Thursday, November 23, 2017

1776 America's First Female Lighthouse Keeper - Hannah Thomas 1731-1819

The Gurnet, a 27 acre peninsula forming the northern boundary of Plymouth Bay, is located a few miles northeast of Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims knew the land as “the gurnett’s nose,” apparently naming the area for similar headlands in the English Channel, where the gurnet fish flourished along Devonshire’s shores. When Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1606, to map the Gurnet and Clark’s Island, he found thick pine forests & Native Americans fishing for cod using lines made of tree bark with wooden fish hooks to which a spear-shaped bone was attached.
Lighthouse at Plymouth (Gurnet), now Saquish Beach, MA.  The Gurnet became part of Plymouth on January 7, 1638. By the 1770s, 75 fishing vessels were based in the area, and at one point, Duxbury was one of the world’s leading shipbuilding enters. Under the direction of the Massachusetts Legislature, the first Plymouth Lighthouse, a wooden keeper’s dwelling measuring 15 by 30 feet, equipped with a lantern at each end of its roof, was completed in September 1768 at a cost of £660. The twin lights, exhibited at a height of 86 feet above the sea, distinguished the station from the single light used at Boston.
Gen John Thomas (1724-1776) Husband of Hannah Thomas (1731-1819). He was born in 1724. Marshfield Plymouth County Massachusetts, & died Jun. 2, 1776. Chambly Monteregie Region Quebec, Canada.

The lighthouse was built on land rented for 5 shillings a year from Dr John & Hannah Thomas. Hannah Thomas was born on April 20, 1731, in Middleborough, Plymouth, Massachusetts. She married Dr John Thomas in 1761.  Originally, the lighthouse built on their property had 2 towers which were first lit in 1769. Dr John Thomas was appointed the keeper of both lighthouses, since the towers were constructed on his land.  John, a surgeon, the 1st keeper served, until he joined the Continental Army. He recruited a regiment of volunteers from Plymouth County to help repel the British in the Siege of Boston, & then served as a major general leading troops in Quebec, where he died of small pox on June 2, 1776. Along with raising their 3 children, his widow Hannah took over John’s lighthouse post, making her the first woman lighthouse keeper in America.  

It is said that in 1776, after Fort Andrew was erected at Gurnet Point, the H.M.S. Niger reportedly sailed around the Gurnet toward Plymouth Harbor, exchanging fire with the fort’s 6-cannon battery and, many believe, destroying one of the lighthouse beacons in the process.

Plymouth’s worst shipwreck occurred in 1778, when the American privateer General Arnold was trapped in a blizzard less than a mile from Plymouth Light. Choosing to forego the risk of entering Plymouth’s inner harbor without a pilot, the captain dropped anchor hoping to ride out the storm. As the gale rose to hurricane force, the vessel drug anchor running aground on White Flats. Before residents of the Gurnet could construct a causeway over the ice to reach the stranded vessel, 72 of the its crew of just over 100 froze to death in view of the light.

After the American Revolution, the lighthouse was refurbished & put back in service with Hannah Thomas as keeper.  The prevailing work at a lighthouse included tending the light; cleaning lighthouse instruments & buildings; & keeping records of supplies; all traditional women’s work. Women had long been associated with maintaining the lights & fires within a home. This female task was noted in ancient Greece where the goddess “Hestia stays at home on Mount Olympus to keep the fires alight.” During the Early American Republic, women continued the practice of maintaining fires for cooking & warmth, as well as candles & lamps for illumination.

Hundreds of American women have kept the lamps burning in lighthouses since Hannah Thomas tended Gurnet Point Light from 1776-1786 in Plymouth, MA, staying at their posts for periods ranging from a few years to half a century. Caring for a lighthouse was a continuous occupation, making it necessary for the keeper to live where she worked. Thus, the light station was not just a government job, but also a way of life.  Most of these women served in the 19C, when the keeper lit a number of lamps in the tower at dusk; replenished their fuel or replaced them at midnight; and every morning polished the lamps & lanterns to keep their lights shining brightly. 

Several of these women were commended officially for their courage in remaining at their posts through severe storms & hurricanes. The power of ferocious storms & rushing water affected the physical structures, & took a heavy toll on the keeper, at times causing the death of the keeper or a family member. On 13 March 1832, a ferocious ice sweeping down Hudson River during spring breakup destroyed the Stuyvesant Light. Keeper Volkert Witbeck & some family members were able to survive, but Elizabeth, aged 11, and Harriet, aged 13, perished.

A few female lighthouse keepers went to the rescue of seamen, when ships capsized or were wrecked.
Ida Lewis (1842 –1911) was an American lighthouse keeper noted for her heroism in rescuing people from the seas.

Hannah Thomas, who had served since 1776, hired Nathaniel Burgess (or Burges) to act as keeper in 1786, and that same year a coasting sloop traveling from Boston to Plymouth struck a sand bar near the Gurnet. Two of the seamen from the vessel trudged 7 miles through a bitter snowstorm to reach Gurnet Lighthouse. Keeper Burgess fed & warmed them beside the fire, dispatching his assistant, perhaps Hannah’s son John, to bring in the rest of the crew.  

In 1790, the light was ceded to the U.S. government, & Hannah Thomas' son John Thomas took over as keeper. His salary of $200 per annum was lower than at other lighthouses, because the Gurnet was deemed an acceptable place to live with ample fishing & land with good soil to garden.
1843 photo of the twin Plymouth Lights. Photo from US Navy

After the lighthouse was completely destroyed in a fire on July 2, 1801, the merchants of Plymouth and Duxbury funded the construction of a temporary beacon. On April 6, 1802, Congress voted to repay them $270 and appropriated $2,500 to rebuild the lighthouse on the Gurnet. The Thomas family was paid $120 for the land on which twin, 22' tall lighthouses, spaced 30 feet apart, were built in 1803.

During the late 18C - early 19C, the US federal lighthouse service furnished some provisions, but almost all keepers found it necessary to have a garden & some livestock. Kate Moore described in the New York Sunday World, in 1889, the extra care necessary for survival at Black Rock Harbor Light in Connecticut: "I had a lot of poultry & 2 cows to care for, & each year raised 20 sheep, doing the sheering myself - and the killing when necessary. You see, in the winter you couldn’t get to land on account of the ice being too thin, or the water too rough. Then in the summer I had my garden to make and keep. I raised all my own stuff, and as we had to depend on rain for our water, quite a bit of time was consumed looking after that." Kate’s family moved to the lighthouse in 1817, her father had a paralyzing stroke in 1819, & Kate kept the lighthouse functioning until his death in 1871, becoming the official head keeper from 1871-1878.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Nearly 27-year-old James Monroe 1758-1831 Marries 17-year-old Elizabeth Kortright 1768-1830

On January 16, 1786, future President 27-year-old James Monroe (1758-1831) married 17-year-old New York beauty named Elizabeth Kortright (1768-1830).  Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (1768-1830), wife of the 5th president of the United States, was the eldest daughter of 5 children of Laurence Kortright, a wealthy New York merchant of late 17C Flemish descent, & his wife, Hannah (Aspinwall) Kortright. Her father’s fortune, much enlarged by privateering during the French & Indian War, was greatly reduced during the Revolutionary War, but Elizabeth Kortright was reared in the exclusive & formal atmosphere of New York mercantile society.  Considered one of the great beauties of the city, she first met James Monroe in 1785, when he was a Virginia delegate to the Confederation Congress sitting in New York.
Detail of a Miniature of Elizabeth Kortright (1768-1830).

The 6 ' tall Monroe, already a famous revolutionary & a practicing lawyer, married not for money, but for love. They were married on Feb. 16, 1786, at New York’s Trinity Episcopal Church.  After a brief honeymoon out on Long Island, the newlyweds rode back to New York City to live with her father, until the Continental Congress adjourned. The Monroes returned to Virginia, where he had graduated from the College of William & Mary, & promptly started a family. They settled first in Fredericksburg & then in Albemarle County, Va.  There Monroe practiced law & pursued a political career which found him successively United States Senator, minister to France, governor of Virginia, minister to Great Britain, Secretary of State, &, ultimately, president of the United States.  In keeping with the custom of the day, Monroe shielded his private life from public view, by the & his wife were devoted to each other, & they were rarely separated.  Three children were born to them: Eliza in 1787; a son in 1799 who died in infancy; & Maria Hester, in 1801 or 1802, who was married in the White House in 1820 to Samuel L. Gouverneur.
James Monroe (1758-1831)

Elizabeth & her daughter followed Monroe to Paris, when President George Washington appointed him ambassador to France in 1794. There, he & Elizabeth became enthusiastic Francophiles. Elizabeth, with her sophisticated social graces, adapted easily to European society. The French aristocracy referred to her as "la belle americaine."  The violent fallout of the French Revolution marred the Monroes' sojourn in France.  They acquired a lasting appreciate of French manners & styles which was later reflected in the furnishing they purchased for the White House.  Both spoke French fluently.  Members of the aristocracy whom the Monroes befriended were increasingly falling prey to the rebels' guillotine. In 1795, Elizabeth succeeded in obtaining the prison release of the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette. When he learned that the wife of America’s great friend the Marquis de Lafayette, the dashing Frenchman who had served on Washington's staff during the American Revolution, had been imprisoned by Robespierre & was in danger of being executed, Monroe, believing that direct appeals to the Committee of Public Safety would be of no avail, arranged for his wife to visit her.  The tearful meeting of the women at the gate of the prison drew a large & sympathetic crowd, & the demonstration was sufficient to secure Madame de Lafayette’s release. 
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (1768-1830) by John Vanderlyn

When Monroe's term as ambassador ended in 1796, he brought his family back to America & settled on the Oak Hill plantation in Virginia. For the next 15 years, he shuttled his family between stints in Virginia political office & the occasional foreign appointment. In 1811, Monroe accepted President James Madison's offer to serve as U.S. secretary of state. Six years later, Monroe himself was elected president from 1817-1825.

 After her husband’s appointment as Secretary of State in 1811 & his elevation to the presidency in 1817, Mrs. Monroe was constantly in the public eye.  No accounts of her as a person, however, survive, although her regal bearing & distinguished appearance often inspired comment.  “Her dress was superb black velvet,” one presidential guest recalled; “neck & arms bare & beautifully formed; her hair in puffs & dressed high on the head & ornamented with white ostrich plumes; around her neck an elegant pearl necklace” (quoted in Daniel Coit Gilman, James Monroe, 1883, pp. 182-83).  She seems to have been easy & affable in small groups, but her public manner was marked by a formality & reserve which some labeled haughtiness.

During their 1st year in Washington, the Monroes lived in temporary lodgings until the White House, which had been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812, was repaired. As first lady, Elizabeth, usually very social, deferred to her husband's wishes to minimize White House social events. He & Elizabeth both deplored the opulent displays of the previous first lady, Dolley Madison, preferring more private, stately affairs modeled after European society. 

Just after he assumed office, in June 1817, President Monroe embarked on a "Goodwill Tour" of the United States. Paying expenses out of his own pocket, the new president was greeted by cheering crowds & treated to celebratory picnics, dinners, & receptions in every city he visited. After touring New York, Philadelphia, & Baltimore, Monroe stopped in Boston, where a newspaper hailed his visit as the beginning of an “ERA OF GOOD FEELINGS.” Despite this phrase, while in the White House, the Monroes endured the depression called the  Panic of 1819 & a fierce national debate over the admission of the Missouri Territory. Monroe is most noted for his proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which stated that the United States would not tolerate further European intervention in the Americas.

As First Lady she was inevitably compared with her predecessor, the warm & open-hearted Dolley Madison, who had elevated presidential receptions above the dull level of official functions. In a rapidly growing Washington, the Monroes introduced a new formality, & White House receptions took on an austerity reminiscent of George Washington’s administration, with Monroe & his wife receiving guests but manifesting little personal solicitude.  In her 1st year Mrs. Monroe appeared only infrequently at White House dinners, & consequently ladies were seldom invited.  She further announced that she would not make or return any calls, although it had been Mrs. Madison’s custom not only to return all calls but to pay her respects to visiting ladies.  Many women, particularly the wives of Senators, took offense at the new rule, but Mrs. Monroe, supported by Louisa Catherine Adams, whose husband was then Secretary of State, prevailed, & the new policy became firmly set.  Mrs. Monroe’s French-educated & somewhat formidable daughter Eliza (Mrs. George Hay) shared her social duties at the White House, where social life was also curtailed by Elizabeth's declining health. Washingtonians, eager to being seen with the powerful even back then, mistook the lack of White House social events for snobbery.
James Monroe (1758-1831) by Gilbert Stuart

During her husband’s 2nd term Mrs. Monroe’s always delicate health failed rapidly, & her public appearances became more rare.  She preferred to spend as much time as possible at Oak Hill, their country home in Loudoun County, Va., some twenty miles from the capital, where she was joined by Monroe upon his retirement in 1825.  She died at Oak Hill in 1830 & was buried there.  Of her death the aged ex-President wrote to James Brown, “After having lived with the partner of your life, in so many vicissitudes…& afforded to each other comforts which no other person on earth could do…to have her snatched from me…is an affliction which none but those who feel it, can justly estimate” (Dec. 9, 1830), John Deposit, University of Virginia Library).  According to the family, Monroe burned 40 years' worth of their intimate correspondence. 
James Monroe (1758-1831) painted by Rembrandt Peale about 1824-1825

Upon Elizabeth's death in 1830, Monroe moved to New York City, to live with his daughter Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur who had married Samuel L. Gouverneur in the White House.  Monroe’s death occurred the next year.  In 1903 Elizabeth Monroe’s body was re-interred beside that of her husband in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA.

Friday, November 17, 2017

New York Business Woman Mary Alexander 1693-1760

The Alexander Papers at the New-York Historical Society Library contain the records of the mercantile business of Mary Alexander and provide a glimpse into the life of a colonial NYC businesswoman

From the New-York Historical Society Library

Mary Alexander’s mercantile business specialized in “haberdashery,” or what today is called notions. Records from this firm include samples of fabrics that Mary Alexander had requested or purchased. According to the records, Mary ordered expensive silks and worsteds as well as plain, utilitarian materials. The sample above is from the 1730’s and includes swatches of silver lace and crepe. The fabric samples are still vibrantly colored and are beautiful to examine.


Mary Alexander was born in New York City in 1693. In 1711, she married Samuel Prevoost, an importer. The couple had three children and together ran their mercantile business. Mary contributed much of her inheritance to the business and generally acted as a business partner with her husband. 

After Prevoost’s death around 1720, Mary married James Alexander, a notable attorney and politician. She had seven more children in her second marriage (only five lived to adulthood) and continued to run the Prevoost mercantile business. She sold goods in her store in front of their mansion on Broad Street and soon became one of the leading merchants in New York City. With her social connections and her successful business, Mary was a prominent member of colonial society and is reputed to have served as an informal advisor to many New York politicians. Mary Alexander died in 1760 and was buried with her husband at Trinity Church.
From the New-York Historical Society Library

All information and images in this posting are from the blog of the New-York Historical Society Library. This article written by library Curator of Manuscirpts Maurita Baldock. Click here for more from the N-YHS..

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Female Apprentices in 18C Colonial America

Apprentice Female Tinsmith? Detail Ferblantier (Tin Plate Maker) Encycopedia of Diederot & d'Alembert 1765

Though there was no system of standards governing the trades in the British American colonies, the method of learning a trade generally followed the apprenticeship guidelines established by the guilds in medieval England & Europe. 

It was unusual or sometimes even shocking to come upon women doing tasks normally done by men. Traveling through the English countryside in 1741, William Hutton happened upon a blacksmith's shop, where he saw "one or more females, stripped of their upper garments, & not overcharged with the lower, wielding the hammer with all the grace of the sex."   Women were not excluded from membership in the earlier guilds. The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths in London lists 65 "brethren" & 2 "sistren" in its 1434 charter. "No one contested the right of wives & daughters to work in a shop or at a stall leased in the name of the husband & father," writes Olwen Hufton in The Prospect before Her: A History of Women in Western Europe, 1500-1800. "The tendency of a master in an occupation where there was scope for the employment of his daughter—particularly if he had no sons—may have been to familiarize her with the techniques of the trade. At the humblest levels, where the master in question did not employ journeymen & where any apprentices kept quiet, then the master's daughter unofficially may have done much work without incurring opposition from the guild."  Male or female, a prospective guild member had to apply for entrance by apprenticeship, patrimony, redemption, or marriage. Most women applied by right of marriage, or widowhood. More than 200 youngsters are documented to have been apprenticed to women in Oxford between 1520 & 1800, evidence that women claimed the rights of masters.  Conspicuous differences existed in the strength & types of guilds to enforce their control, so a female's success or participation in a business could vary from place to place, from year to year. "Complaints were more common in periods of economic strain," Hufton wrote, "particularly when the labour supply was overabundant & rising prices outstripped wages. In easy times, journeymen were less anxious & might permit without complaint some infiltration by women into what they saw as their sphere of activity."  Girls were apprenticed, too, usually in cases of orphaning. Parish or pauper apprenticeships, as they were called, featured contracts that left blank spaces so the court or church official could write in "him" or "her," "she" or "he." K. D. M. Snell's Annals of the Labouring Poor lists nearly 300 orphan girls apprenticed to trades in the 18C in the southern counties of England.  But the guild system began to decline during the 18C, & with it went the detailed records. A 1770 publication called The Tradesman's True Guide or a Universal Directory for the Towns of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsal, Dudley & the manufacturing village in the neighborhood of Birmingham carries exhaustive lists of tradesmen & -women alphabetically by name & by trade. There are women listed in every trade from butcher to wire drawer.  Records of guilds & corporations frequently omit mention of female apprentices suggests Bridget Hill in Women, Work, & Sexual Politics in Eighteenth-Century England, because "the completion of a man's apprenticeship had political & social, as well as economic consequences (parliamentary franchise) that did not apply to women."

In 18C colonial British America & the New Republic the distinction between indentures for servants & apprentices was less clear. Binding out or apprenticing became a catch-all concept that both provided a controllable & skilled labor force to the new country & provided parent/authority figures to children who had no parents. In the 17C & early 18C, scholars project that 80% of the Chesapeake’s immigrants were indentured servants from Britain & Europe. Some authorities state that more than  75% of all immigrants who settled south of New England were indentured servants, convict servants, or redemptioners.  Most of these servants were over the age of 20, but a significant number were young men & girls still in their teens. Historian John C. Coombs suggests that by the 1670s, slaves had begun to replace white indentured servants among the Chesapeake gentry before both Bacon's Rebellion & the sharp decline in new servants. By 1690, enslaved Africans & African Americans account for nearly all of the Virginia gentry's bound workforce. Slaves account for only 25-40% of the non-elites' workforce.

In return for their passage to the Chesapeake, these young servants agreed to work on the land, in trades, or do household chores, for a period of time, usually between 4-7 years, without pay. During their service, masters provided food, clothing & shelter.  Servants whose contracts had expired typically received "freedom dues," loosely described as a quantity of corn & clothing. The 1705 Virginia statute "An Act concerning Servants & Slaves" was the 1st to explicitly mention this "good & laudable custom," & required that male servants, "upon their freedom," be supplied with 10 bushels of corn, 30 shillings (or the like value in goods), & a musket worth at least 20 shillings. Women were entitled to 15 bushels of corn & the equivalent of 40 shillings. Many of these youths from across the Atlantic were orphans, some were kidnapped onto ships sailing for the New World, and some were from indigent families who could not care for their children, & therefore sent them off to make their own way.

Colonial courts dealt with a broad variety of indentures, roughly divided into 2 categories: (1) voluntary apprenticeships, where a parent entered a voluntary arrangement with a 3rd party, usually to train the child in a specific trade in exchange for the child's services & some parents even paid the master for training the child; & (2) involuntary apprenticeships, where the parents were dead or unable to properly raise their children & court officials placed them with a master. Many children in the colonial era did not spend their whole childhood under the custody & control of their own parents or step-parents. These children were put under the custody & control of masters (& sometimes mistresses), to whom they were indentured. "Binding out, putting out, & apprenticing" were all variations on the well-established English custom of placing children in the home of a master who was obliged to provide ordinary sustenance & some training in return for services. This training could be as specific as teaching a skilled craft, or it could be as general as instruction in basic reading & the catechism. Laws differed by colony pertaining to articles of indenture for servants & for apprentices. 

Some scholars estimate that colonial British American young women comprised less than 1/5 of recorded indentures. Generally, these apprenticeships of girls were for household work or textile trades (spinning, weaving, or knitting).  Though apprenticeship contracts do exist for the British American colonies, they tend to be fewer & they are not as specific. And without the meticulous record keeping of the older guilds, what happened to a boy or girl once an apprenticeship began is difficult to track. Orphan apprenticeship contracts from the period sometimes record more detail than a standard agreement, although many of the girls' apprenticed trades are listed as "unspecified," & the only way to guess what they learned is if the master's or mistress's business is known. Colonial British American apprenticeship was a system of on-the-job training which was based on both ancient & medieval practices.  The basis of colonial laws of apprenticeship were the English 1562 Statute of Artificers and the English 1601 Poor Law, which standardized customs long recognized & enforced by the guilds and local authorities. 

The Virginia Poor Law of 1672 gave county courts the power to place all children, whose parents were unable to raise them, as apprentices. Churchwardens were ordered to report children in this category. The Virginia Orphan Act of 1705 empowered the Orphan's Courts to bind out all orphans whose estates were too small to support them. It also gave the court the power to hear complaints of apprentices for ill use by their master or failure to teach his trade.  

Female colonial apprentices often worked in the shops of dressmakers & sometimes with tailors. Some of these apprenticeships were based on formal contracts between the child’s parents & the artisan with the aim of teaching the child a skill she could use one day to earn money. Many formal apprenticeships for girls tended to be short - often just one year. Sometimes, though, they could be very long for poor & orphaned girls, some very young. In 1715 Northumberland County, Virginia, Ariskam Crowder was "hereby bound an apprentice to serve Mary Knight in all lawfull Services & imploym until he shall attain the age of One & twenty years, he being Seven years old."  One 1770 New England document records an apprenticeship binding 7-year-old Rebeccah Baxter to male tailor Elijah Treadway in Middletown, Connecticut. According to the terms of the document, she was to stay in Treadway’s household for 11 years, until she turned 18. 

Four females are named in York County, Virginia, apprenticeships recorded from 1747 to 1789. Earlier York County records contain several others. Generally, these apprenticeships were for household work or textile trades - spinning, weaving, or knitting.  
At least one woman in Pennsylvania owned a traditionaly male business. She was a brass founder. A 1730 Pennsylvania Gazette ad was placed searching for one James Curry, "an Apprentice to Mrs. Paris of Philadelphia, Brass Founder."  The Pennsylvania Gazette printed the rules of contracting apprentices to "the Masters or Mistresses" in 1763, such that the youngster "shall be bound by Indenture to serve as an Apprentice in any Art, Mystery, Occupation or Labour, with the Assent of his or her Parent."

In 1762, the law dealing with orphans as apprentices in North Carolina stated: Where the estate of an orphan shall be of so small value that no person will educate & maintain him or her for the profits thereof, such orphan shall, by direction of the court, be bound apprentice, every male to some tradesman, merchant, mariner or other person approved by the court, until he shall attain to the age of 21 years, & every female to some suitable employment, till her age of 18 years; & also such court may, in like manner, bind apprentice all free base-born (illegitimate) children, & every such female child, being a mulatto (mixed parents-Black & White)or mustee (mixed parents-Indian & White), until she shall attain the age of 21 years: And the master or mistress of every such apprentice shall find & provide for him or her diet, clothes, lodging & accommodations, fit & necessary; & shall teach, or cause him or her to be taught to read & write; & at the expiration of his or her apprenticeship, shall pay every such apprentice the like allowance as is by law appointed for servants by indenture or custom, & on refusal shall be compelled thereto in like manner; & if upon complaint made to the inferior court of pleas & quarter sessions, it shall appear that any such apprentice is ill used, or not taught the trade, profession or employment to which he or she was bound, it shall be lawful for such court to remove & bind him or her to such other person or persons as they shall think fit.

Records from Boston show that in 1769, Ann Cromartie, age 13, was bound to Ruth DeCosta by the Overseers of the Poor to learn the “Art, Trade or Mystery of a Mantuamaker.”  Her term was about 5 years, again until she turned 18.

Many Virginia apprenticeship contracts (indentures) were private arrangements between a master & an apprentice's parents & were not recorded in the public records. Apprenticeships ordered by the courts for orphans & poor children were recorded, but their lengths varied widely or were often stated only as to age 21. Of the 110 apprenticeships recorded in York County, Virginia, from 1745 until 1789, 34 were “until 21,” and 64 were from 4 to 7 years.

Records from a Massachusetts lawsuit in 1791, tell of 24-year-old Clarinda Colton’s contract with male tailor Ithamar Burt. She was supposed to get one year of training. But her parents alleged in the suit that when Clarinda returned home after one year, she knew almost nothing about cutting cloth. Clarinda had apparently been assigned mainly to do household chores.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

18C Women Owning Millinery Shops


In the 1500s & 1600s, the millinery business involved shopkeepers who dealt in milanese (as in Milan, Italy) ware, like silks, ribbons, armor, swords & other Italian goods. Millinery, however, began to change its meaning as swords & armor fell out of fashion. The word also took on a new life as English retailing underwent a big shift in the mid-1600s. The Great Fire of London in 1655 had a lot to do with this change. Prior to the fire, trades were concentrated along certain streets. After the fire, trades intermingled in new shopping districts. Shopkeepers also began selling many goods & services in their stores, offering customers greater convenience & expanded choices. A milliner could carry possibly a thousand different goods, becoming the forerunner of the modern department store. At this point, the term “milliner” was tied to the Latin word "mille," meaning 1000.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation tells us that prior to the American Revolution, millinery shops were almost always a woman's business. Women had a place in 18C British American commercial life. Those who reached their majority & were not married could own property, buy & sell, sue & be sued, represent themselves in court, make contracts & perform other routine commercial & legal functions. In short, they had all the rights of men, but they did not have the privileges of voting or holding public office. 

Milliners catered to the fashion needs of men, women, & children. In addition to being a trades-woman who made fashion accessories, the milliner was also a businesswoman who sold a wide range of fashionable imported goods. It was not uncommon for a milliner in the British American colonies, to advertise that she had just imported from London the very latest in mercery, haberdashery, jewelry, hosiery, shoes "and other items too tedious to mention." The millinery sold fabric, baby & children's clothes, hats & shoes, dolls, jewelry, tea pots, sugar, needles, thread, laces, liquor, lottery & theatre tickets, ribbons, hair pieces, medicines, books, games, & much, much more. A millinery store owner also needed to know about fashion & the intricacies of the clothing business. A well-informed entrepreneur might know about sewing, tailoring, gown making, laundrying, ironing & making & maintaining fine lace.
Henry Robert Morland 18C Ironing

The other primary 18C woman's trade was that of mantua making – or gown making. On occasion, the apprenticeship for milliners also included learning the skills of mantua making. Independent of a millinery shop, the gown maker was on par with the tailor – both were skilled in cutting, fitting, & sewing but usually were not able to sell fabric to their customers. In the 18C, fabric accounted for the largest part of the cost of clothing. Mantua-makers specialized in making women's gowns. Not only did milliners sell fabric straight from the bolt, they also employed or contracted with  mantua makers who made dresses, jackets, & gowns for customers. 

A mantua-maker was responsible for draping, cutting, & sewing the gown. It was possible for a gown to be "gotten-up" in the very latest fashion from London with 3 half-hour fittings in 7 days. From fabric sold in the shop, milliners would make items such as: shirts, shifts, aprons, neckerchiefs, caps, cloaks, hoods, hats, muffs, ruffles, & trim for gowns. The cost of any clothing varied depending on the type of fabric that was chosen. A gown made from wool, silk, or cotton cost more than one made from linen. The cost for the labor was less expensive than the material involved. The fabric was usually 80%-90% of the cost of the gown. 

Clothing producers knew that one way to keep sales humming was to keep styles changing. Many British American colonists had an insatiable appetite for news, particularly fashion news, which reached America fairly quickly given the slow transportation of the day. In the early 1770s, Virginians learned about the latest styles through English newspapers & magazines. The news typically was 6 to 8 weeks old until it finally arrived from across the Atlantic, but it was welcome never-the-less.The whirl of fashion during the 1700s was endless & often contradictory. During the 18C, ladies' skirt styles changed five times. It was not unheard of for hat styles to change 17 times during a 2-year period. “Solomon in all Glory was not array'd like on of These,” wrote visitor Rev. Jonathan Boucher of upper class Virginians in 1759. “I assure you, Mrs. James, the common Planter's Daughters here go every Day in finer Cloaths than I have seen content you for a Summer's Sunday. You thought (homely Creatures as your are) my Sattin Wastecoat was a fine best, Lord help You, I'm noth'g amongst the Lace & Lac'd fellows that are here. Nay, so much does their Taste run after dress that they tell me I may see in Virginia more brilliant Assemblies than I ever c'd in the North of Engl'd, & except Royal Ones P'rhaps in any Part of it.”
1787 A Milliner’s Shop, Lewis Walpole Library

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Women, Tea Parties, & the American Revolution

The Boston tea party occurred in December 1773, when angry gentlemen of Boston, some costumed as Native Americans, destroyed property of the East India Tea Company on ships in the Boston harbor in protest of British taxation & trade policies.  There were other 18C colonial patriotic tea parties as well.
W. D. Cooper. Boston Tea Party, The History of North America. London E. Newberry, 1789.

The livid English Parliament quickly passed a set of laws to punish the upstart colonials in Massachusetts, closing the Boston port & limiting all British American colonial rights to self-government. Many American colonists up & down the Atlantic called these the Intolerable Acts” — the final proof that Great Britain intended to destroy their liberty.

After the Boston tea party, gentlemen began meeting in local groups throughout the colonies to lend their support to the rising talk of revolution. (Men were meeting, of course, because women did not vote or hold office in the Britain or her colonies.)

In July 1774, gentlemen of the Cape Fear region, led by transplanted Boston attorney William Hooper (1742-1790), met at Wilmington, North Carolina, calling for a provincial congress & for a congress of all the colonies to respond to Britain. One of the resolutions passed at this meeting stated, "That we will not use nor suffer East India Tea to be used in our Families after the tenth day of September next, and that we will consider all persons in this province not complying with this resolve to be enemies to their Country."

The Edenton Tea Party first became known throughout colonial British America from a London newspaper article reporting the event, which appeared in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser in January of 1775.

The newspaper reported that in North Carolina on October 25, 1774, 51 prominent women from the Edenton area gathered at the home of Elizabeth King, with Penelope Barker (1728-1796) presiding, to sign a petition supporting the American cause. It was extremely rare, if not unheard of, for British women, especially colonial women, who had no legal powers, to petition for political change.

At the meeting, Barker reportedly said, “Maybe it has only been men who have protested the king up to now. That only means we women have taken too long to let our voices be heard. We are signing our names to a document, not hiding ourselves behind costumes like the men in Boston did at their tea party. The British will know who we are.”

The Edenton petition doesn’t actually mention tea, but it supports the July Wilmington “resolves” against importing British products such as clothing & tea. Many angry colonists participated in the resistance to Britain through nonimportation, simply refusing to buy goods imported from Britain. Colonials did not have to pay taxes on goods they did not purchase, and the loss of income might persuade British merchants & shippers to support the colonial cause.

The text of the petition by the women gathered in Edenton, North Carolina, on October 25, 1774, reads: As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears nearly to affect the peace and happiness of our country,
and as it has been thought necessary, for the public good, to enter into several political resolves by a meeting of Members deputed from the whole Province,
it is a duty which we owe, not only to our near and dear connections who have concurred in them, but to ourselves who are essentially interested in their welfare, to do every thing as far as lies in our power to testify our sincere adherence to the same;
and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this paper, as a witness of our fixed intention and solemn determination to do so.


Abagail Charlton, Mary Blount, F. Johnstone, Elizabeth Creacy, Margaret Cathcart, Elizabeth Patterson, Anne Johnstone, Jane Wellwood, Margaret Pearson, Mary Woolard, Penelope Dawson, Sarah Beasley, Jean Blair, Susannah Vail, Grace Clayton, Elizabeth Vail, Frances Hall, Elizabeth Vail, Mary Jones, Mary Creacy, Anne Hall, Mary Creacy, Rebecca Bondfield, Ruth Benbury, Sarah Littlejohn, Sarah Howcott, Penelope Barker, Sarah Hoskins, Elizabeth P. Ormond, Mary Littledle, M. Payne, Sarah Valentine, Elizabeth Johnston, Elizabeth Cricket, Mary Bonner, Elizabeth Green, Lydia Bonner, Mary Ramsay, Sarah Howe, Anne Horniblow, Lydia Bennet, Mary Hunter, Marion Wells, Tresia Cunningham, Anne Anderson, Elizabeth Roberts, Sarah Mathews, Elizabeth Roberts, Anne Haughton, Elizabeth Roberts, Elizabeth Beasly.

From England, in January 1775, 16 year-old Arthur Iredell wrote to his older brother who was a judge based in Edenton, James Iredell (1751-1799), describing the British reaction to the Edenton Tea Party. According to Arthur Iredell, the incident was not taken seriously in England, because it was led by women.
Philip Dawes, A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina. Published in London in 1775.

British journalists & cartoonists depicted the women in a negative light, as bad mothers & loose women. In a satirical cartoon published in London in March of 1775, the North Carolina ladies were drawn as female versions of the much maligned macaroni characters of the period.

Arthur Iredell sarcastically wrote to his brother James, who would later become one of the first associates of the United States Supreme Court, back in North Carolina, I see by the newspapers the Edenton ladies have signalized themselves by their protest against tea-drinking. The name of Johnston [the maiden name of Mrs. James Iredell] I see among others; are any of my sisters relations patriotic heroines?
Is there a female congress at Edenton, too? I hope not, for we Englishmen are afraid of the male congress, but if the ladies, who have ever since the Amazonian era been esteemed the most formidable enemies: if they, I say, should attack us, the most fatal consequence is to be dreaded.
So dextrous in the handling of a dart, each wound they give is mortal: whilst we, so unhappily formed by nature, the more we strive to conquer them, the more we are conquered.
The Edenton ladies, conscious, I suppose, of this superiority on their side, by a former experience, are willing, I imagine, to crush us into atoms by their omnipotency: the only security on our side to prevent the impending ruin, that I can perceive, is the probability that there are but few places in America which possess so much female artillery as Edenton.


Perhaps because of her husband James Iredell's official position, Hannah Johnston Iredell refrained from signing resolutions supporting the First North Carolina Provincial Congress, which voted to boycott certain British products. However, Hannah's sisters & her sisters-in-law signed the petition.

Not about to be outdone by their neighbors & not at all deterred by the sarcastic English press, the patriotic ladies of Wilmington, North Carolina, held their own “party” in the spring of 1775, actually burning their tea.

Janet Schaw, a visitor from Scotland who had no sympathy for the colonial rebellion, reported the event in her journals, noting that not everyone in Wilmington approved of the protest: The Ladies have burnt their tea in a solemn procession, but they had delayed however till the sacrifice was not very considerable, as I do not think any one offered above a quarter of a pound. The people in town live decently, and tho’ their houses are not spacious, they are in general very commodious and well furnished.
All the Merchants of any note are British and Irish,and many of them very genteel people. They all disapprove of the present proceedings. Many of them intend quitting the country as fast as their affairs will permit them, but are yet uncertain what steps to take.


But the women patriots had just begun to fight. Purdie's Virginia Gazette reported on May 3, 1775, that women were giving their jewelery to support the Continental Congress like “Roman Females” before them and will “fearless take the field against the ememy” for their glorious cause if their services are needed.

Women began to write letters about the revolutionary cause to their local newspapers. One anonymous women wrote a letter urging her fellow women to sacrifice for the war in Dixon's Virginia Gazette of January 13, 1776. Anne Terrel of Bedford County, Virginia also wrote in the same newspaper to support of the Revolutionary War on September 21, 1776.

During the Revolution more than 20,000 women became army camp followers--cooking, laundering, mending, and acting as nurses for the soldiers. Camp followers received half the food ration, when there was food at all, and minimal compensation. When the British occupied a town, they sometimes brutalized colonial women & their children. Hundreds of women took up arms to serve as soldiers & others served as spies for the colonial army.

Even those women left at home to raise the family & manage the business or the farm helped as they could. One woman passing an evacuated house in Woodbridge, New Jersey, looked in the window & saw a drunken Hessian soldier. She went home, got an old firelock, returned to take the Hessian’s firearms & then walked him about a mile to the patrol guard of the New Jersey regiment to delivered her prisoner. The incident was reported in Dixon's Virginia Gazette on April 18, 1777.

As the war progressed, women began collecting & contributing funds to equip local troops, where their kinfolk & neighbors were serving. The light horsemen of General Nelson of the Virginia Cavalry received just such donations according to Purdie's Virginia Gazette of June 12, 1778.

After the successful war, most male landowners could vote in the new republic. Women were granted the right to vote in the United States of America in 1920.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Colonial Women participate in Consumer Boycotts during the American Revolution

During the American Revolution, many women joined protests and boycotts of imported British goods voluntarily, while others succumbed to pressure from patriots.  The colonists first used nonimportation to protest the Sugar Act in 1764, and they turned to it again when the Townshend duties were passed in 1767. Although some merchants, especially those in Philadelphia, resisted these agreements, nearly every colony eventually signed them. 

Nonimportation affected merchants and artisans, such as seamstresses, in opposite ways. Artisans benefited because the ban on British goods enlarged the market for domestic-made products. 

In contrast, the movement divided merchants. Those who dealt primarily in dry goods from Britain believed that they were being unfairly singled out. They complained that the boycotts left virtually unaffected the merchants who dealt in West Indian molasses and rum. 

Nonofficial bodies, called committees of inspection and headed by merchants, planters, and artisans, took on the responsibility of enforcing the agreements. Patriotic newspapers did their part by publishing the names of merchants who continued to import from British suppliers. Mobs sometimes exerted pressure by tarring and feathering those who refused to honor the agreements. A few merchants were driven out of town or had their warehouses damaged and looted. 

In 1769 an angry mob confronted the Boston shopkeepers Betsy and Anne Cuming for continuing to import British goods. “I told them we have never antred into eney agreement not to import for it was verry trifling owr Business,” Betsy wrote to a friend. The committeemen threatened to publish the sisters’ names in the newspaper, but Betsy claimed that the publicity only “Spirits up our Friends to Purchess from us.” The Cumings could not long resist the Patriots’ pressure, however, and the sisters immigrated to Nova Scotia when the British army evacuated Boston in 1776.

Women participated in and even organized consumer boycotts. Because almost everyone was a consumer to some degree, many individuals and groups participated in the patriot cause by resolving not to consume British-made products. Merchants dealing in imported luxury items were hurt by these movements. 

Women vowed to stop serving tea and refrained from wearing clothes made with fabrics imported from Britain. A widely reprinted appeal that first appeared in 1767 urged them to “Wear none but your own country linen / Of economy boast. Let your pride be the most / To show cloaths of your make and spinning.” 

At least one wedding received publicity because, as one newspaper reported, “the bride and two of her sisters appeared in very genteel-like gowns, and others of the family in handsome apparel, with sundry silk handkerchiefs, &c., entirely of their own manufacture.” 

A few women’s groups even formalized their agreements, to much fanfare. In February 1770 the Boston Evening Post reported that more than three hundred “Mistresses of Families” had vowed to “totally abstain” from serving tea, “Sickness excepted” as an expression of their desire to save the “Country from Ruin and Slavery.” 

Another group of women in North Carolina signed an agreement in October 1774 proclaiming it their “duty” to do “every thing as far as lies in our power” to support the “publick good.” Most of the shunned items were luxuries, not necessities. In addition to tea, wine, and fancy textiles patriotic Americans gave up their coaches and carriages, gold and silver buttons, diamonds, clocks, watches, and jewelry. These boycotts allowed participation in public affairs to those, especially women, who had few other channels for expressing their political sentiments.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

British American Women Merchants

A few women in British Colonial America participated in trade. In England, some had done so since at least the fourteenth century, and a small number even belonged to guilds. 

Most colonial businesswomen were widows who had taken over upon the death of their husbands or single women forced to support themselves and perhaps a few dependents. But working for pay was hardly typical for women, and operating as a merchant was even rarer. 

During the revolutionary era women made up less than 10 percent of all the traders in Boston. At most, only about 2 percent of New York’s substantial merchants were women. One was Mary Alexander, who was born Mary Spratt in 1693. In 1711 she married merchant Samuel Provoost, and when he died in 1719, Mary took over his dry goods business. In 1721 she married James Alexander, a prominent attorney and member of the New York Council, with whom she had seven children in addition to the three that she had with her first husband. 

According to James Alexander, Mary did not let child-bearing stop her from continuing her business; in fact she was back at the store the day after giving birth to one of her daughters, selling goods worth some thirty pounds. When James died in 1754, Mary was named the executrix of his estate. 

Yet no matter how large their businesses might be, colonial American female merchants rarely sought political clout. The New York Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1768, had no female members, and none seemed interested in joining.