Online: Object of the Month
Abigail Adams' Pocket
Assistant Editor, Adams Papers
Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.
This dimity pocket was owned by Abigail Adams in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. An accompanying note in the hand of Abigail's granddaughter, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Coombs Adams, reads, "Dimity pocket worn for 50 years (probably) by Mrs. Abigail Adams my Grandmother & wife of John Adams. All old ladies wore these pockets & carried their keys in them." However, given the beautiful condition of the pocket, she may have exaggerated a bit in the assertion that the pocket was "worn for 50 years." This Adams family artifact is a recent gift to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
A Dimity Pocket
Measuring a full fourteen inches in length, this pocket is composed of eight pieces of dimity sewn together with an opening halfway down the front. Two ties are attached to the top seams of the pocket to be secured around the waist. The simple and sturdy striped fabric of the pocket--the polar opposite of the sheer cotton known today as dimity--suggests that this was a utilitarian garment to be tied under an apron or worn beneath a skirt and accessed through an opening in the outer garments. Embroidered and embellished pockets from the period were also worn in singles and pairs and could be displayed over a skirt as a decorative accessory.
Pockets were favored by European women for a hundred years prior to this dimity example, but Abigail's pocket and the accompanying note from Lizzie Adams mark a moment of transition. Abigail died in 1818, just as the use of women's tie pockets was superseded by handbags and inset pockets in skirts and dresses. With the declaration, "All old ladies wore these pockets," Elizabeth suggested that at the end of her grandmother's life, the changing fashions of the day dictated that tie pockets were going out of vogue. Thus, Elizabeth, born just ten years before Abigail died, regarded tie pockets as accessories worn only by the older generation.
The importance of pockets in Abigail's daily life is recorded in her letters to family and friends. In a 10 July 1787 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Abigail included a shopping list of articles for his daughter, Polly, and her maid, Sally Hemings, who were under the Adamses' care while in London. Among other things, she requested "5 yd Dimity for Skirts" and reimbursement for "diaper for pockets." Diaper is a sturdy, textured cotton that was probably used for making utilitarian pockets for young Polly and Sally. Readymade pockets could also be purchased in this era, but Abigail's request for reimbursement for fabric indicates that they were being hand-stitched at home.
Pockets could be used to store a variety of small possessions, including one's sewing notions, handkerchief, pocketknife, or small book. In the collection of Abigail's correspondence, she alluded to the objects concealed within her pocket. In February 1786, Abigail desired that her son-in-law William Stephens Smith do some shopping for her in France, but then quickly abandoned the idea. As she wrote to him on the 25th of that month, "I had the memorandum, and money in my hand, but . . . you looked so solemn . . . that I put my money again into my pocket, and threw the memo into the fire." On 22 May 1786, she also described the safekeeping of a long anticipated letter from Charles Storer, secretary to John Adams: "I wishd to open it, but so much company present I could not, so I put in my pocket." The capacious nature of pockets made them useful for the storage and organization of a number of objects, and their functionality independent of a garment allowed for items to be carried and concealed without disrupting the line of a dress.
Elizabeth Coombs Adams
Elizabeth was the daughter of Thomas Boylston and Ann Harrod Adams. Like his brother Charles, Thomas succumbed to alcoholism and died of liver disease in 1832. Due to her father's illness, Lizzie moved to the Adams mansion in Quincy to live with her uncle John Quincy and aunt Louisa Catherine Adams. She was engaged for a time to a local suitor but broke off the engagement in 1834 and never married. She devoted much of the rest of her life to preserving the memory of her famous grandparents and uncle. Elizabeth oversaw the return of John and Abigail's furniture to the Adams mansion, which provided the Adams National Historical Park with the fine collection of Adams materials that they have today. She also sifted through the correspondence left by her parents and destroyed many letters that she deemed too private or controversial. Elizabeth died in the Adams mansion in 1903 at the age of ninety-six. Like the rest of her five siblings, she was childless, and with her passing, the Thomas Boylston branch of the Adams family was extinguished.
How did the pocket find its way to Adams, New York?
The Abigail Adams pocket was purchased from an estate in Adams, New York, and recently donated to the MHS by Paula Novell Higgins of Georgia and Lori Rose Blaser of California, collectors of antique women's purses. Adams is a small town on Lake Ontario, named for President John Adams. During her life, Lizzie Adams moved around quite a bit, living in or visiting Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, and Europe. She also made at least one trip to upstate New York, visiting her cousin Abigail Louisa Adams Johnson in 1859 and staying in Utica, near Adams.
The pocket certainly could have found its way into Lizzie's possession, given her close associations with the Adams homestead. The text of Abigail Adams' will provides a possible provenance, stating that "all my Cloathing--body Linnen &--not already heirred shall be equally divided between my five Grand daughters and Louisa Catherine Smith." Based on that passage, it seems quite probable that the pocket ended up in the hands of Elizabeth as part of the general lot of "body Linnen." Given her demonstrated interest in preserving her family history, it would be in keeping with her character to write a note identifying her grandmother's pocket for future generations. View the online presentation of the handwritten note.
Sources for Further Reading
The Adams Family Papers at the MHS contain letters between John, Abigail, and their extended family. The letters referenced above were published in Adams Family Correspondence, volumes 7 and 8, and selections are available online as part of the Founding Families Digital Edition.
Burman, Barbara, and Carole Turbin, eds. Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.
Cummin, Hazel. "What Was Dimity in 1790?" The Magazine Antiques, vol. 38 (July 1940), p. 23-25.
Higgins, Paula, and Lori Blaser. A Passion for Purses, 1600-2005. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2007.
Nagel, Paul G. Adams Women: Abigail & Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Van De Krol, Yolanda. "Ladies' Pockets," The Magazine Antiques, vol. 149 (March 1996), p. 439-445.