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Taking the Boring Out of George Washington

Washington atop his horse, Blueskin, at age 45 in a scene from the Revolutionary War's Valley Forge.
Melissa Gray, NPR /
Washington atop his horse, Blueskin, at age 45 in a scene from the Revolutionary War's Valley Forge.
Jeffrey Schwartz, a forensics anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, digitally scanned a Washington bust, a life mask, clothes and dentures to recreate Washington at different ages.
Melissa Gray, NPR /
Jeffrey Schwartz, a forensics anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh, digitally scanned a Washington bust, a life mask, clothes and dentures to recreate Washington at different ages.
Outside Washington's Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon. The mansion has a majestic view of the Potomac River.
Melissa Gray, NPR /
Outside Washington's Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon. The mansion has a majestic view of the Potomac River.

Outside George Washington's Mount Vernon home in Virginia, we asked visitors to take out a dollar bill and tell us their impression of the first president. We heard "leader," "sleepy-eyed" and "lawyerly."

These words are daggers to the heart of Jim Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon.

"There are some people who've commented that Washington must have been born old," Rees says. "Occasionally, they use the word 'boring.' And that really hurts us."

Rees says it's high time for a George Washington makeover.

"Washington was the most adventurous, the most action-oriented, the most athletic, and one of the most handsome of the founding fathers," he says.

Not to mention a great ballroom dancer. And so, a new interactive education center and museum will be opening at Mount Vernon Oct. 27, with theaters and galleries to try to convey the fullness of Washington's life.

The exhibit begins with what looks like a CSI forensics lab, with torsos made of foam, a skull, beakers and goggles on display.

Mount Vernon turned to forensic science, and to forensic anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, to try to physically re-imagine Washington.

The idea was to create three accurate life-size wax figures of Washington, at age 19, 45 and 57. The trouble was, there are no portraits of Washington before the age of 40.

So Schwartz and his team worked backward in a kind of forensic time warp. They digitally scanned information from the famous bust of Washington by the sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon, the life mask made of the president, his clothing and dentures, and tinkered and molded his image on the computer to create what Washington might have looked like as a young surveyor in Virginia:

"Here we have him as he may have been surveying tracts of land," says Schwartz as he describes the exhibit showcasing the young Washington. "He's looking up from surveying equipment, because I didn't want his face to be hidden after doing all that work of making his face the center point."

It's a lovely face with bright blue eyes, a strong jaw, high cheekbones and good color, framed by auburn hair. He stands more than 6 feet 2 inches in a wooded glen as birds chirp in the background.

Washington's shoulders are pulled back and sloping, his belly rounds outward. There's a reason for that.

"Washington, as others of British background and his status, had been corseted as a boy," Schwartz says. The effect of the corset was to pull Washington's shoulders back and down, and increase the curve in the lumbar region of the spine.

Other galleries at the new center show Washington fighting during the French and Indian War, a copy of the dress Martha Dandridge Custis wore to their wedding, and Washington as a general in the Revolutionary War. He's astride his horse, Blueskin, at Valley Forge. By this point, he's 45 and has lost many of his teeth.

"Later in life, he was very reluctant to accept dinner invitations, unless the food was soft enough for him to squish with his tongue," Schwartz says. "I think what happened in this period, he was changing his diet to more fatty foods, more easily ingested food.... So you can see that the normal curve of belly that would have been accentuated sitting on horse, is a little more accentuated, which I think reflects the girth he would probably have achieved during that time period."

The last wax model of Washington shows him at 57 as he is sworn in as the first president of the United States, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York. This is much the same face familiar to us from the dollar bill. His lips are tight, and there's some hollowness and tension around the jaw. That's because of his dentures, which were connected by springs.

"Here we know he had only one tooth," Schwartz says, "so he's holding these structures in his mouth which have springs and pressure and so on, so there is a difference in his face."

It cost more than $1 million to create these three wax figures. For Mount Vernon's executive director Jim Rees, anything that helps humanize George Washington is worth it.

"Although Washington has the most familiar face of any historical figure, people don't feel close to him," Rees says. "I think the No. 1 reason for that is the lack of photography. If you see those soulful photographs of Abraham Lincoln, you can't help but feel a connection to him. But with Washington, they are mostly very formal portraits. I think we were kind of putting Washington in the category of the flag and the eagle, in that he was a symbol of America. He really wasn’t a flesh and blood, breathing human being."

The three wax Washingtons will be on display when the new Mount Vernon visitors center opens Oct. 27. And yes, the famous false teeth are on display, too. Contrary to popular belief, they're made of ivory, not wood.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.