Lavinia Sheed’s great-grandfather walked the streets of Philadelphia when the city was relatively new and sparsely populated. “Georg Schied,” born 1694 in Württemberg (Germany),¹ is likely the same “George Sheed” who appears in the 1717 city tax records. His status as an “admitted freeman” suggests that his arrival was negotiated through an indentured servitude agreement. In the early 18th century, George was known for creating highly-styled wigs for the fashionistas of the city. His store on Front and Gilbert (Elfreth’s Alley) was a popular destination for those seeking “light and grey hair” hairpieces.²
Lavinia’s grandfather William (born 1720) initially joined his father George in the family business. Their partnership appears to have been long and fruitful — father and son worked together for more than twenty years. But, around 1756, things changed when William embarked upon a new career using his voice. William became a crier — an officer who maintains order in the courtroom — at the recently completed State House. William soon moved his burgeoning family to 4th and Chestnut, presumably to live closer to his new job. Without William by his side, the elderly George probably decided to retire. George sold the Front Street property and moved to 2nd and Chestnut, where he would spend his final days.
During the years leading up to the American Revolution, William’s role intensified at the State House. In 1770, he became the sergeant-at-arms for the Pennsylvania Provincial Council,³ keeping order during their meetings. Six years later, William was appointed doorkeeper for the Pennsylvania State Convention.⁴ On the heels of the Declaration of Independence, this convention created a temporary governing body and a state constitution. Undoubtably, William was present for some of the critical discussions that shaped the future of our country.
It seems that the tradition of wig-making in the Sheed family ended with William’s generation. His own son, George (born 1746), became a plasterer and moved south of the city line to Southwark. After William’s death, George inherited a house on 5th and German (Fitzwater) Streets where he raised his family. This home — and others on this block — was demolished sometime before 1873 as part of the expansion of the Philadelphia public school system. Today, the William M. Meredith School occupies this site.
Although the Sheed family had previously been associated with Christ Church, George and his family worshipped at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’). He married his second wife, Rebecca (née Jones), here in 1785 and eventually became a vestryman and church warden. Almost all of his children were baptized at this church and many are buried near him in the churchyard.
Lavinia Sheed was born to George and Rebecca in 1807. Unfortunately, little is known about Lavinia’s formative years. However, we can imagine that she must have been a fixture at Gloria Dei Church every week for Sunday services.
George passed away in 1830 and, within a few years, Lavinia experienced a fair amount of turmoil. Lavinia’s mother Rebecca died in 1837 and, less than a year later, she lost her younger sister Christiana Earley. Only two years apart in age, the sisters were probably very close. Christiana’s only daughter was also named Lavinia. This appears to have been a common first name for women of this generation born into the Sheed family.
After Christiana died, Lavinia became a legal guardian of her young niece. She probably moved in with her brother-in-law, Alfred M. Earley, to assist with child rearing duties. Alfred was a hatter based across town on Beach Street (24th) below Locust. Lavinia and her siblings had inherited several houses owned by their father George, which they began using as rental properties. Lavinia was in charge of collecting and distributing the rental income.
This arrangement seems to have been amenable to the Sheed siblings until around 1839. That year, Lavinia’s brothers and sisters got into a dispute over ownership of the properties. The situation was presumably so fraught that it required an intervention by the Philadelphia District Court. The court ruling worked out in Lavinia’s favor — the properties were assessed and divided up into equal shares, benefiting the entire family.⁵ However, this was no doubt a stressful time for Lavinia, who was still caring for her young niece.
In later years, Lavinia appears to have returned to the Southwark neighborhood, working for a young family as a caregiver. She never married and died at age 65 from rheumatism.⁶ She is buried near her father and several of her siblings in the Gloria Dei Churchyard. Her tombstone reads as follows:
In memory of
George and Rebecca
Born March 20, 1807
Died July 28, 1873
¹ Ancestry.com. Württemberg, Germany, Lutheran Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1500–1985 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
² Scharf, J. Thomas and Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia, 1609–1884. Philadelphia: L. H. Everts & Co. (1884)
³ Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, From the Organization to the Termination of the Proprietary of Government, Vol X. Harrisburg: Theo Penn & Co. (1852).
⁴ Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, Vol III. Harrisburg: B.F. Meyers (1875).
⁵ (1839, June 29). Philadelphia Inquirer, page 4.
⁶ FamilySearch.com. Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Death Certificates, 1803–1915, [database with images]. Philadelphia City Archives and Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; FHL microfilm 2,021,856. Accessed 19 December 2018.