Friday, May 27, 2016

Webbs, Morgans, Delords, and Halls: The Family Story of a Sampler

Lavinia Morgan’s sampler
In my earlier post on samplers, I noted that it was often difficult to uncover much information about the lives of the girls and young women who made these pieces. Most women left little mark on the official historical record. However, if a woman has a connection to a “notable” person or family, that makes it more likely that something about her will be preserved. That turns out to be the case for Lavinia Morgan, whose sampler, stitched in 1806 in Wethersfield, Connecticut, is in the Alice’s collection.

Lavinia Morgan (1798-1874) was the first cousin of Frances Webb Hall, daughter of Henry Livingston Webb and Frances Delord, and the last member of the Delord family to live in the Kent-Delord House in Plattsburgh. Lavinia’s mother, Sarah Webb Morgan, was Henry Webb’s sister. Sarah and Henry were two of the ten children of Joseph Webb, Jr., and Abigail Chester Webb, prominent and well-to-do citizens of Hartford, Connecticut. The Webb home (built in 1752 by Joseph Webb, Sr.) was known as “Hospitality Hall,” and on one memorable occasion hosted George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, who met there to plan the Yorktown campaign in 1781. (The house later became one of the sites in Wallace Nutting’s “Chain of Colonial Picture Houses,” and is now run as a museum by the Colonial Dames of America.)

Bowl from the Elias Morgan dinner service, now in
the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sally Webb (1775-1805) married Elias Morgan (1770-1812) in 1796. This was Morgan’s third attempt at marriage; his previous two wives (who also happened to be sisters) had both died within a year of their weddings. Sally and Elias had five children, of whom three—Lavinia, Mary Ann, and Henry—survived to adulthood. Although we don’t know much about Lavinia’s childhood, it seems safe to assume that she enjoyed the advantages of growing up in a wealthy and well-connected family. Elias Morgan was a merchant, and evidence of his success can be found in the large set of Chinese export porcelain dinnerware featuring the family coat of arms that he had made ca. 1785-90. A 19th-century family history noted that Lavinia and Mary Ann were still using the set; a number of pieces are now in museum collections and occasionally turn up at auctions.

Photo of the Elias Morgan house, ca. 1900
Courtesy of the Connecticut Historical Society
A photograph of a building identified as the “Elias Morgan House” in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society is another hint at the family’s wealth. Although it isn’t clear whether Elias Morgan actually lived in this house or just built it, the large, fashionable home suggests prosperity and refinement.

Lavinia lost both of her parents when she was quite young—her mother died when she was about 8 years old, right around the time when she was making her sampler, and her father seven years later. It is likely that her Webb aunts and uncles then became her guardians. Elizabeth, Frances, and Amelia Webb never married, and they would have been the obvious choices to look out for their teenaged niece. Lavinia, too, would remain unmarried, and when young Frances Delord Webb came to live with her aunts after Henry’s death, Lavinia was living with them as well. Although Lavinia and Frances were first cousins, Lavinia was so much older that she was probably more like another aunt to Fanny.

Check for $89.50 paid to Lavinia Morgan from
the bequest of Henry L. Webb
A woman who did not marry often found herself in a precarious position in an era when there were few economic opportunities for women. Fortunately for Lavinia, her family’s wealth assured that she would be able to enjoy some financial independence, although she always lived with either her aunts or her married sister. In addition to whatever money she inherited from her parents, her Webb relatives made sure she was provided for. Both Henry Webb and Frances Webb made wills in the 1840s that included bequests providing Lavinia with a regular income. Aunt Frances’s will, made shortly before her death in 1844, left the three Morgan siblings with $1000 each to be invested on their behalf. Henry Webb, making his will in 1845, left $500 to Lavinia, and instructed his executors to make investments that would provide her with an income of $200 per year for the rest of her life. (As a point of comparison, a woman working in one of the Lowell mills at that time made about $1.75 per week.)

Abigail Chester Webb, grandmother of
Lavinia Morgan and Fanny Webb Hall
Both of these wills are part of the Kent-Delord Collection held at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Feinberg Library. The collection also includes letters written from Lavinia Morgan to her Uncle Henry, checks and other financial documents related to the money left to her by Henry Webb, and documents connected with Lavinia’s estate at the time of her death in 1874. Thanks to Lavinia’s connection with the Delord/Webb/Hall family, we have these items to fill out the story behind the sampler. Exactly how the sampler ended up at the Alice T. Miner Museum is not known. We can guess that Lavinia bequeathed the sampler to her cousin Fanny Webb Hall, and that after Fanny’s death in 1913 her personal belongings were scattered. Documents in the museum archives suggest that Fanny’s sister-in-law, Frances Hall Sargent, donated a number of Webb family items to Alice, which may have included the sampler. 

Lavinia’s sampler is currently on loan to the Kent-Delord House, where you can see it along with many other artifacts from the Delord, Webb, and Hall families. The Kent-Delord House will be kicking off its season with Museum Weekend, June 4 and 5, and will be offering guided tours all summer long, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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