The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Israel Libbey

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At the intersection of 7th and E, you’ll find a number of stores, museums, and restaurants. Just this intersection alone boasts a coffee shop, a museum, several restaurants, a liquor store, a frozen yogurt joint, and much more. The nature of the area hasn’t changed in the last 150 years, even if the facades, people, and diversity have.
437 7th Street has housed numerous people over the years. If you were to walk up to the front door on the first floor 150 years ago, 1864, you wouldn’t see a museum dedicated to Clara Barton. You wouldn’t even see Clara Barton! She lived on the third floor.
You’d see a watch and jewelry store, managed by Israel Putnam Libbey, on the street-level floor of 488 7th Street.
Israel Libbey was born in 1834, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We don’t know much about his early life, but it is likely that he had at least one brother, William Langdon Libbey. William was in charge of the Boston, Massachusetts, Mount Washington Glass Works.
Israel Libbey took a similar approach to life. He was a silversmith, clockmaker, and jewelry seller. He traveled around the east coast for much of the mid-19th century, from New Hampshire to Massachusetts to Washington, DC, and likely to several other states. The year 1850 has him as a silversmith in Rosbury, New Hampshire. Israel got married to a woman named Sarah Caroline Flint while in Middlesex, Massachusetts, in 1860. She was likely with him when he moved into 488 7th Street. As far as we can tell with available records, Israel and Sarah had only one child, a son named Frank Putnam Libbey, born in DC in 1865.
According to the occupant history, Israel operated a store at 488 7th Street from 1864 to 1878. By 1865, his letterhead read: “I.P. Libbey, Dealer in Watches, Clocks, Jewelry, Silver and Plated Ware, No. 488 Seventh Street, between D and E”.

Israel Libbey’s letterhead
Another advertisement, this one in the National Freemason from 1863, refers to his store as the “American Watch Depot, 488 Seventh Street”, which offers watches of “every size, style, and quality” in “gold and silver cases”.
Libbey’s ad in the National Freemason
Though Israel was in the same building as Clara, they rarely interacted. Very occasionally, Israel would hold onto her keys or rent while she was out on the battlefield or lecturing. There is also evidence that Clara paid Israel for the use of some of his storage space. On May 22, 1866, she recorded that she “Engaged Mr Libbies cellar at three dolls per month, commenced May 22/66.” We don’t know what she would have stored in his cellar.
In her 1869 ledger book of expenses, she states that on April 15, she “Sent a note of $250 held against IP Libbey to him which he took up returning me interest due and one hundred dollars of the principle and a new note of present date for $150, which I hold against him.” A couple of pages later, on May 14, she states that “Mr Libby paid me the remaining $150 and took up his note.”
What was all of this money about? We can’t figure that out. She also sends a collections agent against Mr. Edward Shaw, with similarly minimal explanation. If we see anything we’ll post an edit to this entry.
Now, Israel Libbey operated his store at 488 7thStreet until 1878, but where did he go after that?
That is, indeed, the big question. There’s evidence that Libbey traveled out west at this point, but not very much. Some of his silverware and clocks can be found out there. However, there is also evidence that he may have come back to DC after he was finished out there; an “Israel P. Libbey” shows up in several of the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia, in particular the 1907 edition, which would put him in DC well into his 70’s. If he was a Freemason, which the evidence points to, then that would explain why he helped Clara so much during and directly after the Civil War. She was known to have great relations with the Masons.
But all of that is speculation for now, until we can find more clear evidence.
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