By Yve Colby
Much can be learned from the pages of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s twenty-one surviving account books: her material purchasing habits, diet, lifestyle, travels, opinions of family members, and much, much more. Her account books are part financial account, shopping record, inventory, journal, and commonplace book.
They include her daily purchases of food, clothing, textiles, accessories, fine and decorative art, furniture, housing, meals, carriage rentals, payments to servants, gifts, etc., as well as her financial records of stocks, dividends and ground rental payments received from her numerous properties. These books also include home recipes for everything from hair dye to cures for rheumatism.
The information found in these small books provides insights into her mundane as well as her luxurious expenditures, such as jewelry or silver.
Elizabeth often used her account books as journals, a place where she wrote down quotations from literary works and her thoughts on everything from politics to her family members, and of course, her famous ex-husband, Jérôme Bonaparte. They also record her material consumption patterns, the ways she spent and managed her money, the purchases she made, and her travels in both Europe and America. In addition, her account books include records of her thoughts, emotions, and motivations.
One quote written on the inner cover of a book dating from 1840-1859 is particularly revealing. She cites Samuel Johnson, writing: “Getting money is not all a man’s Business; to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the Business of Life.” On the next page she writes: “…It taught me to keep accounts, to save my income, [and] to avoid sacrificing future comfort to present amusement or ostentatious [and] vain Expenditure-E.P. 1841”. She goes on to quote Byron, writing “as long as money shall continue to be one of the greatest sources of power so long will they who seek influence over their fellow men attach value to it as an instrument [and] the more lowly they are inclined to estimate the disaster.” Another quote written towards the end of the same book, is especially heartbreaking. In a confessional moment, Elizabeth writes, “I was like the Egg of the ostrich laid in the sand for any thing or person who chose to crush or to cherish me.”
Looking to some of the most significant relationships in Elizabeth’s life, that last passage in particular speaks volumes. Her relationships with Jérôme, her father, and her son all seem to share the lack of control over how she might be treated that is implicit in that statement. Her finances were one area of her life where she could take control.
Elizabeth’s writings in particular speak to the mentality of a woman driven by a need for power and control at a time in America’s history when women often had little power over their own circumstances. At this time, a married woman was not legally allowed to manage her own finances and technically needed the approval of her husband for a contract.
In November 1812, six years after Napoleon had Jerome and Betsy’s marriage annulled in France, Elizabeth took control of her finances and her life when she filed for a divorce in the United States. Her life choices to remain single after her divorce and to split her time between Europe and the United States shaped her purchasing patterns. Her singleness allowed her the freedom to live her life the way she desired, despite what her father or others thought. After she filed for a divorce in America, she had the independence fully control her finances, her greatest source of power. It is easy to see how she may have viewed her singleness as equal to power.
Elizabeth’s remarkable diligence when managing her finances–evident in page after page of her meticulous records–was something she took pride in, and repeatedly notes: “…Statement on 1871 1st of January of my Property in Stocks-all of which the Product of my Labor!” and “1 January 1871 List of Elizabeth Pattersons [sic], generally called Mme Bonaparte, Stocks made by her on 1 January 1871-Personal Property the result of her laborious Efforts.” She wanted to make sure that anyone who read these books knew her financial success was the result of her efforts and no one else’s. Her finances were an important part of her identity, just like the material goods she surrounded herself with and used to shape her social and personal identity.
During this time, most women were noted in shopkeeper’s accounts under their husband’s names, making it difficult to track women’s spending. The fact that Elizabeth paid her own bills allows us to fully understand her spending patterns in a way that scholars can do with few other 19th century women. Studying the collection of objects associated with Elizabeth at the Maryland Historical Society while also examining her account books illuminates a picture of this extraordinary woman’s material and spiritual life.
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte Papers, 1802-1879. MS 142, Boxes 13a, 13b, 14. MdHS.
Burn, Helen Jean. Betsy Bonaparte. Baltimore: The Maryland Historical Society, 2010.
About the author: Yve Colby is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in the History of Decorative Arts at George Mason University in Partnership with the Smithsonian Associates. Her area of interest is early American material culture, with a focus on costume, textiles, and the experiences of women. She is currently writing her Masters Thesis on Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte using the collection at the Maryland Historical Society, and is exploring how Bonaparte used her material possessions to shape her social and personal identity. She is also the part-time Art Curator for the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.