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  • Embodied History: The Lives of the Poor in Early Philadelphia
  • Braslaw Sharon Sundue
Embodied History: The Lives of the Poor in Early Philadelphia. By Simon P. Newman . ( Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. xii plus 211 pp. $47.50 cloth, $18.95 paper).

Since the 1960s, early American historians have striven to evaluate the impact of the economic and political transformations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on relations between different social classes. An essential part of this project has been an effort to reconstruct the evolution of attitudes towards and the experiences of the poorest Americans, no easy task given the paucity of written records documenting their personal lives. While historians taking the poor as their subject have used existing records creatively in order to reconstruct the material conditions of the lives of the lower sort, the meaning these people gave to their own lives and the way they crafted their own identity has remained elusive. In Embodied History: The Lives of the Poor in Early Philadelphia, Simon Newman makes an important contribution to this topic, analyzing the bodies of the poor themselves as texts, which illustrate in an intimate way "their experiences of social and economic power," but which also yield insight into "their experiences, beliefs, values and culture." (p. 14)

Newman's methodology makes sense in order to reconstruct the qualitative experience of poverty in early national Philadelphia, given the preoccupation of contemporaries with the bodies of the poor. Following Michel Foucault's analysis, Newman describes middling and elite efforts to control the bodies of the poor in the face of mounting impoverishment and what seemed to be a dangerous [End Page 782] decline in deferential behavior, classifying, regulating and restraining them in newly devised institutions designed to "recondition" impoverished bodies. (p. 9) In the first three chapters of the book, "Almshouse Bodies," "Hospitalized Bodies" and "Villainous Bodies," Newman analyzes the records left by three of the institutions charged with this responsibility: the Philadelphia Almshouse, the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Sick Poor, and the Walnut Street Jail. His analysis here reveals administrators assessing the morality and thus determining the treatment of the poor by evaluating the bodily manifestations of impoverishment. Thus, while broken limbs and compliant demeanor served as evidence that a poor, incapacitated man was worthy of a cure in the Pennsylvania Hospital, sick women bearing evidence of venereal disease were instead incarcerated in the almshouse or the city jail alongside others expected to work and submit themselves to physical discipline in order to reform themselves.

Newman's analysis of the bodies of the poor is not, however, limited to an analysis of elite attitudes toward and efforts to control the bodies of the poor. In these same records, he finds tantalizing evidence of the poor resisting these reform efforts and using these institutions to their own ends, shedding light on the coping strategies of the lower sort. For example, he describes some impoverished individuals defying the intention of the almshouse, using it as a winter refuge, running off each spring in order to resume "living largely independent and masterless lives." (p. 37) Newman also offers insight into the communities that formed among the impoverished and incarcerated. Most evocatively, he describes the women suffering from the venereal disease that was a consequence of their occupation, who banded together to mob a detested nurse in the almshouse, and who celebrated the life of a fellow prostitute with an improvised wake at Potter's Field burial ground.

In the final three chapters of the book, on "Runaway Bodies," "Seafaring Bodies," and "Dead Bodies," Newman continues to develop this theme of resistance, evaluating the ways in which the impoverished attempted to assert control over their own lives, by literally redefining and refashioning their bodies. Here, most originally, he analyzes the tattoos seamen engraved on their skin, which offer insight into the subculture and values of this largely illiterate group, highlighting their professional pride, political allegiances, and connection to communities on shore. Likewise, Newman analyzes runaway servants' and slaves' efforts to reassert control over their bodies, by re-naming themselves, and crafting hairstyles and fashions that either challenged subordinate status or may have "communicated a visible...


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