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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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Lucy Knox: elaborately coiffed hostess

On 7 July 1787, the Rev. Dr. Manasseh Cutler (shown at right in later life) wrote in his journal about a dinner party in New York:

Dined with General [Henry] Knox, introduced to his lady and a French nobleman, Marquis Lotbinière. Several other gentlemen dined with us. Our dinner was served in high style, much in the French taste.

Mrs. Knox is very gross [i.e., fat], but her manners are easy and agreeable. She is sociable, and would be agreeable, were it not for her affected singularity in dressing her hair. She seems to mimic the military style, which to me is very disgusting in a female.

Her hair in front is craped at least a foot high, much in the form of a churn bottom upward, and topped off with a wire skeleton in the same form, covered with black gauze, which hangs in streamers down to her back. Her hair behind is a large braid, and confined with a monstrous crooked comb.
Apparently when Dr. Cutler said Lucy Knox’s hair appeared “to mimic the military style,” he meant it ended up looking like a grenadier’s cap. To “crape” hair was the curl it tightly, and it was standard treatment for men as well as women in the late eighteenth century. It added more body—apparently a lot more body.

There was no question her hair was not the only thing big about Lucy Knox at this time. We think of Henry Knox as fat, but in 1788 Abigail Smith, daughter of Abigail and John Adams, told her mother about the general’s wife:
her size is enormous; I am frightened when I look at her; I verily believe that her waist is as large as three of yours at least. The general is not half so fat as he was.
But being heavy doesn’t seem to have affected Lucy’s longevity. She lived until 1824, outliving her husband and most of their money, and died at the age of 68.

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