Meet the PowellsA middling family aspires to the gentry class. Interpreter Pat Chilton introduces the Powells to visitors and the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute. August 2, 2010
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter.
Each room in the house where my guest, group interpreter Pat Chilton, works tells something about the daily life of a prosperous colonial family. The rooms and outbuildings bear witness to a father with a successful business, a wife who oversees a household operation and 12 slaves, and two daughters who are daily being groomed to marry up in society.
Pat, welcome, thank you for being here.
Pat Chilton: Thank you Harmony, very much.
Harmony: Tell me about the house where you work.
Pat: The property itself is an original building. It’s exciting to interpret there not simply because it is original like all of our treasures, but because Benjamin Powell, who purchased this property, renovated it. He brought it to life to look as it does right now.
So for me it’s exciting to be there, because he chose the wainscoting in the parlor, he chose the design of the house, what kind of flooring to put in. I can’t help but think that that reflects his personal style and a little bit about his hope for success for his family as you mentioned.
Harmony: Tell me about Benjamin Powell. Who is he? Who is he in town?
Pat: We know he came here some time in the 1750s and rented different locations in town. He was married to Annabelle, he had two daughters: Hannah and Nancy. We think both Benjamin and Annabelle came from the Western Territories, moving here to the capitol city. He was a wheelwright carpenter, progressed to the term “undertaker,” which means literally undertaking bids for construction.
And as I look to my guests, “Why do you think a man who builds buildings would move to the capitol city, what would be his best hope for success?” Government contracts, exactly. And so pretty soon you see his name in connections with repairs at the gaol, building the steeple at the church in the 1760s, and then eventually buying property, becoming a property owner in town.
That’s what brings him to the small segment there on Waller Street that he purchased. He moves into a brick structure that was about 30 years old, some time in the 1730s we believe it was built, and he renovates this space. So a nice simple brick structure with two chambers, a hall or passage, and a bedchamber is totally gutted and renovated into his dining room.
The west wall he renovates and moves forward to three additional chambers and the second floor. So it’s a massive undertaking for lots and lots of space. We know he’s a slave owner, and by the time he’s situated on the property, by the 1760s, he’s paying taxes on approximately 12 slaves and also paying tax on a riding chair. So a means of transportation, that’s very attractive in the 18th century here in Williamsburg.
His wife Annabelle is running the property as you mentioned, and his daughters Hannah and Nancy are growing up. There are slaves on the property, like Rose and Nan and Kate, who are a functioning, well educated workforce. So now he’s overseeing others doing the work and one of the things that he uses his, in slave population for, is workmen.
So I see him now beginning to move up the social ladder in his practices, good business practices not, not just managing the money he makes but in connecting with the community. So as the, as the property grows so does his affluence in town. So here a middling sort tradesmen who came to this town, expanded his property, is now beginning to move among the circles of the gentry, of those well-established families that have been in town for many years. So the house reflects some of that.
Harmony: When I visited the Powell house you were talking to people about a very ritualized ceremony of something you would think was quite common, which was dinner. Tell us about the dinner ceremony and all the layers of social training and social status that are woven in just to that mid-day meal.
Pat: Well here in the capitol city, again, we like to interpret that Mr. Powell is leading the lifestyle of the gentry. He has all the proper tools, he has the education, to have dinner served to him at 2 p.m. Mid-afternoon to some of our modern guests, but an important event for him.
Seated in his dining room at the head of the table, he oversees everything in front of him. He’s responsible for a prayer and for carrying on conversation with his guests. He’s learning from these individuals while Mrs. Powell, who’s sitting at the opposite end of the table, has overseen the growing and preparation of the food, the washing and scrubbing of the linens and napkins that are on the table, the polishing of the silver, the cleaning of the glassware.
Perhaps we did housewifery skills in the morning and washed the windows and swept the carpet and aired the room. So all her daily life chores that she’s been teaching her daughters are put now to their best purpose in that she’s seated at the table to carry on her responsibility for the dinner service. She instigates after the prayer is said the service of the food, whether it be a soup course or a main course, her plate is picked up and passed around the table.
The meal may continue for an hour or more with various courses being brought to table. As foods are consumed, others are removed until you get toward the end of the meal, about an hour and a half into being seated there, and you’re ready for dessert. Then dessert would be light, delicate treats that you see sitting off to the side on a sideboard -- perhaps candied almonds, candied citrus, maybe we have some raisins, and tiny little servers that just look lovely.
As the meal wraps up, perhaps you’ve been at table two hours. So not there just to consume food but to have conversation. Once the meal is consumed, the ladies might then exit the table and retire to the parlor, as I mentioned a very spacious room good for entertainment, and Mr. Powell would remain and carry on more conversation and perhaps bring out tobacco or other Madeiras or ports: beverages that the men would enjoy.
And they would sit back and have more conversation concerning politics or those more serious subjects. But for Mr. Powell it is certainly a reflection of his level of success financially to have the proper tools to entertain with, and also socially that he realizes that this dinner is more than just offering food to his guests, it’s conversation, it’s enlightenment, it’s him taking part in that practice of genteel life.
Harmony: Life inside the house is very refined and genteel, but the backyard is a totally different universe. Tell me about the different buildings, the different operations, and the occupants of the back portion of the Powell property.
Pat: Mrs. Powell is out there in the workyard occasionally, making sure that the foods are prepared in the proper manner, that laundry is taken care of, and those tasks of nurturing the garden, whether we have to water it or making sure the plants get installed properly. But she’s also overseeing the education of her daughters and the enslaved men and women on the property.
And so out on the back of the property, someone’s hauling all that water to wash the vegetables before they’re peeled and sliced and seasoned and cooked in the kitchen. Some of those young children are bringing in eggs from the chicken house that has to be harvested as we have on the back of the property. We’re very fortunate there to also have two additional original buildings besides the house, we have a smokehouse and dairy.
To the rear of the property are two reconstructed privies, important components to flesh out this household here in the city. Then to the side is the kitchen/laundry, a combination building where much of that vigorous work of maintaining the food goes on. Depending on what’s needed at the table, they’re roasting meats, baking goods, sometimes doing preserving and salting techniques in there.
A little bit of those buildings have some private items in them that hopefully bring our enslaved families to life. You see some personal clothing, some sticks and stones out there. We might bring out a wooden tray with carved indentations called a mancala board. It’s an African based game. There are going to be some sticks out there, maybe they can do some rhythmic music and teach some call and response songs.
We do try to bring it to life that there’s music coming from all layers of the property, as we mentioned the spinet in the parlor, well perhaps we’ve got some drums or some shekere being used in the laundry occasionally too to bring the slave family to life.
Harmony: As modern folks come through the Powell house and see the daily life, what do you think are real eye-openers for them as far as comparing an 18th century daily routine to what we experience today?
Pat: Well I think the first thing they notice is what’s going on in relevance to the daylight hours. They ask, “Oh, you’ve been in here cooking, you’re just getting started?” Well in fact our museum opens at 9 a.m., whereas Mrs. Powell would be out there when the sun arose and get all those heavy chores done before the heat of the day, which we all know occurs closer to mid-day.
Harmony: You actually educate a special class of visitors at the Powell house through your work as part of the Teacher Institute. How do you feel about the education that you bring to visitors having this great ripple effect from teachers out to students all around the country?
Pat: Well, I enjoy it very much because I enjoy the history and the time period. As a Teacher Institute arrives we get persons from all over the country, men and women. Some of them are more traditional classroom teachers, some of them are media specialists and work with special needs kids, so they come from all diverse populations. And they’re open all of them to a one to being students again.
There’s a great group of people behind all of us who interpret in costume and to the group leaders: trainers and librarians who say, “Well come on in here Pat, let me open up this primary document and let you look at it.” So I can sit there and recount to my teachers that, “Yes, I’ve seen Patrick Henry’s handwriting and some days he didn’t pay attention to those higher loops, but that’s another story.”
But the idea is, it gives us that grounding basis in what they respect and expect from Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and that’s accuracy. They want things to be told in a real fashion. They want to hear the facts.
Coming to Williamsburg, coming to the Powell house is not just history. Social history’s so interesting to me but I can also bring in science, I can bring in political events, to talk again about Mr. Powell’s involvement in local government. And so those are some of the tricks I have in my bag.
One of my favorite challenges is when I’m sitting there doing a basic task. I have needle and thread trying to hem a cloth to get across to the public that sewing is a survival skill. And I’ll look across the room and I’ll say, “Well after all, I’m sitting here in the room in front of you using an instrument of cold hard steel and there’s the potential for bloodshed.” And they kind of sit up and I go, “Yes, it’s called sewing. It’s fun.
Harmony: Sounds great. Pat thank you so much for being here with us today.
Pat: Oh, you’re very welcome Harmony. I appreciate the time.