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A Daughter Of Liberty

Diana Is Poised To Take Wing


ALL THAT SPRING and all that summer she searched. She visited the textile mills in Kensington, weighing the quality and cost of the cloth produced there. She noted there were few deficiencies in grade and color. She also discovered a shortage of hand looms. What looms there were belonged to immigrant weavers who had transported them at great sacrifice when they fled Ireland. The dankness of their shops should have been oppressive, but the lively talk of the men and women—their brogue soft and musical, but barely decipherable—seemed to lift the gloom.

She pored over the newspapers, delighting in their freshness and number, charting prices of goods and services so numerous her mind was a constant swim of figures. Shopkeepers grew accustomed to her bursting into their store, turning over objects, fingering the quality, asking the cost and then departing with only a smile for their reward. And who could object to the time spent with such a lovely young widow?

Diana went on excursions to far-flung farms and saw how cheaply things could be had there, and how the costs leapt as the distances and roughness of the roads grew. Even after so short a time in the city, the slow pace of things in the hinterlands irritated her and she was always anxious to return to the city. She noted in these distant places that the post was carried by rough boys on big farm horses, or by old men who didn't care a shaved shilling for their duty. On the way to one place she saw an old post carrier astride his horse, knitting mittens. The horse had stopped to munch tender shoots by the roadside, and the man didn't seem to notice. Hours later she returned, and the two had only made a few miles—although one of the mittens was nearly done.

All the farms in these areas were prosperous, with earth as rich as dark pudding, and large broods of children she doubted ever took ill. Although she had nothing to sell, she took a lesson from Emmett and befriended the farm women. Exchanging gossip, she casually explained how great their profit would be if they eliminated the teamster middlemen and took their goods to market themselves. When that time came, she said, be sure and stop with me for supper.

Back in the city, with the newness wiped from her eyes, she noticed the underlying tension among the poorer class. The weavers casting dark looks at their masters, the coal loaders on the Schuylkill muttering and flexing their muscles when the ships came in and the wages offered were the same no matter how burdensome the task. The misery of the homes along Water Street, where the riverbanks came up to the shanty porches and the stink grew near unbearable in the dry summer. The immigrant families sold into indenture right off the boat. The hot talk issuing from taverns, like The Jolly Irishman at Race and Water, or The Lamb at Second and Lombard, and especially at Isabella Barry's Faithful Irishman.

She knew the people's wages were too low and set out of greed and stubbornness. She was sure this could not last long in a city brimming with money. But at least in Philadelphia there was some outlet in that a home—no matter how squalid—could be purchased by any man—or woman. By law, land could be leased for a lifetime at low cost, and any sort of structure put upon it.

Diana had taken advantage of this early on. She'd purchased the old, comfortable boardinghouse she'd been staying at. With Mister Walsh's assistance, she leased the lots on each side. The home was at the end of a court, just off Tenth Street and near the High. The area was shabby, quite unlike the luxurious sections the Walshes had steered her toward at first. When she'd reminded him of his own investment in the Lancaster Pike, and pointed out all traffic would have to come down the High—right past her home— to reach the market, he saw the wisdom. And leased some parcels himself in the same court.

What she was going to do with the home, besides refurbishing it and setting aside some apartments for herself and the boys, she'd yet to decide. It would be no boarding home. She was through with innkeeping. But there was space enough for a shop of some sort, with room to spare.

Remembering those farm women she'd visited and her own advice on eliminating the middleman, Diana advertised for some adventurous young men. From her own dreary experience in Cherry Valley, she outfitted them with small necessities and baubles sure to bring a few moments of pleasure, and sent them off on long selling trips. Most of them returned with empty packs and fat pockets. As for those who didn't—the cost was so little, it didn't matter. More important, she had means of communicating with those women that didn't depend on old men knitting mittens on spavined horses.

She loved the docks. Ships from all over the world put in here, brimming with goods that teased the imagination or begged to be tasted or worn. She renewed acquaintance with the oil-ship captains she had introduced to Mister Walsh in New York. Other skippers were recommended to her by Ruth's husband up in Boston (the poor dear was good for some things). She would sit in the coffeehouse with them, savoring the brew that came from the big sacks of beans stacked to the ceiling, and listen to their adventures; they, bristling with charm; she, nodding, oohing, smiling, and picking their brains empty.

Sometimes she was accompanied by Anne, sometimes by Mister Walsh. But always there was Farrell, walking quietly behind, or sitting nearby, scratching in his notebook with a smaller and smaller hand, until the book was full and she had to press him to let her buy another.

Mister Walsh watched all this with amusement, figuring she would eventually settle on some small business that wouldn't be too taxing, but would allow her enough profit to live easily. But he noticed it was Diana who could always snoop out the best prospect, then bargain it down to a fair price. He began asking her advice, which she gave freely. If he took it, the result was certain to make him smile.

One day when she was visiting Anne, he asked her into his study. She sat in the big leather chair across from his writing desk, and they chatted easily about minor business matters. The atmosphere grew so relaxed, for a moment she swore Mister Walsh forgot her sex and almost pushed over a humidor for her to enjoy a cigar. Then he got to the point. He asked if she'd chosen a trade, and then, quite bluntly, asked how much money she had. She told him without hesitation.

His eyes widened—in all his life he'd never met a woman with so much who had not inherited from husband or family. He knew he had only an inkling of what she had suffered to win it. He brushed at his brow, as if wiping away all previous conceptions about this woman, realizing that all the ideas he had in mind to assist her were too small.

He began laughing, in that great booming voice of his that defied its tiny frame. He laughed so hard Anne came in to ask the jest, but he just waved at her helplessly. Finally, he sputtered to a stop, filled a glass to the brim with brandy and drank it in one long swallow. Then he wiped his chin and settled back in his chair.

"Diana, dear," he said. "When you settle on your life's work, let me know. And I'll be with you all the way."

* * * *

It was coming on to fall when she made her discovery. And it was all on account of James Emmett. The boy's behavior had been better of late. Diana hoped he was exiting a difficult age and settling into the business of growing up. He still went about like a tightly wound ball of thread, always threatening to unravel. But his misadventures had been relatively minor. And so, when James Emmett begged her to take him to the docks to see the ship from China, she agreed.

They could smell the cinnamon and sandalwood drifting in the breeze long before they reached the wharf. It was one of several small ships that had been regularly following the route of the Grand Turk for several years now, daring Drake's Passage for the riches on the other side of the Pacific.

And riches they had aplenty: Nankeen Chinese silk, blue Canton plate, sparrows from Java, mangoes and coconuts, Malacca cane and monkeys. All guaranteed to fire a boy's imagination. But Diana was only mildly interested. The goods were exotic, but so was the means of supply; she saw no permanent business possibilities. But James Emmett begged and begged until she had a whisper with the captain, who let him come aboard in the company of Farrell.

Diana wandered on, planning to spend a pleasant hour or so on the docks, seeing what she could see. Mister and Mrs. Cogley ran an emporium near the Shepherd's Crook. It was a tidy building with gay trim and tasteful advertisements for all manner of exhibits and goods. On this day they were featuring a wondrous clockworks just down from Boston. It was purportedly an exact duplicate of the Boston Harbor, complete with the Long Wharf and several ships and many small boats that churned through miniature waterways for many minutes before their springs needed rewinding.

There was also a fashion exhibit, boasting examples of the Latest In Ladies' Wear Direct From The Royal Court In England. The costumes were displayed on several beautiful hand-painted dolls, with delicate features and tender limbs that could be twisted this way and that to better show off each dress.

A perfumed crowd of wealthy women were gathered about the dolls, commenting on the long trains festooned with loops of bobbin, and small covered buttons the same color as the dresses.

"How simply marvelous," a woman was saying. "One isn't even confined by the number of festoons. You can put on as many as you fancy ..."

"... and look at the shape of the hats," another was saying, "there's no slope in the crown, hardly a rim . . . and see how the bonnets are open at the top so one can pass her hair through any which way she pleases ..."

"... this one over here ... no such thing as long sleeves! Why, they're halfway to the elbow…"

"... don't you adore how they have colored ribbon pinned round the bare arm—see, it goes here . . . between the elbow and the sleeve ..."

The dolls were completely outfitted, down to slippers made of colored kid or morocco, with small silver clasps artfully sewn on. But it wasn't the fashions that caught Diana's attention. It was the dolls themselves. They brought the costumes to life—showing how each item was worn by women just like these, but far away in "more civilized surroundings," as one woman put it.

She realized from the conversation about her that these women would return with their seamstresses to copy the dresses on the dolls. Diana thought of all the fashion ideas she had, scribbled on paper or—more often—worked out in her head. Many of them, she believed, were far better than what was displayed in front of her. Just showing one of these women a drawing was no good. In her experience, people had too little imagination to translate a picture—no matter how cunningly drawn—into what would look good on them. Especially if it involved the expense of the fine materials these fashions dictated. Just as it would be poor business for her to turn her ideas into life-size costumes. How much money would be wasted before her reputation warranted purchase?

She sought out Mrs. Cogley, a cheery little woman who taught dancing to young girls on the side, and with her husband sponsored one of the assemblies that were just coming into fashion with the unmarried folk.

"How much for the dolls?" she asked.

The woman puzzled at her. "If it's one of the little dresses you like, madam," she said, "you can bring your seamstress along on the morrow. There's plenty of time. This exhibit doesn't close until—"

"I don't care about the dresses," Diana said, shocking the woman even further. "It's the dolls I want. And not just those. Perhaps a hundred more to start. And then ..."

It took time to explain. Even then, Diana had to wait until Mrs. Cogley fetched her husband so she could go through the same thing again. She wanted to order dolls. Naked dolls! By the crateload, if she could get them. She needed a lot of them just to get started; until she could find artisans in town of sufficient talent and speed to make her own.

Mister Cogley was no genius—and he was stubborn about it. If she wanted toy dolls, that could be arranged. But these dolls were constructed to serve the purpose that Diana could see with her own eyes. They were too delicate for children. No, no. He wouldn't take Mrs. Shannon's money for something so foolish . . . she was sure to blame him when it all went wrong . . . and besides ...

Diana bribed James Emmett off the ship from China and sent him and Farrell to fetch Mister Walsh "as quick as if there were Indians about!

It took only a few minutes to explain the idea to her mentor. The dolls would be her calling card. She would deck them in riding habits, wedding dresses, gowns for the assembly, slippers and hats and shawls and chemises. Her ideas poured out like a great tide rushing up the river. She could adjust the costume to taste, right on the doll, before the astonished lady's eyes, take a tuck in here, let out a little there, here a flounce, there a flounce . . . and bows and lace . . . and . . .

Mister Walsh smiled at her, nodding, nodding, nodding ... all the way back to his house and all through dinner with Anne.

Diana's house had plenty of room for workshops, and she could put in an elegant waiting room for her clients and a private trying-on area where her seamstresses could measure and pamper and gossip. She'd start with bolts of material she could buy on the street or off the ships. With the two leased lots next to the house, there was plenty of room to expand. Have her own cloth made and dyed to order . . . And she'd just heard of a lace-making machine which she estimated—given enough orders to warrant its high price—could cut the cost of lace by at least sixty percent or more. . . .

Diana's face was flushed with excitement. She looked even younger than twenty-six. A bit like a bride contemplating her wedding day. Her two friends smiled at one another as the plans came tumbling out in ever-growing detail.

Their fledgling bird was ready to take wing.

NEXT: Yellow Fever Devastates Philadelphia

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