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Fabric Samples from an Early New York Businesswoman

In honor of Women’s History month, we want to highlight materials that focus on  women in New York City history.  The Alexander Papers at the New-York Historical Society contain the records of the mercantile business of Mary Alexander and provide a glimpse into the life of a colonial NYC businesswoman.

Fabric samples sent by Mary Alexander, 1726. (Alexander Papers, MS 8 )

Mary Alexander’s mercantile business specialized in “haberdashery,” or what today is called notions.  Records from this firm include samples of fabrics that Mary Alexander had requested or purchased.  According to the records, Mary ordered expensive silks and worsteds as well as plain, utilitarian materials. The sample above is from the 1730’s and includes swatches of silver lace and crepe. The fabric samples are still vibrantly colored and are beautiful to examine.

Mary Alexander was born in New York City in 1693.  In 1711, she married Samuel Prevoost, an importer.  The couple had three children and together ran their mercantile business.  Mary contributed much of her inheritance to the business and generally acted as a business partner with her husband.  After Prevoost’s death around 1720, Mary married James Alexander, a notable attorney and politician. She had seven more children in her second marriage (only five lived to adulthood) and continued to run the Prevoost mercantile business. She sold goods in her store in front of their mansion on Broad Street and soon became one of the leading merchants in New York City.  With her social connections and her successful business, Mary was a prominent member of colonial society and is reputed to have served as an informal advisor to many New York politicians.  Mary Alexander died in 1760 and was buried with her husband at Trinity Church.

Mary Spratt Provoost Alexander, 1693-1760. (Portrait File, PR 052)
Creative: Tronvig Group