Early American Women Unmasked

A special edition of #ColonialCouture, a Junto roundtable on fashion as history in early American life. 

Protective face coverings have emerged as a potent, multifaceted metaphor for the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite inconsistent examples set by elected leaders and conflicting recommendations made by public health officials, unisex masks have steadily assumed a greater role in social distancing measures and become mandatory in certain settings outside the home. Options range from standard blue and white surgical masks to creative DIY improvisations and “Corona Couture.” Some museums are looking to add homemade masks to their collections as a way to document the crisis. Worn for slightly different reasons and more implicitly gendered, the masks owned by early American women and even children were no less symbolic in terms of practical use, commodification, or controversy.

Notwithstanding their association with pre-Lenten carnival and the masquerade, early modern masks also served utilitarian, health-related purposes, namely protection against sun and windburn, and the preservation of a light or pale complexion for European women and those of European descent living in the Americas.[1] Believed to have originated in sixteenth-century Italy, oval masks sometimes referred as “vizards,” “visors,” and even “invisories” in early English sources were available in black, brown, green, red, and “natural” colored velvet. They appear to have changed little in overall design and materiality as they made their way across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean by the mid-seventeenth century.

I first encountered these curious, somewhat frightening objects by accident while studying the inventory of Sarah Williams (1716-1737) of Deerfield, Massachusetts.[2] The youngest child of the Reverend John Williams and his second wife Abigail Bissell, Sarah maintained a rather impressive wardrobe at the time of her death, including a mask valued 2 shillings. Her mask likely resembled extant European examples, one of which was found folded in half and buried in the wall of a circa 1600 English house. Formed out of cardboard, these are typically covered with velvet on the front and lined with light-colored silk or soft vellum that was sometimes perfumed. Holes are cut for the eyes and mouth, and the wearer secured the mask to her face by biting down onto a mouthpiece, usually a glass bead attached to the back. To date, no masks with a colonial American provenance are known to survive.

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Black velvet mask with paper backing, possibly an inner lining, and bead, England, 1700-1750, Norfolk Museums Service, Norwich


The papers of Sarah Williams’ older brother Elijah Williams (1712-1771), who operated stores in Deerfield and Enfield, Connecticut, shed additional light on the consumption of masks in the Connecticut River Valley at the time of the First Great Awakening. Elijah received reimbursement from his late sister’s estate “for brining things from Boston,” and is known to have acquired masks and other fashionable accessories collectively referred to as millinery through intermediaries there. A June 1742 invoice from Bostonian merchant Samuel Eliot enumerates one-dozen velvet masks intended for resale at Williams’ Deerfield store. According to the store ledger, it was young, often unmarried women from interrelated and entirely respectable families living in Deerfield and the surrounding area who were most actively engaged in their consumption. These included Sarah Munn (1724-1800) and Eunice Frary (1721-1813), who bought masks for ten shillings each in July of 1742. Experience Severance (born 1723) purchased hers in September, and Rebecca Nims (1728-1750), Eunice Clesson (1716-1772), Mary Chamberlain, and Mary Hillier followed in October. Patience Fairfield (1724-1809) bought a mask in November, and Elizabeth Cooley (1714-1789) of nearby Sunderland claimed the last one in December.[3]

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A Venetian woman’s black moretta offers a sense of what the masks described in colonial American sources might have looked like when worn, from Giovanni Grevembroch’s circa 1754 Gli abiti de’ veneziani, Museo Correr, Venice

Sarah Williams and her brother’s customers were neither the first nor the only colonial Americans to don such masks when venturing outdoors on foot or on horseback. The 1654 inventory of George Burrill, a cooper who lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, is the earliest record of their presence in Anglo-colonial wardrobes that I have yet uncovered; two masks appraised together with a pair of gloves at 5 shillings were presumably used by his wife or daughters.[4] Study of similar probate records, merchants’ accounts, and newspapers confirms their relative ubiquity from Massachusetts to South Carolina until about 1770. For example, the Boston merchant Robert Jenkins advertised the arrival of velvet masks from London at his store on King Street (now State Street) nearly thirty times between 1735 and 1750.[5] Like those sold by Jenkins, the masks worn by colonial women and acquired by way of other merchants, milliners, and private agents appear to have been exclusively imported from Europe and comparable to those seen in contemporary European fashion prints and related images.[6]

Published in Boston’s New-England Weekly Journal in March of 1728, an editorial on manners offers great insight into the social function and meaning of masks in Massachusetts and beyond. Especially telling are the connections drawn between them, violations of politeness, and concepts of female agency.[7] Signing off as Æ, the evidently white male author declared that

one of the greatest pieces of Ill-manners that has come under my Observation, is, the Practice of some Ladies of Fashion, that will walk with uncover’d Faces thro’ the Streets, ‘till just as they are near enough to pay their Honours to a Gentleman, who, perhaps is upon the Point of bowing, and then they will fix on their Masks, and pass along Incognito, either to take a bold view of the Person approaching, or else to let him know they desire not his complements.[8]

In this instance, the author appears to be referring more generally to the empowerment of white women when masked. Also used when dancing, the proper courtesy or honors for an eighteenth-century gentleman consisted of a bow in which one leg was extended as weight was shifted onto the other bent leg. A man would remove his hat with one hand, and was permitted to look the person that they greeted in the eye while completing his bow. For ladies, the honors involved a curtsey, with the hands folded at the waist or holding the sides of the gown or petticoat. A woman’s head remained level as she bent her knees, but she was to lower her eyes so as not to seem immodest or “bold.” Additional instructions and a demonstration of both men’s and women’s honors by Colonial Williamsburg interpreters can be watched here. If wearing a mask, a woman was expected to remove it. Rejecting a polite greeting was not only rude, but keeping the mask on and refusing to reveal oneself could arouse suspicion of bad character or duplicity, as recalled by a 1747 English painting of David Garrick and Hannah Pritchard performing Benjamin Hoadly’s aptly titled play The Suspicious Husband.[9]


The diatribe contained in the New-England Weekly Journal assumes an even more dramatic tone when addressing the volatile racial stakes of masks like those imported by cosmopolitan Boston merchants and sold to women as far west as Deerfield. “It is long since I have taken up a Resolution against pulling off my Hat to any Lady,” Æ avowed, “till she has taken off her mask to let me know she is a white Woman.” Such anxiety stemmed from his having once “pay’d very dear for being too mannerly” to a masked woman while walking the streets “in another Country.” From a distance, this figure appeared to be “of such Dress and Behavior” that Æ assumed she was a “Lady of Quality.” As he approached, “expecting every Moment she would uncover her Face to receive the Reverence that was due to a Person of her Appearance,” he was shocked to find that her presumably black or brown mask was “but very little different in Complection from her face.” He was thwarted a second time in being “very mannerly” to another woman, “a light-coloured lady, as I thought, (tho I am not certain to this Day),” who apparently 

felt too well to take any Notice of me, any otherwise than to stare upon me thro’ the Port-holes of her Mask, while she sailed along by me with that haughty and disdainful Air which is so natural to Persons of great Pride and little Manners.

Thus exposed by Æ, the mask’s potential to disrupt the status quo was made abundantly clear for readers of the New-England Weekly Journal, the majority of whom were themselves white if not also male. Yet several questions remain unanswered. Were the two masked women that so confused and confounded the author African? Indigenous? Mixed race? Were they enslaved, free, or indentured? Indeed, Æ saw the irony in the mask’s typical dark color while reiterating his own uncertainty over the pigmentation of the second woman, whom he also identified as “lady.” Equally ambiguous is the location of either incident, although the first is stated to have taken place in “another country” ostensibly beyond New England, quite possibly somewhere in the Caribbean. Similar accounts exist of masks and face coverings worn in Antigua, one of the British Leeward Islands and a colony with commercial ties to Massachusetts.[10] Stopping in Antigua while en route to North Carolina in 1774, the Scotswoman Janet Schaw eschewed the use of a mask herself. In comparison, her journal reveals how the island’s white creole women

from childhood never suffer the sun to have a peep at them, and to prevent him are covered with masks and bonnets that absolutely make them look as if they were stewed [perspiring]. Fanny who just now is blooming as a new blown rose, was prevailed on to wear a mask, while we were on our Tour, which in a week changed her colour, and if she had persevered I am sure a few months would have made her as pale as any of them. As to your humble Servant, I have always set my face to the weather; wherever I have been. I hope you have no quarrel at brown beauty.[11]

The burning rays of the unforgiving West Indian sun in part help to explain the continued use of masks in Antigua and other islands after 1770, when they appear to have fallen out of fashion on the mainland, in addition to fans, parasols, and veils. Residing in the Antiguan capital of Saint John’s from 1786 to 1788, the Englishman John Luffman discerned a more calculating motivation for facial coverings that is nearly identical to that so aggressively condemned by Æ in Boston a half-century earlier. One of the first things to catch Luffman’s eye was how  

the ladies, inhabitants of this place, seldom walk the streets or ride in their wiskys [a kind of light, one-horse carriage or chaise], without masks or veils, not I presume, altogether as a preservative to their complexion, being frequently seen at a distance unmasked, but as soon as they are approached near, on goes the vizor, thro’ which, by a couple of peep-holes, about the size of an English shilling, they have an opportunity of staring in the faces of all they meet. With you, this would be termed the grossest ill-manners, but here custom has established it, if not necessary as fashionable.[12]


A painting completed by the Roman-born artist Agostino Brunias in British Dominica depicts a group of three genteel figures strolling out of doors, shaded by a red parasol that they are spared the trouble and indignity of having to hold themselves. Especially notable is the central woman’s tall crown hat, with a distinctive veil-like embellishment to the brim. A contemporary visitor to Jamaica noticed that colony’s white women sporting green and white hats “under which white handkerchiefs were pinned round their faces, meeting over their noses” as “a usual precaution for preventing the sun from blistering the skin.”[13]  Others “secur[ed] their complexions with a brace of handkerchiefs; one of which being tied over the forehead, the other under the nose, and covering the lower part of the face, formed a compleat helmet.”[14] Despite the woman’s outward show of elegance and that of her two companions in Brunias’ canvas, their race is not so readily obvious.[15] Luffman is also silent on the race of the covered women (and the color of their masks) witnessed in Antigua, and it is tempting to speculate as to whether free creole women of color and possibly enslaved African and Afro-creole women appropriated the masks and veils known to have been worn by whites.

Janet Schaw observed how elite white Antiguans protected and prized extreme paleness as a mark of their identity and, by extension, their collective power over the enslaved and other non-whites who formed over 90% of the island’s total population by mid-century.[16] At the same time, both she and John Luffman would have seen creole people whose complexions were not necessarily enough to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt. If the work of Agostino Brunias in Dominica is any indication, establishing racial difference and identity on the basis of physical appearance or dress remained equally fraught, whether or not a person even wore a mask or veiled hat. Early histories of the Caribbean are replete with descriptions of the perceived sartorial extravagance of free women of color. Vying with each other for finery and prestige, some appeared ready to surpass the wives of wealthy white planters in material luxury. While more than likely exaggerated, these accounts nonetheless suggest the extent to which clothing and bodily adornment might function as a means by which free people of color could challenge and subvert a social order that deemed them inferior to whites. Unlike eye-catching jewelry and silks, however, masks and other coverings offered non-white women an additional avenue for agency. As bemoaned by a disgruntled Æ, some went so far as to claim for themselves the same anonymity and freedom of movement flaunted by white women when masked in Boston. Perhaps Æ encountered an earlier generation of African or mixed race women with similar ambitions and knowledge during the course of a voyage to Antigua. Whether by choice or by force, that some of these same women sailed from Saint John’s to Boston– and eventually exchanged their white handkerchiefs for the dark velvet masks that Æ found so unsettling in 1728– is no less intriguing a possibility.

From these sources, it appears that a variety of colonial American women took full advantage of the power afforded by a kind of mask whose most basic value was cosmetic. If we believe the New-England Weekly Journal, a masked woman was in a position to exercise an unexpected degree of personal autonomy regardless of what she looked like underneath the black velvet oval. With their facial features, expressions, and even voices hidden behind a mask, some women could momentarily flout, if not completely reinvent codified rules of decorum and deference. Others might yet attempt to transcend racial hierarchies. From New England to the Leeward Islands, all possessed a tool with which they could “sail along,” staring through the “port-holes” and “peep-holes” of their masks at whatever– and whomever– they pleased.

Philippe Halbert can be found on Twitter at @plbhalbert and on Instagram at philippe_on_fleek.



NB This post builds upon research originally completed as part of the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program in 2011 and titled “‘For Face He Can See None’: The Sale and Symbolism of Masks in Colonial Deerfield.” Special thanks to Historic Deerfield for its generous support and to Mark Hutter, Master Tailor at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, for his equally invaluable assistance, insight, and time spent discussing and thinking about this topic with me. Reproductions of colonial masks fashioned by Hutter using period materials and techniques can be viewed here

[1] Colonial newspapers reported on courtly masked balls and public masquerades in Europe, and colonial patrons sat for itinerant artists who depicted them in fanciful costumes, sometimes holding masks. At least one wealthy Virginia planter, Robert Carter III, could boast of having both attended masquerades in London and commissioned a portrait of himself in masquerade dress, complete with mask, by the English artist Thomas Hudson. However, no documentation exists for comparable events in mainland Anglo-America before 1801, when the Saint-Domingue refugee John Sollée, proprietor of the Charleston City Theatre, held a masquerade on New Year’s Day. In comparison, the governor of Jamaica, Sir Alured Clarke, hosted a masked ball in Kingston in 1788. For an overview of early American views on masks, masquerades, and portraiture, see Jennifer Van Horn, “The Mask of Civility: Portraits of Colonial Women and the Transatlantic Masquerade,” American Art 23:3 (Fall 2009): 8–35; and Jennifer Van Horn, “Masquerading as Colonists,” in The Power of Objects in Eighteenth-Century British America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2017), 214–272.

[2] The inventory also identified riding apparel among the young lady’s effects, including “cloath cut for a riding habbit and trimming,” two riding hoods, and several pairs of gloves, as well as three mares and two colts. Hooded and masked, Sarah Williams must have made a rather striking, even fearsome appearance when mounted on horseback, more highwayman (or perhaps highwaywoman) than Congregational minister’s daughter. “An Inventory of the real and Personal Estate of Miss Sarah Williams late of Deerfield Decd at it was apprized February the 12th 1738/39 by us the Subscribers,” in Hampshire County Probate Records, VI, 33–38.

[3] See a bill of sale for twelve masks dated 10 June 1742, Williams Family Papers, Box 3, Folder 4, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Library. Also contained in this collection are Williams’ account books and another invoice dated 30 May 1748 for six masks purchased from John Hunt of Boston at 5 shillings 8 pence each. Williams sold at least two of these masks at his Enfield store that same year; John Allen purchased one for 1 pound 20 shillings, and Ann Prior bought another for the same price along with a silk handkerchief.

[4] “Estate of George Burrill, Sr. of Lynn,” in The Probate Records of Essex County, Massachusetts: 1635-1664, vol. I (Salem: Essex Institute, 1916), 178. Perhaps the Burrill women were among those cited by authorities in Plymouth for “disguising, wearing visors and strange apparel to lascivious ends and purposes” in 1645. An order passed in June of that year imposed a fifty shilling fine or public whipping for first-time offenders, followed by a fine of five pounds or another stroke of the lash. Cited in Joseph B. Felt, The Ecclesiastical History of New England, vol. I (Boston: Congregational Library Association, 1855), 551.

[5] See Boston News-Letter, 22 May 1735; and Boston Post-Boy, 30 April 1750.

[6] Mask consumption was by no means limited to Anglo-America. Widely condemned by the local Roman Catholic clergy, masks like the twelve billed to Jean Martel, “marchand en Canada,” by the merchant Pierre Laurent of La Rochelle in 1698 found ready buyers in New France. As early as 1681, a half-mask or loup was counted among the property of the French-born Marie-Rogère Le Page at the time of her second husband’s death in the capital of Québec. Marie-Anne Roberge of Montreal owned two full masks in addition to five loups when she died at the age of thirty-one in 1703. See Francis Back, “Bal masqué en Nouvelle-France,” Cap-aux-Diamants 85, (2006): 44.

[7] A metropolitan precedent for these phenomena exists in the writings of the English diarist Samuel Pepys, who noted how some Englishwomen wore masks in order to discreetly frequent the playhouses of Restoration London. Watching the late Oliver Cromwell’s daughter Mary, Countess Fauconberg,”put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play” in 1663, Pepys wrote that masking had more generally “become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face.” He purchased a mask for his wife shortly after. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol. III, ed. Henry B. Wheatley (London: George Bell and Sons, 1893), p. 166. An account of playhouses under the reign of Queen Anne described London’s theatres as “so full of Smoaking, Swearing, Drinking, Thrusting, Justling, Elbowing, Sweating, Kicking, Cuffing, Stinking” and the pit as full of “vizor-masques.” Thomas Brown, Legacy for the Ladies. Or Characters of the Women of the Age. With a Comical View of London and Westminster (London: printed for H. Meere, 1705), 120–121.

[8] The New-England Weekly Journal, 25 March 1728.

[9] Adam Petrie advised in 1720 that it was not “civil to wear a Mask any where in Company of Superiors, unless they be travelling together in a Journey.” If traveling and “if her Superior make his Honours to her, she is to pull off her Mask, and return him his Salute, if it be not tied on; and if it be fixt so as she cannot have it off in Time, then she is to make an handsome Excuse.” Adam Petrie, Rules of Good Deportment (Edinburgh: 1720), 16.

[10] I note that Bostonian Henry Richards advertised the arrival of “a parcel of likely Negro Boys, and one Girl” from Nevis in the same edition of the The New-England Weekly Journal containing Æ’s tract on masks. We might also consider the Antiguan connections of the Massachusetts Royall family. Isaac Royall, Jr., and his sister Penelope were born in Antigua in 1719 and 1724, respectively. While Isaac was educated at Harvard, Penelope remained on the island until she was thirteen. As colonial elites like the Royalls traveled freely between their Caribbean plantations and additional properties in and around Boston, others members of the Royall household were forcibly taken to Antigua from West Africa, sold into slavery, and eventually brought to New England. One of over three hundred people enslaved by the Royalls in Antigua, Belinda is believed to have arrived from present-day Ghana in the mid-1720s at the age of eleven or twelve and been among the twenty-seven made to labor on the Massachusetts estate of Isaac Royall, Sr., in 1737. The Royall family’s move to what is now Medford, Massachusetts, followed on the heels of a suspected Antiguan slave conspiracy in 1736; Isaac Royall, Sr.’s enslaved driver or overseer Hector was one of seventy-seven slaves condemned to death by burning at the stake, while another Royall slave, Quaco, was spared his life but exiled for his supposed involvement. Enslaved by Isaac Royall, Jr., Belinda was eventually freed and successful in petitioning the Massachusetts General Court for a pension, drawn from the Royall estate, in 1783. Penelope Royall married Henry Vassall, a second-generation Jamaica creole, in 1742, was widowed in 1769, and sought refuge in Antigua in 1775 before her death in Boston in 1800. The Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford survive and are open to the public as a museum and historic site.

[11] Janet Schaw, Journal of a Lady of Quality: Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland, ed. Evangeline Walker Andrews with Charles McLean Andrews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921), 114–115. “Fanny” is Anne Rutherfurd, born in North Carolina in 1756. She had been educated with her siblings in Scotland and was returning to her family in the company of Janet Schaw and her brother Alexander; Fanny would later marry Alexander in 1787. See also Deirdre Coleman, “Janet Schaw and the Complexions of Empire,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:2, “False Arcadias’ (Winter, 2003): 169–193.

[12] John Luffman, A Brief Account of the Island of Antigua (London: T. Cadell, 1789), 35.

[13] Attributed to the Kingston-born, British-educated Robert Charles Dallas, this source also mentions how parasol-toting white planter men affixed white handkerchiefs “under the fore part of their hats” and that small children were similarly “pinned up.” In A Short Journey to the West Indies, vol. II (London: J. Murray and J. Forbe, 1790), 30–31.

[14] Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, vol. II (London: T. Lowndes 1774), 412–413.

[15] On the sometimes-enigmatic portrayal of race in paintings by Brunias, see Mia L. Bagneris, “Can you find the white woman in this picture? Brunias’s ‘ladies’ of ambiguous race,” in Colouring the Caribbean: Race and the Art of Agostino Brunias (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 182–214.

[16] Colin A. Palmer, “The slave trade, African slaves and the demography of the Caribbean to 1750,” in General History of the Caribbean, vol. III, ed. Franklin W. Knight (London and Basingstoke: UNESCO Publishing/Macmillan Education Ltd, 1997), 38. On slavery in Antigua more specifically, see Natasha Lightfoot, Troubling Freedom: Antigua and the Aftermath of British Emancipation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

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