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The Ties That Buy

Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America

By Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

Publication Year: 2011

In 1770, tavernkeeper Abigail Stoneman called in her debts by flourishing a handful of playing cards before the Rhode Island Court of Common Pleas. Scrawled on the cards were the IOUs of drinkers whose links to Stoneman testified to women's paradoxical place in the urban economy of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Stoneman did traditional women's work—boarding, feeding, cleaning, and selling alcohol—but her customers, like her creditors, underscore her connections to an expansive commercial society. These connections are central to The Ties That Buy.

Historian Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor traces the lives of urban women in early America to reveal how they used the ties of residence, work, credit, and money to shape consumer culture at a time when the politics of the marketplace was gaining national significance. Covering the period 1750-1820, the book analyzes how women such as Stoneman used and were used by shifting forms of credit and cash in an economy transitioning between neighborly exchanges and investment-oriented transactions. In this world, commerce reached into every part of life. At the hearths of multifamily homes, renters, lodgers, and recent acquaintances lived together and struck financial deals for survival. Landladies, enslaved washerwomen, shopkeepers, and hucksters sustained themselves by serving the mobile population. A new economic practice in America—shopping—mobilized hierarchical and friendly relationships into wide-ranging consumer networks that depended on these same market connections.

Rhetoric emerging after the Revolution downplayed the significance of expanding female economic life in the interest of stabilizing the political order. But women were quintessential market participants, with fluid occupational identities, cross-class social and economic connections, and a firm investment in cash and commercial goods for power and meaning.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

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pp. 1-12

In her civil case against Benjamin Wickham, Jr., Abigail Stoneman presented an unusual form of evidence to the court: the nine of clubs. By the time of its court appearance, this playing card had traveled across the landscape of the late eighteenth-century economy. It had also transformed...

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1. Urban Housefuls

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pp. 13-38

Census-takers, like historians, understood early American society in terms of households. The smallest building block of society was also the organizing principle of the population count. As they made their tallies, census-takers grouped residents together under a single name, called...

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2. Work in the Atlantic Service Economy

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pp. 39-68

Most of the women who moved through the streets of Newport and Charleston were hard at work—carrying goods, pumping water, attending the market, and visiting stores. In some ways, these tasks echoed what generations of African, European, and American women had done on behalf...

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3. Family Credit and Shared Debts

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pp. 69-100

In 1776, Sarah Cantwell responded indignantly and in print to her husband’s claim that she had run away from him, taking his credit and good name with her. In the pages of the South Carolina and American General Gazette she asserted: “JOHN CANTWELL has the Impudence to advertise...

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4. Translating Money

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pp. 101-128

A sheaf of promissory notes distributed throughout the city marked a woman as a person of credit but not necessarily of wealth. From tax lists with only a sprinkling of female names to poorhouse rolls dominated by them, official city records tell a tale of relative female poverty. ...

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5. Shopping Networks and Consumption as Collaboration

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pp. 129-160

In March 1775, Eliza Pinckney packed a trunk with limes, aprons, paper, and cloth to send to her daughter Harriott Horry. Pinckney tucked the trunk’s key into a newsy letter that reported on her labors:...

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6. The Republic of Goods

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pp. 161-189

The work of shopping networks—circulating information, looking for bargains, arranging credit payments—spurred business, cemented social connections, and offered moments of autonomy and authority to subordinates. The process was emphatically not self-sufficient, which was what...

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pp. 190-196

“All the World is becoming commercial,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to George Washington after the Revolution, though he would not say “whether commerce contributed to the Happiness of mankind.”1 Ambivalence over commerce, which brought great wealth and sudden disaster, was...


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pp. 197-242


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pp. 243-250


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pp. 251-253

E-ISBN-13: 9780812203943
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812221596

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies