A decade after Merchandise Buyer Susan Hoffman first alighted on the idea, reproduction 18th-century kites have arrived in Colonial Williamsburg’s shops. As long as the weather cooperates, the kites will fly over Market Square today. And Ben Franklin himself will be leading the way.
Susan has spent countless hours poring over 18th-century artwork, especially portraits of children, in search of evidence for the toys and games children played with. A number of examples featured kites, scenes that seemed to capture “a joyful moment,” in her words.
One example, a copperplate printed textile in Colonial Williamsburg’s collections (below), features a child flying the English arch-style kite that common in the period. It’s much like the common diamond-shaped kite but with a rounded top. It also typically had tassels on the sides for decoration and a tail of bows made of paper.
It was way back in 2006 when Susan started to research the possibility of bringing those moments to the present, allowing today’s worries to fall away in favor of a simple pleasure. “In my imagination,” she says, “I saw kids and families having a great time outside flying kites on Palace Green and at the Courthouse away from modern electronics.”
But no one was manufacturing reproductions of the English arch-style kites flown back then.
Susan studied the design of a period appropriate kite constructed by textile refurnisher Beth Gerhold and placed in the Governor’s Palace as an example of a child’s toy. (It’s not there anymore.) It was time to look for a company that could manufacture reproductions.
The search took years.
In 2014 Colonial Williamsburg finally located a Virginia company able to oversee the manufacture of reproduction kites with to these precise, and unusual, specifications.
They provided photographs and detailed drawings. There were a few rounds of samples and adjustments. A section wasn’t quite the right size; the tail was a little off. They had to see if it would fly.
Susan wanted to use silk, which would have been the correct fabric for the period, but turned out to be prohibitively expensive because of modern safety requirements (like making the silk flame-retardant).
So she began looking for an alternative material with silk-like qualities. Cotton wouldn’t work—it would absorb too much moisture to stay airborne. A polyester blend turned out to be the closest match.
And it flew.
Susan gave kits to her grandchildren, figuring that if an eight-year old could put assemble the kite with minimal assistance, they had a winner.
Eighteenth century artwork inspired the two designs that are available. One is pink; the other is white with a yellow sun, two red stars, and a blue crescent moon. The kites are an exclusive Colonial Williamsburg product. You won’t find them anywhere else.
So back to Ben Franklin. April is National Kite Month, and who better to fly a colonial kite than Ben Franklin? Even schoolchildren who know little about his eminent life have heard of his electrical experiments using kites.
And in a happy coincidence, April 2 marks the anniversary of the day in 1756 when Ben Franklin came to Williamsburg to receive the very first honorary degree of Master of Arts conferred by the College of William and Mary.
It was less than four years since he famously used a key tied to a kite in a thunderstorm to collect an electrical charge in a Leyden jar. His kite was fashioned out of “a large silk handkerchief and two cross-sticks of proper length, on which to extend it.”
Franklin made a second trip to Williamsburg in early 1763 “on business of the post office.” As a member of the Bray Associates, he had recommended the colonial capital as a spot for one of the schools established by Dr. Bray for the education of African Americans.
Perhaps he dropped in to see Ann Wager as she instructed pupils at the school. We do know that he had dealings with prominent residents Benjamin Waller and Thomas Everard regarding the estate of William Hunter, who had been joint deputy postmaster general for the Crown in North America with Franklin prior to his death.
Dr. Franklin’s fame grew over time, of course, and Williamsburg residents followed his exploits in the Virginia Gazette and other publications for the rest of his life.
This month Dr. Franklin returns plans to be out flying kites near Market Square each Saturday in April from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. But on any nice day, you may also find other folks in costume having “joyful moments”–flying a kite, or playing trap ball, or perhaps the game of graces. Feel free to join in the fun.
The kites are available exclusively from Williamsburg Marketplace and in several Colonial Williamsburg shops: The Market House, William Pitt Shop, Everything Williamsburg, and Williamsburg Revolutions at the Visitor Center.