The last page of the letter shown above was written by General Philip Schuyler to his daughter Eliza Schuyler Hamilton in September, 1799. He was in Albany, NY, while she was in New York City. It’s typical of the letters they exchanged, filled with news of the family, friends, and acquaintances, with remembrances and updates for those far away, as well as Philip’s customary love and affection; in this letter and many others, he calls Eliza “my beloved child.” The letter is in the collection of the Library of Congress, and you can read all of it (or at least try to; Philip’s handwriting is not the easiest to decipher) here.
The letter was important enough to Eliza that she kept it - and yet at some point she apparently used the back of the letter for some random sketching. There is, of course, no absolute proof that these little leaves and fruits are by Eliza - she didn’t sign her doodles - but it’s very likely that they are hers.
My guess is that they’re not simply random, idle drawings, but sketches for needlework. Like many 18thc women of her class, Eliza enjoyed embroidery (see these examples of her stitchery here and here), and continued various forms of handiwork throughout her long life. These little drawings are very similar to the commercially produced patterns for embroidery that were available in the late 18thc, either from the designers themselves or through English publications like The Ladies Magazine (see the 1796 pattern for a winter shawl, below.)
Patterns like this could be worked freehand, or pricked and transferred via pouncing to the fabric. Women adapted the patterns to suit themselves and their projects, and patterns were often shared among friends and family.
The drawings on Philip’s letter not only show the regular repetition of a stylized vine motif and the suggestion of smaller stitches that were used to fill in open spaces, but also hint at shading, whether through different colored threads or the changing direction of stitches. I like to imagine Eliza working out the details of her next project this way, sketching and designing. Her second daughter Eliza was born in November, 1799, only two months after her father wrote this letter to her. Perhaps these twisting vines found their way onto a little whitework baby’s cap or gown.
Below: “A New Pattern for a Winter Shawl” by an anonymous designer, from the 1796 half-year of The Ladies Magazine, collection of Jennie Batchelor.
Many thanks to Jessie Serfilippi for first bringing this letter and the sketches to my attention.
Read more about Eliza and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.