Elizabeth Willing Powel’s Republic of Letters

Elizabeth Willing Powel’s Republic of Letters

Samantha Snyder December 2, 2019

Elizabeth Willing Powel’s Republic of Letters

Elizabeth Willing Powel, ca. 1793 (Courtesy of the Frick Art Reference Library)

Elizabeth Willing Powel was born in 1742 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her home in Philadelphia still stands as a historic house museum.  Her house was the center of a political and social network that included signers of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, influential families of Philadelphia, and foreign dignitaries. As hostess and salonnière, Powel orchestrated and participated in some of the most important conversations of the American Revolution and Early Republic. During her lifetime, Elizabeth wrote and received over 500 letters that are housed in institutions across the country, that date from 1768-1824. There are of course, letters that may still be waiting to be found, and some that do not survive, but the content of her correspondence provides a look into an elite American woman’s network, and how far it expanded.

The purpose of this project is to create a visual representation of the letters. At the moment, this project uses Palladio as the tool for representation. If this project was to continue to grow, I would find a permanent hosting site to have the data be available publicly, without having to continually input the data sets into Palladio or only show images of the project. However, for the purpose of this project, I will provide images of the features I have decided to use from Palladio. Please click on the images if you would like to see them in a larger size.


Main data page

I decided to go more simple for this project. The linking of locations, dates, and writers leads to a robust dataset, that could be built upon based on what the user may be interested in. The categories and tags can easily be changed. The tags I chose were:

    • Commerce
    • Social
    • Sciences
    • Arts
    • Unknown
    • Signer of the Constitution
    • Signer of the Declaration of Independence
    • Politics

I chose these because I thought they were a good broad range of categories. However, with that, I did notice that the graph feature of Palladio really was not functioning very well, in that so many people were around certain tags, that it blended together and you could not tell who was who. So, I focused more on the gallery and map features. For a future project, I would try and figure out how to make the graph feature more functional.

Here is a gallery of excerpts from the spreadsheets:


Entirety of letter collection, 1768-1824.

This feature is to give a visualization of how far spatially the network went. There are also ways to narrow it down, which I’ve provided an example of in the following video [which will be uploaded shortly.] You can use the same facets I show in the gallery feature with the letters. You can also narrow the letters down by date, by author, and by location. Elizabeth Powel lived in three homes in Philadelphia, so having the date function is very helpful because you can see how many letters she was writing at one home versus another, and putting that within the context of the eighteenth century and her life.

The hard part I noticed with the map feature is that with a lot of data, comes a very slow program.

Here are images of how I was able to manipulate the data. I decided to split the letters in half, so before she moved out of her home in 1798 (after the death of her husband), and then when she moved into a house a few blocks away, where she lived until her death in 1830. This shows much much she started writing in the last half of her life, and shows the major growth of the city of Philadelphia and the United States.

For clarification, the colors are:

Teal – Recipient

Purple – Author

Grey line – showing the links between author and recipient


This video shows the different features of the gallery tool. For the purpose of this project, I decided to create little biographies for each individual. I also found images for those that I could, and put in a basic placeholder picture for those that I couldn’t. I tested out the different facet features. In this video, I showed the signers of the Constitution that she corresponded with.

Future ideas:

In the future, I would like to figure out a way to host this data in a permanent way.  I would also like to make use of the transcriptions I have of the letters, I think that would be a good additional feature to add to help add yet another layer to the project. I also would like to do some type of coordinate feature overlaid on old maps of Philadelphia.

Testing another tool:

After a suggestion from a fellow classmate, I also decided to test out some data in Voyant. I had initially shied away from Voyant because I found the interface very clunky, and a little unwieldy for the amount of data I have. So, I started playing around with the transcription data set I have, and was still not coming up with great patterns, but I decided to use another set of data that I’ve complied, of different letters of people talking about Elizabeth Powel, the woman who this project is based around. This data is transcribed portions that mention Elizabeth Powel, from larger letters. The letters date from 1757-1839. I decided to input that data into voyant, because it was a smaller set than the larger letters data set that I used for my Palladio project. I wanted to see the different words used to describe Elizabeth Powel over the course of her life. I used the default stop words and then I added titles and last names. What I came up with was this:

Word cloud describing Elizabeth Willing Powel, 1757-1839 (55 top words)

I thought this was a fun way to round out the project. She was known for being a conversationalist, and hosting well-attended parties, so I think it’s interesting that words like “evening, conversation, party, pleasure, time, and Philadelphia” end up being used so frequently.

Future ideas for Voyant:

In the future, I would like to test out Voyant as a tool for my transcriptions. I would like to test based on decades, or even how Elizabeth Powel corresponded with certain people, such as how she interacted with family and friends versus more professional correspondents.


Signature from an 1815 letter to her niece, Elizabeth Fisher. Letter located at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (Brinton-Coxe Collection #1983.)


My initial proposal was to create a visualization of a data set of about 500 letters written to or from a woman named Elizabeth Willing Powel, who was a salonniere in 18th century Philadelphia. My main inspiration was the Mapping the Republic of Letters project, which I found to be a very interesting, worthwhile tool for really understanding how broadly networks could span.

Data set:

I began working on transcribing these letters long before I started this course, but this course really helped me finish them up. The transcriptions are currently in a word document (saved in about 10 different places!) and also listed at item level in the database Scrivener. The word document that is split up by decade, and the letters are listed as either “to [recipient]” or “from [author]”. Since I know that the letters in my transcriptions document are either to or from Elizabeth Powel, I list either the recipient or author rather than both to and from. Of a letter from Elizabeth, to the Reverend Jacob Duche:

Elizabeth Powel to Jacob Duche, ca. 1782/3.

The original of this letter is located online on the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s digital collections, and is included with another letter from Elizabeth to her sister. You can find those letters here.

So, with these transcriptions in hand, I debated which tool to use. Because of her geographic location in Philadelphia, a city that has been good at documenting their history, I was lucky in that many of the people she wrote to or received letters from were of a high enough status that there houses either still survive, or are heavily documented. I had been debating trying to analyze the transcriptions, which is something I would still like to do, but for the purpose of this class, I decided doing a map of how far a woman’s correspondence could go would be more interesting, and showing who she was writing to or receiving letters from. That was what made me decide to use Palladio over Keplr.gl over Voyant.

The software:

Once I figured out that I wanted to focus more on mapping, I decided first to test out Keplr.gl, and enjoyed it but found it underwhelming for the detail I wanted. I wanted to provide not just a glimpse of location, but actually go into more detail about who exactly the people were in her network. When we got to the Palladio unit, I realized this was the tool I wanted to use. I was drawn in not by the network feature, or really even the map, but the gallery tool. That was what took the most work, after geotagging what locations I could, I set out to create little short biographies, and find images, of the writers in the data set. As with the locations being easy to pin down, I didn’t have much difficulty finding images of many of the writers.

The sources:

For the images, I used a number of common domain websites, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frick Museum Digital Collections, and the Wikimedia Commons.

For the geo-tagging, I used a number of websites related to Philadelphia History, and Ancestry.com to hunt down addresses or at least general locations of homes.

For the letters themselves, these materials came from the following institutions: American Philosophical Society, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Society for Promoting Landmarks, Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Rosenbach Library, Gilder Lehrman Institute, University of Delaware, The Clements Library, The Lily Library at University of Indiana, The Library of Congress, and the New York Historical Society.

The problems:

The main problem I had with my project was Palladio’s inability to continually host data. I know it is available to download as a .json file, but you still have to repopulate fields and make sure you’re continually saving the final version. I also found that if there was an error, it was difficult to figure out exactly where in the data set it was, because when you downloaded the information, it just gave you the list of names/dates etc. in a .txt file, with no flag on the error. However, I was eventually successful.

Feedback on my project:

As of December 12, 2019, I received feedback on my project from one other student, who gave me some helpful tips on what more I can do with the project, including how I could use Voyant. I struggled with Voyants interface, but I did come up with a way to do a temporary test, with another data set of excerpts from letters that mention Elizabeth Willing Powel or her family members.

What I discovered about my sources:

This project gave me a new love of the hard work I did on the transcriptions. It also helped me realize the types of people that were writing to one another, and where Elizabeth Powel fits in among them. It helped me pin down a few “unknowns” in the author/recipient, though a couple I still can’t quite figure out, and it made me actually take the time to read through letters and realize the content of them is important, and has given me some new interest in certain pieces in the collection. In my presentation of my project, I highlighted the gallery feature in that she wrote to several signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

My favorite part of the collection is a letter that best describes my purpose for doing this project. Elizabeth acknowledges how much correspondence she’s writing, based on her need for paper, in a letter to Joseph Reed,”President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania” (similar to a Governor). This letter is located at the New York Historical Society.  What is interesting is that there is not a large amount of correspondence from the 1770s-1780s that still survives, but if she’s implying that she was using up the paper he was sending Elizabeth and her husband Samuel, then there must have at one point been a larger collection.

Letter to Joseph Reed, ca. 1781, located at the New York Historical Society.

“The President, surely inquires, from his very ample Supply of Paper, that Mrs. Powel is as unreasonably fond of writing as of talking. Was she to fill the whole of it in the Epistolary Way, she fears that her Correspondents would have reason to wish that the Art of writing had been prohibited for her Sex, or that she, in particular, had never been taught the Use of the Pen.”

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