Title: The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America
Author: Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor
Categories: Gender, Commerce, Economic History, Domesticity, Debt, Urban History, Consumer Revolution
Place: Charleston, South Carolina and Newport, Rhode Island
Time Period: 1750-1820
Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor examines how women operated in the commercial world of the Revolutionary port cities of Charleston and Rhode Island. In doing so, she argues that, far from being exceptional, female participation in the market was closer to the norm in urban centers. But understanding their participation requires a reconfiguration of what we think of as "normal" market participation. She does so by articulating three ways in which women participated in commerce: through the unit of "housefuls", social relationships, and the archetypal female market activity of shopping. Hartigan-O'Connor challenges the idea that women lost economic ground during the push towards domesticity, and argues that they were not necessarily shuttered in the home away from the market. She does admit, however, that the economic gains for women were decidedly not translated into political gains during the domestic push in the early Republic.
"Housefuls" stand as a basic socioeconomic unit that was different from patriarchal households by incorporating several small households (some headed by women) and a variety of economic activities (such as renting or washing). By linking the home with the market, Hartigan-O'Connor blows up the idea of a "domestic ideal" in which women headed a kind of sanctuary of the home that safely ensconced them from the market. Women in these housefuls operated in a commercial world that was inextricably linked to social ties and relationships. The social landscape of a city provided a common commercial language for women, who relied on family/kin connections and informal mechanisms to purchase goods and sell labor. These same connections allowed women to obtain credit and become entangled in the double-edged nature of "family credit", debt, and litigation. Finally, Hartigan-O'Connor argues that shopping was the archetypal female activity and one that was central to the Atlantic economy. By illustrating just how interconnected and collaborative shopping was, she undermines or complicates the idea of individual consumer "choice" during the period - as choices were, in fact, dependent on a web of many people's decisions.
Key Themes and Concepts
- "Houseful" as a means for women to engage with the market
- Women as "wealth users" - accessed credit and the market through social relationships
- Shopping as embodiment of dual nature of female commercial participation - served as intermediaries
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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