‘A Time Capsule’: Centuries-Old Cherry Bottles Unearthed At George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate

Published April 26, 2024

The cherries at Mount Vernon were found in large green bottles and were probably buried between 1758 and 1776.

Mount Vernon Cherry Bottles

Mount Vernon Ladies’ AssociationThe bottles were probably buried in the 18th century for preservation, then forgotten about.

There’s a popular myth that George Washington damaged a cherry tree in his youth, then confessed to his father by saying: “I cannot tell a lie.” There’s no hard evidence that this actually happened, but archaeologists working at Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate did make a cherry-related discovery recently: sealed bottles of cherries from the 18th century.

So far, archaeologists have found two bottles — but there may be more.

‘An Out-Of-The-Box, Next-Level, Spectacular Find’

The first cherry bottle at Mount Vernon was found in November 2023 during restoration work in the estate’s basement. Archaeologist Nick Beard was carefully excavating a part of the basement when he came across the mouth of a glass bottle. This in itself wasn’t unusual — archaeologists find glass all the time — but the more he dug, the more of the bottle appeared.

As he tried to maneuver the bottle out of the earth, Beard discovered it was filled with liquid. And not just that — the bottle also contained whole cherries as well as stems, pits, and a gooey residue.

Excavating The Bottles

Mount Vernon Ladies’ AssociationThe first bottle was detected in November 2023, and the second in March 2024. There may be more buried in the cellar.

Much of the liquid may have come from groundwater that soaked into the bottles once their corks deteriorated, but the cherries are still intact — and pungent.

“There are whole, recognizable cherries,” Jason Boroughs, Mount Vernon’s principal archaeologist, told the Washington Post. “It actually smelled like cherry blossoms when we got to the bottom.”

As Mount Vernon explained in a statement about the discovery, the cherry bottles — a second bottle was found in March 2024 — are made of dark green glass in distinct styles indicative of the 1740s or 1750s.

So what were the cherries used for?

How Cherries Were Cultivated At Mount Vernon

Examining The Cherry Bottles

Mount Vernon Ladies’ AssociationThe cherry bottles contained liquid — probably groundwater — as well as cherries, stems, pits, and a gooey residue.

The cherries were discovered in a basement at Mount Vernon that was probably once a storeroom. They were likely buried between 1758 and 1776, but researchers aren’t 100 percent sure what they were used for.

Back in the 18th century, burying fruits and vegetables was a popular method of preservation. Food items like berries would be dried out, put into a bottle, corked, buried, and dug up at a later date.

Boroughs told the Washington Post that enslaved people at Mount Vernon probably picked these cherries, which they then bottled and stored.

After that, archaeologists have a couple of guesses about what the cherries were used for. The first is that George Washington and his wife Martha might have consumed the cherries in a popular 18th-century cocktail called “Cherry Bounce.” The cocktail was made with brandy, spices, sugar, and cherry juice, and George and Martha were known to enjoy it.

However, Boroughs thinks that Cherry Bounce was probably prepared in larger containers. For that reason, he suspects that the cherries were actually meant to be eaten in the Washingtons’ dining room.

Mount Vernon Dining Room

JazzyJoeyD/Wikimedia CommonsBoroughs suspects that the cherries were actually served in George Washington’s dining room.

Whatever they were used for, the cherries offer a fascinating glimpse at what life was like at Mount Vernon. Not only are they indicative of the tasks assigned to enslaved people at Washington’s plantation, but they also say something about what Washington and his family might have enjoyed.

And the basement may offer up more historic treasures. Excavation work there continues as part of a larger rehabilitation project at Mount Vernon, and archaeologists suspect that there may be more buried bottles.

After reading about the cherries discovered at Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s Virginia estate, go inside the claim that George Washington had a son named West Ford — who was enslaved on his plantation. Or, go inside George Washington’s mysterious, drawn-out death.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "‘A Time Capsule’: Centuries-Old Cherry Bottles Unearthed At George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate." AllThatsInteresting.com, April 26, 2024, https://allthatsinteresting.com/mount-vernon-cherry-bottles. Accessed May 23, 2024.