Elizabeth Drinker

By Jamie Mastrogiacomo

Elizabeth Drinker was born in 1735 as an upper-class Philadelphia Quaker. After both of her parents died, Drinker lived with friends until 1761, when she married a local merchant named Henry Drinker. The couple had five surviving children. Drinker spent her days maintaining her household and looking after her children’s’ health. Her sister Mary, who never wed, lived with the family and assisted them with child-rearing and other domestic responsibilities. Because Quakers still held social influence in Philadelphia at this time, the Drinkers often welcomed elite citizens into their home. Many Quakers attempted to remain neutral during the Revolutionary War. Some felt indifferent to the American cause due to their devotion to pacifism. However, indifference proved difficult in the midst of neighboring Patriots and Loyalists.

Elizabeth Drinker was unusually well-educated for a woman of her time. She remained relatively unknown during her life but became posthumously renowned for the diary that she left behind, which begins in 1758 and ends with her death in 1807.

During the late 1770s, Patriots required people to sign loyalty oaths in order to establish the appearance of a consensus throughout the colonies. However, Quakers generally did not believe in signing oaths. The following excerpts are from the years 1777 to 1778, when Henry Drinker and other local Friends refused to sign an oath of loyalty to Pennsylvania and were arrested by Patriots. The men were sent to Winchester, Virginia, where they remained imprisoned for seven months. During this time, Drinker ran her household in British-occupied Philadelphia, where she feared illness, theft and the forced quartering of British soldiers (a practice in which soldiers required colonists to temporarily house them). Along with the other wives left behind, she petitioned General George Washington and the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania (the then-governing body of the state) for her husband’s return. By April of 1778, the men were released. While it is unclear whether or not the petition helped, Drinker’s documentation of the event is influential in its own right.

September 3, 1777

“HD [Henry Drinker]. having been, and continuing to be unwell, stay’d from meeting this morning. he went towards Noon into the front Parlor… when Wm. Bradford [William Bradford, Patriot newspaper printer]; one [Bluser] and Ervin, entred, offering a Parole for him to sign – which was refus’d…they according calld the 4th, in the morning and took my Henry to the [Massons] lodge – in an illegal, unpredesented (unprecedented) manner – where are several, other Friends with some of other proswasions [persuasions], made prisoners.”

October 16, 1777

“I read a letter this Morning from my HD to JD – our Stable seller [cellar] was last Night broak open, and several of Jos. Scotts Barrels of Flour stolen – I [w]rote to my HD. this Morning by Nisbet – our child seem’d better, this forenoon, but more unwell towards Evening a great weight upon my Spirits most of this day; Nancy and little Molly both complaining – this is a Sickly season, many taken down with Fevers. May it please kind Providence to preserve my dearest Husband…”

February 7, 1778

“…I have been much distress’d at times, when I have thought of my being still here, when prehaps it might be in my power to do something for my dear Husband; which uneasyness I communicated to MP. who then show’d me a Letter from her Father; intimating something of the kind to her Mother and herself – I hope it will please the Lord to direct us to do that which is right. it would be a tryal on us to leave our Young Familys at this time, but that I belive, if we could conclude on the matter we should leave, and trust in kind providence – it is now between 11 and 12 o’clock, and our Officer has company at Supper with him; the late hours he keeps is the greatest inconvenienc we have as yet suffer’d by having him in the House.”

February 17, 1778

“…our major had 8 or 10 to dine with him, they broke up in good time, but he’s gone of[f] with them and when he’l return I know not, I gave him some hints 2 or 3 days ago, and he has behav’d better since…”

March 25, 1778

“Dr. Parke call’d this Morning he seems to think it somthing strange that we have no letters… PP. and MP. came to consult me about drawing up somthing to present to those who shall acknowledge our dear Friends as their prisoners… our intention is, tho we do not yet say so, to take it ourselves, 2 or 4 of us – when we can hear how, matters stand with our dear absent Friends… our Hay is out, and I beleive I must sell our poor Cow…”

April 2, 1778

“To the care of kind providence, and my dear Sister I must leave my dear little ones, and the Family generaly – it will be a great care on Sister, as we have an Officer and his Servants in the House, but I hope she will be strengthened.”

April 9, 1778

“Smith gave us a pass for Head Quarters where we arriv’d at about ½ past one; requested an audiences with the General [George Washington] – set with his Wife, (a sociable pretty kind of Woman) untill he came in… it was not long before GW. came and discoarsd with us freely, but not so long as we could have wish’d, as dinner was serv’d in, to which he had invited us… when we went out with the General Wife up to her Chamber, and saw no more of him, – he told us, he could do nothing in our busyness further than granting us a pass to Lancaster, which he did…”

April 24, 1778

“We presented our second address (requesting a pass for our Friends) as the first was not answ’d to our minds, [George Brion] said that all was granted that could be, he would not feed us up with false Hopes, we desir’d they would reconcider the matter, which he did not refuse…[Tim Matlack] came from Council, saying he was sorry to tell us, that nothing further could be done, towards granting our request…”

April 30, 1778

“We set of[f] after 8 o’clock, and traveled on without interuption, were wellcom’d by many before, and on our entrence into the City – where we arrived about 11 o’clock, and found out dear Families all well, for which favour and Blessing and the restoration of my dear Husband, may I ever be thankful – We have had such a number of our Friends to see us this day, that it is not in my power to enumerate them.”

June 18, 1778

“Last night it was said there was 9000 of the British Troops left in Town 11,000 in the Jersyes: this Morning when we arose, there was not one Red-Coat to be seen in Town; and the encampment, in the Jersys vanish’d…”

Discussion Questions

    1. In what ways did Elizabeth Drinker assert herself as head of the household in her husband’s absence? Did any of this surprise you? Why or why not?
    2. What dangers did Elizabeth Drinker encounter while her husband was away? In what ways did she rely on community support during this time?
    3. What consequences did the Drinkers face in trying to remain neutral? Was it possible to remain neutral during this time as many Quakers tried to do? Why or why not?


Castro, Wendy Lucas. “‘Being Separated from My Dearest Husband, in This Cruel Manner:’ Elizabeth Drinker and the Seven-Month Exile of Philadelphia Quakers.” Quaker History 100, no. 1 (2011): 40-63. Accessed April 25, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41947705.

Crane, Elaine Forman, ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. Accessed April 25, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt3fhwqw.

“Mortuary Notice.” Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser. (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) XXXVI, no. 9670, December 2, 1807: [3]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb-newsbank-com.libproxy.smith.edu/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A10380B4ABA623678%40EANX-104745B64A597539%402381388-104745B69BA62AB1%402-104745B7EC5D7361%40Mortuary%2BNotice.

Premo, Terri L. “Drinker, Elizabeth (1735-1807), diarist.” American National Biography. 1 Feb. 2000; Accessed 25 Apr. 2021. https://www-anb-org.libproxy.smith.edu/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-0300582.