This blog is by Library of Congress Manuscript Historian, Dr Julie Miller
June 4, 2020
The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress mostly document the life of George Washington. There’s nothing surprising about that. What is surprising is that Washington’s papers also contain a lot of fragmentary, often eloquent information about the lives of much more ordinary people. These are people we would know nothing about except that their lives happened to intersect with Washington’s. They include servants, slaves, grocers, dentists, wine merchants, bakers, tavernkeepers, landladies, seamstresses, and laundresses. Many of them were women.
One of the best places to find out about these people in Washington’s papers is in the meticulous records he kept of his public and private spending. These invoices, receipts, and ledger books constitute the thirty-four volumes of Series 5. The receipted bills Washington kept of his spending during the Revolutionary War, in Series 5, Volume 29, are the focus of our latest crowdsourcing project, “Ordinary Lives in George Washington’s Papers: The Revolutionary War.”
I would like to introduce you to one group of women you will meet as you work your way through these receipts. They are the laundresses who worked for Washington during the Revolutionary War.
Washington’s steward Caleb Gibbs made an understandable mistake when he wrote that Margaret Thomas received “twenty eight pounds seventeen shillings & sixpence Pennsylvania currency in full for Washington done for his Excellency General Washington” for almost eighteen months of washing. Washington was on the move during this period, so Thomas probably traveled with his household. She signed the receipt herself.
Martha Morris probably lived in New York, since the single bill she submitted to Washington, in October, 1776, is dated from there. It describes her and her work this way: “cloas washd by Marther the negor wench.” The back of the receipt, similarly: “Negro wench’s bill for washing linnen.” When the British occupied New York after Washington fled, just after the date of this bill, they offered freedom to escaped slaves. If Morris was among them, she might have chosen to stay in the city. Read more about her here.
Between July and September, 1776 Andrew Marschalk submitted five bills for washing and mending performed by “Mrs. Marschalk.” Because Marschalk’s bills end when Washington left New York, it’s likely the family lived in the city. Mrs. Marschalk’s labor supported the family, but Anglo-American law entitled her husband to her earnings, as these receipts demonstrate.
In May, 1776 Sarah Einglis submitted a bill for washing Martha Washington’s aprons, handkerchiefs, and ruffles. George Washington’s letters show that he was in New York on that date. This receipt is a piece of evidence to show that his wife was there, too. Einglis appears to have written out this receipt herself.
The bills submitted by this diverse group of women are a window into their working and economic lives, and add a rich layer to our understanding of the Revolutionary war as it was experienced by ordinary people. We hope you enjoy puzzling out these receipts, and helping researchers and students of the future to more easily search and access these small, but important documents.