Archive for the ‘Employment’ Category

“Goods & Chattles”

An inventory of a household’s goods provides an intimate glimpse of the owner’s life as no other document can. Reading it, one almost feels guilty of spying or trespassing. ELIZABETH AMSDEN (1724-1768), an unmarried woman from Deerfield, Massachusetts, made her living as a weaver; indeed she had a shop. Shortly before her death in 1768 she made a list of all her belongings and sold them to a townsman. Here are her possessions, actually quite of number for a single lady. Note that “do” means “ditto”, “hollon” refers to a plain-weave fabric from Holland. Prominent are the tools of her trade: looms, warping bars, sley, shuttles. The signatures at the bottom left are those of the neighbors who witnessed the document.

See the inventory in manuscript form HERE. Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA.

posted November 27th, 2017 by Janet, Comments Off on “Goods & Chattles”, CATEGORIES: Amsden, Elizabeth,Clothes,Employment,Furnishings,Primary sources

“Your Excellency’s Old Devoted Servant”

ELIZABETH THOMPSON was seventy-two years old when she accepted the position of housekeeper to George Washington and his military family. The Irish widow exhibited the stamina and vigor of a much younger woman, following Washington as he moved up and down the northeastern coast. Her duties included overseeing the cooking, cleaning, and the washing of clothes, as well as supervising female servants in the General’s household for which she received “50 £ New York money” a year. She replaced MARY SMITH who left (or was discharged) shortly before it became known that she was part of a loyalist group whose intention was to help the British secure New York City.( Above is Mary Smith’s signature indicating she had received of Caleb Gibbs $216 for the use of Washington and his family.)

Washington had asked the help of Colonel James Clinton in finding a replacement for Mary, as he was “entirely destitute” of a housekeeper, and had heard good reports of Thompson. He hired her but she served for less than a year (July 1776 to April 1777) when she was let go because the spring campaign was about to begin. Apparently Martha Washington was upset when she learned that her husband had dismissed Thompson without consulting her and urged him to rehire her, if not for his military household then for Mount Vernon. Mrs. Thompson was located and agreed to return—to army headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey.

Mrs. Thompson proved to be more than competent in discharging her many responsibilities—quite amazing considering that she could neither read nor write. When she retired in 1781 she was asked to “assist in the enquiries and examination” of a new cook. Washington preferred a German, “a Person that has an understanding in the business, who can order, as well as get a dinner; who can make dishes, and proportion them properly, to any Company which shall be named to him. . . .” Apparently someone satisfactory was found.

When Mrs. Thompson left Washington’s employ, the General invited her to come and live at Mount Vernon but she was too infirm to make the trip. On October 10, 1783 John Trumbull, writing for Elizabeth Thompson, sent a letter to George Washington.

When I had the favour of seeing your Excellency at Princeton you desired that I should make an Account for my Services in your Family to be laid before the Financier.

I came in to Your Excellency’s Service as Houskeeper in the month of June 1776 with a Zealous Heart to do the best in my Power. Although my Abilities had not the Strength of my Inclinations Your goodness was pleased to approve and bear with me untill December 1781 when Age made it necessary for me to retire.

Your Bounty and goodness in that time bestowed upon me the sum of £79 ..6..8 which makes it impossible for me to render an Account: my Service was never equal to what your Benevolence has thus rated them.

And being now in my Eightieth Year should I ever want, which I hope will not be the Case, I will look up to Your Excellency for Assistance where I am sure I will not be disappointed.

And that the Father of Mercies may pour on you his Choicest Blessings shall ever be the Prayer of
Your Excellency’s
Old Devoted Servant
Elizabeth Thompson

Thompson applied for and, in 1785, received a lifetime pension from the Continental Congress for her service: £100 a year. She died in 1788.

Frank e. Grizzard, Jr. George! a Guide to All Things Washington (Mariner Companies, Inc., 2005), 305; see entry on Thompson HERE. See also the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799; Elizabeth Thompson to George Washington, October 10, 1783. 373-74. For further information check the Mount Vernon SITE.

posted January 6th, 2017 by Janet, Comments Off on “Your Excellency’s Old Devoted Servant”, CATEGORIES: Employment,Smith, Mary,Thompson, Elizabeth,Washington, George,Washington, Martha


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 Off on Upstairs/Downstairs, CATEGORIES: Daily life,Employment,Gerry, Elbridge,Palmer, Mary

“. . . poor little Caty was dead . . .”

Continuing the story, from the previous post, of Sally Brant, a black indentured servant of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker and her husband Henry, who had a child out of wedlock:

March 4 [1795] . . . About a mile on this side Clearfield my husband and Sister mett Joe [Gibbs], he had the impudence, as M Courtney told M[ary] S[andwith] to come up into her room, she ask’d him what he wanted, he reply’d, to see something you have got here, and then look’d into the Cradle—she ask’d him if he own’d it, he say’d No, and further this deponent sayeth not. If he had not seen the Child, he had all reason to belive it was his, but the colour was convincing, he had frequently boasted of it, but was fearful of the expences that might accrue. . . .

[April] 19 . . . Sally Johnson here this Afternoon, ask’d if SB could spend a day with her this week, to which I consented, told her of her daughters late conduct wish’d she would take her and Child off our hands, that she had a year to serve from this month, which would have been of more worth to us, had she been a virtuous girl, than any other two years of her time, a girl in her place would cost us 8 or 9/P week, that she is as capable, or perhaps more so, than any one we could hire; I was afraid of her bad example to our other little girl [Sally Dawson] &c—she appeard more angry than griv’d, said she should not care if the childs brains were beat out &c—she would never have anything to do with it—I told her we would make no account of the expences we had already been at of Sallys laying in and board, the childs nursing since &c. She said she would take her daughter provided they, nither of ’em, should ever have any thing to do with the Child—she went away rather out of humor—
When HD. come home we related the above to him, concluded were we to turn her off, upon her mothers terms, she would be in the high road to further ruin—he call’d her into the parlor this evening and talk’d closely to her, told her he had a right to send her to the work house and sell her for a servent, that it was in pity to her, and in hopes of her reformation that he did not send Joe to prision, she had always had a good example in our house, if she did not mend her conduct she should not stay much longer in it &c. she cry’d but said nothing—How it will end, or what we shall do with her, I know not, set aside this vile propensity, she is one of the most handy and best servants we have ever had—and a girl of very pritty manners.

[By the middle of the following month, the “poor little yallow one” was boarded with a “Negro woman in the Neighborhood ’till we can otherwise dispose of it.” On July 2, 1795, Elizabeth Drinker was informed “that poor little Caty was dead—Jacob Morris, a black boy, whose Mother had her to nurse brought the note, and came for a Shroud to bury her in.” Sally Brant, when told, “shed a few tears, but all, appeard to be got over in a little time after.”]

[April 12, 1796] . . . Sally Johnson came to day, she very willingly agree’d to Sallys staying with us two months longer as we shall be cleaning house &c—she is, I expect, sensible, that we might, if inclined so to do, oblidge her to serve us near a year longer for the expences we have been at on her and Childs account, instead of giving her freedom Cloaths &c—I wish the poor girl may do well when she leaves us. She has behaved herself better for a month or two past than for a long time before. Whether it is to get the more from us, or whether she is actualy better I know not, but must hope for the best.

Sally Brant did leave the Drinker family but stayed in touch with one of the other young servants—“S. Brant took tea with our Sally Dawson” noted Elizabeth Drinker tersely on May 17, 1803.

The passages in this post can be found on pages 212-213 of In the Words of Women.

posted August 28th, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off on “. . . poor little Caty was dead . . .”, CATEGORIES: Brant, Sally,Children,Daily life,Death,Drinker, Elizabeth Sandwith,Employment,Indentured Servants

“this is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures”

Though the following letter is dated somewhat earlier than 1765, I found it interesting because it concerns the subject of indentured servants. A young woman, without monetary means, wishing to relocate to the American colonies, could finance her passage by agreeing with the ship’s captain that he could “sell” her on arrival in exchange for a term of service, generally seven years. This arrangement was called an indenture and was supposedly a legal contract with the “employer” providing food, clothing, and shelter. In 1756, Elizabeth Sprigs, a indentured servant in a Maryland household, wrote a letter to her father in London complaining of terrible treatment. Apparently she had left home under unpleasant circumstances but was reduced to begging for some assistance from her family. An indentured servant generally had little recourse if the arrangement proved unsatisfactory. In the South, indentured servants were being replaced by slaves.

Maryland, Sept’r 22’d 1756Honored Father
My being for ever banished from your sight, will I hope pardon the Boldness I now take of troubling you . . . my long silence has been purely owning to my undutifullness to you, and well knowing I had offended in the highest Degree, put a tie to my tongue and pen, for fear I should be extinct from your good Graces and add a further Trouble to you, but too well knowing your care and tenderness for me so long as I retain’d my Duty to you, induced me once again to endeavor if possible, to kindle up that flame again.

O Dear Father, believe what I am going to relate the words of truth and sincerity, and Balance my former bad Conduct my sufferings here, and then I am sure you’ll pity your Destress Daughter, What we unfortunate English People suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to Conceive, let it suffice that I one of the unhappy Number, am toiling almost Day and Night, and very often in the Horses drudgery . . . and then tied up and whipp’d to that Degree that you’d not serve an Animal, scarce any thing but Indian Corn and Salt to eat and that even begrudged nay many Negroes are better used, almost naked no shoes nor stockings to wear, and the comfort after slaving during Masters pleasure, what rest we can get is to rap ourselves up in a Blanket and ly upon the Ground. [T]his is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures, and now I beg if you have any Bowels of Compassion left show it by sending me some Relief, Clothing is the principal thing wanting, which if you should condiscend to, may easily send them to me by any of the ships bound to Baltimore Town Patapsco River Maryland, and give me leave to conclude in Duty to you and Uncles and Aunts, and Respect to all Friends
Honored Father
Your undutifull and Disobedient Child
Elizabeth Sprigs

Source: Elizabeth Sprigs, “Letter to Mr. John Sprigs in White Cross Street near Cripple Gate, London, September 22, 1756,” in Isabel Calder, ed., Colonial Captivities, Marches, and Journeys (New York: Macmillan Company, 1935).

posted July 24th, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off on “this is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures”, CATEGORIES: Employment

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