Meet the Muhlenbergs

This exhibit centers on artifacts associated with the Muhlenberg family, one of the most prominent Pennsylvania German families in early America. In particular, it examines Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), a German Lutheran minister who immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1742, and his son Frederick Muhlenberg (1750–1801), best known as the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Map of southeastern Pennsylvania with location of Trappe.

Map of southeastern Pennsylvania with location of Trappe.  Image: Tom Willcockson, Mapcraft.com

The Muhlenbergs lived in a small village known today as Trappe, about twenty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia. Located along the main road that connected Philadelphia and Reading, Trappe was a noisy, bustling place.  In 1776, Henry Muhlenberg and his wife, Anna Maria, purchased a large stone house and seven-acre property that fronted on the road. Due to the pressing need to provide housing for friends and family during the American Revolution, they added a second kitchen to the back of the house and rented out an addition to the east. 

Portrait of Frederick Muhlenberg.  The Speaker's House

Portrait of Frederick Muhlenberg. The Speaker’s House

In 1781, Frederick Muhlenberg acquired the adjoining fifty-acre property together with a stone house, to which he added a general store. At the time, Frederick was Speaker of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. Although he had been ordained a Lutheran minister in 1770, Frederick quit the ministry in 1779 to join the Continental Congress. The following year, he was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly and served as its speaker through 1783. When Montgomery County was formed in 1784, he became the first head judge, recorder of deeds, and register of wills. As there was no courthouse yet built, his house became the de facto seat of county government for several years. In 1787, Frederick was president of Pennsylvania’s Constitutional Convention and in 1789 was elected to the First U.S. Congress.  

The Speaker's House, first floor plan, c. 1800.

The Speaker’s House, first floor plan, c. 1800.

Built in 1763, Frederick’s house had a long, narrow floor plan like a Philadelphia townhouse. To the right of the stair hall were two large rooms, heated with back-to-back corner fireplaces. The kitchen was located in a rear wing. A twenty-by-forty foot stone addition to the east of the house served as a general store and helped to separate the family’s private lives from Frederick’s public activities. Its footprint created a barrier that both visually and physically blocked access to the kitchen yard, a busy work area that contained the well, bake oven, root cellar, smokehouse, milkhouse, and kitchen garden.

 

Although the Muhlenbergs were educated and well-to-do, they dumped their trash along the back wall of the store and in the kitchen yard. Archaeologists refer to such deposits as a midden. Accumulated debris found in these areas of the property includes pieces of animal bones, oyster shells, ceramics, metal utensils, clay pipe stems, and glass bottles. 

1. Meet the Muhlenbergs  2. Cooking  3. Dining  4. Smoking  5. Drinking  6. Further Resources

Return to Trash in Early America

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