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Introduction 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 repeatedly in meaning and purpose. Created in an English print shop as part of a full deck, the card was loaded onto a ship for export to Newport, Rhode Island, where it came to rest alongside towcloth, limes, stone mugs, and linen on the shelves of Thomas Brenton’s shop. Selected by Stoneman’s slave and carried through the streets of the northern seaport, the nine of clubs, still in its deck, was finally unwrapped by Stoneman, a widow who had recently taken over her dead husband’s tavern business, and deposited onto the table of her club. On its journey, the card had been repeatedly exchanged on credit by interconnected merchants, retailers, and patrons. As it was passed along, the nine of clubs shifted from profitable export to desirable import to token in a game of chance. Then, on March 20, 1769, Benjamin Wickham reached for the card from a pile of discards, split it open, and on the blank surface exposed, wrote a promise to pay Stoneman £13, plus interest, in one year.1 When he failed to deliver, the playing-card promissory note concluded its journey in a court file, removed from circulation at the same time that thousands of other promissory notes entered local economies as investments, cash, and loans. Plucked from its creased folder in the twenty-first century, Stoneman’s playing card is transformed once again, from court evidence into historical evidence of a commercial urban economy during the revolutionary era, fueled by imported drinks, service work, a spirit of risk, bonds of credit, and regular business transactions between men and women. Stoneman’s place in that economy, like that of most people, was a mixture of old and new. As a widow with young sons, Abigail Stoneman supported her family through traditional “women’s work”: feeding, cleaning, and serving alcohol. It is easy to look at her life and see continuities with past generations of free women. But her playing-card note embodied a new kind of mobile, transferable credit that few women of her grandmother’s 2 Introduction generation knew. The nine of clubs with the £13 promise underscored the urban tavern keeper’s connections to an expansive, commercial society . Stoneman was in many ways an exceptional widow, particularly in her taste for litigation, but the connections of credit, commerce, and culture embodied in her promissory note were central to the lives of thousands of unexceptional women in the years surrounding the American Revolution. This book is about those connections. It investigates everyday economic networks in revolutionary America with women at their center. Economic life for women has often been portrayed as a story of deviance from domestic norms—of runaway slaves, of prostitutes, of desperate widows. Certainly, many of these women found themselves at the mercy of an economic and legal system that favored male property-holding and sanctioned the ownership of human beings. But urban life was commercial in ways that touched every facet of city dwellers’ lives, from the rooms they lived in to the buttons they bought to the way they understood personal relationships. Women were quintessential market participants in this context, with fluid occupational identities, a firm investment in cash and commercial goods for power and meaning, and cross-class social and economic ties. Economic ties were essential for urban Americans because mediated access to the marketplace was the rule. Chains of credit bound customers , retailers, shopkeepers, and merchants. Families and associates circulated goods, found jobs for one another, settled estates, and loaned money. Since corporations, banks, and insurance companies were still in their early stages, the business ties of elites stretched to perform new financial functions, channeling the flow of goods and information around the Atlantic world in a burst of expanding trade. The success of these business partnerships rested on trust built on the kept promises between individuals. Business failure was therefore personal failure; a disrupted friendship was financial ruin. In other words, the late eighteenth-century port economy was an “embedded” one in which financial relationships were social and vice versa.2 Gender, race, and rank all shaped the kinds of connections a person could make, but being female, being black, or being poor...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780812203943
Related ISBN
9780812221596
MARC Record
OCLC
802047770
Pages
264
Launched on MUSE
2012-12-20
Language
English
Open Access
No
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