Practically everyone needs one, and like the Little Black Dress, the little black bonnet flatters practically everyone, too. In finishing up some inventory projects, I went back to basics and made up a black silk taffeta bonnet with trimming inspired by “The Rival Milleners.”
The Rival Milleners.
Really, it’s a look that’s hard to resist, the black bonnet with poufs and bows. I’ve always loved my black bonnets, but now I might need to trim another one up for myself– if I can only make the time. Up on Etsy if you want one for yourself (along with some other colors, too).
I almost prefer first person interpretation, largely because it catches visitors a little off-guard, excites their curiosity, and allows me to use more humor in conversation than third person. This time, though, I found that despite the research and thinking I’d put into this portrayal, I couldn’t synthesize the material fast enough to fully immerse myself in first person, having over-scheduled the days leading up to Occupied Philadelphia.
Over the course of talking to 1200 to 1500 people, I was able to synthesize the material, and refine my spiel. Talking about how the remedies could be (relatively) easily made in the kitchen, using ingredients drawn from kitchen gardens, South America, the Caribbean, India and Southeast Asia allowed me to talk about trade networks and the British Empire– a reasonable segue to complaining about a port closed thanks to Mr. Nevell, and a way to explain the effect that has on the city.
One of the most interesting aspects of this portrayal is how well women engaged with it– and enjoyed hearing about a woman with her own business. True, Drunk Tailor was steering women my way, but they also seemed to gravitate on their own. As much as I prefer in situ interpretation over the science fair table style, a table (or counter) offers enough of a barrier to make people feel comfortable approaching. On-street interactions are different, but somehow, indoors, people sometimes react as if one was perfume-spraying staff on a department store cosmetics floor.
Not that scent wasn’t an excellent way to engage people! I couldn’t let visitors taste the remedies, but they could smell them, offering the opportunity to play “What’s that smell?” (non-feline edition) and talk about how people use the flavors they’re accustomed to in their medications and treatments. My cats never cared for bubble-gum flavored amoxicillin, but it’s bigger hit with toddlers than the straight-up medicine flavor would be. So, too, with tooth powders past: cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg are the blue raspberry of the yesteryear– though the tooth powders smell much better than they taste. I cannot recommend a weekend of use unless you wish to feel sad each time you clean your teeth.
Drunk Tailor used the relationship between Thomas Nevell and Elizabeth Weed (their third marriage each) to move people around the main room of Carpenters Hall, and to some comic, as well as interpretive, effect. It’s far easier for him to say, “Six months in, six months left, of her mourning” as a means of explaining the grey and black palette of my clothes, allowing me to avoid the “You look like you’re ready for Thanksgiving!” lead in from the public. Confiding in the public that he’s had his eye on me for while lets them in on a secret, and visitors enjoyed trotting over to warn me about his interest, and that’s he’s sold his tools! I am always happy to tell them he’s just the kind of man my mother warned me about, adapting a banter we have used in multiple scenarios. While it’s broad, and nothing like how we really are together, it’s playful enough to engage the public, relax them, and get them comfortable asking questions.
There are, as always, things I’d like to change about this presentation. Although I’d like to work on it enough to be more comfortable in first person, I’d miss the third-person ability to refer to 1849 cholera maps and general epidemiology. I definitely need to add a couple inches to the hem of the gown, up my cap game, and trim the mantelet. I’d like to find a wooden box, and add a proper mortar and pestle to the kit– my stainless steel one is perfect for home, but won’t work in public. But on the whole, I’m pleased to have an impression of a woman roughly my age, who can interact well with a character roughly Drunk Tailor’s age. Onward to refinements.
Fortunately, ingredients were pretty easy to come by (many already in my kitchen), and a sacrificial pan had been created making wax blocks for sewing kits. We started experiments in earnest October 6th, after coming home from the Draken Harald Harfårge. We did not fully anticipate how much one of the decoctions would smell like the Draken.
Tar Water was particularly intriguing, since it had been prescribed to John Francis, son of Ann Willing Francis (and eventual husband of Abigail Brown). Francis suffered from poor health, and he and his wife, and mother, all recorded the use of “tar water” in diaries and letters. Eventually I found a receipt that cured me of the notion of drinking tar itself: Tar, two pounds; water, one gallon. After standing to settle for two days, pour off the water for use.
Well, there it is: water infused with essence of tar, which turns out to be “best Norway Tar,” or pine tar. Decanted, it smells like ships’ ropes coated to protect them from sea water.
So there are recipes to follow (even some of Elizabeth Weed’s own, recorded in the back of Thomas Nevell’s day book); but what does a shop look like? What bottles, pots, jars, and labels are used? The backgrounds of satirical engravings provide some guidance (and some hilarity).
In the background of the print at left, we can see some of the furniture and equipment of the pharmacists’ trade. Wooden pharmacy chests with drawers for ingredients; glass bottles above, with round-topped stoppers; above that, ovoid storage jars, possibly Delftware, for the storage of additional dry materials. A large mortar and pestle sits on the counter in front of the drawers.
Smaller, labeled bottles sit on the table of the Village Doctress, along with an ointment pot (gallipot), as well as scissors and an hourglass. These similar, but simpler, tools help us recognize the lower status of the “doctress” relative to male doctors (as do the way she’s depicted, hunched over her patient, in lappet cap and black neck handkerchief or mantelet, placing her as widowed and aged). With the inheritance of her late husband’s medicines and goods, where does Elizabeth Weed fit between the doctor and the doctress? While it is impossible to say with certainly, it’s likely her material surroundings, and the equipment she had to use, was closer to the well-kitted pharmacy of the “Quaker doctor” print than to the “Village Doctress.”
Lady Anne Stewart. oil on canvas by Ann Forbes, 1774. National Gallery of Scotland, NG 2036
Part two of a series
A newspaper ad can be a rickety thing on which to build a persona when it’s not a runaway ad. Those will give you what the person is wearing, who is advertising for them, and sometimes the skills they have. To better understand Elizabeth Weed, I turned to genealogical and contextual research.
George Weed’s estate was settled by Elijah Weed, his son by his first wife, Esther. Altogether, it was worth £1268.19.7, a considerable sum in 1777. Granted, £775 was book debt, but that cash could be called in. The remainder consisted of £132.15.2 in Medicines etc.,£100 cash, and £261.3.9 in Goods and Chattels. Of this estate, widow Elizabeth kept £55.8.3 in Goods and Chattels, all of the Medicines etc. and £50 in cash. That’s all of the medicines, 20% of the value of the “Goods and Chattels,” and half the liquid cash of the estate. This would certainly provide the supplies and capital necessary to continue the pharmacy business.
Morris, Margaret Hill, 1737?-1816., Margaret Morris / Morris Smith, pinx’t ; eng. by J.M. Butler. Library Company of Philadelphia.
But what was life like as a woman in business? How many women were in business in Philadelphia in the last quarter of the 18th century? More than you would think– mostly as shopkeepers selling dry goods, some as tavern keepers, and others as nurses, midwives, and healers, including women acting as pharmacists and “doctresses.” Patricia Cleary’s article “‘She Will Be in the Shop’: Women’s Sphere of Trade in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia and New York” published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography Vol.CXIX,No. 3 (July 1995) was particularly helpful in understanding women in trade.
Another useful resource was Susan Brandt’s “‘Getting into a Little Business’: Margaret Hill Morris and Women’s Medical Entrepreneurship during the American Revolution,” published in Early American Studies, Vol. 13, Number 4 (Fall 2015). Margaret Hill Morris practiced as a pharmacist and healer in Burlington, New Jersey, worried lest she “spunge” off her relatives, and anxious to support herself as a widow with a son. (Morris was the sixth daughter of Dr. Richard Hill of Philadelphia, and presumably learned some of her trade from him. Quaker women were well-educated, and participated in the scientific and philosophical life of the city. )
Brandt’s article raised helpful questions to ponder: would Elizabeth Weed have taken food and firewood in barter for medicines? During the Occupation of Philadelphia, food was scarce and exorbitantly priced, and she was feeding not just herself but also her son George, born in 1774. How difficult was it to obtain medicinal supplies when the harbor remained closed (in part because of chevaux des frises built by Thomas Nevell)? When patriots fled the city ahead of the British, did Weed’s trade suffer? Did she conduct business with the British, and how did her friends and neighbors react if she did? Only some of those questions can ever be answered. For the rest– about Weed’s particular business– we can only make inferences based on other accounts.
Occupied Philadelphia at the MoAR is one of my favorite events. It’s not too far, in an urban setting, and makes visible the history of the Revolution that’s hard to get at, the history of everyday people. Last year, I portrayed a follower of the 17th Regiment of Foot and a petty thief; this year, I wanted to do portray a woman in business. I’d settled on a milliner because that’s a trade I know well enough to portray–though I could not find documentary evidence of women in the millinery trade during the early months of the Occupation, nor could I satisfactorily justify selling hats, bonnets, and jewelry to a population facing inflation and food shortages. Happily, just two weeks before we’d have to pack the car, the program manager posted exactly what I needed, but had missed by not looking late enough into October: an ad placed by a woman in business.
Advertisement placed by Elizabeth Weed, Pennsylvania Evening Post, Thursday, October 23, 1777.
This is what I’m always looking for: someone to be, a solid place to start the research that takes me from the general to the specific. Who was Elizabeth Weed? She was only a little tricky to find. Records documenting Elizabeth Delaplaine Dickinson Weed Nevell are scarce. Based on the date of her first marriage, to William Dickinson, in 1755, she was probably born between 1730 and 1735, making her about 44 to 47 in 1777. She was widowed by 1768, the year she married George Weed, who had lately been the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital until 1767, and was then a practicing pharmacist. Weed, born in 1714, had studied and practiced medicine in Connecticut and “West New Jersey” before moving to Philadelphia around 1760. After his death on February 1, 1777, Elizabeth Weed prepared and sold the medicines George Weed taught her to prepare, and, presumably, to dispense.
Portraying a widow six months after the death of her husband seemed plausible: I have a grey wool tabby gown (with a Fort Ticonderoga white wash stain) that seemed reasonable enough for “second mourning”– until I discovered that Elizabeth Weed had purchased a house for £600 just before she married her third husband, Thomas Nevell. A widow of means was going to require a new gown and accessories in addition to the materials of her trade– two research rabbit holes at once (plus Thomas Nevell, since he provided Drunk Tailor with an ideal role for the weekend).
Period prints provided some guidance, and since widows took up the trade of ‘doctress’ often enough, some provided a glimpse not only of clothing, but also of the material culture of 18th century pharmaceutical practice. Fortunately, I had a gown-length remnant of black and white silk in the strategic fabric reserve, as well as a remnant of black silk for a mantelet.
Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris). Oil on ticking by John Singleton Copley, 1773. Philadelphia Museum of Art, EW1999-45-1
When she married George Weed, Elizabeth had already lost one husband, so an English gown with robings seemed a reasonable choice. Mrs. Thomas Mifflin’s grey silk gown lurked in my memory as inspiration (or justification) for the style of gown, though not for the meaning.
In many ways, the material trappings of widowhood were the easiest part of this project. I’d done some research on late colonial and early Federal mourning customs in a previous life, and had a sense of what was expected of bereaved widows in the 18th century. Clothing and accessories would signal status, and guide the behaviour of others towards me (in this case, keeping Thomas Nevell at a respectable distance). I could have chosen a gown already in my wardrobe (grey wool, green wool, blue wool) but inhabiting the world of the widow from the skin was important to me as a means of fleshing out a real person for whom I had scant information.