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Washington paid for a camel's visit to Mount Vernon

By Sally Holland, CNN
updated 9:08 AM EST, Sat December 24, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Washington paid paid 18 schillings, a pretty hefty amount, for a man to bring a camel to Mount Vernon
  • Washington paid to see exotic and rare animals throughout his life
  • The sum was enough for 24 adults or 48 children to see the camel

Washington (CNN) -- It's Christmas in 1787 at Mount Vernon, George Washington's stately home in Alexandria, Virginia. Holidays in the 18th century were usually pretty low key, according to Dean Norton, director of Horticulture at the first president's estate.

"It was just all a matter of family being together to enjoy good food, good drink, good family time. And certainly when you add a camel to the mix, it adds a little bit of specialness to the whole atmosphere," he said.

A camel?

According to Washington's ledger, he paid 18 schillings, a pretty hefty amount for that time, to "the man who brot. A Camel from Alex. for a show" on December 29, 1787.

Historians know that Washington paid to see exotic and rare animals throughout his life including a lioness and a tiger.

"During his presidency, he paid to see a cougar, a sea leopard, which is kind of like a sea lion, an elephant, and three dollars to see a very smart dog who apparently could beat anybody at this particular card game," according to Norton.

He spent the equivalent of $1.75 to see the elephant during his presidency and was so impressed that several months later he went back with the whole family.

But as to the reason he brought a camel to Mount Vernon that Christmas, no one really knows.

It's possible that he heard that the camel was being shown in Alexandria and he asked if the owner or handler would bring it to Mount Vernon. At the time, entrepreneurs would acquire rare or exotic animals and travel around with them charging the populace to see the animal.

Then again, the camel's owner or handler may have found out that George Washington lived down the road and may have visited Mount Vernon hoping that the ex-president would pay to see the camel.

Regardless, it wasn't cheap.

"If I were the gardener at that time in 1787, I would have been making 20 pounds a year, so it would have come out to about 400 schillings, so it would be half a weeks salary for me for me to pay to see a camel and I certainly wouldn't do that today," said Norton.

Mt. Vernon historians estimate that Washington paid enough for 24 adults, or 48 children to see the camel at the going rates for that time.

Today, in honor of that Christmas in 1787, visitors to Mt. Vernon during the Christmas season can see and pet a dromedary, or a one humped camel, named Aladdin.

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