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The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America
Published by EH.Net (June 2012)
Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. iii + 253 pp. $20 (paperback), ISBN: 978-8122-2159-6.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Linda L. Sturtz, Department of History, Beloit College.
In The Ties That Buy, Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor explores women’s economic activities in Newport, RI, and Charleston, SC, during the Revolutionary and Early National periods. Building on the path-breaking work of Jeanne Boydston about the meaning accorded to women’s work, Hartigan-O’Connor analyzes changes in market transactions and how these influences affected the social significance of women’s work. The author outlines a chronology of women’s market activities during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when women who had been active in urban markets faced a “new understanding of ‘domesticity’” that divided the world into public and private, masculine and feminine spheres (p. 3). She acknowledges that “numerous historians have demonstrated that the ideal was far from the reality,” but still seeks to take their conclusions a step further suggesting that “women were as responsible for the spread of commercial goods” and that their activities occurred at the intersection of public and private spheres (p. 4). Likewise, she seeks to demonstrate that although urban enslaved women and their mistresses operated within power structures that accorded them distinct statuses, they shared knowledge about the economy and “needed to agree” on some aspects of commercial life so that the “urban setting fostered shared lives of economic collaboration across status differences” (p.
11). Furthermore, the kind of enterprises that women operated shaped their demand for enslaved workers to sustain those activities. For example, free black and white women who offered commercial board and lodging had a higher rate of slaveholding than did women who ran other kinds of businesses. In this and other kinds of work, Hartigan-O’Connor demonstrates effectively the extent of opportunities that women could take across color and economic class lines and how these relations changed during a period when Newport experienced economic decline while Charleston’s post-war economy grew.
The book is divided into six chapters, primarily organized by topic rather than chronology. The first chapter is one of the most evocative. Here, the author draws on census records to reconstruct what she calls “urban housefuls” – the co-residence of unrelated people in compact housing where commercial activities (in addition to lodging and feeding the residents) occurred (p. 14). One is reminded of how recent (and how American) our expectations for a private family home for a single household of related individuals are – never mind the expectation that residence and production would be geographically divided. Those living above the shop – and in it – included paying guests and boarders along with family members. Geographic segregation of productive activities from residential life, for elite Charlestonians, and of communities by color only occurred in the early nineteenth-century (p. 47). The author rightly points out that the mobile individuals who made up the lower strata of colonial societies were most likely to be overlooked in the documentary record and she effectively traces this elusive portion of the Charleston and Newport populations.
The second chapter reveals what women did in the service economies of the two cities, explicitly attempting to locate their work within an Atlantic, international commerce and positing that women became “vital agents of connection not only within their communities but also between local urban economies and Atlantic ones” (p. 39). She succeeds in showing how the shipping trade of port cities provided distinctive opportunities for local production within a trans-Atlantic context. Most of her discussion in this fascinating chapter focuses on the importance of female earnings to the support of families, while she simultaneously asserts that “none of these provisions was meant to champion women’s rights” (p. 64).
The chapter on “Family Credit and Shared Debts” offers an intriguing analysis of how economic “ties” operated within the Newport and Charleston economies. Building on the methodological model Cornelia Dayton established to show how court records reveal the ways that preferred forms of credit fluctuated, Hartigan-O’Connor argues that credit instruments shifted over time.
For women with money to invest, opportunities to enter more impersonal relationships of credit and debt developed in the late eighteenth-century, when, in addition to book debt, Charleston investors could choose promissory notes and “due bills” as a means of borrowing and lending money. Hartigan-O’Connor also analyzes the ways that women in both cities used money, rather than credit, for their exchanges. Cash in colonial and Revolutionary America was complicated because the multiple currencies in circulation required knowledge about exchange rates, and paper money depreciated worrisomely during the war years. Furthermore, Charleston transactions reveal that rice could parallel cash as a form of exchange – what is less clear in this book is if this was comparable to other commodity-based systems of accounting where the commodity (sugar for Jamaica and Barbados or tobacco in Virginia, for example) could serve as legal tender.
Chapter Five on shopping networks and consumption demonstrates how acquiring and selling goods was a collaborative process that could involve several individuals and what the author calls “shopping proxies” in the process of acquiring an item. She also describes the shift from officially-monitored open-air markets of the colonial period to less regulated, free-standing shops where merchants’ willingness to provide good service and a venue for sociability among the customers became essential attributes. Tacked onto the end of the chapter is a section on the slave market in Charleston, emphasizing that markets and auctions “treated human beings as one more type of commodity” (p. 157). The author does not discuss alternative means of slave vending – were there ship-board sales or other “early-bird” viewings set aside for the biggest customers? Was the central market for slaves in Charleston an example of increasing official oversight of the market at a time when the author suggests the marketing of inanimate goods were less regulated? It is useful to have the developments in these two market sectors compared, but this comparison could have repaid extending still further.
The final chapter discusses what the author refers to as “consumer citizenship” during the Revolutionary and Early National periods (pp. 161, 163). She demonstrates how boycotts and embargoes were simultaneously political and gendered, with women cast as particularly implicated with symbolic forms of production (homespun, for example) and consumption (restraint during and after the war.) Much of the information in this chapter will be familiar to scholars of the period, but it does provide a solid conclusion to her longer argument.
Hartingan-O’Connor enters a lively scholarly discussion that continues to attract attention and spur new archival research. Recently, historians of women and gender in the colonial and Revolutionary eras have sought to recreate the history of exchange, investment, and debt from the shards of evidence that do exist and to analyze the changing dynamics of these exchanges and the meanings embedded in them. Vivian Conger’s Widow’s Might (South Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts), Cornelia Dayton’s Women before the Bar (Connecticut), Deborah Rosen’s Courts and Commerce (New York), my own Within Her Power (Virginia), and Karin Wulf’s Not All Wives (Philadelphia) have all analyzed women’s involvement in aspects of trade and considered the legal and social frameworks that shaped those activities across the colonies and often across the Atlantic. Now, Hartigan-O’Connor has done a masterful job of bringing this analysis to Charleston and Newport, and moving the analysis into the Revolutionary War period.
In many ways, the questions left unanswered in this volume are issues which go well beyond the scope of a single volume – ones that the next decade’s historians of women and gender within the Atlantic economy will need to address. Three issues that require further investigation and synthetic analysis became apparent to me as I read this text. First, how do the trends that Hartigan-O’Connor identifies relate to cities beyond the two ports she mentions and to non-urban areas? She hints at the connections between these two cities and their hinterlands, but how did profoundly rural areas operate as gendered economies during this period? She states, rather than demonstrates, that the urban culture, its language, and the goods circulating there were exported to the countryside and beyond.
In a related vein, what do inter-colonial comparisons reveal, especially if we incorporate the non-rebelling British colonies? Although the author establishes that the women she discusses operated in cities on the edges of the Atlantic economy, we see very little evidence of cross-colony exchanges or the family networks that crossed the Atlantic beyond the hapless Loyalists attempting to reclaim debts owed them. How does gender function in such inter-colonial and transatlantic links? The title suggests the book will encompass “Revolutionary America” but in practice it focuses very tightly on two urban centers, Newport, RI and Charleston, SC. While these are fascinating locations and do provide significant comparisons, they hardly constitute the totality of “Revolutionary America.” For Hartigan-O’Connor, northern cities are offered for comparison, which seems especially useful for understanding the trajectory of Newport’s development. But Virginia and Barbados would offer useful comparisons for Charleston since both operated as mono-crop colonies, and Barbados’s demography resembled South Carolina’s. Secondary source material exists for these locations allowing for contextualization within an existing scholarship. Work on Barbados, for example, reveals an even more striking marketing of enslaved women’s bodies in Bridgetown’s brothels – and the role of white women’s financial investment in these “housefuls.”
Finally, the most elusive issue for understanding enslaved and free black women’s economic activities may be the slave marketing system; in this text, the dynamics of the trade are still only sketched. What was the role of slave women in bringing rural crops to market? Sydney Mintz’s classic article discusses enslaved and free Jamaican market women’s role in bringing crops to market from an anthropological perspective. It would be fascinating to see how mainland women mediated the link between producer and market and how this influenced the rural-urban nexus in colonial economies and notions of property and freedom in these settings.
Hartigan-O’Connor’s book takes us a long way toward making these kinds of cross-colonial claims. She allows us to locate women’s participation in the consumer revolution within their distinctive dependence and the webs of obligation. Investigating non-elite as well as wealthy women in her analysis, Hartigan-O’Connor places women in the locations where economic activities occurred – including shops and streets, and, in doing so, she “restore(s) them as active members of urban economic life” (p. 5).
1. Jeanne Boydston, Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic (New York: Oxford, 1990).
2. Vivian Bruce Conger, The Widows' Might: Widowhood and Gender in Early British America (New York: New York University Press, 2009); Cornelia Hughes Dayton, Women before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Deborah A. Rosen, Courts and Commerce: Gender, Law, and the Market Economy in Colonial New York (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1997); Linda L. Sturtz, Within Her Power: Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia (New York: Routledge, 2002); and Karin A. Wulf, Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).
3. Hilary Beckles, Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society (Kingston: Ian Randle, 1999); Pedro L.V. Welch, Slave Society in the City: Bridgetown, Barbados, 1680-1834 (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2003): 91-2.
4. Sidney W. Mintz, “The Jamaican Internal Marketing Pattern: Some Notes and Hypotheses,” Social and Economic Studies 4, no. 1 (1955): 95-103, especially pp. 96-97.
Linda L. Sturtz is a Professor of History at Beloit College, Wisconsin, and is currently writing about women in pre-emancipation English Jamaica.
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