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Eagle Overmantle

Place Made:
Southampton County Virginia United States of America
Date Made:
plaster –paint
Accession Number:
This patriotic plaster overmantel was cast for the dining room chimney breast of a house outside of Courtland, Southampton County, Virginia. The dining room was part of an early 19th century addition to an eighteenth century house on land acquired by Robert Ricks, Sr., (d.1764) in 1742 and 1750.

The earliest part of the house was a frame hall-and-parlor plan house with a center chimney. Visitors entered directly into the hall of this early house. Sometime between 1803 and 1812 Robert Ricks, Jr., (1746-1831) and his wife Ann (Pretlow) Ricks (1758-1814) modernized by added a two-story frame addition to the front of the earlier house. In the new house visitors entered through a center hall from which they could then proceed into the fashionable new parlor and dining room.

The exact date of the addition is not known. However, based on the number of stars on the overmantel it likely dates to between 1803 and 1812. Ohio was admitted as the seventeenth state in the Union in 1803; Louisiana was admitted as the eighteenth state in 1812.

The addition has been attributed, based on a signed brick, to Edmond Godwin (d.1818), a master builder from Isle of Wight County. It is possible that Godwin, or a plasterer working under him, was responsible for this overmantel. It is also possible that the plaster decoration is the work of an as-yet-unknown craftsman working in Norfolk, where another example is known.

Robert Ricks, Jr., and Ann (Pretlow) Ricks were married in 1782 and were part of Southside Virginia’s extensive Quaker community. They were members of the Blackwater and Upper Monthly Meeting and Western Branch Monthly Meeting. Over the course of the eighteenth century it became increasingly impossible to be both a Quaker and a slaveholder. In 1807 members of their meeting were dispatched to visit Ann and confront her about her family’s continued ownership of slaves. Unable to change her views, a certificate for her disownment from Quakerism was sought. The 1810 census records 21 slaves in the Ricks household.

The decorative new addition including the elaborate woodwork and plasterwork coincides with the period during which the Ricks family’s relationship to Quakerism was eroding. Symbolically it could be read as indicative of their embrace of an American and Southern identity over their Quaker beliefs.

RELATED HOUSES: This is one of three surviving plaster overmantels from Southside Virginia based on the Great Seal of the United States. The other examples are found at Talbot Hall, built for Samuel Butt Talbot, between 1799-1802, and the Wilson-Cofer House in Smithfield, Virginia, built in 1816. The Wilson-Cofer House was demolished in 1961 but the eagle chimney breast was salvaged an installed in the Merchant and Farmers Bank building on West Main Street. Littleton, a two-story brick house built in 1811 for the Bailey family of Sussex County, Virginia, features a very similar painted version of the eagle overmantel.

RELATED OBJECTS: MESDA’s “Courtland Parlor” consists of woodwork removed from the Ricks House parlor. MESDA also owns a Sampler worked by Robert and Ann Ricks’ daughter Ann (1790-1850) (acc. 5739.4)

Originally cast and installed in the dining room of Robert Ricks, Jr., (1746-1831) and Ann (Pretlow) Ricks (1758-1814), near Courtland, Southampton County, Virginia. In 1968 the plaster overmantel, along with architectural woodwork from the house’s parlor, was acquired for MESDA. Other material was salvaged from the earlier 18th century part of the building and incorporated into Old Salem restoration projects.