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The Philadelphia Ladies Association
Although it has been disparaged as “General Washington’s Sewing Circle,” this venture was the first nationwide female organization in America
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
Nevertheless, the women’s association still collected substantial sums of money. Its organizers next had to decide how to disburse the funds in accordance with their original aim of presenting soldiers with “some extraordinary and unexpected relief… the offering of the Ladies .” Since Martha Washington had returned to Virginia by the time the collection was completed, the association’s leaders agreed to leave the disposition of the funds to her husband. There was only one problem: George Washington had plans for the money that differed sharply from theirs. “Altho’ the terms of the association seem in some measure to preclude the purchase of any article, which the public is bound to find,” Washington told Joseph Reed in late June, “I would, nevertheless, recommend a provision of shirts in preference to any thing else.” On July 31, Esther Reed responded to the general. Her much revised, amended, and overwritten draft, with all its tactful phrasing, suggests something of the consternation his proposal caused among the canvassers who had worked so hard and so long to collect the money.
Not only had she found it difficult to locate linen, she reported, she had also learned that Pennsylvania was planning to send two thousand shirts to its troops and that a large shipment of clothing had recently arrived from France. “These Circumstances togather with an Idea which prevails that the Soldiers might not consider it in the Light,” she began, then crossed out the words following “Soldiers,” and continued, “Soldiers woud not be so much gratified by bestowing an article to which they look upon themselves entitled from the public as in some other method which woud convey more fully the Idea of a reward for past Services & an incitement to future Duty.” There she ended the sentence, having been so involved in her intricate prose that she failed to realize she had composed a fragment without a verb. Undaunted, she forged breathlessly ahead. “Some who are of this Opinion propose turning the whole of the Money into hard Dollars & giving each Soldier 2 at his own disposal.” Having made her point, Mrs. Reed attempted to soften the fact that she was daring to dispute the judgment of the Commander-in-Chief of the American army. “This method I hint only,” she added, “but would not by any means wish to adopt that or any other without your full approbation.” To further lessen her apostasy, she also assured Washington that if shirts were still needed after the “fresh supplies” had been distributed, some of the money could be applied to that use.
Washington’s response was, as Mrs. Reed later told her husband, “a little formal as if he was hurt by our asking his Opinion a second time & our not following his Directions after desiring him to give them.” In his letter, the general suggested that “a taste of hard money may be productive of much discontent as we have none but depreciated paper for their pay.” He also predicted that some soldiers’ taste for drink would lead them “into irregularities and disorders” and that therefore the proposed two-dollar bounty “will be the means of bringing punishment” on them. No, he insisted; if the ladies wanted to employ their “benevolent donation” well, the money should be used for shirts—which they should make to save the cost of hiring seamstresses. Faced with Washington’s adamant stance, Esther Reed retreated. “I shall now endeavour to get the Shirts made as soon as possible,” she told her husband, and he agreed with her decision. “The General is so decided that you have no Choice left so that the sooner you finish the Business the better,” he wrote on August 26, reminding her that “it will be necessary for you to render a publick Account of your Stewardship in this Business & tho you will receive no thanks if you do it well, you will bear much Blame should it be otherwise.”
Unfortunately, however, Esther de Berdt Reed had no chance to “finish the Business” she had so ably begun; she died of dysentery the following month. The leadership of the association was assumed by Sarah Franklin Bache, with the assistance of four other women. They took control of the funds that had been in Mrs. Reed’s possession, overseeing the purchase of linen and the shirtmaking process. By early December, when the Marquis de Chastellux visited Sarah Bache’s home, more than two thousand shirts had been completed. He recorded that “on each shirt was the name of the married or unmarried lady who made it.” Late that same month, the women gave the shirts to the Deputy Quartermaster General in Philadelphia, and Mrs. Bache told General Washington that “we wish them to be worn with as much pleasure as they were made.”
In February, 1781, Washington offered profuse thanks to the members of the committee that had succeeded Esther Reed as leaders of the association. The organization’s contributions, he declared, entitled its participants “to an equal place with any who have preceded them in the walk of female patriotism. It embellishes the American character with a new trait; by proving that the love of country is blended with those softer domestic virtues, which have always been allowed to be more peculiarly your own .”