History

Elizabeth Willing Powel: Philadelphia’s 18th Century Influencer

March 26, 2024 | by Kimberly Haas

The year was 1792, and the survival of the nascent republic felt tenuous. George Washington, weary after the long war and three years as president, longed to retire to Mount Vernon. He turned to one of his most trusted advisors, who was against the idea, saying it would encourage the Anti-Federalist faction that had opposed ratification of the Constitution, to argue for dissolving the union. That advisor was not his vice president nor a high-ranking politician or military figure. She was a woman, who, like all females in the country at that time, could not vote, hold office, and often couldn’t control their finances, education, or other assets. Despite these limitations, Elizabeth Willing Powel proved to be one of the most influential figures in late 18th century Philadelphia and even the rest of America.

A portrait circa 1793 of Elizabeth Willings Powel by artist Matthew Pratt. | Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Elizabeth was born in Philadelphia on February 21, 1743. Despite living under the strictures faced by all women at the time, she had familial and social advantages that most did not. Elizabeth’s maternal great-grandfather Edward Shippen was appointed mayor of Philadelphia by William Penn in 1701. Her father Charles Willing was elected mayor by City Council, at the time called the Common Council, in 1748 and again in 1754. While her father was mayor, the family had a house built on the southwest corner of 3rd Street and what would be called Willings Alley, an east-west passage linking 3rd and 4th Streets. At the opposite end of the block stood the original 1733 building of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, the first Catholic church founded in Philadelphia and now known as Old St. Joseph’s.

Elizabeth was educated by private tutors and showed aptitude and interest in subjects usually beyond a girl’s education at the time, including geography and philosophy. Although both her parents were raised Quaker, the family became prominent members of Christ Church. This was also the site of her wedding to Samuel Powel in August 1769. He had graduated in 1759 in the third class of the College of Philadelphia, now the University of Pennsylvania. A prosperous merchant and businessman, he went on to be the last mayor under British rule, elected by the City Council in 1775, and then re-elected in 1789 as the first mayor of Philadelphia under independence.

A few days prior to their wedding, Samuel purchased a house at 244 S. 3rd Street from its original owner Charles Steadman, a merchant and shipmaster. It was designed by architect Robert Smith, who also designed Carpenters’ Hall, St. Peter’s Church, and the Third Presbyterian Church, now known as Old Pine Street Church.

Powel House at 244 S. 3rd Street in Society Hill. | Photo: Michael Bixler

It was in this elegant Georgian house that Elizabeth and Samuel hosted political and social figures from Philadelphia and the other colonies. “Elizabeth exercised her political power in organizing public French-style salons and was one of the earliest women in the United States to implement these intellectual gatherings into American society,” Samantha Snyder, librarian at Mount Vernon, wrote in the book Women in George Washington’s World. “As a salonnière, she chose the topics for conversation, facilitated the discussion and provided the space in which these intellectual exchanges unfolded.”

The topics were as robust and political as any that might have transpired in forums like the City Tavern, which was a well-known site for members of the Continental Congress to debate the issues of the day. Elizabeth “repeatedly violated a cautionary precept of salonnières and bluestockings alike by failing to avoid politics as a subject incompatible with refined conversation,” David Maxey wrote in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 2006.

Dr. Benjamin Rush was among her admirers. At his address to the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia, a new higher education institution for women, Rush dedicated his speech “Thoughts upon female education, accommodated to the present state of society, manners, and government, in the United States of America” to Elizabeth.

The Powel Room in Gallery 722 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. | Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

George and Martha Washington were frequent guests at these salons. Throughout his first term, “the Powels—especially Elizabeth—were trusted confidants, respite for entertainment and political sounding boards for the president,” wrote Snyder. The Powels owned Joseph Wright’s 1784 portrait of George Washington, now at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). Years later, after his second term, Elizabeth purchased his presidential desk, also now at HSP.

While the Washingtons, more accustomed to country living, might have enjoyed Elizabeth’s hospitality as a respite from city life, others acted more raucously. In his journal on September 8, 1774, John Adams wrote about a party at the Powels’ where, after consuming “punch, wine, porter, beer &tc &tc” he joined several others in climbing to the top of Christ Church’s steeple to view the city.

Of course, all of these salons, dinners, and balls were made possible by the wealth of both Elizabeth and Samuel’s families. In addition to their home, they owned other significant properties. Samuel had inherited a block of land bounded by 2nd, Walnut, and Dock Streets and an alley along the north side, which ultimately became Moravian Street. In 1771, a group of investors rented the northeast portion to build City Tavern. Although it proved to be wildly popular among the elite of Philadelphia, the owners were unsuccessful in satisfying the mortgage. In 1785, it was purchased by Samuel.

An unassigned diploma of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture from the organization’s exhibition held at Powelton in 1860. | Image courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Powel’s largest acquisition was a tract of land across the Schuylkill River–96 acres from the riverbank to what is now 34th Street, and from present-day Lancaster Avenue to present-day Hamilton Street. They named it Powelton and established a working farm with a tenant. Samuel, a victim of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, died there in September of that year. Seven years later, Elizabeth hired David Gray, a member of the Carpenters’ Company, to build her a summer home at Powelton.

After Samuel’s death, Elizabeth sold Powel House to William Bingham, her niece’s husband. With yellow fever still a threat, she moved onto the north side of the 1000 block of Market Street, at the time the outskirts of the settled city. That was followed by a move to the north side of the 600 block of Chestnut Street, where she lived for the rest of her life.

As a widow, Elizabeth was a shrewd steward of her assets. “She shed all her stock in the Bank of the United States before Congress failed to renew the bank’s charter in 1811,” wrote Lisa Wilson in Life after Death: Widows in Pennsylvania, 1750-1850. Although her nephew and her lawyer both counseled against it, she felt that real estate held its value better than stocks and bonds in uncertain economic times, such as the years leading up to the War of 1812.

Madam Powel (Elizabeth Willing) by painter Francis Alexander circa 1825. | Image courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston

When Elizabeth died in 1830 her estate was valued at $141,573.47, about $4.7 million today. She was generous to many, giving Bishop William White of Christ Church $2,000 to help him finish building his country home in 1799. Her will included monetary gifts for several servants including three freed Blacks. Her will, dated 1814, left a legacy of $100 per year for 20 years to the Abolition Society of Philadelphia, hoping “Christians will induce the national legislature to pass such laws for the benefit of this unfortunate part of the family of mankind.” That latter bequest reflected a commitment to manumission. In 1774, Samuel’s Powel’s listing in the tax rolls included one slave and one indentured servant, but in the first United States census of 1790, the household contained no one in those categories.

Elizabeth’s name lives on in Philadelphia. Aside from Powel House, a premiere example of Georgian architecture maintained by the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, there are several place names that hearken to her memory: Powelton Avenue, Powelton Village, and Willings Alley. Her grave, alongside that of her husband and four children, still stands in Christ Church burial ground at 340 N. 5th Street.



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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

One Comment:

  1. John Egan says:

    Fitting tribute to a great lady in the founding of our nation! Thanks for timing this to Women’s History month.

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