Who was Benjamin Powell?

Rear view of Benjamin Powell's house
When one visits the Benjamin Powell house, one realizes he was a man who lived comfortably during the 1770s. Here is not a small one-room building many people lived in, but a lovely home with airy rooms. Benjamin Powell was a carpenter or, as they called him back then an undertaker.  He built many of Williamsburg's landmark buildings and purchased the home we see here in 1763.  Several of the buildings he worked on are the Public Gaol, the Bruton Parish Church, and the Public Hospital.

The front hall where you would be greeted
What do we know about Benjamin Powell?  He was born in 1730 and married his wife Annabelle when he was 20 in 1750.  They had two daughters, Hannah and Nancy. Not only was he a carpenter, but he was a planter and a member of the Common Hall of Williamsburg. During the revolution he supplied tents and worked on the soldiers' barracks.

The Powell house is a lovely home with several outbuildings such as the kitchen/laundry, the dairy, the smokehouse, the stable, the lumber house, and the necessaries. The home has two sections - a brick section built in the 1740s when it was owned by Benjamin Waller and the frame portion added in 1763 by Mr. Powell.  He tripled the size of the home by adding three rooms and a second floor.

Smokehouse - an outbuilding
The smokehouse was used to cure their meat. There were no windows on a smokehouse to make sure the juices were sealed in as well as keeping animals out.  After all, after slaughtering the pig for the winter, you would not want to go outside and find out an eager raccoon had stolen your meat.  This would also keep people from stealing your food because a lock could be placed on the door.  Notice this smokehouse is brick.  Many smokehouses were made from wood, so a brick one was more durable.



Also in the rear you would find the kitchen/laundry.  In this area a multitude of things could be done.  While the fireplace was going, the water could be boiling and clothes could be washed.  While the clothes were being cleaned, food could be prepared for the day.  The kitchen/laundry was not far from the smokehouse so the meat was easy to reach.  Imagine having to go outside to get meat to prepare.  Do you want to go far?  Of course not. The same is true for the kitchen.  Do you want to have to carry the food far to the dining room?  The plan for these extra buildings had to make them close by but not too close because the heat from the fire would heat the house as well.  Many of the homes had large windows to allow the air to flow freely across the entire floor.  The front foyer door was connect to a long hall which connected to the rear of the house.  Again to keep the air flowing freely.  The staircase for the upper floor was in the foyer hall.  Efficiency was important.

dining room
sitting down to eat
In the dining room you can find a removable floor. It was a sign of wealth to have a floor such as this. It was made from a heavy cloth just like the sails on a boat. Then it was painted.  Many ladies painted cloths like this.  When the family served a meal it was set up in a way that was most pleasing to the eye.  Colors were important when setting the table. Everyone would have a platter to pass around waiting until it returned to you to serve yourself.  It was a highly efficient way to serve food without having to reach over and pass plates a dozen times. Mr. Powell would sit at one end of the table and Mrs. Powell would sit at the head of the table. Servants or slaves would be at the fringe of the room standing still and waiting for Mrs. Powell to signal them if something was needed.  Just a mere tip of her head would be signal enough.

When the family entertained, the furniture would be either moved to the edge of the room or removed entirely.  Chairs would be set up around the room for people to sit and talk.  As you can see there were tables set up in the foyer, away from the dancing area to play games of chance or chess/checkers.  Yes, even back in the 1770s people played some of the same games we play today.  One of the most popular dances was called the country dance.  In England it was called the contra danse, but as with many things, the pronunciation was changed once it arrived here in the colonies.  For Mrs. Powell to hold such galas was a sign of her acceptance into the higher levels of society even though she was middling class.

view from the rear porch
gardens behind the house

 The Powell family would be known as a middling family.  They were not as wealthy as the aristocratic families such as Peyton Randolph and yet they could mingle in society with them because they had the social skills. They also had three slaves on their property who had two children.  These slaves helped with the daily running of the household.  Mrs. Powell had no formal education and could not read or write but she was skilled in housewifery. Benjamin Powell sold the house in 1782.

Annabelle's vanity table

Annabelle's traveling trunk
winged back chair
In the bedroom, we see several items to show the Powells had some wealth.  The lady's dressing table with the mirror.  The traveling trunk we could call a suitcase was made of fine leather and wood. Even looking at the dining room table - take note of the long tablecloth.  A truth sign of wealth to all who visit is having one so long.  Another would be the length of your napkins.  If it was long enough to tie around your neck then you were considered quite well off. Annabelle Powell may not have been educated but she was welcomed into homes where women were. Her social skills enabled her to mingle with the aristocrats and yet run a household with ease. Her job was not an easy one and yet she was admired by all who met her.

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