The Science and Technology of Plantation Life

The Science and Technology of Plantation Life
Martha Washington: Science, Medicine, Inventions and tech

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: Three to four class periods


Martha Dandridge (Washington) was born on the Chestnut Grove Plantation in New Kent County, Virginia, near Williamsburg.  In the 18th century, plantation life was always busy, because the plantation was, in effect, almost a self-sufficient community and nearly everything necessary to life had to be produced or processed or manufactured or cared for right on the plantation.  18th century science and technology were just beginning to create new ideas and new objects that would make life a bit easier, but for Martha and her family, living was always a great deal of work.


Students who participate in the lesson will get a sense of life on an 18th century southern plantation/farm as it is related not only to raising crops, but also to preparing food, making clothing, caring for animals, making soap, blacksmithing, etc.  Students will create a timeline of scientific discoveries, inventions, and technologies from 1730 to 1802 that are related to life on a plantation/farm.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials; paper and art supplies for timeline.


1.  Introduce the lesson by having students explore the websites listed below, perhaps in small groups (five small groups can each peruse one website, or all students can explore them all).  Students should take notes on the following:

  • Plantation outbuildings and what they were for
  • Plantation house kitchens, particularly implements and utensils
  • Plantation house bedrooms, particularly linens
  • Any mention of farming, with special attention to tools, and farming machinery
  • Animal sources of energy (e.g., no gas or electricity, so how did the plow move?)

3.  When students have accumulated a list of plantation operations, tools, sources of energy, etc., have them organize the list into categories, i.e., farming, laundry, blacksmithing, gardens, food preparation, etc.
4.  Then, using the First Ladies Library Timeline (from 1730 to 1802), ask students to look for scientific developments, inventions, or uses of technology that would have been of value to the operation of the plantation.  Students can again be divided into small groups, each one of which can investigate 10 or 20 years of the time period.
5.  The ultimate product of this research is a classroom timeline showing the year of each development in science, invention, and technology, and how it would have improved plantation life. The timeline can be enlivened by creating icons or symbols for items in each of the categories generated by students during their research.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by lengthening the period of study into the 19th and 20th centuries, and thinking in terms of the science and technology of farming.

Sources & Resources:


Work, Work, and More Work

Mt. Vernon: Visit the Estate 

Other Virginia Plantations  

A History of American Agriculture: Technology

Timeline: Farm Machinery and Technology

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.