“As soon as I get a bonnet, I shall go to church”

President John Adams created the position of secretary of the navy and appointed Benjamin Stoddert to that post in 1798. Stoddert, a well-to-do merchant from Georgetown, near the Federal City which was being built, moved with his wife REBECCA LOWNDES STODDERT and their family to Philadelphia then the capital of the United States. In the previous post Mrs. Stoddert gave her impressions of Anne Willing Bingham in letters she wrote to her sister. Her correspondence with her niece Eliza Gannt of Graden, Maryland, includes details about the practical side of establishing themselves in Philadelphia. and what life was like there. Mrs. Stoddert wrote to Eliza in November 1798 about her arrival in Philadelphia, the boarding house in which they lived at first, and the house they rented that belonged to Major William Jackson, secretary to President Washington during his presidency and in 1798 surveyor of the port of Philadelphia. Jackson’s wife was Elizabeth Willing, sister to Anne Willing Bingham.

[The house] is roomy, and I could make it very convenient too, but I imagine it owners would think me mad if they knew that I did not think it so already. Only four of the rooms have anything in them, two down stairs and two up. The third story and garret, which are well finished, I have not the least use for. I have very little furniture, nothing but the chairs Mr. Stoddert . . . had bought, which are very pretty, their color white and a little blue. . . .
One tea-table I bought this morning, and am to give thirteen dollars for it,—a very great price, but nothing is cheap here except some few things at market—mutton and beef, I mean.
Do not suppose we have no dining-tables; luckily we have one and a sideboard of Mrs. Jackson’s, which is a great convenience, as we brought none here. I was this day going to get a set of dining-tables, but the wretch had the conscience to ask sixty dollars for them. . . .
As soon as I get a bonnet, I shall go to church. . . . Mrs. Harrison, whom I think almost perfection [the daughter of Dr. Craik, Washington’s family physician] advises me not to be in a hurry about it, as the fashions are not so well known yet. I am coming on, you see.
We lived together at Mrs. White’s [before the Stodderts found a house]. . . . Mrs. White lives charmingly . . . everything is clean, and only genteel people board there. I for the first time for twenty-odd years saw General Washington there:* it is his boarding house, too. We breakfasted together every morning, but only dined with him once, and that was last Sunday. He makes a point of not going abroad on Sundays, I am told, and I suppose that was the reason why he dined at Mrs. White’s last Sunday. He receives invitations constantly every day . . . to dine out.
I received four visits before we came to housekeeping,—I cannot call it home. . . . I have not returned [them]. I know if I was at home I would think it was time; but in this place I must consult Mrs. Harrison, whom I shall take as my preceptor in all cases. . . .
I fancy it is very much the custom here for ladies to walk. Indeed, the walking is so clean—except just where we live—that it would be extraordinary if they did not. The streets about us are not paved yet. We have very good water, I daresay the best in town.
I cannot help feeling sorry that Mrs. Adams’s health is so bad as to prevent her being in Philadelphia this winter. . . .
As to the braid that she [Miss Lowndes] desired Betsy to procure for her, I suppose the thing is impossible, for no other reason than that wigs are all the fashion. . . . I heard even General Washington talk of the ladies wearing wigs. . . . I do not feel the least partiality to this place, and I never expected I should. Perhaps when I see the river—for I am a great admirer of water—and something of the city—, for to tell the truth, I have seen nothing of it yet—I shall like it better; and I wish I may. . . .
Mr. Stoddert is at the President’s who came to town last night.
Your truly affectionate.
R. Stoddert.

*In preparation for a possible war with France President Adams had organized a provisional army and persuaded Washington to head it.

Kate Mason Rowland, “Philadelphia a Century Ago, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 62, 1898, 804-807.


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