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.