Ann Bingham: Eighteenth-Century American Socialite

Ann Bingham was born Ann Willing in Philadelphia on 1 August 1764. She was acclaimed for her stunning good looks and regularly touted as one of the most gorgeous women in America just like Juliette Récamier was touted as the most beautiful woman in France. Of Ann it was stated:

“Her beauty was splendid. Her figure, which was somewhat above the middle size, was well made. Her carriage was light and elegant, while ever marked by dignity and air. Her manners were a gift. Sprightly, easy, winning, are terms which described the manners of many women, but while truly describing hers they would describe them imperfectly, unless they gave the idea that they won from all who knew her a special measure of personal interest and relation.”[1]

Ann Bingham by Gilbert Stuart

Ann Bingham in 1797 by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ann was the oldest daughter of Anne McCall and Thomas Willing. Her father was an American merchant, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania, and the first president of the First Bank of the United States. She also had some illustrious relatives as her paternal grandfather served as mayor of Philadelphia twice, her uncle, James Willing, was a representative at the Continental Congress, and she was related to the families of Shippen, Powell, and Francis.

Ann met William Bingham in Philadelphia. He was born there to Mary Stamper and his namesake William Bingham on 8 March 1752. The younger William graduated from the College of Philadelphia, now called the University of Pennsylvania in 1768 and during the American Revolution, he served as consul to French Martinique and as a West Indies agent for the Continental Congress. His job was to secure food stuffs and munitions for the American Revolutionary army, which is how he became involved with privateers and trading. By the end of America’s revolution, he had amassed a great fortune and was regarded as one of the richest men in Pennsylvania, although some claimed that he was the possessor of an ill-gotten fortune.

William Bingham. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Upon his return to Philadelphia from the West Indies, 28-year-old William began to woo 16-year-old Ann. She was considered a “favorite” of many imminent Bostonian gentlemen partly because her family held an important social position and partly because she was highly accomplished and had exquisite grace. Despite all the men interesting in her, it was the 28-year-old William who won Ann’s heart. They married at Christ Church on 26 October 1780, and according to the Press and Sun Bulletin:

“[S]he brought to her husband a family prestige that was second to none in the Quaker City. But in addition to this, she helped to establish the standard of feminine fashion and excellence in that flourishing town.”[2]

A few years after their marriage, in 1784, Ann Bingham and her husband William visited Europe and remained there for five years.

“In the gay capitals of the Old World the wealth of Mr. Bingham gained him admission into circles which would have been closed to him as an American if he had been poor. Their country was then represented in the European courts, and the Binghams were known to the diplomatic corps. In Paris, John Adams, who had enjoyed the hospitalities of the Willings frequently in Philadelphia, used his influence to have the Binghams presented at the court of the ill-fated Louis XVI [and Marie Antoinette].”[3]

Few Americans were lucky enough to be presented to the French court and it appeared to go extremely well for Ann Bingham:

“[S]he attracted much attention among the nobles and aristocracy. Her dress at a certain dinner given by the Lafayettes is described as [superb and] of ‘black velvet with pink satin sleeves and a stomacher, a pink satin petticoat, and over it a skirt of white crepe spotted all over with gray fur; the sides of the gown open in front, and the bottom of the coat trimmed with paste.’”[4]

Ann Bingham

Ann Bingham by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Yet, it wasn’t just the French who were enamored by Ann. She and her husband were friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who in conjunction with Adams were negotiating treaties with various European governments. Adams and his daughter met the Binghams at the Hotel Muscovy for dinner one night and Miss Adams stated at the time:

“Mrs. Bingham gains my love and admiration more and more every time I see her; she is possessed of greater ease and politeness than I ever saw.”[5]  

The daughter’s admiration for Anne Bingham was likewise voiced by her mother, Abigail, who stated:

“Notwithstanding the English boast of their beauties, I do not think they really have so much of it [sic] as you will find among the same proportion of people in America. It is true that their complexions are undoubtedly fairer than the French, and in general their figures are good ― of this they make the best ― but I have not seen a lady in England who can bear a comparison with Mrs. Bingham, Mrs. Platt, or Miss Hamilton, who is a Philadelphia young lady. Among the most celebrated of their beauties stand the Duchess of Devonshire, who is masculine in her appearance. Lady Salisbury is small and genteel, but her complexion is bad; and Lady Talbot is not a Mrs. Bingham, who, taken altogether, is the finest woman I ever saw. The intelligence of her countenance ― or rather I ought to say, its animation ― the elegance of her form, and the affability of her manners convert you into admiration.”[6]

While in London, the Binghams began thinking about the type of home they wanted when they returned to America. They eventually settled upon creating a mansion like the one that belonged to the Duke of Manchester in Manchester Square. However, the Bingham’s American home was somewhat larger with the lot being on the “west side of Third street, extending form Spruce street northward.”[7] As to what was constructed there, it was described in the following manner:

“Its width was spacious, its height not extended above a third story, and it stood perhaps forty feet from the ordinary line of the street, being approached by a circular carriage-way of gravel, the access upon both ends of which opened by swinging gates of iron open tracery. A low wall, with an elegant course of balusters upon it, defended the immediate front, and connected the gates which gave admission. The grounds about the house, beautifully diversified with walks, statuary, shade, and parterres, covered not less than three acres. They extended the whole distance, three hundred and ninety-six feet, from Third to Fourth street, and along Fourth street two hundred and ninety-two feet from Spruce to the lot subsequently bought, built upon, and occupied by the late Mr. John Sergeant. On Third street the line extended north toward the house of her father, as far as that of her uncle, Mr. Powell, afterward of the late Mr. William Rawle; so that the whole square from Willing’s alley to Spruce street along Fourth — filled now by fifty-four fine houses — was occupied only by the houses of her father, Mr. Thomas Willing, her aunt, Mrs. William Byrd of Westover, another aunt, Mrs. Powell, and her own princely abode.”[8]

William Bingham house elevation. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The interior of the house was claimed to be as magnificent as the English style gardens that sported a profusion of lemon, orange, and citron trees. Inside were expensive patterned carpets, rooms papered in the “French taste,” marble stairways, Gobelin furniture, and silk chairs in the drawing room ordered from London that had “festoons” of crimson and yellow to match the drapes.

The Bingham’s mansion easily lent itself to entertaining and society events held in Philadelphia became known to be centered around Ann Bingham. Her hospitality was both lavish and constant and included such illustrious guests as the Marquis de Lafayette and his brother-in-law, Viscount de Noailles, who visited in the summer of 1795. It was partly because of Ann’s many and magnificent entertainments that Philadelphia was ranked as one of the highest social centers during the 1700s as indicated:

“Anne Willing Bingham was an outstanding Philadelphia hostess … This beauty presided over an avant-garde court back in Philadelphia, amid the splendor of marble staircase and elegant furniture. Her beauty and gracious hospitality made her home a choice spot for visiting dignitaries.”[9]

Although Ann Bingham was popular with many elite and well-known people, it didn’t mean she always got what she wanted. Apparently, she begged Thomas Wignell, a Philadelphia theatre manager, to allow her to have a box that she would furnish and decorate at her own expense if he would let her keep the key and allow no one else to enter the box without her permission. Wignell, though tempted, decided that granting her such a privilege might offend the masses and therefore refused. She in turn rarely patronized his theatre thereafter.

Despite her problems with Wignell, Ann Bingham was popular and considered the consummate hostess. She also ushered in some new ideas when it came to hosting events. For example, after living abroad, she introduced into Philadelphia society, the idea of servants announcing guests names when they arrived at the party. Not everyone was familiar with this idea and that resulted in at least one humorous story:

“One evening a visitor, to whom this was an innovation, hearing his name called out repeatedly while he was removing his outer garments, cried out, ‘Coming!’ ‘Coming!’ and in a louder tone as he heard his name at the drawing-room door, ‘Coming! As soon as I can get my great-coat off!’”[10]

Because of such blunders the practice didn’t last long. Still Ann Bingham was touted as a successful hostess and in fact she was more than that because she was influential in other ways. For instance, a full-length portrait completed by Gilbert Stuart of President George Washington was attributed to Ann Bingham’s help. She supposedly used her influence to ensure the President provided the required sitting for Stuart. Washington’s acknowledgement of this fact appeared in a note sent to Stuart dated 11 April 1796:

“I am under promise to Mrs. Bingham to set for you tomorrow at nine o’clock; and wishing to know if it be convenient to you that should do so, whether it shall be at your own house (as she talked of the State House) I send this note to you, to ask information.”[11]

Washington’s painting was done at Stuart’s studio in the William Moore Smith house and because of the time constraint, Stuart focused on the President’s head and face. The painting was begun under the order of the Marquis of Lansdowne but William Bingham wanted to pay for it as a gift to him because of his hospitality when William and Ann Bingham had been in London. So, when the portrait was finished in the fall of 1796, William paid the fee of $1,000.00 to Stuart, framed it in an ornate frame, and shipped it off to Lansdowne, who received it by 5 March 1797.

Lansdowne’s portrait of George Washington by Stuart. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Stuart also painted several portraits of Ann Bingham. Among them is the one above completed in 1797 that shows her wearing a plunging neckline with a huge jeweled pendant. There is also another painting, shown below, an engraving painted by Stuart of her holding a book.

Ann Bingham

Engraving from Stuart’s original of Ann Bingham. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Stuart also painted many portraits of the founding fathers and their wives, which have been copied onto American currency. Because Stuart painted several portraits of Ann, legend grew that he used her as model for Lady Liberty on the American “draped bust” coinage that appeared during the first decade of the nineteenth century. As there were no official records kept at the time, the history of the mint is based on speculation, and, thus, Ann Bingham as Stuart’s model for the coinage has never been definitively proven and remains nothing more than interesting conjecture.

Portrait of Gilbert Stuart by Sarah Goodridge, 1825. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ann Bingham was also known to corresponded with Thomas Jefferson. One letter he wrote to her came from Paris and mentioned life there. Having lived abroad she was familiar with the French salons and likely knew women like Madame Roland, Sophie de Condorcet, or Madame de Staël who hosted some of the most popular salons.

In one letter to Ann on dated 7 February 1787, Jefferson cited the life of a Parisian woman claiming it was nothing more than “empty bustle.” He remarked that a French woman’s day didn’t start until about noon and that she then wasted the rest of her time until supper, after which she played cards. He then compared that dissipated life against what he imagined Ann’s life to be in America:

“In America, on the other hand, the society of your husband, the fond cares for the children, the arrangements of the house, the improvements of the grounds fill every moment with a healthy and an useful activity. … The intervals of leisure are filled by the society of real friends, whose affections are not thinned to cob-web by being spread over a thousand objects.”[12]

Thomas Jefferson by John Turnbull in 1788. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ann replied to Jefferson a few months later writing on 1 June:

“I agree with you that many of the fashionable pursuits of the Parisian Ladies are rather frivolous, and become uninteresting to a reflective Mind; but the Picture you have exhibited, is rather overcharged. You have thrown a strong light upon all that is ridiculous in their Characters, and you have buried their good Qualities in the Shade. It shall be my Task to bring them forward, or at least to attempt it. The state of Society in different Countries requires corresponding Manners and Qualifications; those of the french Women are by no means calculated for the Meridian of America, neither are they adapted to render the Sex so amiable or agreable in the English acceptation, of those words. But you must confess, that they are more accomplished, and understand the Intercourse of society better than in any other Country. We are irresistibly pleased with them, because they possess the happy Art of making us pleased with ourselves; their education is of a higher Cast, and by great cultivation they procure a happy variety of Genius, which forms their Conversation, to please either the Fop, or the Philosopher.”[13]

Ann Bingham died young a mere 36 years old. No one ever got to know how she would have aged or what she might have accomplished if she had lived longer. As noted by Thompson Wescott, a leading nineteenth-century journalist and editor from Philadelphia:

“Mrs. Bingham, brilliant and gay, paid the penalty of devotion to pleasure by an early death. She took cold from exposure in a sleigh while returning from a party shortly after the birth of her only son. This brought on a serious affection of the lungs. Removal to a milder climate was recommended, and … a vessel being especially prepared for her accommodation … ‘Her departure on a palanquin from her splendid mansion to this vessel … was an event which attracted the gaze of hundreds.’ The change was an alleviation, but not a cure. She slowly declined and died in Bermuda May 11, 1801.”[14]

Ann Bingham published by James Bretherton after Angelica Kauffman. Courtesy of the British Museum.

References:

  • [1] T. Westcott, The Historic Mansions and Buildings of Philadelphia: With Some Notice of Their Owners and Occupants (Philadelphia: W. H. Barr, 1894), p. 343.
  • [2] Press and Sun-Bulletin, “William Bingham: The Man,” September 5, 1906, p. 12.
  • [3] T. Westcott. 1894, p. 342.
  • [4] M. C. Crawford, Romantic Days in the Early Republic (New York: Little Brown & Co., 1912), p. 44.
  • [5] T. Westcott. 1894, p. 342.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 342–43.
  • [7] Ibi. 1894, p. 344.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Indiana Gazette, “Anne Willing Bingham was an Outstanding Hostess,” October 7, 2005, p. 18.
  • [10] M. C. Crawford, Romantic Days in the Early Republic (New York: Little Brown & Co., 1912), p. 45.
  • [11] G. W. Smalley, Notes on social life. Notes on Parliament. Pageants. Miscellanies (London: Macmillan, 1890), p. 363.
  • [12]From Thomas Jefferson to Anne Willing Bingham, 7 February 1787,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019.
  • [13]To Thomas Jefferson from Anne Willing Bingham, [1 June 1787],” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019.
  • [14] T. Westcott. 1894, p. 347.
  • [15] The Woman’s Athenæum v. 3 (New York: The Woman’s Athenæum, 1912), p. 179.

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