Elizabeth Willing Powel, ca. 1793

Elizabeth Willing Powel, by Joseph Wright, ca. 1793. This portrait was painted just before the Yellow Fever Outbreak in Philadelphia. Her husband died in the outbreak, leaving her as the sole exectrix of his estate. She used this estate and inheritance to comission gifts for her familial and extended networks.

Samuel Powel, ca. 1765

This portrait was painted by Angelica Kauffman, one of the earliest professional female artists. This was painted near the end Samuel Powel's trip abroad. Samuel was 27 when he had this portrait painted. To have a portrait painted was a sign of great status, which as a young man, Samuel actively sought out. 

Elizabeth and Samuel Powel

Elizabeth Powel was born in Philadelphia, on February 10, 1742/3. She grew up in a large elite family. She married Samuel Powel, a powerful Philadelphia merchant, in August of 1769. As a wealthy couple,the Powels decorated their home with a number of luxury goods, both locally made and imported from England. Owning these goods publicly established their class status and political identities. By acquiring these material goods, they set up their home to be the prime location for Philadelphia’s social scene. This taste for fine goods carried into Elizabeth's gift giving practices, and her desire to influence the future generations.

Though the Powels prospered in financial and social gain, they did not have any children live past infancy. They lost four infants within their first five years of marriage, the first three children only months apart. Though they had no children, Elizabeth put all of her maternal focus on nurturing her nieces and nephews. When her last nephew was born in 1786, she had thirty one nieces and nephews, all of whom survived to adulthood. She played the role of a surrogate mother when necessary, and frequently corresponded with them, influencing their education and situation of power within society. She did this through frequent correspondence - usually filled with anecdotes and pieces of advice. She also would include tangible gifts of affection, that came attached with a certain moral lesson. Her gift giving carried on throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She gave her young family members and the children and grandchildren of early connections various types of gifts. Though these were not her own children, she still was able to use her power to carry forth her legacy within many of the many elite families in the United States.