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The Account Books of Elizabeth Willing Powel: Part 2, The People

November 16, 2017

While David Maxey's A Portrait of Elizabeth Powel finds Elizabeth Powel to be largely an enigma, she was of a class where her life was relatively well documented. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has not one but two collections of Powel Family papers, and Elizabeth is responsible for a healthy fraction of those materials. Yet while her correspondence may provide an insight into her worldview and social connections, these account books (and likely many others stored at HSP) give us a view of Elizabeth's interactions with a whole different set of people: those she paid for various services.

 

I noted in my post about Elizabeth's purchases that a serious portion of the cost of firewood was the cutting, hauling, and stacking, but there were many other costs involved in the acquisition of goods. Elizabeth often used intermediaries to purchase products from far away. Her nephew Thomas Willing Francis, for instance, wrote to Mrs. Powel in 1798 letting her know that her latest order from London had arrived in New York and included costs incurred for reimbursement. In 1823, another Willing relative, Robert Willing, acted as an intermediary when Elizabeth bought a "barrel of shad."

 

For a head of household such as Mrs. Powel, there was a tremendous amount of maintenance that had to be done, and she paid a variety of folks to do it. Chimney sweeps were regular visitors to Elizabeth's house, visiting five times in the first two months of 1822 alone because of the many fireplaces in the home.

 

Photo Note: "Worldly Folk" Questioning Chimney Sweeps and Their Master before Christ Church Philadelphia, Watercolor by John Lewis Krimmel, 1813. 

 

House cleaning was also seemingly a contract job. Though Elizabeth Powel employed Amy Roberts as her housemaid for many years (she earned about $8 per month with occasional additional money "for family use"), there are several notations of others being paid for cleaning. Two women, Rosalie (sometimes simply "Rose") and Julia (or "July") were paid several times between 1813 and 1818 to clean and sometimes whitewash the house. Their wages varied from $1.50 to $3 for each clean. Sometimes they were paid $5 jointly for their work. On one occasion, Rose earned $4.50 for six days work. Later, a woman named Nancy Kennard was employed as housemaid, earning similar wages to Rosalie and Julia before being taken away by her family. "Apparently," wrote Elizabeth in a memorandum, "she is under much mental derangement."

 

 In Portrait, David Maxey posits that for the Powels and their peers, "probably the servant most in demand was a competent cook."[1] On the back page of one of the account books is a series of memoranda documenting Elizabeth's cooks from 1812 to 1815. In March 1812, she discharged her free black cook Phillis Shorten, replacing her with Sarah Howard, "a white woman," with wages of $1.75 per week. Eighteen months later, Sarah Howard received a raise to $2 per week. In 1815, Howard was discharged and replaced by Nancy Williams, a free black woman paid $8 per month. By 1817, Mrs. Powel had a new cook, Horn Lawrence, being paid $1.75 per week. In 1819, while Horn was still employed, Mrs. Powel also paid a "French Cook" $7.75 for "bulli[on] & two soups," suggesting that for special occasions, she brought in outside help.

 

Photo Note: Chef Walter Staib of City Tavern has recreated some of Elizabeth Powel's "sinful feasts" over the years as pictured here during filming of "A Taste of History" at the Powel House.

 

 

Other Powel employees were paid more than the maids or cooks. Margaret McIntire served as Mrs. Powel's seamstress, and was given a monthly "allowance" of $28 in addition to payment for various orders. The "coachman &c" were collectively paid $260 per year (or a little over $20 per month), though it's unclear how many individuals split that sum.

 

Besides Peggy McIntire, the best-compensated Powel employees were footman Ennels (sometimes alternatively written as "Enner") Cork and Robert Green, whose job title I could not locate in the account books. Ennels, "a bound black boy,"[2] earned $12 each month up until 1818 when he got a raise of a dollar per month. For several months in 1822, Ennels was unable to work due to rheumatism and a free black man named John Conyer was hired (at a rate of $10 per month) as a substitute until Ennels recovered.

 

From the numerous account book entries about new shoes and new livery it is clear that Elizabeth spent quite a lot on Ennels Cork's apparel, but she also tallied up all of her spending on Cork in one year (October 1816 to October 1817). In that year, Cork got new shoes nine times and fine shirts, pantaloons, stockings, and handkerchiefs to look the part of a proper footman.

 

Photo Note: As Mrs. Powel's footman, Ennels Cork would have worn a tailored jacket similar to the one shown here

 

 

The following page of the account book seems to continue the list of expenses for Cork, but is headed "Freedom dues for Ennels Cork." Freedom dues were payment (often in goods or property) owed to indentured workers after the period of their bond. Many indenture contracts had a provision that the servant would receive two pairs of clothes, at least one new, at the end of their indenture.[3] This suggests, perhaps, that 1817 marked completion of Ennels' indenture. Were these clothes (the value of which total $112.61, or nearly equal to the $144 in wages that Cork received that year) part of the contract of indenture for Cork?  Cork had been indentured since at least 1811, when, in correspondence to her lawyer, Elizabeth instructed that he (described as "a bound black boy") be provided "whatever remain of his time at my decease, to be disposed of by his Parents Samuel Elizabeth Cork as they may think most advantageous."[4]

           

When we read "indentured servant," we might first think of many of the first waves of colonists to British North America whose immigration costs were paid in return for a span of bound work in their new home. That is they had no freedom to seek out other employment for a predetermined length of years. In Pennsylvania, however, the concept of indenture had a second heyday after the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Around 1820, Erica Dunbar writes in A Fragile Freedom, indenture largely drew to a close, likely because of the terms of the 1780 Act. Section 3 of said act read as follows:

 

            "SECT. 3. Be it enacted, and it is hereby enacted, by the representatives of the freeman of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in general assembly met, and by the authority of the same, That all persons, as well Negroes and Mulattoes as others, who shall be born within this state from and after the passing of this act, shall not be deemed and considered as servants for life, or slaves; and that all servitude for life, or slavery of children, in consequence of the slavery of their mothers, in the case of all children born within this state, from and after the passing of this act as aforesaid, shall be, and hereby is utterly taken away, extinguished and for ever abolished."

 

Yet the "Gradual" nature of the act was in the next provision of the law:

 

            "SECT. 4. Provided always, and be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That every Negro and Mulatto child born within this state after the passing of this act as aforesaid (who would, in case this act had not been made, have been born a servant for years, or life, or a slave) shall be deemed to be and shall be by virtue of this act the servant of such person or his or her assigns, who would in such case have been entitled to the service of such child, until such child shall attain unto the age of twenty eight years, in the manner and on the conditions whereon servants bound by indenture for four years are or may be retained and holder; and shall be liable to like correction and punishment, and entitled to like relief in case he or she be evilly treated by his or her master or mistress, and to like freedom dues and other privileges as servants bound by indenture for four years are or may be entitled, unless the person to whom the service of any such child shall belong shall abandon his or her claim to the same; in which case the overseers of the poor of the city, township or district respectively, where such child shall be So abandoned, shall by indenture bind out every child so abandoned, as an apprentice for a time not exceeding the age herein before limited for the service of such children."

 

In other words, after March 1780, a child born to an enslaved person became an indentured servant until their twenty-eighth birthday. This raises interesting questions that I don't currently have the answer to. Was Ennels' mother, Elizabeth Cork, an enslaved woman at the time of Ennels' birth? If not, another section of the legislation clarifies that for other indentures under the age of twenty-one, the service was still capped at the age of twenty-eight. Did Cork turn twenty-eight in 1817? Or did Elizabeth release him early? He continued to work for Mrs. Powel for at least five more years; was that as a completely free man? Many questions persist.

           

Under the 1780 law, overseers of an indentured servant had to register with the local municipality, so the particular contract under which Cork entered Powel's service may be on file somewhere, but my preliminary search of online finding aids was unsuccessful.

 

Robert Green earned $20 per month and along with Amy Roberts was one of Mrs. Powel's deputies, trusted to pay bills and run various errands. I know Robert Green was a free black man because of another memorandum included in the account books. That memorandum will make a greater appearance in my essay on Mrs. Powel's charity and investment (part 3).  In addition to regular wages and work clothes, Mrs. Powel's employees received gifts as tokens of her appreciation and to mark holidays such as Christmas and the New Year. 

 

For every certainty these records bring (the familiar rhythm of compensating employees at a constant rate, for instance) there are many mysteries. Around 1818, Mrs. Powel began purchasing clothes and other items for "little Robert." While it is impossible to know who this child was, it seems likely to me that he was the son of one of Elizabeth's employees. For one, there are very few people included in the accounts addressed without a surname—the cleaners may be the only two. Even Elizabeth's relatives are included with their full names. The "little" that may even suggest that he was the son of Robert Green. Genealogical investigation may clear up this mystery, or not.

 

David Maxey, in chasing down the mysterious provenance of a portrait of Elizabeth Powel, provides a bookend to the glimpse of the staff we see in these account books. Many of these servants received bequests upon Mrs. Powel's death in 1830. Ennels Cork, for instance, was provided with a lifetime annuity of $50. Amy Roberts got an even larger annuity and—Maxey argues—the aforementioned portrait.[5]

 

 

Photo Note: This portrait (attributed to Matthew Pratt) and left to Elizabeth Powel's loyal housekeeper, Amy Roberts, has helped us understand the nature of her relationships to her longtime servants. The portrait hangs in the Withdrawing Room of the Powel House

 

 

Check back in a week for Part 3 of this series... featuring the organizations which Elizabeth supported.

 

Part 1 of this series can be found HERE

 

 

 

[1]   David W. Maxey, “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830),” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 96, no. 4 (2006): 22.

 

[2]    Quoted in Maxey, 53.

 

[3]    Mark R. Snyder, “The Education of Indentured Servants in Colonial America,” The Journal of Technology Studies 33, no. 1/2 (2007): 69; Erica Armstrong Dunbar, ed., “Maneuvering Manumission in Philadelphia:: African American Women and Indentured Servitude,” in A Fragile Freedom, African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (Yale University Press, 2008), 26.

 

[4]    Maxey, 53.

 

[5]    Maxey, 53, 58.

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