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.

Patsy and Jacky

In 1759 George Washington married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis. Martha had two young children from her first marriage, Martha and John. Washington doted on Patsy and Jacky as they were called. He regularly placed orders for purchases for them with his London agent. Following is a partial list of items he requested in 1761 when Patsy was six years old.

1 Coat made of Fashionable Silk.
A Fashionable Cap or fillet with Bib apron.
Ruffles and Tuckers, to be laced.
4 Fashionable Dresses made of Long Lawn.
2 Fine Cambrick Frocks.
A Satin Capuchin, hat, and neckatees.
A Persian Quilted Coat.
1 p. Pack Thread Stays.
4 p. Callimanco Shoes.
6 p. Leather Shoes.
2 p. Satin Shoes with flat ties.
6 p. Fine Cotton Stockings.
4 p. White Worsted Stockings.
12 p. Mitts.
6 p. White Kid Gloves.
1 p. Silver Shoe Buckles.
1 p. Neat Sleeve Buttons.
6 Handsome Egrettes Different Sorts.
6 Yards Ribbon for Egrettes.
12 Yards Coarse Green Callimanco.

According to the OED, callimanco (also spelled callimanca, calamanco, &c.) is “a woollen stuff of Flanders, glossy on the surface, and woven with a satin twill and chequered in the warp, so that the checks are seen on one side only; much used in the 18th c.” It was often used in shoes. A capuchin was a hooded cloak. “Egrettes” were feathers from egrets.

The list appears in Alice Morse Earle Two Centuries of Costume in America, Vol. 1 (1620-1820) New York & London: Macmillan, 1903. The book can be read online HERE. The illustration can be seen HERE. The main image is The Marriage of Washington to Martha Custis, by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1849, courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, with a portion of a painting of The Custis Children (superimposed in the right corner), by an unidentified artist, n.d., courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society.

posted September 29th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Children, Clothes, George Washington, Martha Washington


Mary Palmer, born into a genteel family fallen on hard times, was about fourteen years old when she was hired for a year, in 1789, by Elbridge Gerry and his wife Ann to assist in tending their four-month-old baby. Gerry had been elected to the newly formed Congress, and Mary was to travel with the family from Boston to New York City, the nation’s capital.

Now you must bear in mind that this was the darkest time in my father’s life. . . . He . . . was clerk in a store with a very small salary; my mother had an infant in her arms not a year old . . . and five other children besides myself and Joe, who was gone to sea. You will understand the idea of my going where I should be appreciated and introduced to some of the first people . . . we were all persuaded to think it was a fine thing. . . .

Aunt Kate came at the appointed time and took me and my little trunk to Cambridge, and left me. Mr. Gerry . . . received me with his wonted suavity and preceded me into a room and presented me to a handsome lady saying, ‘Here, wife, Miss Hunt has brought your little girl.’ She turned to me and said, ‘How do you do?’ with a pleasant smile, but coldly; turning to a young woman who seemed to be assisting her packing for the journey asked her to show me up to the nursery, and where to put my things. All this was so entirely different from what I expected that my heart sank within me. I saw I was considered a servant. . . . I had long known, that my father and Mr. Gerry had been intimate friends in the days of our prosperity, and foolishly expected to be received and treated like the child of an old friend in adversity. . . . I went with a heavy heart to the nursery, where was a woman with the baby in her lap, and a little four-year-old girl playing about the room with her doll. The woman spoke kindly to me . . . and soon asked me to take the baby, as she had a great deal to do, as the family went on Monday. This was Saturday. I could tend the baby; that was what I had done ever since I could remember anything, and took it. I could scarcely restrain my tears, I could not speak, but walked the room with my little charge, till Mrs. Gerry came and told me to go, with the young woman who entered with her, to the hall where their tea was ready and she would nurse the babe the while; I suspected this was the servants’ hall, and would not go, saying I did not wish for any tea. They urged me, but I persisted, and went supperless to bed that night. Oh, what would I not have given to be at home where I had always been loved and petted more than I deserved and here everyone looked cold and strange towards me; no doubt I behaved very badly and no one could like me. . . .

The next morning I felt calmer, but dreadful homesick! Again I was told to go to the hall for breakfast. I went, and was surprised to see a large room with a long table set, surrounded by domestics of every age and appearance, only they were all white people. . . . The woman who had the baby, when I first went to the nursery, sat at the head of the table and presided over the coffee and tea, and a middle-aged man sat at the foot; these . . . were the housekeeper and steward, who were to take care of all things till master came back, and appeared decent people, but the rest were the most vulgar rude set I ever had seen, both in manners and language. I took a little breakfast, and left the table more heartsick than ever.

The above passage can be found on pages 210-211 of In the Words of Women. The illustration of Elbridge Gerry is a detail of an oil painting by James Bogle, 1861, after a portrait by John Vanderlyn; it is in Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia. Gerry became the fifth vice president of the United States, serving under James Madison. Mary Palmer married Royall Tyler, a playwright and jurist, who was almost twenty years her senior. The couple had eleven children. In his youth Tyler was a womanizer and led a profligate life. He courted Nabby Adams but, pressured by her parents, she rejected him.

posted September 25th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Daily life, Employment

Cast Iron Cannon Stoves

Although cast iron ovens were becoming an option for open hearths in the late eighteenth century (see previous post), cast iron had been put to other uses early on, not only for cookware like pots and pans but for other more complicated products, and for export, as this ad from the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1769 attests.

“Iron Castings Of all dimensions and sizes, such as kettles or boilers for pot-ash works, soap boilers, pans, pots, from a barrel to 300 gallons, ship cabooses, kackels, and sugar house stoves, with cast funnels of any height for refining sugars, weights of all sizes, grate bars, and other castings for sugar works in the West Indies, & are all carefully done by Henry William Stiegel, iron master, at Elizabeth Furnace in Lancaster County, on the most reasonable terms. Orders and applications made to Michael Hillegas in Second Street, Philadelphia will be carefully forwarded.”

Elizabeth Furnace referred to in the ad was an “iron plantation” in Pennsylvania and, because of the remarkable preservation of many of the original structures and the archeological work that has taken place there, is an invaluable source of information on iron production in colonial America. Read more about this complicated process here.

Looking for evidence of the beginning of iron stoves for kitchens I found this ad that appeared in the Boston Gazette in 1770 that mentioned cast iron cannon stoves. But these, it is clear from the illustration below, were not the kind of stoves that would likely be used in a family kitchen. (The derivation of the term eludes me; perhaps the shape resembles a cannon.)

Benjamin Andrews’ ad states that a large version would be “suitable for a vessel’s cabbin” —I somehow never stopped to think about how one might keep warm or cook on a ship. The ad further states that the stove might serve in “the room of one or more Persons, who are inclined to be upon the saving order; as besides the advantage of their heat, with very small expence of fuel, they are fitted for various methods of cookery.” (I am inclined to be upon the saving order!) Finally, “the smaller are of a less size and price, and better suited for shops, &c. than any heretofore made in this country.” And if you don’t want to buy a stove Mr. Andrews has many other items for sale among them: chocolate, ground ginger, and crown soap.

posted September 22nd, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Boston, Business

“an iron oven fix’d in the Jam of his Kitchin fire-place”

Most cooking in eighteenth century kitchens was done over a wood fire on the open hearth of a large fireplace. There was usually a crane or trammel to which a cast iron pot (or pots) was attached by a hook. The pot could be raised or lowered and swung out over the hearth to be emptied or added to.

Hearths were quite large and extended out into the room so that hot ashes could be shoveled out from the main fire to construct what in effect were small “burners” on the hearth apron over which pans on trivets could be placed. Long legged pan called spiders (on the right in the illustration) were also used, mainly for frying. Heat could be regulated by the size of the piles of ashes and kept up to temperature by the addition of more hot ashes from the main fire. There were other kinds of cookware in use like Dutch ovens, small three-sided ovens using reflected heat for baking biscuits, for example, as well as ingenious roasting devices including spits, and even toasters and waffle irons, several of which can be seen in the illustration.

There was usually a baking oven in the wall on one side of the fireplace, with a small flue to the chimney, called a beehive oven because of its domed shape. Heating it involved building a fire on the brick floor and, when the floor and sides were heated to the correct temperature, the fire was shoveled out and the items to be baked placed, using a peel, on the floor of the oven, avoiding the excessively hot spots. Then a metal door was inserted into the opening to contain the heat. Bread and pies were baked first as they required the highest temperatures. When they were finished other dishes and casseroles that cooked at lower temperatures could be added as the oven cooled. And when the oven was barely warm it could be used to dry herbs for example. I marvel at the efficiency which with these brick ovens were used.

In the late eighteenth century, however, improvements began to be introduced. Cast iron ovens fitted inside the fireplace itself were a new feature. Sarah Livingston Jay, recovering from an illness at her sister Caty Livingston’s home at Oak Hill on the Hudson River, wrote of such a one to her husband John who was in the process of building a home in Bedford in Westchester County, New York, to which the two hoped to retire.

June 27th 1801My dear Mr. Jay,
The tender interest you take in my health is most grateful to my feelings, & redoubles the satisfaction I have of assuring you that it still continues to mend. When Brockholst [Sarah's brother] was here he mentioned to Mr. Livingston that he had had an iron oven fix’d in the Jam of his Kitchin fire-place so constructed as that the smoak & heat from the Kitchin Chimney kept it perpetually hot & that all the meet, puddings, Cakes & Custards used in his family were cooked in it, so that it had superseded the use of spits & tart pans &c. There is but one that fixes them & he has thirty dollars for the Oven & fixing it in the Jam. I thought best to mention it before you shd. have built yours. If you think it worthy yr. attention you can let Peter [their son] examine his Uncle’s, & inquire of him the person’s name who makes them. Brockholst says his Cook says it saves half the work of Cooking, a great deal of fuel & being in constant readiness is inconceivably convenient. Mr. L. says the person’s name is Batchelor, a white smith*. . . .

Mr. Livingston & Catharine give their love to both of you. If our son is with you when you receive this Give my love to him & accept my best beloved the assurances of gratitude & affection from
yours sincerely
Sa. Jay

* a worker in iron who finishes or polishes the work

Sarah Jay’s letter can be found on page 276 of Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay by two colleagues and myself; for details click on the image at the bottom of the column on the right. The illustration is of the KITCHEN c.1800 at Blennerhast Mansion on an island in the Ohio River. More information about housewives and cooking can be found HERE beginning on page 203.

posted September 18th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Daily life, Food

A Sampler: pictorial, sweet, and rather whimsical

This lovely sampler was made by a Boston girl named Millisent Connor in 1799 when she was ten—so says the little “banner” toward the top. Embroidered with silk thread on linen it is quite different from the usual “marking sampler,” the first needlework project for most young girls which displayed their mastery of stitches as well as the alphabet and numbers. This sampler is pictorial, sweet and rather whimsical—a man is shown walking his dog. One presumes the girl in the door of the house is Millisent of whom, sadly, nothing more is known other than this small embroidered scene made by her.

The knowledge of embroidery stitches apparently had a practical use for girls later in life. As wives they marked each piece of household linen (among their most valuable possessions) with a cross stitch, their initials, and a number.

The sampler is one of several illustrating the folk art of the eighteenth century accompanying an essay on the subject by Amelia Peck, Department of American Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both can be viewed online here.

posted September 15th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Art, Boston, Children, Education

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