The oldest object in the House Collection is also one of the smallest. It’s less than an inch across, but the man who owned it was a giant figure in American history.
This tiny gold pendant, or fob, holds a piece of red carnelian stone with George Washington’s coat of arms and initials carved into it. The seal would be pressed into wax to seal letters. Washington received this fob seal on September 18, 1794, the first anniversary of the laying of the Capitol cornerstone. The date is engraved around the rim of the fob, along with Masonic symbols and the name of Washington’s home lodge “Alexandria Lodge No 22.”
Like most gentlemen of the late 1700s, Washington wore his fob seals prominently. He owned two at his death. They hung from a short ribbon, which he used to pull his timepiece, attached at the other end, from a tight waistcoat pocket. As men’s waistcoats grew shorter, fobs grew more popular and became an essential part of masculine dress. Some men, like Washington, wore two fobs on their watch. Fobs appear in several Washington portraits, including Gilbert Stuart’s “Washington at Dorchester Heights” and John Trumbull’s “George Washington before the Battle of Trenton.” In some portraits, he is wearing two fob seals. One of them may be this seal, which would be well known to both Trumbull and Stuart. Although it’s hard to imagine Washington wearing jewelry, even something as practical as a seal, into battle, the artists were accurate in including the fobs in a battlefield portrait. Washington had worn a seal during the French and Indian War and lost it in the disastrous 1755 defeat of Braddock’s troops.
In 1794, when this seal was made, all battles were won, the nation was at peace, and Washington’s personal interest in the Capitol made it an apt gift. He laid the cornerstone in 1793 in an elaborate Masonic ceremony, the first large public event in the new capital city. Washington himself conducted formal exercises and afterward, a 500-pound ox was barbecued and those in attendance “generally partook, with every abundance of other recreation,” according to the Alexandria Gazette.
A year later, on the anniversary engraved on the seal, the atmosphere was not so jolly. Washington was unhappy with the slow progress and shoddy workmanship of the Capitol’s construction. Only one of the original commissioners in charge of the building was still there, and he was staying only until a replacement was named. Indeed, the Capitol was not finished when Washington died in 1799, and barely habitable when Congress moved to the city in 1800.
Perhaps the fob was a hopeful wish that the project would someday be completed. It was, of course, and two centuries later, the seal was reunited with the institution it commemorated, when it returned to the Capitol as a gift to the nation from Ambassador and Mrs. Mel Sembler.
Sources: Alexandria Gazette, September 25, 1793; William Allen, History of the United States Capitol. Washington DC: (GPO, 2001); Benson J. Lossing, The Home of Washington. Hartford, CT: (A.S. Hale & Company, 1871); Martha Gandy Fales, Jewelry in America, 1600-1900. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Antique Collecors’ Club, 1995.Follow @USHouseHistory