Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte – The Woman I Have Come to Know
Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte was just another name to me when I arrived at MdHS in 2012 as a volunteer curatorial assistant. Since that time I have come to know her intimately—not as the celebrity she was, but as a real-life woman.
I first got to know Elizabeth (she never referred to herself as “Betsy”) through contents of a red trunk in the MdHS collection. The important things, gowns, lace handkerchiefs, shawls, etc., had been removed, catalogued and stored, but three boxes labeled “scraps of lace” had been wadded up and stuffed away as seemingly insignificant. I discovered that these were hardly scraps! There were collars, cuffs, sleeve edgings, and trimmings of all sizes—in total, well over 300 separate pieces—everything from delicate handmade bobbin and needle laces and embroideries to machine-made and “chemical” laces. Many showed evidence of once having been attached to garments and some had been carefully mended.
After sorting and cataloguing the laces, I moved on to other storage boxes in the Bonaparte collection where, in addition to exquisite gowns and finely-made undergarments and accessories, I found lengths of ribbons, remnants of dress fabrics and pieces of dresses which had been cut apart at their seams. Who would keep such things, and why?
Elizabeth kept meticulous records throughout her life, and it was through the examination and transcription of these journals in the Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte Papers, Ms 142, Box 13A that I came to know more about her. At first, I only paid attention to the entries which were related to clothing. I was not surprised to find such entries as “4½ yds Pink Ribbon” purchased in Liverpool in 1815 or 2½ meters of black lace in Paris in 1840 or payment of $2.38 to a [Ms] Rogers in Baltimore on 10 October 1848 for “making 6 shifts.” Then there were the inventories she made whenever she travelled (eight separate trips to Europe over the course of her lifetime—the final one in 1863, at the age of 78!) which allowed me to track specific garments and even match them to items in the collection.
As a long-time student of needlework, textiles and costume history, I had a different perspective from the biographers and historians who have written about Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte over the last 150 years. I saw her as a woman who truly loved fashion and freely spent to acquire what she wanted. She was buying the best quality, going so far as to record her “imitation” laces separately from her “valuable Point, Real lace, valencien [valenciennes] laces.” She kept all of these things for their beauty and their value, whether it was sentimental or monetary. To me she was a kindred spirit, and I envied her for her “stash!”
Further investigation of her journals and correspon-dence as an aid to Alexandra Deutsch, author of the forthcoming MdHS publication, Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy, yielded some very interesting and personal facts. Elizabeth used tobacco. As early as 1815 she purchased snuff (as well as mutton, eggs, and bread) in Cheltenham, England, and recorded purchases of “tabac” (1840-1843) in Paris, New York and Baltimore. She attended plays, went to the circus and kept menus of dinners (1850-1868) in London and Baltimore. She paid silver manufacturer Samuel Kirk and Sons in Baltimore to have her spectacles exchanged. Cleanliness was important and she wrote that “To Clean Gloves / Lay the gloves on a clean Board / make a mixture of Fuller’s Earth & Powder of alum very dry and pass them over every side with an indifferent stiff brush. Then sweep off that & sprinkle them with Bran & whitening a considerable time & then dust them well.” (1814)
As evidenced by her correspondence, Elizabeth knew many of the notable figures of her day, including John Jacob Astor, Dolley Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. About to embark on her first trip to Europe after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, Elizabeth sought letters of recommendation. Jefferson replied that he was sorry, but it had been 30 years since he was last in France and everyone he knew was dead. She had strong opinions about people which, in her later years, she annotated in red ink in the margins of her books, journals, and correspondence. My favorite is an undated RSVP from the Marquis de Lafayette. Elizabeth was apparently not too upset by his regrets, because she wrote across the bottom: “whom I never admired. EP”
Well, I have come to admire Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. I will miss our weekly visits when the book is at the publishers, and the contents of her trunks are finally catalogued and carefully put away into archival storage. (Barbara Meger)
Barbara Meger is a volunteer with the Museum Department. She has provided extensive research for the forthcoming MdHS publication, Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy by MdHS Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch.