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The Account Books of Elizabeth Willing Powel: Part 3, The Organizations (and So What?)

November 22, 2017

 

 

Among the expense ledgers of Elizabeth Willing Powel are many entries that show her engagement with broader society. In addition to the people and material goods which kept her home running and her social status prominent, Mrs. Powel's donations, investments, and subscriptions tell us much about her life and the world in which she lived.

 

In an earlier post, I wrote about the people who are present in Elizabeth's accounts; I left a few out. Every few pages, there is an entry that reads something like this: "Gave a poor woman . . . $2." The sum rarely exceeded $2, yet it is clear that Mrs. Powel was relatively generous with the indigent. Remember, she sometimes paid her cleaners about the same amount.

 

Elizabeth Powel was engaged with the broader world, subscribing to periodicals such as The Aurora and a circulating library, but in Mrs. Powel's time the term "subscription" also meant other sorts of regular fees and dues. Elizabeth maintained membership in the The Female Association of Philadelphia for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, for instance, as well as the Female Hospitable Society, associations which relied on member dues to engage in various philanthropic efforts.

 

The line between charity and investment was sometimes blurry. In April 1820, Mrs. Powel "gave" significant contributions to six different hose companies. While these entries use the same language of "giving" that Elizabeth used to refer to donations to individuals and charitable organizations, these gifts were likely closer to an insurance plan. The six hose companies were responsible for fighting fires in various neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Mrs. Powel owned various properties scattered throughout the city. While no entry in these books suggests that Elizabeth was a member of Ben Franklin's fire insurance organization (the Philadelphia Contributionship), it seems Mrs. Powel had her own way of insuring her properties. There are no allusions to contracts with these hose companies, but it seems likely that these contributions were an informal investment in the safety of Elizabeth's properties.

 

Image Note: A Paid Fire Department. As It Is Likely To Be Under the Contract System (Philadelphia: J. L. Magee, Publisher, 305 Walnut St., 1853). Lithograph. Library Company of Philadelphia.

 

Elizabeth was also a supporter of various Christian organizations. She was a regular contributor to Sunday Schools of various denominations, giving both money and various educational materials. In addition to financial contributions to her own congregation (St. Peter's Church), largely through the practice of pew rent, one of the most fascinating memoranda in these account books describes how Elizabeth Powel played a significant role in the origins of another church. I'll let Elizabeth take over the story from here:

 

 

 

Partial Transcription:

"Release

From the First Reformed Presbyterian Congregation in the City of Philadelphia on the Estate of poor Robert Green a poor man of colour who foolishly mortgaged his little property to secure to them property for a meeting house, purchased of them on the 22 day of April 1817 [at a monstrous price] which Meeting house Rt Green and another man of colour equally ignorant and poor purchased for the accommodation of a poor congregation of Episcopal Methodist Free People of Colour . . B The Dwelling House of Rt Green would have been sold by the sheriff, and probably sacrificed. I therefor have loaned to Rt Green eight hundred Dollars..."

 

In part 2 of this series, I introduced Robert Green as a free black man in Elizabeth's employ who made $20 per month serving the household in various ways. We also mentioned a "little Robert" who may or may not have been related, but who also benefited from Elizabeth's largesse. This loan seems to suggest that Mrs. Powel was invested in the well-being of the people in her employ, or at least those that lasted longer than a few months on the job. It does not seem, however, that Robert Green was among those honored in Elizabeth's will. Perhaps he left her household before 1830 or did not attain the level of affection and trust afforded to Amy Roberts and Ennels Cork. (Or perhaps she felt he had already been given his due!) 

 

It's also possible to view Mrs. Powel's intervention on the behalf of Robert Green and his church as part of a larger engagement with issues of race. Philadelphia was the birthplace of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and it was during this time period that Richard Allen became the first Bishop of a vast network of associated churches throughout multiple states.[1] Robert Green's church would therefore be a timely example of the expansion of this movement.  David Maxey notes that although Mrs. Powel was barred from the Philadelphia Abolition Society due to her gender, the minutes of that organization record that Elizabeth provided that cause with an annuity too, beginning one year after her death.[2]

 

 Image Note: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Lithograph by W. L. Breton (Philadelphia, 1829). Library Company of Philadelphia

 

Now we return to one of the questions I posed in my first post: "What can a list of expenses tell us about a person's life and work?" In public history classes at Temple University we pose this question more broadly: "So what?"

 

For one thing, these documents do lift the veil somewhat on Elizabeth Willing Powel, showing her to be a woman who balanced societal expectations with the necessities of household management. While her correspondence might show Elizabeth's rhetorical skill, these accounts bear witness to her skill at maintaining a household. They prove her engagement with charitable causes as well as attest to relationships Elizabeth had with people beyond her correspondents.

           

Yet it is the documentation of Mrs. Powel's employees that is perhaps the most useful. As house museums have received criticism over the last few decades for preserving elitist histories, many have sought to flesh out the lives of the people employed or enslaved to maintain the homeowners' standard of living. These upstairs/downstairs type tours have become very popular, and present a way for docents and guides to incorporate archival material and census data into the preserved space. But this kind of interpretation is hard. Jennifer Pustz, in Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants' Lives at Historic House Museums, notes that the lack of archival material and staff time in which to mine it are the leading reasons that historic house museums don't interpret servants' or slaves' lives.

 

The Powel House actually does a decent job of pointing out servant areas. For instance, an accessible servant staircase provides an opportunity for experiential learning as visitors compare its treacherous twisting with the broad main staircase. Yet the kind of stories that emerged from these account books could deeply inform the interpretation of the house. Earlier account books might shed light on the Powel House staff (these that I looked at date from after Elizabeth left the house on 3rd street), but interpretation could also utilize documentation of staffing at the homes of the Powels' peers as a baseline. Historic house museums around the country have found a growing market for the history of the working class and the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks has a good opportunity to meet that market, either with a themed "servants and slaves" tour or by incorporating the story of the people who kept the Powels' house ready for entertaining.

 

Photo Note: the servants' staircase at the Powel House, narrow and steep

 

 

 

Did you miss any of the previous posts in this 3-part series?

 

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

 

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

 

And the introduction of these materials:

 

A Woman Rediscovered: A false-bottomed trunk and a love of citron cake (and we are just getting started!)

 

[1}  Matthew S. Hopper, "From Refuge to Strength: The Rise of the African American Church in Philadelphia, 1787-1949," publication of The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

 

[2] David W. Maxey, “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830),” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 96, no. 4 (2006): 54.

 

 

 

 

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