Pack Your Bags and “Go!”: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, A Woman on the Move

By Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch

“Always move forward…” –Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, 1840

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was a woman on the move. In a recent conversation with historian Helen Jean Burn, author of Betsy Bonaparte (Maryland Historical Society, 2010), I asked, “Why do you think Elizabeth always lived in boarding houses?” Burn’s answer was thought provoking. “She wanted to be able to leave at a moment’s notice.”

Trunk owned by Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, probably China, circa 1800, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.552
Trunk owned by Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, probably China, circa 1800, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.552

Never one to be tethered to a permanent residence, Elizabeth made a total eight trans-Atlantic trips at a time when few women attempted a trans-continental voyage more than once if at all. Elizabeth did not maintain a home of her own or a staff of servants. Instead, boarding houses and hired help made her free to pack her trunks and “Go.”

Helen Jean’s answer got me thinking back to a quotation in a little known diary by Martha Custis Williams Carter who visited Elizabeth at Mrs. Gwinn’s Boarding House on Cathedral Street in Baltimore in the 1860s. Carter describes the contents of Elizabeth’s room, noting, “An inch stump of a candle…Three large black arm chairs, two wardrobes, a bed & a cabinet & a table compose the…furniture.” There was no carpet, no wallpaper, and no gas in the room because Elizabeth believed it provided a healthier environment. For a woman who spent years in the palaces of Europe, this kind of Spartan interior seems, in a word, bizarre.

Always one to doubt a source, I thought I would compare the possessions Carter noted with an inventory from 1863 written in Elizabeth’s own hand. She records:

one Mahogany Ward Robe, one walnut wardrobe, 1 ditto Bureau with Looking Glass & marble Top, 1 Ditto walnut wash Stand marble top, 1 walnut Bedstead, Spring Matress & 1 hair Matress, 1 small walnut Table, 3 French arm Chairs, 1 woollen Blanket & 1 ditto cotton, 2 dressing gowns round the Blankets & Soap in, Mahogany Dressing box, in which are the Keys of Trunks & of the Boxes in the Merchants Bank, one Mahogany writing Desk, 2 Flat irons, 1 Demi John

Much to my delight, Carter’s memory of Elizabeth’s room was accurate. The “3 French Arm Chairs” are more than likely the “Three large black arm chairs” she recalled. The two armoires, one walnut and one mahogany, appear in the inventory along with the simple bed and the table. What the inventory and Carter’s diary do not record are the significant number of trunks and boxes Elizabeth always had on hand. Before Elizabeth departed for a European trip, she left her more cumbersome possessions in the safe possession of the bank and various trusted friends. Sometimes she left her paintings at the Maryland Historical Society. With trunks and boxes at the ready, she could be off in a moment. And “Go” Elizabeth did!

Luke Zipp of Crocker Farms in Sparks, Maryland and volunteer at the Maryland Historical Society, recently scoured Elizabeth’s letters to reconstruct where the peripatetic Elizabeth was between 1815 and 1864, the year she returned to Baltimore permanently. Keep in mind, Elizabeth had already made one ill-fated trip to Europe in 1805 when she and her soon-to-be estranged husband, Jérôme crossed the Atlantic.

Here is an excerpt of what Luke found. It’s a glimpse at the life of a nineteenth-century “jet-setter.”

1815—London and Cheltenham
1817-1819—Back to Baltimore
1819-1824—Geneva, Rome and Paris
1824-1825—Back to Baltimore
1826-1834—Paris, Florence, Geneva, Le Havre, Savoy and Gaillon
1834-1839—Back to Baltimore
1840-1849—Back to Baltimore
1852—Back to Baltimore
1861—Back to Baltimore
1864-1879—Back to Baltimore where Elizabeth died

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