Elizabeth Bull and Roger Price: An 18th Century Love Story

1910.0050.035
Elizabeth Bull didn’t need to marry for money, but marriage was, of course, in the cards. Such inevitability was central to her education, and her father was invested in the appropriate tutelage. As a merchant working on the family wharf, he was privy to the latest fripperies: sewing patterns from France and bolts of silk and thread from China dyed to match blooms along the Tigris, far from the provincial outpost of Boston. These were the raw materials for a polite education, and a means to an end. When Elizabeth was fifteen - two years before she met Roger Price on a Sunday morning at Trinity Church in 1732 - she began an appropriate assignment: a wedding dress.

Roger was brilliant, if not a bit dour. He didn’t care for his colleagues at Kings Chapel, and after four years as the only commissary to Anglican churches of New England - and almost constant bickering with his Assistant Minister - he booked a one-way fare back to London. On Sunday morning, he found his ship delayed by winds and opted to attend service at Trinity. He was probably not in the best of moods.

That year, Roger’s father wrote to him in Boston warning not to “let his love of a pretty face run away with his decision in choosing a wife.” Clearly, there was something about Elizabeth that cheered him up that morning. It was enough for him to stay and defy his father’s advice. He didn’t return to England for another fifteen years, and then it was with Elizabeth and six children in tow.

The couple married in 1734 after a two year courtship. 1730 to 1734 years is a long time to spend working a wedding dress; a heady preoccupation that surfaces in the garment. It brims with anticipation, recognizable in its precision and steep aspirations; the stitches are perfectly wrought but the ambitious design unfinished. It’s her process which makes the gown so enigmatic. The days spent crafting a vessel for a journey unseen, her dutiful intent to be a good daughter and wife all buoyed by a compulsive talent.

Elizabeth would have been exposed to urban glamor through stores on Kings Street that sold ribbons and high heeled shoes, and the Bull wharf. Prompting her to, in many respects, become a designer. Inspiration was drawn from patterns from Spittafields, cotton palampore from India, and silks from Canton, all indications of a world much larger.

She, most likely, created a robe l’Aiglaise: an open robe style dress with a fitted bodice and a visible petticoat. The style was fit for a French court, hers with wild vines clawing the celadon silk and springing with sunny chrysanthemums and cheerful red buds. Her parents must have delighted in her creativity and commitment. School girl wares were as much of a commodity as all the other trappings of 18th century refinement, even in colonial Boston. Parents proudly hung samplers above mantles and recognized their “educated” daughters as a marker of wealth and sophistication. It would make sense that they would welcome the affections of Roger Price, who was a prestigious figure in town. Elizabeth had already inherited tracks of land after the death of her two brothers, so a good match strictly meant status. This was a lucky circumstance. Money is freedom, and certainly it was liberating for a woman in colonial Boston: Elizabeth could marry for love.

Elizabeth and Roger's daughter, also named Elizabeth, inherited the dress and was probably the first to alter it. She eventually gave it to her niece Olivia Price Hall, and Olivia’s granddaughter, Francis Irving Weston, donated it to the Bostonian Society in 1910. Shortly after, the Society's curator of collections asked an unnamed model to wear it for a Boston Globe photo shoot at the beginning of the 20th century. One wonders if the model knew she would be last to wear it in a string of woman that began with a teenaged girl sewing in a tavern on Summer Street where South Station now stands.

The dress is currently on display in the Old State House, and will be followed by an exhibition of the gown’s petticoat in November. Be sure to plan a visit to see it in person!

By Tricia Gilrein, Collections Manager and Exhibitions Coordinator