Socks and Sundries

December 12, 1787 – December 31, 1787

“Mrs. Adams’s compliments to Mr. Jefferson and in addition to her former memorandum she requests half a dozen pr. of mens silk stockings.” – AA to TJ

“The silk stockings are not yet ready. I had ordered them to be made by the hermits of Mont Calvaire who are famous for the excellence and honesty of their work, and prices.” – TJ to JA

“Socks are like sex. Tons of it about, and I never seem to get any.” – The Prince of Wales, heir to King George III, to his butler*

This set of five letters contains a good amount of angst on the part of TJ regarding the ability of the USofA to pay its debts to Holland, as well as some anxiety over his increased responsibilities now that JA is packing his bags for home. (In a couple of months Adams will be relinquishing his duties as Minister to Great Britain.) Foreign debts, political appointments, international economics—this is a good time to talk about shopping. How many times have I wondered exactly where everyone in the 18th century got their stockings? Never. Not until suddenly Jefferson plugs some sock-weaving French Carthusian monks. Who were these hermits, renowned for their quality products, fair dealings, and low prices? Was silk solely a foreign import or did this monastery raise its own silk worms? Is the French climate suitable for mulberry trees? What was the status of the silk trade? All questions I will not answer, but feel free to do research and get back to me.

Socks are a pretty good reason for reading letters like these—a bit of color that might not show up in a grayish biography or, worst of all, in a black & white high school text book titled something like America: a History or The Story of America: Loyalty, Liberty, and Lessons. At the risk of melodroma, I’d say that reading “During the American Revolution, Connecticut produced 20,000 socks for soldiers faced with the twin brutalities of winter and war” is slightly less enriching than “Honey, send me the damn socks, they already amputated my gangrene toes, so you can make them shorter than normal and save some yarn.” (I made all that up. But Connecticut IS the Provisions State, you know.)

I looked back through the letters I’ve read so far and compiled a list of things that AA and TJ sent each other, either because one product was not available in France or England, or because the quality was better, or the price lower, or maybe because when we travel to places like China we like to actually get something made in . . . wait. You know what I mean.

Random stuff Thomas Jefferson wanted from England:
2 sets of table cloths and napkins for 20 covers each
2 pieces of Irish linen (to make 12 shirts)
6 linen shirts
9 yards of muslin
21 yards Chintz
British and American newspapers

Random stuff Abigail Adams wanted from France:
3 plateaux de dessert with silvered ballustrades
4 “figures of Biscuit” (These are some sort of statuettes. TJ sent her mythical figures: Minerva, Diana, Apollo, and Mars.)
4 ells of cambric
1 pair of black lace lappets (“these are what the ladies wear at court”)
12 ells of black lace
4 pairs of shoes (“For Miss Adams, by the person who made Mrs. A.’s, 2 of satin and 2 of spring silk, without straps, and of the most fashionable colors.”)
4 more pairs of shoes (“I would have them made with straps, 3 pr. of summer silke and one pr. blew sattin.”)
12 aunes de dentelle (lace)
1 paire de barbes (I assume that this does not mean “a pair of beards,” but I’m stumped)
6 Louis d’ors (was she a coin collector?)

While I’m at it, here is a list of expenses AA sent TJ for outfitting his daughter, Mary, and his slave, Sally, when they stayed with Abigail back in the summer.

For Miss Jefferson:
4 fine Irish Holland frocks
5 yd. white dimity for shirts
4 yd. checked muslin for a frock
3 yd. lace Edging to trim it
3 yd. flanel for under coats
A Brown Bever Hat and feathers
2 pr. leather Gloves
5 yd. diaper for arm Cloths (diaper was a fabric woven in a repeating pattern of small diamonds)
6 pr. cotton Stockings
3 yd. blue sash Ribbon
Diaper for pockets linning tape cloth for night caps etc
Comb and case, comb Brush, tooth Brush

For the Maid Servant:
12 yds. calico for 2 short Gowns and coats
4 yd half Irish linen for Aprons
3 pr Stockings
2 yd linning
2 Shawl handkerchief

*As interpreted by Hugh Laurie in Blackadder the Third:


One thought on “Socks and Sundries

  1. Ha ha … loved the clip! The mundane concerns over clothing by these revered American demigods reminds me (via very mysterious and vague mental leaps and connections) to the poem about the clear horrors of the slave trade, yet ambivalence because of the implications for one’s sugar consumption.

    “I own I am shocke’d at the purchase of slaves,
    and fear those who buy then and sell them are knaves;
    What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans,
    Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.

    I pity then greatly, but I must be mum,
    For how could we do without sugar and rum?
    Especially sugar, so needful we see;
    What give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!”

    Pity for Poor Africans, Poem by William Cowper, Written 1788 published 1800

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