May 4, 2012

Eliza Lucas Pinckney: Silk and Indigo Grower

We can't leave the colonial period and the subject of silk without saying something about Eliza Lucas Pinckney.  Eliza was not a Quaker, but her contributions to the early economy of the colonies, specifically to South Carolina, must be mentioned.

Eliza was born in the West Indies on December 28, 1722.  She was educated in England and lived in Antigua for a short period of time before her father, an officer in the British Army named George Lucas, moved his family to South Carolina in 1738.  There, the family settled on a plantation that overlooked Wappoo Creek not far from the town of Charleston.  This plantation was one of three owned by Eliza's grandfather, John Lucas then deceased, who had left the plantations to her father.  When Eliza's father left South Carolina to return to active military duty in 1739, sixteen-year-old Eliza assumed responsibility for the Wappoo Creek plantation and for managing the overseers of their other two plantations.

Eliza proved to be an astute business woman and an avid agriculturalist who successfully experimented with and cultivated indigo for export and domestic use.  She married widower Charles Pinckney on May 27, 1744, a prominent planter and lawyer as well as an old family friend.  While still actively pursuing her agricultural interests and the management of the family plantations, Eliza gave Charles three sons and a daughter.

Eliza is best known for her indigo production but she also raised silkworms and produced silk spun from her own cocoons.  In 1755, she visited England taking with her enough silk to make three dresses.  One of these dresses "was presented to the Princess Dowager of Wales, a second to Lord Chesterfield, and a third, it is said, to her daughter Mrs. Horry of Charleston."  (Little, 130-131.)


Mid-18th century dress made of silk grown and spun in South Carolina by
Eliza Lucas Pinckney.  Given to the Smithsonian Institution by Eliza's direct
descendants.  Possibly the dress made for her daughter in England in 1755. 
Photograph courtesy of the Division of Home and Community Life, The National
Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.


Eliza Lucas Pinckney's early agricultural and economic accomplishments were formally recognized in 1989 when she became the first woman to be inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.

Sources: 

Little, Frances.  Early American Textiles.  New York and London: The Century Company, 1931.

Pinckney, Elise (ed.).  The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, 1739-1762.  Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press by arrangement with The South Carolina Historical Society, 1972.



(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012




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