In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Chapter 1 Urban Housefuls 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 “head of family,” defined as the “master, mistress, steward, overseer or other principal person” in each household.1 The identity of that “principal person” might differ, but his powers, under law and by cultural agreement , were broad. The household, which included kin, servants, and slaves, was supposed to govern individual behavior, channel productive and reproductive energies, and serve as the foundation of the social and political order. It sustained itself through the collective contributions of its members, joined together in what scholars have called a “family economy.”2 Economic cooperation mirrored spatial cohabitation. What worked on a farm foundered on the demographic and social reality of the city, where households were smaller and more varied, and increasingly, home and workplace were not the same. These realities meant that the economic powers of the urban household head were restricted in practice, if not in law, because the household itself was porous and variable. In fact, some argue that it is better to think of urban households as “joint ventures” rather than centrally directed enterprises.3 Economic communication became more complex and economic cooperation more tenuous. If census-takers grouped individuals by kin ties and ownership, people in early port cities more often grouped themselves according to economic and social needs. When the census-taker for 1790 recorded Charleston shopkeeper Mary Kemmel, he described her as the head of a small household that included herself and two slaves. On another page, he noted Thomas Abernethie’s more substantial and conventional household as two adult white men, a boy, a white woman, and six slaves. He said nothing of the fact that Kemmel’s household and Abernethie’s household in fact shared the same location, 42 Queen Street, where they crowded together along with baker John Smith and his free black servant .4 It was a common arrangement among the highly mobile residents 14 Chapter 1 of early port cities, and one that disrupted typical eighteenth-century conceptions of household authority and order. Even the idea of a family venture fails to capture this basic unit of urban life. What did the Kemmels, Abernethies, and Smiths know that the census-taker ignored? Family historians sometimes use the term “houseful ” to describe coresidence of households that might or might not be related by family ties.5 Such collectivities have existed in a range of settings , from rural Pennsylvania farms to densely urban London. Applied to the living and working conditions of Atlantic port residents, the term “houseful” shifts from useful descriptive to powerful analytical tool for understanding urban women’s lives. The houseful at 42 Queen Street, for example, challenges the notion of an urban “family economy” and raises questions about female economic activity in particular. Many homes contained multiple businesses; many residents rented rooms in one building and worked someplace else. Schoolmistresses, shopkeepers , and boardinghouse keepers shared living space with unrelated merchants and craftsmen. Mixed-race groups of free and enslaved people defied easy categorization into “families” as well. A significant number of black and white residents lived in households headed by women. All of these combinations had to find new models of economic self-support, and the age and gender hierarchies of the rural household loosened to accommodate them. The new entities were not lonely, failed households but rather distinct social and economic forms that pervaded urban life. Even Thomas Abernethie’s conventional, male-headed “household” was subsumed within a houseful. The houseful was the smallest knot in a web of economic ties that reached into the city, up and down the coast, and out to the larger Atlantic world. It organized space and constituted relationships marked by contention rather than obedience. It was forged from the most personal, local circumstances and yet also functioned as a pivotal actor in global commerce. Housefuls were not the only arrangements that combined economic and social functions, of course. Neighborhoods organized social networks that paid economic dividends. Extended kin bonds supplied business partners and sympathetic words. But the urban houseful provided women—who were more likely to raise children, launch small businesses, trade, and work close to home—an economic link to life in the city and beyond. Most studies of urban economic life have focused...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.