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A Day in the Life of the Powell Family

A photographic essay by 1998 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute participants

Introduction / Father / Mother / Daughter / Slaves / Summary


Eighteenth-century family life was both similar to and very different from family life today. Life choices and opportunity during the eighteenth century depended upon whether individuals were male or female, black or white, free or enslaved, rich or poor, and whether they lived in the county or in a city like Williamsburg. (Slavery was a critical issue in eighteenth-century Virginia. Many Virginia children were raised to be masters or mistresses, while slave families had little control over their family life.)

There was the possibility for upward mobility for white middling families if they had the social skills and behaviors of the gentry. Benjamin Powell and his family were able to take advantage of economic as well as social opportunities available in the capitol city.

Teachers participating in the 1998 Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute were asked to examine family life at the Benjamin Powell House while exploring the use of digital camera images in the classroom. While on the property, teachers were assigned to groups in which each group represented a member of the Powell family: Mr. Powell, Mrs. Powell, Hannah and Nancy Powell (daughters), and Nanny Cate and Rose (three of the Powell slaves). As a result of the teachers' visit to the Benjamin Powell House and the digital images they recorded, you will be able to explore a day in the life of each of the members of the Powell family.

This is the Powell family home, on Waller Street, in Williamsburg, the capital city of Virginia. Benjamin Powell House (front) - 1763 addition

Mr. Powell purchased two lots on Waller Street, containing a two-room brick house, on May 1, 1763. He then proceeded to triple the size of the house by adding three rooms on the front and a full second floor. The brick portion of the house is the oldest, built in the 1740s. The frame portion of the house is the 1763 addition.

The Powell property consists of the house, several outbuildings and the gardens. The outbuildings include the kitchen/laundry, the dairy and smokehouse, the stable, the lumber house for storage and the "necessary" houses.

Mr. Powell considers his home to be excellent advertising of both his skill as a builder and as a carpenter. The interior refinements are as beautifully finished as the exterior.

Benjamin Powell House (back) - 1740's Kitchen/Laundry Smokehouse Dairy
Stable Lumberhouse Kitchen garden Privy

The Powell family in 1774 includes Mr. Powell's wife Annabelle, their daughter Hannah, and three adult slave women, Nanny, Rose and Cate, each of whom have two children on the property. The Powell's youngest daughter, Nancy, married John Burwell in 1771, and they have a daughter, Elizabeth, and are expecting a second child.