What is the oldest graffiti in America? Here's one guess: This eerie, moon-shaped face, splashed onto a Philadelphia-area wall by a Revolutionary War soldier painting with his own blood.
The injured British fighter made the corpuscle composition while sheltering inside Cliveden mansion on October 4, 1777, the date of the George Washington-led Battle of Germantown. You can visit it to this day, as the mansion is now a museum run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, although it's so ancient the details are tough to make out. Fortunately, the Trust digitally enhanced this image so we all can worship at the altar of the blood face:
The drawing is thought to invoke the sensuous features of a "loved one back home," says Andy Grabel, a public-affairs manager at the Trust. One can only assume the absent paramour would've understood the affection that inspired the gruesome tribute. (Or at least the soldier's embrace of blood graffiti before it became cool.)
It turns out the Trust's stable of protected properties is loaded with fascinating examples of early graffiti. The tools may have changed over the decades – knives and biological fluids instead of markers and spray cans – but the basic American desire to cover every surface with scribbling has stayed the same. That desire seems to pervade all rungs of society. For example, have a gander at this massively defaced door at Shadows-on-the-Teche, an 1830s-era mansion built with slave labor in New Iberia, Louisiana:
Zoom in and you'll find this dedication from Walt Disney, one of many famous guests to visit Shadows and its owner, Weeks Hall:
It's disappointing that Disney didn't scrawl this in the Waltograph typeface, but still, it's pretty neat that he was a proto-tagger. On the door is also beaming praise from Elia Kazan, director of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, who wrote that Shadows was "the most beautiful house I've seen in the South." And look – here's author Henry Miller being cryptic and weird ("aspidistras" might refer to a flowering Asian plant):
Lawrence Lewis was a nephew of George Washington who managed the statesman's affairs at Mount Vernon. Lewis also had a child named Lorenzo who liked carving up stuff, to judge from this wicked-awesome insignia discovered in the early 1900s at Virginia's Woodlawn Plantation.
"A worker replacing some roof and attic beams found the beam with Lorenzo’s signature and recognized its historical importance, so he replaced it with a new beam and made the beam with Lorenzo’s signature into a makeshift podium so it can be displayed," says Grabel. "The carving reads 'L. Lewis 1803' and has a picture of a skull and crossbones." Lorenzo was born in 1803:
To end on a less-macabre note, this slice of Americana lies within Drayton Hall, a Georgian-Palladian plantation home in Charleston, South Carolina. Any parent will no doubt recognize its purpose: It's a growth chart, used by the Drayton elders to measure the height of their offspring. "The tradition of measuring the Drayton children as they grow began in the 1880s and is still practiced today by members of the family," says Grabel:
Go in real close and you'll find this eyebrow-raising inscription. Did the Draytons really stick one of their kids with this awful name?
Grabel sets the record straight: "Charlotta Drayton (1884-1969) was the last member of the family to regularly use Drayton Hall as a country retreat," he says. "Never married, 'Miss Charlotta' measured her dogs, including her favorite, Nipper... who is buried at Drayton Hall."
Images courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (unless otherwise credited)