WELCOME TO THE BLOG IN THE WORDS OF WOMEN

Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

“And breathing figures learnt from thee to live”

Another item of interest about SARAH MOORHEAD (see previous posts) is her connection to a slave of the family called Scipio who is thought to have been a talented working artist around 1773. Sarah was a teacher of drawing and painting so it is possible, even likely, that she recognized his talent and was his teacher. But the only piece of art ascribed to Scipio Moorhead that has survived is the portrait of Phillis Wheatley, on the frontispiece of her published book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). (See posts on Wheatley here, here, here, here. here, and here.) A poem, “To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works,” written by this enslaved African-American poet has been cited as evidence that the engraving was made from a painting by Moorhead. (A note by a white reader in an early copy of the book mentions Scipio by name.)

When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight!

It is true that the Moorheads and the Wheatleys were neighbors and that the two slaves knew each other. However, the assumption that Scipio is the artist of the frontispiece has been challenged by Eric Slauter, author of the article “Looking for Scipio Moorhead” in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. He presents evidence based on the Scipio’s age, his contact with other painters, the current styles in portraiture, and his appearance in ads for the auctioning of the estate of John Moorhead and that of his daughter Mary. The historian J.L. Bell, in his blog Boston 1775, is quite persuaded that Slauter is right. He suggests that an another black artist working at the time with several works attributed to him, Prince Demah, may have been the actual artist of the Wheatley portrait. See two posts by my colleague Louise North on Prince Demah here and here.

Eric Slauter’s article appears in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World, edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, Angela Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 89. Read the complete poem HERE.

posted August 17th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art, Moorhead, Scipio, Poetry, Prince Demah, Wheatley, Phillis

Sarah Moorhead’s Canvaswork Picture

SARAH PARSONS MOORHEAD was a Boston poet and and artist (ca 1710-1774). Her husband was the prominent minister John Morehead (there are alternate spellings to their name) and her poems concern the religious revival of the 1740s. But I am interested here in her work as an artist and designer. This ad appeared in a Boston newspaper in 1748.

“Trades and Occupations JAPANNING—Drawing, Japanning, and Painting on Glass taught by Mrs. Sarah Morehead, at the Head of the Rope-walks, near Fort Hill.”

Japanning referred to Asian lacquerwork which became popular in Europe and America in the 18th century, local artisans creating works to meet the increasing demand.

Two antiques dealers specializing in textiles, recently purchased an example of an early Boston canvaswork and found the name of Sarah Moorhead inscribed under the sand liner. It was originally thought to be her work but noted needlework historian Betty Ring believes that Moorhead was the designer for this piece rather than the maker since other works similar to this were worked by youngsters suggesting that Moorhead was the designer, and perhaps their teacher.

During the 1760s and ’70s American women, boycotting British products, began making and wearing homespun garments. Spinning groups, organized by parishioners, often met in churches. One group met in the home of the Moorheads so it seems fair to conclude that Sarah personally sympathized with the Patriot resistance.

Boston Evening Post, April 18, 1748; and published in George Francis Dow, The Arts & Crafts in New England 1704–1775, Gleanings From Boston Newspapers (Topsfield, Mass.: Wayside Press, 1927), 267. Other sources include Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World edited by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz and Angela Rosenthal (New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2013) and Antiques and Fine Arts Magazine “Sarah Moorhead Canvaswork Picture.”

posted August 14th, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art, Boston, Moorhead, Sarah Parsons

“a gifted storyteller”

“A gifted storyteller” David McCullough called THOMAS FLEMING who died on July 23 at the age of 90. McCullough added: “He was a man of natural ease with people and with stories.” A prolific novelist and historian, Fleming’s favorite subject was the American Revolution, the struggle he considered essential to understanding the history that followed. I couldn’t agree more.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog is The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers (2009) in which he focuses on the women in the lives of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams and Madison. The book provides a wonderful and eminently readable introduction to the often neglected influence of mothers, wives, and lovers of our nation’s founders. To quote Fleming: “Knowing and understanding the women in their lives adds pathos and depth to the public dimensions of the founding fathers’ political journeys. We do them no dishonor when we explore how often public greatness emerged in spite of personal pain and secret disappointment. Far from diminishing these men and women, an examination of their intimate lives will enlarge them for our time. In their loves and losses, their hopes and fears, they are more like us than we have dared to imagine.”

posted August 3rd, 2017 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Book Beat

“But gone before/ me”

Life in the 18th century was so fragile. FANNY BASSETT WASHINGTON LEAR lived only a short time after her marriage to Tobias Lear. She died in 1796 from the same disease that had claimed her first husband—consumption (tuberculosis). The painting is the sort of memorial commonly created for a deceased family member. It is thought that Eleanor “Nelly ” Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, made this one, probably in 1796, the year of Fanny’s death. The watercolor—ink and gouache on laid paper—references both classical and Christian themes. The pointed evergreens represent the hope of eternal life. A grieving woman leans on a plinth; the script on a square of paper pasted on the front reads: “She is not lost!/Blest thought!/ But gone before/ me!”

Citation for this post: HERE.

“the Blacks are so bad in their nature”

FANNY BASSETT WASHINGTON did marry Tobias Lear. (See previous post in which she solicited Martha Washington’s advice on Lear’s proposal.) Fanny continued to carry out Martha’s instructions about work to be done at Mount Vernon before she arrives.

Following is a letter whose content makes one squirm: Martha includes remarks about the nature and conduct of enslaved workers that reflect the mind set of white owners and the stereotypes to which they subscribed. Note that white servants are treated differently and receive better quarters and food than their enslaved counterparts.

Philadelphia May the 24th 1795My Dear Fanny,

Your affectionate favor of the 20th is come to my hands—I am very glad to hear by it that your children are well—and yourself—I am truly sorry that any thing should happen in your family to give you pain Black children are liable to so many accidents and complaints that one is heardly sure of keeping them I hope you will not find in him much loss the Blacks are so bad in their nature that they have not the least gratatude for the kindness that may be shewed to them—

from what I have heard of Mr Pearces House Keeper I wished very much to have her engaged to stay at mount vernon while I was at home so goe into the sellers meat house and look into the milk and butter Kitty has had it so long under her care—that I think she should be looked too to give a better account of it—we shall bring white servants with us which will make it necessary that I should have a person to see to thair having what is proper, done for them, and have thair vltuals alwas in proper order—I think it is really necessary to have a person such a one as Mrs Skinner is in our family while I am there besids that of looking after the women that work they always Idle half their time away about thair own business and wash so bad that the cloths are not fitt to use—if she will come only to stay while I am thair I shall be very much pleased to have her—I do expect we shall have a good deal of company many hear talk of coming to see the Federal city [Washington, DC, under construction] and will take that oppertunity to come to Mt Vernon while we are there

I am my Dear Fanny very sencible of your goodness and attention in having everything done for me as you can—but it always gave me pain to see you have so much trouble while I was at home—if Mrs Skinner will come I shah be much happyer to have her to do the drudgry—and then I shall have the plasure to have more of your company—and shah see my person whose bussnes it is to attend to all the wants and cares about the house

l am very much obliged to you my dear Fanny for offering to preserve strawberry for me—I dont think it will be worth while—to do any—I wish to live in a plain stile while I am at home—and we shall always have greene fruit which can be preserved at the time it is wanted which will be better for use—should thair be any goosberry I should wish to have some bottled and some of the morelly cherrys dried—I should think old Doll cannot have forgot how to do them [,] if she has Mrs Skinner may come to the hous as soon as she will—and she may have all the Beds and Bed Cloths air and clened [,]the Bedsteads all taken down and cleaned and well rubbed—so that thair may be nothing of that kind to do when I come home—and to have every part of the House cleaned from the garrets to the sellers as I wish to have every thing done that can be done before I come home

Thank god we are all well—the President has been very well since his return

The girls and Washington* are well—and join the President and me in love to you and children . . . I wish the House was done for when I go to house keeping. . . .

I am with love and affection my dear Fanny your sincear well wisher M Washington

* George Washington Parke Custis, called “Wash”, was Martha’s grandson, the child of her son from her first marriage, John “Jacky” Parke Custis, who died in 1781. Martha’s daughter, Patsy, died at 17. Wash’s sister, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, was one of the girls mentioned in the letter. Both Nelly and Wash were adopted by Martha and George Washington. Two older siblings lived with their mother Eleanor, widow of Jacky, when she remarried.

Citation: See copy of the letter HERE.


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