What can a silver thimble tell us about the life of its owner three hundred years after she last touched it? What would such a possession mean to someone who lived in Maryland at the turn of the eighteenth century? As a curator of archaeological collections, I love to ponder these kinds of questions.
I work at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory (MAC Lab) at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, a 38,000-square-foot facility devoted to curation, conservation, and research for collections generated by archaeological work throughout the state. We hold an estimated 10 million artifacts in the public trust, and the stories these objects can tell are infinite. It can be difficult to weave needlework and sewing into those stories because textiles rarely survive in the ground, but we do find sewing tools such as pins, needles, scissors, and, of course, thimbles. This story is about two special thimbles recovered by archaeologists in Maryland and the insight they offer about women of the early eighteenth century.
The “RA” Thimble
Occasionally, archaeologists recover exceptional artifacts that connect to a specific person in a very personal way. One of the best examples I have encountered was a silver thimble in one of the MAC Lab’s collections that was excavated in the 1980s. The thimble depicts winged cherubs flanking two hearts, professionally inscribed with the initials “RA.”
I couldn’t resist researching this thimble, in part because I sew, but mostly because I—like most archaeologists who are unable to memorize and recognize fragmentary pieces of everything people have ever manufactured—have a specialty: little metal things. This thimble immediately received its own folder in my mental archive.
It was discovered as a result of law-driven archaeology triggered by a planned development in Prince George’s County, Maryland. By considering historical records, old maps, the age of the artifacts recovered, and the type of structure found, archaeologists concluded that the site was most likely the first main house of Addison plantation, built between 1687 and 1690 by John and Rebecca Addison—aka RA.
According to colonial records, Rebecca immigrated to Maryland from England with her family in 1650. She was the daughter of an educated clergyman, Reverend William Wilkinson, and grew up on a 1,250-acre tobacco plantation called Westbury Manor in St. Mary’s County. By 1662, Rebecca had married Thomas Dent, a merchant, attorney, and planter, and the Dents had six children before Thomas died in 1676.
Rebecca then married John Addison in 1677, and I wondered if the silver thimble with its romantic theme might have been a wedding present. Her new husband was a merchant and planter who engaged in direct trade with England, where such an item would most likely have been acquired. Rebecca and John had a son together, Thomas Addison, who inherited when his father died around 1705.
Silver thimble depicting two cherubs flanking hearts that are inscribed with the initials “RA” as shown from three different angles. The inscription is finely done and likely professional. A cartouche for the maker’s mark appears above the two hearts, but the thimble is too worn for that to be readable. Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory Accession Number 2003.019.001, 18PR175/9000
Rebecca Addison didn’t remarry a third time. She may have stayed on at the house she and John built until her death in 1726. Artifacts from the site are abundant and indicate that the house was either still occupied or used as a storehouse when it burned by 1730. The catastrophe created an incredible archaeological resource for understanding life on an early-eighteenth-century plantation. The thimble came from a brick rubble deposit at the east end of the house.
Given the thimble’s pre-1730 archaeological context and Rebecca Addison’s history, I originally concluded that despite its tiny size, the thimble must have belonged to Rebecca as an adult in her second marriage. This thimble is a mere ½ inch in diameter at the opening; it won’t even slide on my pinkie. After looking into it some more, I realized that I had succumbed to a common obstacle of historical research; men are the ones who inherit and are written about, while women marry and change names, making them harder to track. I knew that “Thomas”and “John” were go-to names when the Addison boys were born, but I hadn’t noticed that the girls were named for family as well. I missed the fact that Thomas’s first child was a girl named Rebecca, no doubt after her grandmother. She grew up to become Rebecca Addison Bowles Plater, who, like her grandmother, would marry twice and have seven children. In her girlhood, her initials were RA.
When the younger Rebecca Addison was seven years old, she moved to a bigger brick house constructed on the plantation between 1710 and 1711. Perhaps she outgrew her tiny thimble before the move, or her grandmother continued to live at the old house less than 300 feet away and they sewed together when she visited. The elder Rebecca might have helped teach her granddaughter the needle arts expected of ladies in their position. The diminutive “RA” thimble therefore existed at the intersection of two women’s lives: the child who owned and used it, and the grandmother whose name she shared.
The “S” Thimble
Not long after I began studying Rebecca Addison’s thimble, word came from the MAC Lab’s Public Archaeology program that another silver cherub thimble had been recovered. This time the first heart is inscribed with a crude “S” while the second heart is blank. This thimble is larger than the “RA” thimble; I can easily slide it on my index finger.
The partial inscription struck me as rather sad as I pictured a young woman glad to have the fine silver in her sewing kit but unwilling to commit to a second initial in the hope that she might marry. Why did the second initial never come? Did the thimble get lost? Did “S” die before marrying? Or did she never marry but always held out hope?
The silver “S” thimble came from excavations of the Smith’s St. Leonard plantation (1711–1754) at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Every summer for about 20 years, MAC Lab archaeologists invited the public to help excavate the site and locate buildings such as the main house, a kitchen, a laundry, a storehouse, a stable, and several slave quarters. The site became the central hub of Richard Smith Jr.’s large tobacco plantation in 1711 when he built a brick dwelling there.
The “S” thimble also has two cherubs flanking two hearts, but it lacks the maker’s mark cartouche, and the “S” engraved in the first heart is crudely done and possibly inscribed by an amateur.
According to Alex Glass, one of the archaeologists who researched Smith’s St. Leonard, only one member of the family had “S” as a first initial: Susanna Smith, born in 1691 to Richard and his second wife, Barbara Morgan Smith. Although named in her aunt Frances Morgan Sayer’s 1698 will, Susanna was not listed in her father’s will of 1713, even though he did bequeath property to other daughters. This suggests that Susanna predeceased her father at no more than 22 years of age, a tragedy that could explain why that second initial never materialized.
If this was Susanna Smith’s thimble, which seems likely, one of the most fascinating questions about this object is what happened to it after Susanna Smith died. The thimble was not recovered near the main house as one might expect, but in one of the slave quarters in the backyard.
We don’t know how the silver thimble ended up where it did. If it belonged to Susanna Smith, perhaps she lost it there before she died. Or perhaps it had never been hers and an enslaved person purchased the thimble, or the Smiths got it specifically for an enslaved dressmaker or personal maid. If Susanna was the original owner, though, then like the “RA” thimble, the “S” thimble invokes the connection of at least two women’s lives.
Four enslaved women lived at or near the home plantation when Richard Smith Jr. died in 1715: Bess and Betty Okee, Kate, and Pam. Was Kate Susanna’s childhood nanny? Did Pam cook all of Susanna’s meals? Did Bess and Betty Okee make Susanna’s clothes and act as her personal maids? Was there another woman living in this house who did not appear in the records? Did connections between any of these women and Susanna Smith lead to the thimble ending up in the slave quarters? These questions will likely go unanswered.
Archaeology’s strength is discovering the what, where, and when of history; though in this case, it is the who and the why that offer the most poignant food for thought. The initial “S” is a clue about the who, but it is by no means conclusive. The why is even more conjectural. The artifact cannot answer these questions, but it can serve as a focal point for thinking about the many ways these women’s lives might have intersected three hundred years ago.
Every artifact that ends up in the ground is evidence of some person’s action; it is a statement of “I existed!” Archaeological collections represent the daily lives of all people, not just those who wrote things down.
If found in a collection without any provenance, the “RA” and “S” thimbles would offer little historical information beyond the popularity of romantic themes and personalization in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Through the association between the “RA” thimble and the first Addison plantation house, we can picture a grandmother and granddaughter bonding over their shared projects. The connection the “S” thimble shows between the Smith family and those they enslaved is a reminder that the fine needlework many women created was possible because others handled the hard labor, and the lives of those who labored and those who didn’t were inextricably tied together. These stories can be told through two precious sewing tools thanks to their archaeological provenience. Just imagine what the other 9,999,998 artifacts at the MAC Lab might have to tell us.
- Holmes, Edwin F. A History of Thimbles. New York: Cornwall Books, 1985.
- Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. jefpat.maryland.gov/Pages/mac-lab/mac-lab.aspx.
- McCarthy, John P. Oxon Hill Manor: The Archaeology and History of “A World They Made Together.” Crownsville, MA and St. Leonard, MA: Maryland Historical Trust and Jefferson
- Patterson Park and Museum, 2010. jefpat.maryland.gov/Documents/mac-lab/mccarthy-john-addison-report-final.pdf.
- McConnel, Bridget. The Story of the Thimble: An Illustrated Guide for Collectors. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1997.
Sara Rivers Cofield has been the curator of Federal Collections at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum since 2004. She specializes in material culture research, archaeological collections management, and promoting online collections access. She has also collected historic costumes and accessories as a hobby for over 25 years and uses these collections to teach archaeologists how to recognize clothing-related artifacts.