A Legacy in Silk: Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s Robe à la Française

Robe à la française gown, c. 1753, worn by Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Gift of Katherine Felder Stewart 1900-1984. HT 604a-b.

The Charleston Museum is spending our 250th anniversary looking back to our founding in 1773, so we can better understand our role as America’s First Museum as we move forward into the future. Our city has a long history and it was a key site for the American Revolutionary War – therefore a good portion of our collection focuses on 18th century material culture. One of the shining gems from the Historic Textiles Collection is a robe à la française gown, c. 1753, that was worn by Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793).

The robe à la française, or “dress in the French style” is characterized by full box pleats hanging from the shoulders, three quarter sleeves with full layered cuffs, a narrow, conical bodice, and a full skirt with prominent hips. This style of dress was predominant in Western European fashion for middle class and wealthy women from approximately the 1720s through the 1780s, with variations on textiles, embellishments, and accessories over time.

Madame de Pompadour, 1756, François Boucher (1703-1770), Oil on canvas, Alte Pinakothek München.

Though missing its original stomacher, a panel to cover the bosom and abdomen, the gown still showcases details of period construction, including tiered cuffs and serpentine ruffles. If you lift the ruffled layer on the skirt – known as a furbelow – you can see how the light pink would have been a vivid hot pink when it was first made. This gown would have been quite bright when Eliza Lucas Pinckney first wore it in the 1750s.

Robe à la française gown, c. 1753, worn by Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Gift of Katherine Felder Stewart 1900-1984. HT 604a-b.

Eliza Lucas Pinckney was an influential figure among the landed gentry in 18th century Charleston with a multifaceted life. She was a diligent correspondent, a botanist, a planter, and a landowner in addition to being a wife, mother, and grandmother. These many roles are well documented by her own letters, which she copied and kept bound in a letterbook.

Pinckney’s largest contributions to South Carolina history were the successful production of indigo and silk on two of her plantations, Wappoo and Belmont. Though she was very invested in her knowledge of agricultural work, she would not have been so fortunate without the labor and expertise of enslaved people, whose oppression built her wealth many times over. These are just a few of the names of the people who made Pinckney’s life possible: Quash/John Williams (Carpenter), Dick (Cook), Mary Ann (Maid), Prince, Beck, Lynn, Sawney, Indian Peter, Isaac, Pompey, Sarah, Mo, Molly, Nanny, Mary, Peter, Douglas, Betty, and Gulla.

There are no known portraits of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, though there are several misattributions floating around online, so this 18th century woman’s silhouette is representative. The Artist’s Mother, 1783 by Bernhard Albrecht Moll (1743–1788) from the Royal Ontario Museum, sourced on Wikimedia Commons.

Eliza Lucas was born December 28, 1722, the eldest child of George Lucas (1690-1747) and Anne Mildrum (1700-1759). She was raised in Antigua on Cabbage Palm Plantation, a sugar plantation in what was then known as the British colonial “West Indies.” Anne Lucas was chronically ill, and partially as a result Eliza was very close with her father. George Lucas encouraged Eliza’s interest in botany and advocated for her education. At age 10, Eliza Lucas was sent to Mrs. Pearson’s boarding school, in London, England. There her early practical education and intellectual pursuits would be polished by etiquette lessons and the domestic skills expected of wealthy young women. At that time, she would have created this pincushion, marked “C B/EL/FEB/1736” with a central palm tree, likely a cabbage palm in honor of her home.

Pincushion, dated February 1736, made of cream silk stuffed with rabbit fur and sheep wool, embellished with wrapped head pins. Gift of The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina, 2018. 2018.17.6.

In 1737, Eliza Lucas would return to her family in Antigua, although by this point her brothers, George Jr. and Thomas, were enrolled in London schools. By 1739, the remaining Lucas family, including George Sr., Anne Lucas, and Eliza’s four year old sister Mary, moved to South Carolina for both financial and political reasons. Unfortunately, George Sr. was recalled to military service in Antigua almost immediately. With Anne Lucas unwell, the burden of management for three South Carolina properties fell to Eliza Lucas, who was not quite 17. By all accounts she rose to the challenge, with assistance from property managers and advice from local planters and businessmen, including new friends, Charles Pinckney (1699-1758) and his wife Elizabeth Pinckney (1702-1744).

Painting of Indigo from American Flora attributed to Mrs. R.G. Rhett. From the Collections of The Charleston Museum, AZ 1546.

Eliza Lucas’ love of botany would serve her well in her new agricultural pursuits, particularly in her attempts to cultivate indigo and the precious dye it produced. Indigo provided through the British East India Company produced a much deeper, richer blue than the woad dye that Western Europe previously relied upon. Chintz textiles, cotton printed with blue indigo and red madder designs, were also highly prized imports in the mid-18th century. English manufacturers wanted access to cheaper indigo to compete with goods coming out of India, and producing indigo in South Carolina made a good source.

Textile fragment dyed with indigo, 18th Century. From the Collections of The Charleston Museum, HT 634.

Eliza’s father sent her seeds, as well as an expert dye maker, to help establish the crop on Wappoo Plantation. In a 1785 letter now held in the collections of the Charleston Library Society, Eliza Lucas Pinckney would recall the struggles to cultivate indigo from 1740-44, working with her neighbors and other planters to overcome crop destruction and even sabotage.

In early 1744, Elizabeth Pinckney, Charles’ wife, died after a long illness. By this point Eliza had become close friends with the couple, and even attended Elizabeth during her last months. That year, Eliza faced increasing pressure from her father to join him in Antigua. She had put off marriage a couple of times since her ascension to plantation manager, despite it being a practical, expected solution to her initial struggles with money and business.

Tree of Life Palampore (Bed Cover), late 18th century, Maker Unknown, sold by United East India Company. From the Collections of The Charleston Museum, HT 4841.

Instead Charles Pinckney proposed, and they were married on May 27, 1744. Charles assisted with the management of indigo production, as the indigo and accompanying Wappoo Plantation served as Eliza’s dowry. With their efforts came a crop of indigo just kept for seeds, which were distributed among the local gentry. Indigo dye quickly became South Carolina’s next cash crop, second only to rice, with 5,000 pounds exported in 1745-46, increasing exponentially to a whopping 130,000 pounds by 1748.

By her own account, Eliza was extraordinarily happy married to Charles, and found in him a partner that respected her own pursuits and interests. Together they would have three children who would become influential in Charleston society and beyond. The youngest, Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828) would serve as Governor of South Carolina, US Minister to Great Britain, and Special Envoy to Spain. Harriott Pinckney Horry (1748-1830) would not only marry well and provide Eliza Lucas Pinckney with her first grandchild, but worked closely with her mother on silk production at Belmont Plantation. The eldest, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825), would serve in the colonial South Carolina legislature, become one of the first “curators” of The Charleston Museum at its founding, distinguish himself in the Continental Army, and eventually campaign for President of the United States. We are fortunate to have items of clothing from all three siblings in the Historic Textiles Collection.

As the new mistress of Belmont plantation in 1744, Pinckney took on the task of introducing sericulture to South Carolina. She probably hoped that, like with indigo, she would succeed where many had previously failed. Attempts at raising silkworms to encourage silk production in the American colonies had been ongoing since the 17th century, but without much commercial success. Silkworms will only eat mulberry leaves, and cultivation of the trees in the western hemisphere is tricky.

Maintenance of the worms is also notoriously labor intensive, as they need to be fed constantly and have their enclosures routinely cleaned. Not to mention the steps required to go from cocoon to finished textile: boil the cocoons, unwind the filaments, spin them into usable yarn, dye the yarn, and finally weave the textile. Once again, Eliza benefitted from the work of enslaved people, who were tasked with the maintenance of the silkworms.

After some trial and error, Belmont plantation silk works were able to produce a considerable amount of silk, though not enough to start selling the yield on a broad scale like indigo. Eliza would continue to try and improve her silk output in the 1770 and 80s, with her daughter Harriott’s assistance. They would often consult the work of Samuel Pullein, a scientist who wrote a treatise on silkworms and sericulture.

The culture of silk, or an essay on its rational practice and improvement. In four parts, by Samuel Pullein, 1758 Pulled from The Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/cultureofsilkore00pull_0/page/146/mode/2up

However, there was enough volume to make the silk worth bringing to London for processing at Spitalfields when the family moved abroad in 1753. Their oldest son, Charles Cotesworth, was ready to start a formal education, and Charles Pinckney was at an inflection point in his career. Eliza, who spent her formative years in London, was excited by the move, and eager to rejoin society there with all it had to offer. Her husband was then able to use his political connections to gain an audience with Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales (1719-1772), mother of the future King George III (1738-1820).

Robe à la française gown, c. 1753, worn by Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Gift of Katherine Felder Stewart 1900-1984. HT 604a-b.

To circle back though, how does the pink dress in our collection enter Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s story? Was it made in South Carolina from silk produced on Belmont plantation? Based on the historical timeline, it’s unlikely.

When Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s pink dress arrived at the museum in 1940, it came with a note. It was written by the donor, a direct descendant of Eliza Lucas Pinckney named Katherine Felder Stewart, who said that according to family history it was “the dress she wore when presented at court.”

Letter dated December 10, 1940, written by donor, Katherine Felder Stewart, to E. Milby Burton, Director of The Charleston Museum. From the accession files of The Charleston Museum.

If it is in fact the dress Pinckney wore in fall 1753 when meeting Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales, it would have been made in London either before the Pinckney family arrived, or shortly thereafter. Though there were dressmakers in Charleston working with European textiles of high quality, most wealthy families were importing the latest fashions from London. For an occasion like meeting royalty, Eliza would have wanted to look her very best.

The Carolina silk wasn’t fully processed until 1755, when it was announced in the South Carolina Gazette that the Pinckneys’ had gifted a dress to Augusta– a year and a half after their initial meeting.

Perhaps there was a more formal court presentation of the Pinckneys in the later 1750s when this dress was worn? If so, such a momentous event would have been recorded in Eliza’s extensive correspondence, and documentation of the remaining Carolina silk would support that claim.

In fact, the remainder of the Carolina silk material was divided. A portion was given as a gift to Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, another botany enthusiast, while the rest was made up into a gold dress for Eliza Lucas Pinckney herself. That dress is now in the collection of the Smithsonian. A fragment of the material was gifted to The Charleston Museum as a token example of Carolina silk.

(left) Dress, 1750-1780, Worn by Eliza Lucas Pinckney and made of gold silk brocade. From the collection of the National Museum of American History, Gift of Elizabeth R. Pinckney and Sarah P. Ambler. (right) Textile fragment, c. 1755, of silk produced at Belmont Plantation, South Carolina, then woven in London, England, likely at Spitalfields silk production center. From the Collections of The Charleston Museum, HT 4035.

Thanks to conservation by Loreen Finkelstein, expert Conservator, the gown has been preserved for its future life using funds raised by the Eliza Lucas Pinckney Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution in South Carolina. In 2020 it was very briefly dressed and then extensively photographed for the publication of The Charleston Museum: America’s First Museum. However, to protect it for posterity, the gown will always be exhibited flat.

Robe à la française gown, c. 1753, worn by Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Gift of Katherine Felder Stewart 1900-1984. HT 604a-b.

Visitors will be able to see Eliza Lucas Pinckey’s gown in person May 13 – July 9, 2023, when it will be on display in the Loeblein Silver Gallery as part of our 250th anniversary celebrations. Alongside the gown will be several of her personal items, including the pincushion and Carolina silk mentioned above.

-Virginia Theerman, Curator of Historic Textiles March 2023




Select Bibliography

Anishanslin, Z. Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World. Yale University Press, 2016.
Feeser, A. Red, White, and Black Make Blue: Indigo in the Fabric of Colonial South Carolina Life. University of Georgia Press, 2013.
Glover, L. Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Yale University Press, 2020.
Pickett, M.F. Eliza Lucas Pinckney: Colonial Plantation Manager and Mother of American Patriots, 1722-1793. McFarland, Incorporated, Publishers, 2016.
Pinckney, Eliza Lucas. The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Edited by Marvin R. Zahniser. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Ravenel, Harriott Horry. Eliza Pinckney. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896.