Looking through classified advertisements in eighteenth-century Salem newspapers is one of my favorite pastimes: I can’t think of a better way to gain insights into the public lives of people at that time, though their private lives are, of course, another story. The other day I was wandering around in 1769 and a particularly enticing notice caught my attention: with its large letters and array of goods it could not fail to do so. Priscilla Manning, in big bold letters, listed her worldly goods, encompassing all manner and colors of cloth, caps, hose, shoes and tea, of course, all available at “her shop in Salem, a little above Capt. West’s Corner, at the lowest prices for Cash.” First I had to figure out what all of these eighteenth-century fabrics were: taffeta, satin, lawn, cambric, and linen were familiar to me, but somehow I have made it to this advanced age without knowing what “calamanco” was. I assumed it was an alternative spelling for calico, but no—a very different, thicker, embossed woolen cloth, which has its own (tortoiseshell) cat association in some parts of this world. Not only was I ignorant about calamanco: I had no idea that our neighboring city to the South, Lynn, was a major producer of calamanco shoes in the eighteenth century, well before it became known as an industrial Shoe City. But there’s the reference right in Priscilla’s inventory: best Lynn-made calamanco and silk shoes. My friend and former colleague Kimberly Alexander, author of Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories of the Georgian Era, set me straight: calamanco shoes were the “everyday footwear of American life” and Lynn-made shoes had such a good reputation in the Boston area that merchants such as Priscilla “proudly trumpeted their origin”. Yes, that’s right: Priscilla Manning was a merchant; why is that occupational term reserved only for men?
My calico cat Trinity and some anonymous tortoiseshell I stole from the web, as apparently some parts of the word call torties “calamanco cats”; calamanco wedding shoes from c. 1765, collection of Historic Deerfield (object #HD 2004.26, photo by Penny Leveritt).
Priscilla continued to carry on her business until 1772 when she married a widower from Andover named George Abbot: he brought his two young girls to Salem, and if advertisements are any indication, took over her shop. Suddenly it is George Abbot who is offering all of theses splendid goods, from the same shop, with only a few slight changes, including cash given for empty snuff bottles. Priscilla disappears! Certainly the commercial contacts necessary to conduct such a cosmopolitan provisioning business were hers, and I bet she continued to work them, but she is no longer the public face of her business. Actually the newspapers give us few insights into the Abbots during the Revolution: George appears in a 1774 letter addressed to General Gage protesting the closing of the port of Boston, and then we don’t see another advertisement until 1783, when the shop has moved to “Main Street”. In the following year, he died at age 37, leaving Priscilla as the guardian of her two stepdaughters and their daughter, also named Priscilla.
So what does Priscilla do? She re-opened her shop, “just above the town pump”, and built a big new house—both in her name. I do wonder if she had more freedom of operation as a widow than a miss, but that conspicuous advertisement from 1769 indicates she was under no commercial constraints before her marriage. The papers carry notices of the marriages of her stepdaughters and, sadly, the death of her own daughter at the tender age of 16, but they can offer no other insights into the life of Priscilla Manning Abbot, until her own death in 1804. What she left behind, to be disposed of by her executrix Elizabeth Cogswell: her mansion house and barn, one-half of wall pew #6 in the “Rev. Dr. Barnard’s meeting-house” and of course, her stock in trade.
I think this plaque should read Priscilla Manning Abbot, Merchant.
Appendix: Priscilla Manning’s ad caught the attention of an expert in the field as well as wandering me: check out Carl Robert Keyes’ analysis at the Adverts 250 Project.