So what do we know about that parcel of ribbons that Robert Cooper Lee sold in Jamaica?
Well there may have been more than one, for a start, since Bob arrived in Jamaica in May 1749 and this receipt is dated the 9th of February which oddly enough may mean it was actually written in 1750, for until 1752 England operated on the old calendar when the New Year began after Lady Day on March 25th. This is why you will often see a date written as 1749/50.
However, it seems likely that Alice Haycock sent the bill on later – the red circle and the tear opposite indicate it was sealed, hence perhaps part of a letter and not simply handed over along with the ribbons which were probably being bought on credit.
Some of the ribbons were brightly coloured and decorative – Dice & Flower, Shaded, Flower de Luce (fleur de lys) and Narrow Silk figure with a pattern woven in are all for tying hats, trimming dresses and ringing the changes when an old garment needed reviving to carry it through another season. Jubilee Gause sounds delicate and pretty, although I have not found a description of it (Google searching tends to bring up references to first aid!), while ‘potes de brin’, striped ticking or hemp, was a more everyday product, as was the square lacing which at twenty-three shillings a gross was much the cheapest item on the list.
Bob and his father Joseph Lee hoped there would be a ready market in Jamaica for ribbons and laces, and not simply as ornament. At a time before zip fastenings and Velcro tape, clothes had to be tied, pinned, buttoned, buckled or laced. Sleeves would be gathered with a ribbon through a narrow hem, forming ruffles. Dress bodices and stays were laced to fit tightly, with the laces threaded through numerous small round eyelet holes at the back, each sewn around the edge with neat buttonhole stitch. Stays were worn by children of both sexes and sometimes by men as well as women. Made from two layers of stiffened linen or woollen cloth into which narrow strips of whalebone or other stiffening were sewn with rows of tiny backstitching, sometimes they had sleeves attached. In many respects stays were more like a jacket than an undergarment and could even be made of leather. They were usually worn over a knee-length chemise of fine linen or cotton, gathered with a ribbon drawstring to follow the neckline of the stays.
The colonial population of Jamaica liked to dress after the fashion of their home country. For women in the mid-eighteenth century this meant that skirts were spread over huge hoops known as ‘false hips’ which had to be fastened with laces or ribbons, and in their most extreme form they extended over two feet either side of the wearer providing a six foot wide ‘canvas’ of embroidered or ornamented fabric to display her status. The overall impression was rather like a steam-rollered crinoline, flat at front and back and projecting hugely to the sides.
Getting through doorways or travelling in a coach could provide a real challenge for the more extreme dresses, and the hoops were hinged to allow them to move upwards at the wearer’s sides. The various parts of this structure were tied with tapes around the waist from where they were suspended with more tapes. Repeated use rapidly frayed the tapes and wore them out. Even shoes were often tied with tapes, when not fastened or decorated with buckles.The climate of Jamaica was very hard on cloth and leather which often perished in the damp heat necessitating new supplies to be sent out from England.
Young Bob was right to be optimistic that he would find a ready market for his parcel of ribbons, which at current retail prices cost him £1,770.00. Later correspondence shows that he paid Alice Haycock promptly. He may have been only fourteen but already he was learning to be careful with money.
 Lisa Picard, Dr Johnson’s London, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2001, p.217