House in what is now Arlington Cemetery (yes, the house on
the hill) at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Mary Anna hid the china in the house from the Yankee troops who discovered it and had the good sense to save it which was transported to the U.S. Patent Office, put on display and then later, found its way to the Smithsonian.

About half of the rare porcelain service set is extant, and pieces are in the Smithsonian, the White House, and Mount Vernon, according to Ron Fuchs II, curator of the Reeves Collection at Washington and Lee University which also owns some of the collection.  He's the man who came to talk about the china at The Society of the Cincinnati.

The set has been "bought, sold, gifted, and faked," and the pieces "always have stories to tell," said Mr. Fuchs.

Rumors have existed for years about two sets of china, and some of the second set has been traced to
Light-Horse Harry Lee. Written records show his daughter-in-law gave away sauce tureens.

The china was commissioned by Samuel Shaw in 1784 and our very own (he is, isn’t he? He laid out our
plans!) Pierre L'Enfant (an artist as well as an architect, said Dr. Fuchs, and a Society member) made a sketch of the proposed insignia with eagle which was painted
on the china and later copied and sold by a counterfeiter who was never apprehended. (The Chinese created porcelain "and it took the Europeans 800 years to figure out how to do it.") 

The insignia

The insignia

About 40 well-heeled persons ranging in age from 20-somethings  
 (young lads in bow-ties, my gawd) to
senior citizens plus came to hear the lecture on George Washington's china.

It was a serious crowd. They were dedicated. And dressed up. Men wore coats and ties. (Those
without, sat in the rear, thankfully.) The women were as equally adorned. It was not your Washington
Capitals bunch, that's for sure. No one whooped and hollered or carried on like they had never seen
George Washington's export porcelain china service with insignia, but they acted like they ate on it every

Mr. Fuchs was good, very good, and quite knowledgeable about china and obviously adoring of the subject at
hand which always helps when the speaker likes his topic. His excellent illustrations, too, kept the earnest
transfixed by china.

It seemed remarkable to me (well, maybe not so much since the location was Washington,) that
fanciers could gather together in one place to hear an hour-long talk about one set  of china, but I must admit, the whole topic was much more intriguing that anticipated. Our first president, also a member of The Society of the Cincinnati and its first "president general,"was a wheeler-dealer (Mr. Fuchs did not use that description) who was interested in the set "if great bargains are to be had."  In 1786 Washington bought the 302 pieces for $150.

Which reminds me of current "great bargains to be had" over on C Street where I dined before the
presentation, not on china with The Society of the Cincinnati insignia, but from a paper sack
featuring McDonald's insignia in color. There I ate a tasty Quarter Pounder (without cheese: calories), or ketchup (yuk) or onions (the better to kiss with! Whither, Prospero? ) for $2 (coupon)
which included a diet drink (free-coupon). My tab totaled $2.20. Those confounded D.C. restaurant taxes will rob us blind.

*"The Society of the Cincinnati is the nation's oldest patriotic organization, founded in 1783 by officers of
the Continental Army and their French counterparts who served together in the American Revolution. Its
mission is to promote knowledge and appreciation of the achievement of American independence and to
foster fellowship among its members."

What: The Society of the Cincinnati

When: Open for public tours, 1-4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday

Where: Anderson House, 2118 Massachusetts Avenue

Admission: No charge

For more information: 202.785.2040

Metro station: DuPont Circle and walk up Mass Ave.

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