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Chapter 2 Work in the Atlantic Service Economy 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 of themselves and their families. But international commerce, in the form of goods and people, left its stamp on every kind of work that women did in the revolutionary era and transformed what it meant to them. In particular, commerce widened the possibilities for women to earn money for their labors. Their small, often self-employed businesses in port cities depended on outsiders. Through this work of providing services for pay, women became vital agents of connection not only within their communities but also between local urban economies and Atlantic ones.1 Cooking and cleaning for others, trading and selling, sewing and educating—these activities formed the core repertoire for white and black urban women. As they labored in these tasks, women forged ties across many of the seeming divides in the eighteenth-century economy. They linked home and market, as many of the skills of women’s work were to some degree associated with the home and frequently acquired from mothers and aunts. They bridged paid and unpaid labor, when they performed the same kinds of services to earn money and credit that they did, for no pay, in support of themselves and their relatives.2 They also connected production and consumption, by bringing the products of their needles and poultry yards to shopkeepers or market hawkers willing to accept these items as payment for consumer goods. This adaptability of female market participation proved crucial in the national shift to a capitalist economy, given the importance of flexible, intermittent labor to families facing new sources of competition.3 Through all of these connections, women’s work lives linked local transactions to international transformations. Urban women who worked for money, either as servants with wages or self-employed small businesswomen , staffed an Atlantic service economy that intersected with the developing port functions of the revolutionary era. The expansion of 40 Chapter 2 the British empire in the eighteenth century created new customers, new suppliers, and new goods for enterprising merchants. To manage these interlocking opportunities, businesspeople had to mobilize cooperative partners and tap into transatlantic information networks. They had to balance long-range planning with an acceptance of risk and competition . New activities demanded new support structures—shipping services, work crews, credit instruments—and generated more dirty clothes, hungry stomachs, homeless sailors, and unclad bodies.4 These last, unglamorous features of the trading economy may have worried city fathers, but they simultaneously provided a broad base of customers for self-employed city women (Figure 5). In turn, interaction with the Atlantic economy fundamentally altered the scale and meaning of women’s domestic labors. Pursuit of profit in the larger urban marketplace required a greater investment of time, a marshaling of resources from outside of the household, and a qualitatively different relationship with other actors in the urban economy. Seasonal workers, transient residents, and other city dwellers were more likely to pay for the services of prepared meals, laundry, and clothes-making. By placing a monetary value on women’s domestic work, the exchange of cash or credit for “female” skills changed how these skills were perceived and how they fit into people’s economic lives. For example, women and men recognized skill and specialization within “women’s work” and expected to pay more for superior abilities. Married free women’s work also earned valuable credit for family members with local shopkeepers, which enabled them to purchase desirable imported goods. Imported goods then became the raw materials for new female business ventures, from well-stocked taverns down to hastily pawned jackets. The Atlantic service economy was a paradoxical place for working women. Enslaved women bought themselves a measure of autonomy and material sustenance with paid work. Free daughters earmarked small sums for purchases meant to satisfy themselves alone. But by opening women’s lives to potential allies and an expansive worldview, commercial connections forged by work also exposed them to unfamiliar competitors and unforeseen market shifts. These, too, rippled across the economy and into daily life, as goods and people circulating in the Atlantic community met in the work of port-city women. Serving Atlantic People “Boarding,” the cornerstone of the service economy catering to a fluid...


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