J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Elizabeth Smith Has a London Makeover

In October 1769, the wealthy widow Elizabeth Smith sailed for Britain, her first visit in fifteen years, as Patricia Cleary recounts in Elizabeth Murray: A Woman’s Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America (UMass Press, 2000).

In 1749 Elizabeth had emigrated to Boston from Scotland. Originally she was supposed to live with her older brother James Murray on his plantation in North Carolina, but she saw better prospects for herself as an unmarried shopkeeper in the northern port. She prospered, taught embroidery to a generation of young ladies, mentored a few women in business, and married twice, the second time to elderly merchant and distiller James Smith.

James Smith died in August 1769, leaving Elizabeth a substantial fortune. She put her real estate in the hands of her brother, who hadn’t done so well to the south after all, and went to visit the Empire’s big city. Of course, she had to have clothing and hairstyle appropriate to a woman of her age and station. Cleary describes the arrangements Elizabeth made in London:

“I have submitted to all the forms of Dress,” she reported, ”except blacking my hair.” Instead, Elizabeth paid a barber to come to her quarters every other day to curl and powder her tresses. On the days the barber did not make a house call, she had someone to tend to her locks for her.

In the mornings, before going out, Elizabeth covered her head with a queen’s nightcap that made her look “a strange figure.” Once it was off and her hair elaborately styled, Elizabeth wore a “genteely made” outfit with ruffles and a high crowned cap. “You would be pleased with my appearance,” she told a friend.
(Boston 1775 has also posted some of the other side of Elizabeth Smith’s correspondence with that friend, Christian Barnes of Marlborough.)

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

I linked to it, but forgot to mention the Elizabeth Murray Project at Cal State Long Beach. It uses this successful "she-merchant," her life story, and her Copley portrait as a way to explore colonial American life. Well worth a click.