WELCOME TO THE BLOG IN THE WORDS OF WOMEN

Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

“it is truly distressing . . . to beg”

Wives who lose their soldier-husbands during a war are not usually considered casualties. But in a real sense they are and ought to be, especially during the American Revolution. American battle casualties in that war range from 4,435 to 6,824, some 90% from the Continental Army.* The ratio of American deaths to the free white male population (aged sixteen to 45) who served in the war is approximately 1 in 20 (this would be the equivalent of about 3 million people today).** Furthermore battle casualties did not include the wounded, those who died from disease (many more than those killed in action), or those who died in British prisons. Many war widows with children to support and without families to rely on existed in virtual poverty. Mary Cox was one of these, and in 1779, she filed a petition for relief directed to the governor of the state of Maryland Thomas Johnson. While the outcome of her suit is not known, she had a better chance of success than most widows because her husband was an officer.

I am the unhappy widow of Major James Cox who fell in his country’s cause at German Town on 4 October 1777. By industry we lived comfortably. His spare cash he laid out in lands from which now I can reap no benefit. His own cash he left with me did not exceed £50 and the public money which he had to pay off his company was lost at his death which I have since refunded. I have five small children to maintain. I expected the benefit of the law in that case provided. Consequently six months after my husband’s death I applied to the Orphan’s Court. They put me off to the next session [?]. I applied again [and] they granted me half pay for eight months in which time I sold all my spare furniture and part of my stock raised a little cash and went to shop-keeping. I found I could not keep my stock good which I began with; I again applied to the Court their reply was you are making money fast and we don’t think you are entitled to the benefit of that law. Sir, it is truly distressing to a mind not entirely depraved to beg and to dig I am not ashamed though my natural strength will not admit of it.

Now sir, as you are the guardian of this state and more especially of the widow and fatherless I will expect a few lines from you informing me whether I may expect the benefit of the law or not—I have three sons and two daughters, all promising children, would be glad they might be properly educated and instructed to get a living in a genteel way which cannot be the case without assistance. Now Sir when you consider the irreparable loss I have sustained by the death of the best of husbands, the weak infirm state of my body and numerous helpless family to provide for and the [amazing?] prices of the necessaries of life, I say when you consider these things I doubt not but you will do everything in your power to alievate such distresses and as in duty bound I will for your welfare ever pray.
Mary Cox * Howard H. Peckham, ed., The Toll of Independence: Engagements and Battle Casualties of the American Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), page 76.
** Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006), page 160.

Of note is the fact that the money Major Cox had in his possession to pay his troops was lost at his death. His wife made good on that amount. It is also interesting that Cox was enterprising enough to set up shop to support herself although she failed, not making enough money to replenish her stock. She found herself in dire straits and was not ashamed to beg for assistance.

The petition is included in New World, New Roles: A Documentary History of Women in Pre-industrial America by Sylvia R. Frey and Marian J. Morton (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Imprint, 1986), pages 150-51, taken from Maryland state Papers, The Red Books, XXV, page 80. The information footnoted in the introductory section came from this SOURCE.

posted November 20th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Military Service, Poverty, Widows

“American Cookery”

The first cookbook written by an American was published in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. The work of Amelia Simmons, its complete title was American Cookery, or the art of dressing viands, fish, poultry, and vegetables, and the best modes of making pastes, puffs, pies, tarts, puddings, custards, and preserves, and all kinds of cakes, from the imperial plum to plain cake: Adapted to this country, and all grades of life. On the title page Simmons identifies herself as an American Orphan. She apparently worked as a domestic. In the preface she writes:

As this treatise is calculated for the improvement of the rising generation of Females in America, the Lady of fashion and fortune will not be displeased, if many hints are suggested for the more general and universal knowledge of those females in this country, who by the loss of their parents, or other unfortunate circumstances, are reduced to the necessity of going into families in the line of domestics, or taking refuge with their friends or relations, and doing those things which are really essential to the perfecting them as good wives, and useful members of society. The orphan, tho’ left to the care of virtuous guardians, will find it essentially necessary to have an opinion and determination of her own. The world, and the fashion thereof, is so variable, that old people cannot accommodate themselves to the various changes and fashions which daily occur; they will adhere to the fashion of their day, and will not surrender their attachments to the good old way—while the young and the gay, bend and conform readily to the taste of the times, and fancy of the hour. By having an opinion and determination, I would not be understood to mean an obstinate perseverance in trifles, which borders on obstinacy—by no means, but only an adherence to those rules and maxims which have flood the test of ages, and will forever establish the female character, a virtuous character—altho’ they conform to the ruling taste of the age in cookery, dress, language, manners, &c.

It must ever remain a check upon the poor solitary orphan, that while those females who have parents, or brothers, or riches, to defend their indiscretions, that the orphan must depend solely upon character. How immensely important, therefore, that every action, every word, every thought, be regulated by the strictest purity, and that every movement meet the approbation of the good and wise.

The introductory section provides information on how to procure and choose the best viands, fish, etc. Here is what Simmons wrote about butter:

Butter—Tight, waxy, yellow Butter is better than white or crumbly, which soon becomes rancid and frowy. Go into the centre of balls or rolls to prove and judge it; if in ferkin, the middle is to be preferred, as the sides are frequently distasted by the wood of the firkin—altho’ oak and used for years. New pine tubs are ruinous to the butter. To have sweet butter in dog days, and thro’ the vegetable seasons, send stone pots to honest, neat, and trusty dairy people, and procure it pack’d down in May, and let them be brought in in the night, or cool rainy morning, covered with a clean cloth wet in cold water, and partake of no heat from the horse, and set the pots in the coldest part of your cellar, or in the ice house.—Some say that May butter thus preserved, will go into the winter use, better than fall made butter.

The cookbook is noteworthy because although it utilizes English methods of cooking it is based on American products. Mary Tolford Wilson, who wrote an essay accompanying a facsimile copy of Simmons’ cookbook published in 1958, considers it a historical document. “It reveals the rich variety of food Colonial Americans enjoyed, their tastes, cooking and eating habits, even their colorful language.” It is interesting to note that the cookbook contains the first known printed recipe for turkey (native to America) with cranberries. Happy Thanksgiving.

A complete version of the cookbook which can be found HERE. Additional information as well as the illustration can be found HERE.

posted November 17th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Food

Hannah Foster’s “The Coquette”

I came upon Hannah Webster Foster, an American novelist writing toward the end of the 18th century, via Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac of September 10, 2014. I subscribe to this daily newsletter, produced by American Public Media, which features a poem and interesting facts about people born on the particular day. An added attraction: you can listen to Garrison Keillor himself read it in his quite wonderful voice.

Hannah Webster Foster, born in 1758, went to a women’s academy, married a minister and bore six children. In 1797, she published an epistolary novel entitled The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton. A Novel: Founded on Fact. Since it was not seemly for a women to identify herself publicly as a writer the book was attributed to “A Lady of Massachusetts.”

Reading novels had become popular among women in the latter part of the eighteenth century—viz. Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Susanna Rowson—and The Coquette was a huge success. But there was another reason for the book’s success: it was the thinly disguised story of one Elizabeth Whitman, the daughter of a prominent minister, who had become pregnant out of wedlock and, abandoned by her lover, died after giving birth to a stillborn child in a tavern. Gossip had it that the father was the son of the famous preacher Jonathan Edwards responsible for the “Great Awakening” and noted for the sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Foster knew the story well as Elizabeth Whitman was a distant relative of her husband’s. If you are interested in what titillated women readers of the time you can read the novel yourself as it is available online here.

You can find the Writer’s Almanac of September 10 HERE.

posted November 13th, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off, CATEGORIES: Scandal, Women Writers

“History will not produce to us a Parrallel”

An earlier post featured a description by First Lady Abigail Adams to her sister Mary Cranch of a gathering she held to mark the passing of George Washington. In this letter of December 22, 1799 to Mary, Abigail writes of the high opinion she has of the former President, reminding her, however, that he was human and subject to the normal frailties and weaknesses that beset all such beings. She also puts in a plug for Washington’s successor, her husband.

My Dear Sister:
I wrote to you the day after we received the account of the death of Gen’ll Washington. This Event so important to our Country at this period, will be universally deplored. No Man ever lived, more deservedly beloved and Respected. The praise and I may say addulation which followed his administration for several years, never made him forget that he was a Man, subject to the weakness and frailty attached to humane Nature. He never grew giddy, but ever mantaind a modest diffidence of his own talents, and if that was an error, it was of the amiable and engageing kind, tho it might lead sometimes to a want of decisions in some great Emergencys. Possesst of power, posest of an extensive influence, he never used it but for the benifit of his Country. Witness his retirement to private Life when Peace closed the scenes of War; When call’d by the unanimous suffrages of the People to the chief Majestracy of the Nation, he acquitted himself to the satisfaction and applause of all Good Men. When assailed by faction, when reviled by Party, he sufferd with dignity, and Retired from his exalted station with a Character which malice could not wound, nor envy tarnish. If we look through the whole tennor of his Life, History will not produce to us a Parrallel. Heaven has seen fit to take him from us. Our Mourning is sincere, in the midst of which, we ought not to lose sight of the Blessings we have enjoy’d and still partake of, that he was spaired to us, untill he saw a successor filling his place, persueing the same system which he had adopted, and that in times which have been equally dangerous and Critical. It becomes not me to say more upon this Head.

Abigail’s letter can be found on page 335 of In the Words of Women and also HERE. The portrait of Abigail is by Gilbert Stuart painted between 1810-1815; it is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

posted November 10th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Abigail Adams, George Washington, John Adams

“I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Leters”

Jane Franklin Mecom was the younger sister of Benjamin Franklin. “my peculiar favorite,” he dubbed her. Jane married Edward Mecom, a small tradesman, in 1727. Over a period of twenty-two years they had twelve children. Jane also looked after her parents, took in boarders, and ran a small shop to make ends meet. Her life was not an easy or a happy one: her husband was apparently sick, her sons unable to make their way in life, several of her daughters died after giving birth. Although “Sorrow roll upon me like the waves of the sea,” and “Nothing but troble can you her from me,” she delighted in her correspondence with her brother even though she confessed “I have such a Poor Fackulty at making Leters.” She was proud of Benjamin and he was supportive of her and her family. She described the situation in Boston in 1774 in a letter he wrote to him.

Boston Novr 3 1774My Ever Dear Brother
I have Just recd yrs of August 18; wonder to see you complain of not receiving leters from Boston . . . it is like they have been Intercepted . . . I think it is not Profanity to compare you to our Blessed Saviour who Employed much of His time while here on Earth in doing Good to the body as well as souls of men, & I am sure I think the comparison Just, often when I hear the calumny Invented & thrown out against you while you are Improving all your Powers for the Salvation of them very Persons . . . I am as Happy as the Present state of affairs will Permit owing to your Bounty without which I must have been distressed as much as many others; Docter Chauncy says we have already had miracles wrought in our favour, one of which is the Uniting of the Colonies in such a manner, another the Extraordinary fruitful seasons & Bounty of our friends & looks on it as a token of Gods Design to deliver us out of all our troubles, but at Present we have a meloncholy Prospect for this winter at Least.
The towns being so full of Profligate soldiers & many such Officers, there is hardly four & twenty hours Passes without some fray amongst them & one can walk but a little way in the street without hearing their Profane language. We were much surprised the other day upon hearing a Tumult in the street & looking out saw a soldier all Bloody damning His Eyes but He would kill Every Inhabitant He met, & Pressing into a shop opposite us with His Bayonet drawn, bursting through the Glass Door, & the man of the house pushing Him out & he to do what mischief He could, Dashing the china & Earthenware which stood on the window, through the sashes with the most terrible Imprecations. The case it seems was He Perceived they sold liquor & went into the House Demanding some. But being refused, He went into the closet & took out a gun & said His commanding officer told Him he might take any thing out of any house He had a mind to, upon which the battle Ensued, & the man & His servant were both very much wounded. . . .
I think our Congress Address to the People of England is a Grand Performance & does them Honour & shows there was Really the wisdom among them that the Colonies Endeavored to collect, which Joined with yours . . . will, I hope, work some Glorious Effect. . . .
I have had no letter from Philadelphia a long time though I have written several times. The last I wrote, I heard my sister [Deborah Franklin*] Put under her cushion, I suppose in order to Read at more Leisure & Perhaps never thought of it more & one of the children got it & tore it up, as we know my sister is very forgetful. . . . yr Ever Affectionat & obliged Sister
Jane Mecom

*Deborah Franklin died in December, 1774.

The letter can be found on pages 27 and 28 of In the Words of Women. Jill Lepore has written about Jane although it was hard to locate documents attributed to her: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (New York: Vintage, 2014)

posted November 3rd, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off, CATEGORIES: Boston, British soldiers

next page

   Copyright © 2014 In the Words of Women.