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The port cities of the early republic were creatures of a dynamic but volatile international economy, highly susceptible to sudden shocks and the ups and downs of unpredictable business cycles. Because the urban job market depended on long-distance trade, employment and wages rose and fell with the level of commerce. City inhabitants strove to ride the crests and cushion the shocks, but how well did they do, for themselves and for each other? These are never easy questions to answer, but this is particularly the case for women and children, white and black, bound and free.

Researchers interested in more comprehensive coverage of the poorer ranks of urban society have turned to the records of public and private institutions such as almshouses, workhouses, orphanages, hospitals, churches, schools, jails and penitentiaries, and courts of all kinds, including, as we shall see below, those convened by coroners.

Women performed critical functions in the economies of early American cities, but female members of all classes found themselves disadvantaged by both the law and the market, where coverture, marginal jobs, and low wages forced their dependency on men. Yet, even when fully employed, men of the “working poor” did not earn enough to support their families. As a result, most poor families relied on the earnings of mothers and children to get by.

Despite their near-invisibility in the records of the times, it is women’s lives at street level that the papers in this issue portray.


Women, Coverture, Poverty, Early republic, Port cities, Informal economy, Survival strategies, Working poor, Almshouse, Workhouse, Orphans, Orphanage, Pauper apprentices, Poor relief, Work relief, Labor relations, Urban slavery, Prostitution, Infanticide

Historians are taking a fresh look at life and work in early American cities. They have long appreciated the vital economic and cultural roles played by cities through the ages. It is only recently, however, that they have discovered that we cannot understand how those cities actually functioned without taking into account the economic contributions of ordinary women and children, bound and free. Yet these workers are almost invisible in surviving records. White or black, they were regarded as dependent beings, incapable of doing a man’s work or of taking on a man’s responsibility. When they were noticed at all, it was only as objects of pity because of their special disabilities as women without masculine protection (deserted wives, poor widows, and orphans), or to condemn their misdeeds (such as selling sex or fencing stolen goods or running away), rather than to acknowledge the vital importance of the work they performed. In order to see through this veil of male condescension, social historians must reread the old records with new eyes. It is life at street level that the articles in this issue offer us.

First, some background on the cities themselves. On the eve of independence about 7 percent of the population of the continental colonies lived in urban places with 2,500 or more inhabitants. That proportion actually fell to just 5 percent in 1790, reflecting the devastating impact of the Revolutionary War and the postwar depression. That the urban population was still below 10 percent some forty years later was due to westward [End Page 331] expansion and the creation of a million new farm households. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the country’s largest cities were all on the Atlantic coast, and its capital was the new Union’s largest city and port, Philadelphia. That city, like the other port cities south of New England, was an entrepot for the agricultural produce of an extensive back country. Wheat, flour, flaxseed, rice, and butter funneled into these towns via rivers and roadways. There they were collected and warehoused prior to being shipped abroad. Wholesale merchants sent them to markets in the West Indies, Great Britain, and southern Europe. Their ships brought back sugar and bills of exchange from the first, manufactured goods from the second, and wine from the third. Growers received credit or money for their produce, which they used to pay their debts and buy finished goods from abroad or from local artisans.1

The more income these farm households earned, the greater their potential demand for the popular consumer items of the times. Besides tobacco, rum, tea, and sugar, merchant–importers brought in fine linen and woolen cloth, pottery, and metal wares from England and Europe, cotton goods from India, and, before century’s end, porcelains directly from China. Retailers in the cities could buy and sell in their own shops or through stalls in public markets. At the close of the colonial period in Philadelphia, for instance, there were three sizable markets where small-scale exchange took place. Hucksters (usually female) bought their wares there to hawk on the streets. Peddlers (always male) likewise assembled their wares there to carry by pack horse or cart into the countryside.2 [End Page 332]

Philadelphia had surpassed Boston in size by the middle of the eighteenth century but then yielded primacy to New York City. New York had pursued much the same economic path as Philadelphia in colonial times but rapidly outgained it when thousands of settlers moved in upstate after the Revolution. The advent of steamboats on the Hudson River and the construction of the Erie Canal lowered transport costs dramatically and extended the city’s access to a vastly larger back country. Philadelphia, meanwhile, was also facing competition from an upstart neighbor, Baltimore. Switching gears, its business entrepreneurs scrambled to create an industrial base capable of competing with England in its flourishing regional market.

Northward in New England, none of the region’s coastal towns could draw on an agricultural back country equivalent to those tapped by the Mid-Atlantic ports. Instead, they pioneered coastal trade with other British colonies in the seventeenth century and tapped nearby fisheries. Later they were able to supplement dried cod with salted butter, ship’s biscuit, and barrel staves. Sugar plantations in the West Indies became their best customers. With Caribbean sugar in their holds and bills of exchange in their pockets, Yankee merchant mariners sailed into English and Iberian ports to negotiate for manufactured goods and wine. The region’s growing fleet carried goods for hire as well as buying and selling cargoes and ships wherever markets beckoned. The merchants of colonial Newport, Rhode Island, for instance, did all these things, and in addition, they marketed the area’s famous Narragansett ponies to West Indian planters and traded rum made from Caribbean molasses for slaves in Africa.3

Given the significance of slavery to the colonial and early national economy, it comes as no surprise that the institution both directly and indirectly shaped job opportunities for urbanites. In the plantation South, port cities such as Charleston and Savannah assembled and shipped the rice raised by slaves, and white residents employed slaves in [End Page 333] their streets and on their docks as well as laundresses, cooks, and maids in private households, and as buyers and sellers in their marketplaces. More northern port cities had also made surprisingly heavy use of enslaved workers in the years before the Revolution. Something like 40 percent of Philadelphia’s workers circa 1750 were un-free, with slaves outnumbering indentured servants.4

The distinctive urban patterns of the various port cities were products of their economic geography, but all of Britain’s mainland colonies had benefitted from membership in the expanding British Empire and from Britain’s near monopoly of the African slave trade in the eighteenth century. Meeting the needs for food and clothing of the third of a million kidnapped Africans crowded onto British West Indian plantations provided employment for hundreds of thousands of northern farmers, fishermen, merchants, mariners, and ship builders prior to the Revolution.5

And in the nineteenth century, manufacturers in northeastern states furnished hats, shoes, and clothing to the expanding plantations of the cotton South. Slavery thus underpinned the entire Atlantic system in the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth.6

For all its dynamism, the British trans-oceanic trading system proved vulnerable to the disruptions of wars and revolutions wherever they occurred. When American revolutionaries severed their imperial ties, Britain closed its West Indian and African markets to the rebels, leaving the continental port cities to scramble to adapt, in the process bankrupting merchants and putting residents out of work. Newport, in particular, withered, unable to reinvent itself. Most of the other port cities, however, caught a second wind when official neutrality during the Napoleonic [End Page 334] Wars opened up myriad new trading opportunities. But the British did not appreciate American efforts to feed the hungry in war-torn Europe, harassing their ships and impressing their crews. Jefferson’s retaliatory Embargo again stilled the country’s harbors as did the War of 1812. That war’s succeeding depression was deep and prolonged, but East Coast shipping eventually revived. Between 1798 and 1850, Boston tonnage had quadrupled, and New York’s had quintupled. Population of the port cities grew commensurately, yet the country was switching away from an Atlantic-facing society to one looking westward, to a vast continent promising endless resources for those willing to develop them.7

The port cities of the early republic were creatures of a dynamic but volatile international economy, highly susceptible to sudden shocks and the ups and downs of unpredictable business cycles. Because the urban job market depended on long-distance trade, employment and wages rose and fell with the level of commerce. Market-driven unemployment compounded the effects of the seasonal unemployment that made winters so difficult for urban dwellers. City inhabitants strove to ride the crests and cushion the shocks, but how well did they do, for themselves and for each other? These are not easy questions to answer. Historians used to avoid or ignore such questions because the available sources are so poor. The very invisibility of the “lesser sort” in tax and census records, and of the lives they lived, apparently persuaded many scholars that they must have made out all right, and the truly poor were few as well as unfortunate. After all, “the poor ye have with you always.”

Contemporary historians are impatient with such nostrums, not only because they overlook the stories of almost everybody who ever lived but because their absence distorts the inner workings of past societies. The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and resurgent feminism prodded a new generation of historians to tackle questions that older historians had shrugged off as “unanswerable.” Inspired by English demographers and French anthropologists, they not only read newspapers and correspondence but also systematically extracted data [End Page 335] from manuscript census schedules, probate records, and ship manifests. Aided by computers and encouraged by National Endowment for the Humanities grants, they turned to tax lists, city directories, and vital records to identify and classify heads of households by relative wealth where possible, but these proved heavily biased toward free white males of the propertied classes. Probate records, however, could also be used to identify debtors and creditors of the estate. In accounts of administration and estate settlements, lists of claims include those who provided services to the deceased. Hence these may identify doctors, surgeons, and nurses, but also laundresses, maids, seamstresses, tailors, and others of the “lower orders.”

Although probate records have their uses, researchers interested in more comprehensive coverage of the poorer ranks of urban society have turned to the records of public and private institutions such as almshouses, workhouses, orphanages, hospitals, churches, schools, jails, penitentiaries, and courts of all kinds, including, as we shall see, those convened by coroners. Reading all these records for a city as large as Philadelphia or New York and linking individuals from one record to another is, of course, an impossible task for a single researcher, even the most indefatigable. Hence our view of the lives of non-elites in early American cities necessarily rests on a haphazardly produced and inevitably diverse literature pursuing often incommensurate questions.

Looking back on that literature, beginning with Gary Nash’s Urban Crucible in 1979, we can see at least three separate tendencies shaping the new narratives. The first carried an anti-modernist cast grieving the loss of community to impersonal markets that turned human beings into interchangeable, disposable units of labor whose sufferings were amplified by capitalism’s trade cycles. The second one, more typical of labor historians, is similar in tone given its mourning of the replacement of skilled craftsmen by machine tenders in the early industrial period, but celebrates the eventual emergence of class consciousness among those machine tenders. The third theme associates advancing capitalism with the devaluing of women’s work and of their economic contributions to household income. The common thread among all three is the desire to expose the oppression of ordinary Americans by historical forces traditionally celebrated in textbook history as “progressive.”8 [End Page 336]

Finding the human stories on the streets of the port cities yet understanding the larger economic context of urban life is the challenge addressed by scholars in this issue of the Journal of the Early Republic. Historians of all persuasions now understand that our first task is to distinguish the better-off members of the working class—those with capital, such as the artisan-businessmen with their own shops, apprentices, and journeymen—from the “industrious poor” dependent on day-to-day earnings. Probably the single most important case study in this regard is Billy G. Smith’s The Lower Sort (1990). In it, he tackled Philadelphia’s demography, labor markets, standards of living, social mobility, housing, migration, poor relief, and family structure during the half-century 1750–1800. Accepting the challenge posed by erratic, biased, and incomplete sources, Smith laid out useful and consistent definitions in order to estimate demographic rates and occupational/income strata. He found that, when work was available, a common laborer, a seaman, a cordwainer, or a tailor, identifiable members of the “working poor,” could support his family only if his wife also worked for income (112). But the city tended to attract more poor people than the city’s job market could comfortably absorb, and chronic underemployment for non-skilled and low-skilled workers was the result (199). Philadelphia was especially unhealthy for the poor whose work, diet, and exposure to infectious diseases brought in by newcomers made them sicker more often and slowed their recovery (62). During disease epidemics or in the winter when shipping came to a standstill, no one was hiring. The kinds of work available to common laborers were heavy and dangerous. Accidents and illness pushed the unlucky ones into seeking charity.9

Smith concluded that “the working poor” made up anywhere from one-third to as much as one-half of the city’s population (5). Richard Oestreicher supports and expands Smith’s estimate. His reconstruction of the urban workforce in Philadelphia in 1800 takes in mariners, porters, laundresses, cooks, and more. With “sailors and other transport [End Page 337] workers” making up 18 percent and “unskilled and manual service” another 25.7 percent of the city’s labor force, suddenly the working poor bulk large, indeed! If Oestreicher is right, they formed almost half the labor force in Philadelphia at the turn of the nineteenth century, and possibly in other port cities as well.10

Smith and Oestreicher both make a point of including women on the team, but only men played quarterback. That is, contemporaries viewed all law-abiding, respectable people as living, or aspiring to live, in “traditional” households headed by male breadwinners. Women’s proper place was as a dependent within a male household. Any earnings they made were assumed to be supplemental to a man’s and in support of the household as a whole. This assumption pegged their wages at below-subsistence levels while justifying their exclusion from many trades. Low wages made female dependence a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their stories still need to be told.11

To begin with, female-headed households were quite common in cities, though not the majority. Such women were often widows living with children or widows whose children were grown and gone. Single women lived in the households of married kin as helpers, nannies, servants, or boarders where their roles might be quite flexible and not necessarily degraded. And, of course, young single women without kin or friends in the city often resided in all-female boarding houses.12

Although a woman with a healthy, industrious, and temperate husband was indeed blessed, she and less fortunate women well understood that not only did their fathers, brothers, and husbands take their work for granted but so did tax assessors, census takers, judges, and clerks of the courts. What this means, of course, is that historians of ordinary women must inevitably work with records compiled by and for men. Undaunted by such challenges, Serena R. Zabin and Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor were able to illuminate the dim trails traced through those [End Page 338] records by urban women’s many economic activities. Zabin describes poor and enslaved women in New York City trading in an “informal economy” whereas middling and elite women traded both locally and internationally. She shows how coverture could be bypassed, and that elite women’s gender could actually help them when they got into debt. Nevertheless, class mattered, and this is a truth that perhaps needs reiteration when interpreting exchange networks.13

Hartigan-O’Connor tackled archives in Newport and Charleston to pursue the traces left by women of all ranks and both colors in the preand post-Revolutionary years. She makes very clear that the maritime economy of both towns depended in very fundamental ways on the services of working women. They all handled money—even slaves did—and all engaged in buying and selling, borrowing and lending, as participants of informal networks of family members, neighbors, friends, and employers. Her use of street maps evokes the neighborhoods where they lived, worked, traded, and shopped. She describes women capably negotiating the legal and cultural constraints of their times, adding critical nuance to our vision of patriarchy in action. Their upbringing clearly did not disarm them from making a living in the city by buying and selling, or asking for help when they needed it. Hartigan-O’Connor’s subjects were both tough survivors and good neighbors, but again class made a difference in survival tactics.

The line separating the working poor from the truly indigent was a fragile one. Anyone could find themselves in need of help to get through a rough period. Essays here probe that line, between getting by and going under, of being female, single, and poor in a world where rich men made the rules. No group is more elusive for the student of history, more inarticulate, or more invisible. Ruth Herndon, in her contribution “Poor Women and the Boston Almshouse in the Early Republic,” eloquently inquires, “How do we follow the lives of poor women, when their faces, their handwriting, and even their names are hidden from our historical [End Page 339] gaze? The poor flit in and out of public records as objects of relief, as subjects of interrogation, as sources of social and economic problems.”

To learn more about the very poor, Herndon systematically extracted data from a volume of the records of the Boston almshouse for the years 1795–1817, containing over 11,000 entries. These years saw periods of prosperity punctuated by trade interruptions, Jefferson’s Embargo, and war with Britain, followed by a long and deep post-war depression. During this time, admissions to the Almshouse quadrupled while the city’s population merely doubled. Of those admitted, about a tenth were of color; fewer than half were men, 39 percent were women, and 15 percent were children. Compare Newburyport in 1810, where Susan Grigg found that two-thirds of those receiving outdoor relief were widows and two-thirds of those in the workhouse were males. Ten percent of the children in Boston’s Almshouse had actually been born there. Of the others, roughly a fifth were bound out as pauper apprentices.14

Not all those entering the Almshouse were from Boston itself: In the period covered by the study, just over half came from elsewhere. Perhaps the most exciting of Herndon’s findings was that “the great majority” of those admitted stayed less than six months and never returned. There was no typical almshouse inhabitant: The sheer diversity of the poor in the early republic is stunningly illustrated in this examination of those admitted to Boston’s almshouse.15

In early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, recipients of all forms of poor relief averaged about 3 percent of the city’s population. As the city’s population rose, so, too, did the numbers needing charity. When hard times pushed large numbers of the working poor over the edge, the city found it a struggle to relieve their plight. A universally popular answer to the burdened taxpayer’s plea was, and still is, to put the healthy poor to useful work so they might earn some part of their own keep.16 [End Page 340]

As Monique Bourque shows in her contribution “Women and Work in the Philadelphia Almshouse, 1790–1840,” the public in Philadelphia viewed poor women and children as proper objects of work relief and believed that manufacturing was suitable employment for them. In hard times the plight of poorly paid seamstresses provoked particular pity. “Finding constant employment for the poor” (1807) while also “preventing healthy persons from applying for relief “ (1834) were explicitly stated goals motivating leaders of the Philadelphia Almshouse. Benevolence, social control, and economy were competing motives that coexisted in the minds and hearts of officials and reformers, with one or another predominating depending on the state of the economy. Bourque, however, seeks to give greater emphasis to the role of “economy” by arguing that welfare institutions in the United States actually depended on poor women as a cheap and flexible labor force to keep costs down. Because women formed the majority of the city’s poor receiving outdoor relief, putting them to work kept them off the streets, providing a positive check on pauper fertility. Moreover, mothers with dependent children preferred out-work to entering the Almshouse because admission placed their children at risk of binding out. By putting out sewing, carding, and spinning to poor women on outdoor relief, the Almshouse was being patriotic as well as practical. When British imports resumed after the end of the War of 1812, they flooded American markets at cut-rate prices, forcing many domestic manufacturers into bankruptcy. Thereafter, if the Almshouse wanted its products to compete with British quality and prices, it would have to cut costs and improve quality by closer supervision of workers. Pilfering of raw materials was a persistent problem. As Bourque, and Lockley, below, both point out, the goal of putting paupers to work competed with the goal of producing good-quality textiles at a price that would appeal to customers.17

A second focus of Bourque’s article is the organization of work and labor relations inside the Almshouse. The majority of men employed by the institution worked in the factory. Women spun and men wove, but [End Page 341] in widely separated rooms. When a female supervisor was replaced by a man, the spinners complained. They and everybody else involved were anxious to keep the sexes separate. Bourque notes that whenever the public registered concern about the operations of the Almshouse, that concern was not about the possible unhealthfulness of factory or institutional labor but whether the virtuous poor would be harmed or corrupted by close contact with hardened, vicious types. Keeping the sexes rigorously separated and binding out children were viewed as essential for protecting the innocent.

Looking further south, Tim Lockley raises an interesting question: Were poor white women worse off in a slave society? His essay, “Survival Strategies of Poor White Women in Savannah, 1800–1860,” addresses the problem from a white woman’s point of view. He asks, “What were her options?” His list of strategies begins with marriage to a good, temperate, hard-working man. Failing that, she needed to find a steady job that paid enough to cover food, clothing, and shelter. The alternatives to getting a respectable job was making a living illegally or seeking charity. In Savannah, some occupations were deemed inappropriate for white women because they were commonly held by slaves. White women needed respectable work that promised a competency, of which Lockley lists the following categories: millinery, sewing, and keeping a boarding house. The best of these was boarding-housekeeper, but this required capital. Sewing jobs depended on an unpredictable market and paid poorly. Sympathetic elite white women in Savannah formed female employment societies to give them work when jobs were scarce. Subsidized work proved costly, however, requiring a paid manager and rent for a sales room to display the wares. Worse, such handiwork didn’t sell well because “needy women seldom [were] fine seamstresses,” as one newspaper commented in 1857.

An alternative to the genteel poverty of the seamstress was engaging in illegal trade. Like other port cities, Savannah had its share of unlicensed drinking establishments and prostitutes to serve a ready clientele of sailors. In the late antebellum period, the city contained at least nine large houses of ill fame, according to Lockley, “besides numerous small ones.” The mayor reported in 1856 that there were 93 white and 105 colored prostitutes known to be practicing their trade in town. White women who solicited sex with colored men were especially singled out for arrests. Although the foregoing strategies applied in any port town—seeking charity, marrying a good breadwinner, engaging in prostitution [End Page 342] or selling alcohol in off-hours or unlicensed houses—in slave societies like Charleston and Savannah where slaves earned cash income for their owners, poor white women might not be able to compete with their labor. But they could exploit opportunities for selling sex or alcohol to the numerous enslaved people running errands and selling fresh produce on the streets. Such interracial exchanges were illegal, hence more profitable.

Lockley concludes somewhat ironically that the existence of slavery may have aided poor white women in two ways: It provided some additional, if illegal, options for earning money, and it helped others “to persuade elite women of the need to provide charitable aid to alleviate the suffering of our own sex.”

Private charitable aid societies in Philadelphia and elsewhere early adopted as a screening device the requirement that the petitioner for aid secure a recommendation from some substantial citizen as testament of the petitioner’s worthiness. Such a requirement carried an implicit threat of withholding assistance from those of doubtful character no matter how desperate their situation. For many young, unmarried women, the ills of poverty were compounded by the fear of getting pregnant. Bearing a child out of wedlock was not only a shameful sin that ruined her reputation but also a financial disaster for the single working mother. She alone would bear the cost of lying-in and child-care while she worked, if, indeed, she could keep her job. If she had to stay home to care for her child, not only would her wages cease, but she would soon face eviction for not paying her rent. Seth Rockman in Scraping By stresses “the near impossibility” of a single woman without connections being able to support herself in Baltimore, much less any children dependent on her for support.18

Poor single women who found themselves pregnant and were without family to help them had only two realistic choices: having an abortion, very dangerous in those days, or giving the child away. A few took a third way. We may surmise the desperate circumstances motivating a poor mother to abandon her child on someone’s doorstep but we struggle to understand what may prompt any woman to drown or suffocate her newborn. Katie M. Hemphill’s purpose in tackling this truly repellent topic in “ ‘Driven to the Commission of the Crime’: Women and Infanticide [End Page 343] in Baltimore, 1835–1860” is not to probe such motives or even to determine culpability, but to investigate the circumstances of women who found themselves accused of this terrible crime and to discover how they fared in the justice system. Nearly a thousand infant deaths were reported to the coroner’s office in Baltimore as suspicious in the years between 1837 and 1860. Baltimore newspapers reported about 300 cases of dead infants found in the city’s streets in this same period. Some of these poor dead babies had obviously been murdered, according to the newspapers, some were probably born dead, but most of the rest exhibited no obvious causes. Among these, 70 were found in coffins or makeshift containers, and others had been carefully dressed, as if for ceremonial burial. Still more were actually buried, but in unauthorized places. One presumes the families in these cases were too poor to pay the costs of burial in dedicated cemeteries. In any case, such babies were probably not victims of infanticide.

Since diagnosis of the cause of death was much more an art than a science in those days, it becomes a matter of interest to trace the process by which an infant’s death was labeled “suspicious.” Poverty itself must often have been implicated, not only due to crowded, damp, and filthy living conditions but also as a cause of serious nutritional deficiencies that were not apparent to contemporaries. As for the nearly one thousand infants whose deaths were reported by the Baltimore coroner’s office as “suspicious” in the years under study, just over a third prompted verdicts of foul play. In most such cases, however, the investigation had failed to identify suspects simply because the victim’s body had been secretly abandoned in a public place. Even when the dead baby was found inside a private dwelling, the inquest seldom resulted in a verdict of foul play: Verdicts were usually still birth, accidental overlaying, drowning, unknown causes, or even “visitation of God.” Even those that implied neglect by the mother were tempered by the conclusion that the baby died of “natural causes.”

Few inquests therefore resulted in actual arrests. Coroners’ reports in nineteenth-century Baltimore were unfortunately terse and uninformative: Witnesses were not identified and their testimony does not appear. Hemphill therefore turned to newspapers to discover what she could about those few women who were actually accused of infanticide. She notes that reporters relied on housemates, boarding-housekeepers, and neighbors in neighborhoods where privacy was impossible. She points out that very few white middle- and upper-class women ever appeared in criminal courts or ended up in the penitentiary. Of those women tried [End Page 344] for the murder of infants, Hemphill finds that all were working women and all were the mothers of the dead infants. With three exceptions, they were young, in their mid-teens to mid-twenties, and single. Ten were African American, two were German immigrants, and most appear to have been in precarious economic circumstances. Their occupations were poorly paid, and several were domestic servants who probably would have been fired if their pregnancies were discovered.

These findings come as no surprise. Hemphill notes that other studies have reported that the vast majority of women charged with the crime were socially marginal, poor, and frequently immigrants or blacks. She argues, however, that the process by which infant deaths were initially labeled “suspicious” by the coroner, actually “ensured that the deaths of infants of poor families were far more likely to be investigated.”

For those mothers who did murder their newborn infants, we still do not know if it was because desperate poverty would prevent them from caring for a baby or if the actual motive was something much more banal. Free women who happened to be mothers of dependent children could find themselves straightened to the point of desperation. If a fully employed working husband and father of the “lower sort” living in late eighteenth-century Philadelphia needed his wife to work to supplement his own wages, how could a single mother manage by herself ? Given that women’s wages were only a third to a half of men’s, a mother without a working spouse could scarcely support herself, much less a child.19

Older children could support their widowed mothers, on the other hand. Claudia Goldin noted that in the 1860 census, widows with adult children living in their households were themselves less likely to work. John Murray, whose “Poor Mothers, Stepmothers, and Foster Mothers in Early Republic and Antebellum Charleston,” completes the article forum in this issue, uses letters from poor women to the Commissioners of the Charleston Orphan House. “The women were seeking alternatively to place their children in the Charleston Orphan House, to establish their rights to visit and be visited by their children, or to recover permanent custody.” Other letters in the collection were written by agents dispatched [End Page 345] by the Commissioners to investigate the mothers’ circumstances and report back.20

Murray quite rightly values these women’s letters as potentially representing voices of a class seldom heard from, poor white women of the Old South. He therefore examines the mothers’ letters closely, asking whether they actually wrote them or if someone else did it for them. Whose words are we reading? The agents’ letters offer a different and equally valuable perspective on the problem of children whose parents could not or would not care for them. These and the Commissioners’ own replies are interesting for the light they shed on their reasons for admitting some children and not others. Murray takes readers through selected cases in order to illustrate the often harrowing circumstances of these Charleston mothers seeking to commit their children to a city-managed orphan asylum. Both sets of letters contain references to the hiring of wet nurses and to the hiring of child care. There are even hints of a network of foster mothers who earned income from taking in young charges for a price.

Murray finds himself emphasizing the love and attachment for their children most mothers expressed in their correspondence and finds their testimony compelling. “Even unrelated women felt and acted in a loving way towards their charges,” he states. The unspoken question here is how any woman could give away the child she professed to love. Moreover, was this society utterly heartless in removing children from their mothers? Despite earlier historians, such as Lawrence Stone and others, emphasizing the strict discipline and absence of open affection shown by early Puritan writers, there is no reason to believe that parents in early England and America did not love their children. Young children, in particular, were generally regarded sympathetically. Giving up a child to an orphanage to be fed, clothed, schooled, and provided with marketable skills must have looked like a far more desirable alternative to having that child bound out as a pauper apprentice. Murray himself notes that the Orphan House received many more applications than it had places.21 [End Page 346]

Another question that comes to mind when reading about those mothers’ letters is why some women succeeded in persuading the Commissioners of the Orphan House to take their children and others failed. Poverty-stricken women, when confronted with abysmal wages and unpredictable employment, probably learned soon enough how to navigate their city’s welfare system on their own behalf. Bourque’s female Almshouse workers in Philadelphia and Lockley’s Savannah seamstresses understood how to get the help they needed. Dispensers of aid, public or private, may have had their own hopes and fears about helping the poor, but as Murray’s letters suggest, their clients were not naive. Similarly with Hemphill’s study of infanticide in Baltimore, one is struck by the fact that the overwhelming majority of mothers suspected of disposing of their infants were never officially accused or arrested. They, too, must have understood how best to protect themselves in answering investigators’ questions.

The welfare and justice systems were two-way streets in the cities of the early republic, and poor women acted in their own cause. Historians skate on thin ice when they speculate about human motives, especially those of men and women who were not in the habit of writing down their thoughts. Recent literature and the articles here, however, are quite correct to recognize that even the poor and the enslaved had options—admittedly limited in scope but options nonetheless—and they therefore exercised choice. Moreover, they seem to have responded to their “betters” by telling them what they thought they wanted to hear. If the motives of reformers and welfare managers were mixed and conflicting, let us grant the possibility that the motives of the “lower sort” may have been just as conflicted. [End Page 347]

Gloria L. Main

Gloria L. Main is Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado, Boulder.


1. David T. Gilchrist, The Growth of the Seaport Cities, 1790–1825 (Charlottesville, VA, 1967). Tables include Population of the Seaport Cities, 1710–1790, 28; Population of the Seaport Cities by Sex, Age, Color, and Slave Status, 1790–1830, 34; Value of Exports Per Capita in Real Terms for Seaport Cities, 56; Jacob M. Price, “Economic Function and the Growth of American Port Towns in the Eighteenth Century,” Perspectives in American History 8 (1974), 123–86; John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607–1789 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1985), 250–52.

2. Thomas M. Doerflinger, A Vigorous Spirit of Enterprise: Merchants and Economic Development in Revolutionary Philadelphia (Chapel Hill, NC, 1986); James A. Henretta, “The War for Independence and American Economic Development,” in The Economy of Early America: The Revolutionary Period, 1763–1790, ed. Ronald Hoffman, John J. McCusker, Russell R. Menard, and Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville, NC, 1988), 45–87. John J. McCusker, “Population,” in Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present, ed. Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright (New York, 2006), 5: 651; Brooke Hunter, “Wheat, War, and the American Economy during the Age of Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 62 (July 2005), 505–26; Diane Lindstrom, Economic Development in the Philadelphia Region, 1810–1850 (New York, 1978).

3. Lynne Withey, Urban Growth in Colonial Rhode Island: Newport and Providence in the Eighteenth Century (Albany, NY, 1983); Carl Bridenbaugh, Cities in Revolt: Urban Life in America, 1743–1776 (New York, 1955).

4. Sharon V. Salinger, “Artisans, Journeymen, and the Transformation of Labor in Late Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia,” William and Mary Quarterly 40 (Jan. 1983), 62–84. In 1790, blacks and other people of color made up 4.2 percent of Boston’s population, 10.1 percent of New York City’s, 5.7 percent of Philadelphia’s, and 11.7 percent of Baltimore’s. A Century of Population Growth: from the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth, 1790–1900 (Washington, DC, 1909; repr. Baltimore, 1967).

5. Stanley L. Engerman, “A Population History of the Caribbean,” in A Population History of North America, ed. Michael R. Haines and Richard H. Steckel (Cambridge, UK, 2000), 489, 494.

6. Seth Rockman makes this point forcefully in “Review Essay: Work in the Cities of Colonial British North America,” Journal of Urban History 33 (Sept. 2007), 2021–32.

7. Besides Withey, Urban Growth, see also Elaine Forman Crane, Ebb Tide in New England: Women, Seaports, and Social Change, 1630–1800 (Boston, 1998). Hunter, “Wheat, War, and the American Economy”; Gordon C. Bjork, Stagnation and Growth in the American Economy, 1784–1792 (New York, 1985); Henretta, “The War for Independence and American Economic Development,” 45–87.

8. Gary B. Nash, The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1979); Nash, “Poverty and Poor Relief in Pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia,” William and Mary Quarterly 33 (Jan. 1976), 3–30. Richard Oestreicher, “The Counted and the Uncounted: The Occupational Structure of Early American Cities,” Journal of Social History 28 (Winter 1994), 351–61; Jeanne Boydston, “The Woman Who Wasn’t There: Women’s Market Labor and the Transition to Capitalism in the United States,” Journal of the Early Republic 16 (Summer 1996), 186–206; Rockman, “Work in the Cities.”

9. Billy G. Smith, The “Lower Sort”: Philadelphia’s Laboring People, 1750–1800 (Ithaca, NY, 1990).

10. Oestricher, “The Counted and the Uncounted,” 355.

11. Seth Rockman, “Women’s Labor, Gender Ideology, and Working-Class Households in Early Republic Baltimore,” Pennsylvania History 66, no. 5 (1999), 174–200; Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, 2009), 100–130; “Job for a Woman.”

12. Karin A. Wulf, Not All Wives: Women of Colonial Philadelphia (Ithaca, NY, 2000). See ch. 3, “Mary Sandwith’s Spouse,” 85–117 on households and householding.

13. Serena R. Zabin, “Women’s Trading Networks and Dangerous Economies in Eighteenth-Century New York City,” Early American Studies 4 (Fall 2006), 291–321: Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, “ ‘She Said She Did Not Know Money’: Urban Women and Atlantic Markets in the Revolutionary Era,” Early American Studies 4 (Fall 2006), 322–52; Hartigan-O’Connor, The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia, 2009).

14. Susan Grigg, The Dependent Poor of Newburyport: Studies in Social History, 1800–1830 (Ann Arbor, MI, 1984). Most of the men in the workhouse were recent immigrants, probably arriving without families.

15. On this topic, see the collection Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America, ed. Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray (Ithaca, NY, 2009).

16. Stuart Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (Cambridge, UK, 1989). His particular focus is on Philadelphia, taking advantage of the voluminous quantitative data collected by the Philadelphia Social History Project.

17. On the motives of reformers in Philadelphia, see also John K. Alexander on the Revolutionary era: Render them Submissive: Responses to Poverty in Philadelphia, 1760–1800 (Amherst, MA, 1980); and Priscilla Ferguson Clement, Welfare and the Poor in the Nineteenth-Century City: Philadelphia, 1800–1854 (Rutherford, NJ, 1985), which carries the Philadelphia story into the nineteenth century.

18. Rockman, Scraping By.

19. Smith, Lower Sort. On wage rates, see Claudia Goldin and Kenneth Sokoloff, “Women, Children, and Industrialization in the Early Republic: Evidence from the Manufacturing Censuses,” Journal of Economic History 42 (Dec. 1982), 741–74; and for colonial New England, Gloria L. Main, “Gender, Work, and Wages in Colonial New England,” William and Mary Quarterly 51 (Jan. 1994), 39–66.

20. Claudia Goldin, “The Economic Status of Women in the Early Republic: Quantitative Evidence,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 16 (Winter 1986), 375–404.

21. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (New York, 1977). The literature on child-rearing and attitudes toward children in the past is too vast to cite here, but see, for instance, Linda A. Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent–Child Relations from 1500–1900 (Cambridge, UK, 1983) and my own efforts in Peoples of a Spacious Land (Cambridge, MA, 2002).

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