The Account Books of Elizabeth Willing Powel: Part 1 Introduction and "the stuff"

Mickey Herr introduced the account books of Elizabeth Willing Powel and their remarkable provenance from a false bottom trunk, which you can read here. The goal of my work this past summer was, as Herr wrote, to "construct a fuller view of Elizabeth Willing Powel." How can I do that with these account books? What can a list of expenses tell us about a person's life and work? I think they can tell us a lot.

Photo Note: "Madame Powel" showing Elizabeth contemporaneous to the account books. Painted by Francis Alexander circa 1825, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

I am going to start by separating the list into three categories: things, services, and giving. Most of Elizabeth's expenses fall into one of these. Things ("the stuff") help us understand both the glitz and glam of Elizabeth's social status as well as the nitty-gritty of operating a household. Services she paid for help us understand the people she interacted with, the interdependent world of which she was a part. And finally, the charitable donations shed a light on Elizabeth's deepest held beliefs and also on her sense of duty to her community.

I will do a deeper dive on each of these categories, but first I wanted to say a bit about the materiality of the documents. Bound with marbled covers, they are really quite beautiful. They are also somewhat mysterious. The dates seem to bounce around, from 1816 to 1820 and back to 1816 in three pages. Was Mrs. Powel a time-traveler? Would she return to old account books for the occasional empty page? Or are these pages copied from other volumes? The actual ledger pages seem to go in chronological order and bear scribbles of math and crossed out entries, suggesting, to me, that they were truly added as Mrs. Powel took stock of her finances at the end of each month. I think the latter dates—mostly memoranda—were indeed composed on the empty pages in between.

But first a bit of context. These account books span the years 1816 to 1824 (and some receipts and memoranda from earlier), a period of time after Elizabeth Powel had left the house on 3rd Street that is still known as the Powel House. She moved, in the words of David Maxey, to the "western extremity of settled Philadelphia on Market Street -- something like the 800 block-- and then relocated to the house she occupied until her death in the 600 block of Chestnut Street, north side, near the 7th Street corner."

In an 1802 map of Philadelphia, the label "Mrs. Powel" can be found on a building in an area known as Blockley Township, in present day (Powelton Village) West Philadelphia. Known as "Powelton" the property would have been located between the Schuylkill River and 34th Street, and Lancaster Avenue to Hamilton Avenue. Elizabeth and her husband purchased this land in 1775, and seem to have mostly operated it as a country estate and farm. It is unknown how much time the Powels spent there with limited written accounts of events held there. Importantly, it was the location Elizabeth's husband died during the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak.

Yet, Powelton remains notable for what Elizabeth did there after her husband's death. Between 1800 and 1802, at her direction, she built a new country house. One must assume she planned to spend time there. And perhaps the original cottage, rented to the tenant farmer, remained in another area of the property. There is much we do not know. But we must take note that she was developing her own land. That the property is marked specifically "Mrs. Powel" attests to her role as head of the household. There are a handful of other "Mrs." country estates on the map, probably widows like Elizabeth. These women occupied a particular space in society, as leaders not only of the domestic sphere but also of businesses. Elizabeth herself took on the reins of various family landholdings. Sprinkled throughout the account books are draft memorandum of lease agreements and transfers of property.

In the era of these account books, Powelton was occupied by Elizabeth's nephew/adopted son, John Hare Powel (formerly John Powel Hare). In 1816, Elizabeth relied on John Hare Powel and the Powelton estate for her hay supply, purchasing $300 worth of "Hay &c" in June, and about $110 more in hay and oats over the next year. Several years later, John Hare Powel expanded Powelton, the renovation purportedly designed by William Strickland (pictured below).[2]

Photo Note: it is thought that Strickland's additions included the colannaded piazza and the side wings. (Perhaps the two chimney's at top are part of the original central "cottage"?) Courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The objects and materials Elizabeth Powel purchased in the years covered by these account books have several stories to tell. Traditionally, house museums such as the Powel House have used objects to interpret the lives of past residents. Because of a leaning toward Decorative Arts rather than archaeology, these house museums have typically leaned heavily on the finer things their subjects once used—or, often, could have used. There are plenty of "finer things" in Elizabeth's account books. There are receipts for jewelry from Rundell & Bridge, goldsmiths of London, who boast of their work for the crown, and then silver punch bowls wrought by James Howell in Philadelphia.

These trappings were likely seen as necessary for anyone in Elizabeth's social circle. In Gentlewomen and Learned Ladies, Sarah Fatherly argues convincingly that in the 18th century wealthy Philadelphians created an elite class that echoed the gentry in England. Fatherly further contests that women were agents of this development of an elite, and that their participation was crucial in that class' survival of the democratic revolution. Two principal methods in creating and sustaining this upper crust were, according to Fatherly, "dynastic marriages and the consumption of London luxuries."[3]

Besides the finery required of her class, Mrs. Powel also had repeated cause to purchase other social necessities: mourning garb. In October of 1822, Elizabeth's nephew Thomas M. Willing passed away, and she "purchased mourning articles as a tribute of respect." That December she once again purchased seven yards of India silk for mourning; whether this was still in memory of Willing or some subsequent loss is unclear. Elizabeth also recognized the social pressures felt by her employees; in 1816 she gave Mrs. Amy Roberts, her housekeeper according to David Maxey,[4] money to purchase mourning garb.

Elizabeth also bought books. David Maxey recently did a survey of the books at the Powel House, many of which bear Samuel's bookplate, but a few which were likely Elizabeth's. The account book confirms at least one of these: Letters of the British Spy, by William Wirt, 5th edition published in 1813 and purchased by Elizabeth on April 2, 1816. The account book also lists a book about Spanish America, The Economy of Human Life, by Robert Dodsley, and Alexander Graydon's Memoirs of a life, Chiefly Passed in Pennsylvania.

Caroline Hellman, writing in her study of Edith Wharton's library, argues that ones library can form a kind of evidence.[5] What might these books, and many others bearing Samuel Powel's bookplate, tell us about Elizabeth's place in the world?

Letters of the British Spy is a collection of fictive epistles originally published serially in Argus in 1803. Written from the point of view of a British spy (in 1803), the letters "contain a great deal of geographical description, a delineation of every character of note among us, some literary disquisitions, with a great mixture of moral and political observation."[6] Wirt's text was intended for entertainment, but as the "Advertisement" in the front matter of its collected publication indicates, it served a nationalist purpose as well:

"Common fame has decided it to be the fruit of an American pen; and classical taste has pronounced it to be the offspring of genius. To those who would inculcate the

degrading doctrine, that this is the country 'Where Genius sickens, and where Fancy

dies' we would offer the letters of the British Spy as an -unquestionable evidence that

America is entitled to a high rank in the republic of letters." [7]

Pictured below, the title page with Elizabeth Powel's signature and the account book noting the purchase:

While Elizabeth's description of "A book on Spanish America" does not correspond with any of the titles currently residing on the Powel House bookshelf, it too provides a window into her literary interests. While other books listed in her accounts are self-conscious about their place in history and in the world (Graydon's memoirs come to mind) this book reminds us of the larger world of which Elizabeth was aware. There are a handful of books published in the years before 1818 to which Elizabeth might have been referring. Several of them, such as Present state of the Spanish colonies; Including a particular report of Hispañola, or the Spanish part of Santo Domingo are essentially descriptive encyclopedias of Spanish America. Others are political treatises: Spanish America – Observations on the Present State of Spanish America, and on the Most Effectual Method of Terminating the Present

Commotions There, published in London in 1817, is an anti-revolutionary treatise from "A Spaniard, A Lover of His Country." Perhaps the most likely book for Elizabeth to have read on the subject is A Cursory View of Spanish America by William Davis Robinson, published in Georgetown, DC, in 1815. Robinson begins by describing the threat of British and Spanish cooperation in Florida against the United States, and espouses the opinion that Spain's colonial holdings are against "the laws of nature" and that he hoped the "United States of North America are to be made the instrument of liberating the whole Western world from the tyranny of Europe."[8] Whichever of these books Elizabeth read, we may imagine that she had opinions of these world events based on her own experience of a revolutionary war.

Alexander Graydon's Memoirs originally published (anonymously) in 1811 would have brought the revolutionary time in her own life back to mind.[9] In the manner of many memoirs, Graydon's book relates anecdotes about his upbringing and adult life, but his proximity to Philadelphia during the American Revolution also means that his tales have a national character to them. Graydon himself fought for independence and spent eight months as a prisoner of war. He saw his memoirs as a "tell-all" and was relatively unapologetic about his harsh evaluations of his fellow humans:

"On looking back here, and adverting to the free observations I have, from time to time, made, both on revolutionary men and measures, I am aware that I have no forgiveness to

expect from many, for attempting to rub off the fine varnish which adheres to them. But I

set out with the avowed design of declaring the truth; and to this I have most sacredly and

conscientiously conformed according to my persuasions, even as to the colouring of each

particular I have touched upon."[10]

Stephen Carl Arch characterizes the last third of Graydon's memoirs as a Federalist tirade against "Jefferson and his sect." Arch suggests that Graydon's sourness attracted few readers and that the memoirs were largely ignored.[11]

The Portrait David Maxey paints of Elizabeth is one of a politically-engaged woman firmly in the Federalist camp and so it is likely that she purchased Memoirs out of loyalty to Graydon.[12] Though the book was published anonymously until after Graydon's death, Elizabeth notes his authorship in her accounts, suggesting insider knowledge on her part. Perhaps Elizabeth purchased Memoirs in part out of curiosity, thumbing through the pages in search of gossip or opinions concerning members of her social circle. Though no Powels (or Willings) appear in Graydon's book, it is possible Elizabeth wanted to make sure it contained no slanders of her family. Finally, having shared many of the locales and experiences that Graydon described—albeit being nearly a decade older than him—perhaps Elizabeth read the book as a nostalgic escape. As Graydon made sense of his place in the world, Elizabeth could reflect on her own.

There are also many purchases that give us a window into Elizabeth's duties as a hostess and her personal taste. Along with the citron cake that initially caught my attention, Elizabeth shelled out for ice cream (only a quarter-century after the first American ice creamery), beer, and wine to entertain. The record doesn't tell us who Mrs. Powel was entertaining, but cross-references with her correspondences in this period may provide some insights. The fact that she was purchasing items used in entertaining seems to indicate she was not as retired in her widowhood as some have thought.

The most often purchased items, however, were rather more quotidian than jewelry, mourning togs, or delicacies. Cord wood for heat and straw for the horses were unglamorous but necessary expenditures for Mrs. Powel's household. These raw materials were a serious expense. In March of 1822, Powel spent nearly $70 on 11 cords of wood and that was before the cost of having it hauled, sawed, and piled, services that amounted to another $20. For comparison, a "black beaver hat for my dear Samuel Powel" (the son of her "adopted" nephew John Hare Powel) cost Elizabeth $5.50. Bread for five months only cost $53.36.

Additional recurring expenses were feed for various animals, including several cows (whether they lived in Elizabeth's backyard or at the family estate out at Powelton is unclear), and horses for the coach. There is also an entry in 1819 that records the purchase of a "terrier dog," perhaps a companion for Elizabeth?

These purchases give us a sense of the stuff that filled up Mrs. Powel's world. Yet these go further than the furnishings, china, and portraits that have traditionally told Elizabeth's story at the Powel House. Consumable items such as firewood and citron cake are harder to incorporate in a museum setting but tell us things—about taste and necessity—that are just as important as the preserved space and chairs.

Check back in a week for more about the people in Elizabeth's life in Part 2.


[1] Charles B. Wood, “Powelton: An Unrecorded Building by William Strickland,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 91, no. 2 (1967): 145–63.

[2] Wood, 151.

[3] 37. Of course, though Elizabeth had made such a political marriage to Samuel in 1769, the death in infancy of the Powels' children put an end to any thought of dynasty until Elizabeth's nephew John Powel Hare switched the order of his 2nd and 3rd names and became the de facto Powel heir.

[4] David W. Maxey, “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830),” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 96, no. 4 (2006): 57.

[5] Caroline Hellman, "'Shut Not Your Doors to Me, Proud Libraries!' The Repatriation of Edith Wharton's Library," in Jennifer Harris and Hilary Iris Lowe, From Page to Place : American Literary Tourism and the Afterlives of Authors (Amherst: Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 2017) 146-162.

[6] Wirt, 9.

[7] "Advertisement," frontmatter of Wirt

[8] William Davis Robinson, A Cursory View of Spanish America, 5.

[9] Also published under the title: The life of an officer : written by himself during a residence in Pennsylvania, with anecdotes of the American war

[10] Graydon, 325.

[11] Arch, 417.

[12] Maxey, 51.

#SamuelPowel #ElizabethWillingPowel #PowelHouse #Womenshistory #18thcenturywomen #HiddenHistories #Powelton #JohnHarePowel #18thcenturybooks

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