Once upon a time there was a woman named Elizabeth Willing. She was born (in 1743) into a wealthy Philadelphia merchant family. Her great-grandfather, Edward Shippen, was the first mayor of Philadelphia appointed by William Penn under the charter of 1701. Elizabeth’s father Charles Willing and her brother Thomas Willing would also serve as Philadelphia mayors. Her brother would expand the family fortune after their father’s death. After the Revolutionary War, brother Thomas became the first president of the Bank of the United States.
When Elizabeth was 27 she married Samuel Powel and moved into the house he had purchased—only a few steps down the block from her family home. Sam had recently returned to Philadelphia from a seven-year European Grand Tour (yes, seven years!) and he brought back a lot of ideas about decorating and architecture, along with the furniture and artwork to furnish his grand new home. Like Eliza's father and brother, Samuel was a wealthy landowner who also became a mayor of Philadelphia. He held the office as the last mayor under the British Royal Crown and then again as the first mayor under the U.S. Constitution. Sam and Eliza’s home quickly became known as a place for lavish meals and entertainment for Philadelphia's elite and visiting dignitaries. John Adams wrote home to Abigail in September of 1774 about “A most sinfull Feast again! Every Thing which could delight the Eye, or allure the Taste.” Later Elizabeth would become a close confidante of George Washington. She is credited with convincing him to remain in office for a second term of the presidency after he admitted he was ready to retire back to Mount Vernon.
When you visit Philadelphia, you can tour the Powel House. In the Withdrawing Room, you will be introduced to Mrs. Powel through her portrait that hangs over the fireplace mantle. You will be told it is a mourning portrait, painted in honor of the two sons she gave birth to, both of whom died quite young (leaving no heir.) Her husband died in 1793 during the Yellow Fever epidemic, not long after Elizabeth’s 50th birthday celebration.
So. there you have it. A woman’s life as told through the men who inhabited it. (If you missed that bit, go back and reread the above paragraphs.) But what is missing from this telling? Was Elizabeth’s life over by the age of 50? We know she continued her friendship with President Washington until his death seven years later. But even that relationship—in later years—would be looked at with jaded eyes, with some claiming that Elizabeth was in love with Washington. Her character has been besmirched through the years, most egregiously in a well-known miniseries from 1986 entitled “George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation” in which she is portrayed as a flibbertigibbet of the first order.
So, who exactly was Elizabeth Willing Powel… beyond a daughter, sister, wife, mother-in-mourning, confident of the President? What did SHE care about most? Do we really *know* Elizabeth Powel? We have some ideas. She cared deeply for her extended family and was always interested in their circumstances. We know she believed in the abolition movement. But we don’t really talk about these things during our house tours. And so we must ask--as an organization--have we done her justice? These are just a few of the questions we’ve been thinking through over the last few years here at PhilaLandmarks. We understand her story deserves more attention. For everything we think we know about her life and who she was as a person, there is ever so much more to discover about Elizabeth Willing Powel!
We are not alone in our questions when it comes to the “woman of the house.” In the United States alone there are upwards of 15,000 house museums open for visitation. A vast majority of them focus on the history of men. Sometimes wives and daughters are mentioned, sometimes not. There are a few houses that focus primarily on women. Women writers seem to have the best chance of having a “house” celebrated in their honor. In recent years, other organizations like ours have been digging a bit deeper into the stories they are sharing about the women who lived in their houses.
As we were pondering these questions about Elizabeth Willing Powel, we received a very interesting phone call. A phone call that would prove to open a very intriguing and important door to find answers to some of our questions. From here, I will let our friend Jack Montgomery take over this story:
“My wife Deede and her late mother, Grace Powel Ritchie (GPR), are descendants of Samuel and Elizabeth Powel [through Elizabeth’s nephew John Hare Powel]. After GPR died a few years ago we moved into her house. Her personal property was divided among the three children, and Deede took a number of trunks among other items. These wound up in a storage locker near our home in Freeport, Maine. We gave them little thought until this winter when we decided to clean out the storage locker. When everything else was taken to Goodwill and our local community services store, all that remained were the trunks, including this one.
We emptied it out and were about to throw it onto the back of the truck when I noticed something odd at the bottom. I wiggled it around and up popped a false bottom.
Underneath was a small white cardboard box with GPR’s handwriting stating “Powel 2005.” We opened it up and found a collection of documents, most of which were written by Elizabeth Powel. They total up to about 256 pages. Many are financial records and inventories that give a great snapshot into her management of the Powel House and her running of the family business after Samuel died in 1793.
We immediately contacted the Powel House and they clearly shared our excitement with this find. [Are you kidding? Of course, we did!] Jonathan Burton, executive director of PhilaLandmarks, shared further information about Elizabeth Willing Powel and the fact that they had been digging a bit deeper into Eliza’s history. Our find was new information not found anywhere else!
Deede and I went to Philadelphia and met with the staff of PhilaLandmarks and several members of the Powel House Committee to deliver the documents into their safekeeping, so that they could be studied further.
During the course of our meeting, one of the committee members recalled meeting GPR in the early 2000’s at a descendant event held at the house. During that event GPR mentioned that she had some things to give the Powel House but it never came to pass. Our suspicion is that she boxed up the documents at this time, put them in the trunk and then forgot about them. We are very confident that she would have wanted them delivered to the Powel House for further study.
We look forward to learning more about this extraordinary woman, as revealed through these newly rediscovered documents.”
Thanks to Jack and Deede, this amazing cache of documents now resides in the offices of PhilaLandmarks (for the time being). We are truly grateful to them for allowing us such access to these important papers while we take time to investigate them further. From our cursory look through the papers we see a number of interesting directions to pursue. For example, we were aware that Elizabeth left funds in her will to the Abolition Society in Philadelphia, but we didn’t know just how involved she was. Within these new documents we found an account of her lending $800 to save an AME church from being foreclosed. This is one of the hundreds of varied transactions reflected in these documents that can flesh out the true character of Elizabeth Willing Powel. We are especially interested in her life after her husband died, as we had been led to believe she retired from social life. Her receipt books seem to tell quite a different story.
A week or so after Jack and Deede's visit, we were treated to a “new way of thinking” about the Powel House. Two of our favorite Eliza "authorities" were visiting the Powel House to get a view of the documents—historian David Maxey and Eliza interpreter Jennifer Summerfield. After viewing the documents, we went up to the Withdrawing Room because David had a question and wanted to look at “Samuel’s books” which reside in the bookcase near where Eliza’s portrait hangs. Jennifer Summerfield randomly pulled a book off the shelf entitled “The Letters of The British Spy” and found that Eliza had written her name inside the front cover. Just then, Kayla (our membership/programs director) said… “Wait? What? I think I just saw the purchase of that book in one of the account books!” And sure enough, there is was “A Book called the British Spy” purchased for $1 in April of 1816.
It turns out, we can no longer say “Samuel’s books” when referring to the bookcase. I think Eliza was (re)claiming her authority.
To help us with this process of culling through this amazing new resource, we reached out to our friends over at the Center for Public History at Temple University. We are lucky to have the help of Ted Maust, who will be starting his second year as a graduate student in the program this fall. As part of his public history practicum (aka summer internship) he will be studying the account books, digging deeper, and providing context by making connections between these documents and those already studied. Basically, Ted will work to help us construct a fuller view of Elizabeth Willing Powel. He’s promised to write a couple of blog posts related to this work and share an intriguing tidbit or two on social media (so stay tuned here and @PhilaLandmarks!)
Until then, here, in Ted’s words, is his first experience with the account books:
“Perched on an office chair on the third floor of the Hill-Physick House [aka the administrative offices of PhilaLandmark] I gingerly pulled off the lid of the box—one of those boxes that letterhead comes in, with “Powel 2005” scrawled on it in sharpie—and peeked inside. Two account books with marbled boards, and a stack of letters, loosely held by a bit of twine that had kept them together for two centuries and was enjoying its retirement.
I lifted the papers onto the desk in front of me and began making my way through them, squinting to decipher the handwriting and trying to jot down any relevant information in a spreadsheet for future reference. They were receipts, some simply slips of paper, some more elaborate letters with wax seals. They acknowledged payments for jewelry from a London goldsmith, retention of legal counsel, and a barrel of shad. Amidst the approximately 30 receipts, there were also three receipts for citron cake. I was intrigued.
I was in the office of PhilaLandmarks as part of my summer practicum. I will be looking at these papers–the accounts of Elizabeth Willing Powel from the early 19th century–about once a week for the rest of the summer in an attempt to flesh out Elizabeth’s story after the death of her husband in 1793. I will produce a couple blog posts for PhilaLandmarks and a summary of my findings on Elizabeth Powel. This summary may later form a part of a grant request or an interpretive plan; we will see where these documents take us!
And the citron cake! After finding Pat Reber’s blog post on candied citron and its use in cakes, Citron Cake and other Recipes for Candied Citron, I went down a rabbit hole of old cookbooks available via the Hathi Trust, Archive.com and other corners of the internet, trying to find the earliest reference to Citron Cake. I’m sure I didn’t. Old cookbooks are fascinating though! After a bit of conversation over email with Reber, I feel pretty sure that citron cake is just a variation on pound cake that includes candied citron. I might look into it a bit more and try to bake some of this cake!
I’m looking forward to many more little discoveries like these over this summer!”
Ah yes…so many rabbit holes… so little time! We can’t wait to see what else Ted discovers!
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