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  • Writer's pictureBecky Fifield

Catering to Clients in an 18th Century Philadelphia Shop

I spent July at a Research Fellowship at Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden. This mainly meant identifying manuscripts and object collections that might have something to tell me about my research topic: working women’s dress, as illuminated through the study of newspaper runaway advertisements. Read more about the project here, and an article on the work here. My goal now is to study more about the supply of garments to indentured and enslaved servant women, through purchase, gift, and theft.

I’m currently delving into the order books of the Wister family, Philadelphia merchants descended from German immigrants Johannes Caspar and Anna Katherine Wister. The collection is extensive, but I’m focusing on these veritable letter copy books of the orders sent to different merchants. What’s particularly great about this collection is the detail captured in these orders, in which the firm indicates what sort of goods will sell best in Philadelphia. In the 1760s, the books include descriptive lists of fabrics they wish to order, while in the 1770s, the firm relies increasingly on pattern books, listing  pattern numbers of fabrics they wish to order. It’s especially fun as you gain greater vocabulary for how the Wisters and their contemporaries described certain types of objects.

Here are a few objects that they ordered – I’ve selected them just on the basis of my own fun. Whereas they frequently use abbreviations for words such as piece, yard, color, cotton, shagrine, and so forth, I’ve spelled out the words here for ease of reading.

From David Barclay, 12/6/1762: “8 pieces printed Calicoe 2 Colors Shagrine ground some with blue.”

From Benjamin & John Bower, 6/26/1764 (2 of their firm’s swatch books are preserved, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one at Winterthur): On ordering linen check, “Let those Checks be fair clear figures, not muddled.”

Order to Welch W & Starten, 11/20/1764: For sleeve buttons,  “24 Gros hard white metal Dollar pattern links… Send no pewter ones by any means.”

Order to Nathaniel Springall, 6/17/1765: Upon ordering copper brown and blue camblets of 1/ to 1/8 in price (these are inexpensive textiles),  “send not one piece darker than the enclosed pattern.”

Order to Edward Lloyd, 8/11/1763: “brass shut tops Thimbles” as opposed to open top thimbles.

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