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Abigail's Accounts: Economy and Affection in the Early Republic

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2005
pp. 35-58 | 10.1353/jowh.2005.0035


In the pages of her account books, Abigail Robinson, a single woman from a Newport, Rhode Island merchant family at the turn of the nineteenth century, represented the mundane tasks of domestic life as monetary transactions. With each stroke of her pen, she linked the ways and concerns of the market with the "women's work" performed by herself and by the women she employed, corresponded with, and cared for. This article explores each kind of transaction recorded in Abigail's account books—hiring servants, buying imported goods for family and friends, stewarding young relatives, and investing in paper securities—to illuminate the complex ways in which emotion, social obligation, and economic calculation intersected. Strikingly and explicitly, market transactions constructed social relationships and affective ties shaped economic transactions. Women such as Abigail Robinson led lives that were at once more profoundly embedded in market concerns than those of their colonial forebears and clearly different from the emerging ideal of the private, sheltered home. Forged in networks of work and exchange, a commercial consciousness served variously as complement and alternative to "domesticity" for middling and well-to-do free women.

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