In 1770, tavernkeeper Abigail Stoneman called in her debts by
flourishing a handful of playing cards before the Rhode Island
Court of Common Pleas. Scrawled on the cards were the IOUs of
drinkers whose links to Stoneman testified to women's paradoxical
place in the urban economy of the late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries. Stoneman did traditional women's
work-boarding, feeding, cleaning, and selling alcohol-but her
customers, like her creditors, underscore her connections to an
expansive commercial society. These connections are central to
The Ties That Buy.
Historian Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor traces the lives of urban women
in early America to reveal how they used the ties of residence,
work, credit, and money to shape consumer culture at a time when
the politics of the marketplace was gaining national significance.
Covering the period 1750-1820, the book analyzes how women such as
Stoneman used and were used by shifting forms of credit and cash in
an economy transitioning between neighborly exchanges and
investment-oriented transactions. In this world, commerce reached
into every part of life. At the hearths of multifamily homes,
renters, lodgers, and recent acquaintances lived together and
struck financial deals for survival. Landladies, enslaved
washerwomen, shopkeepers, and hucksters sustained themselves by
serving the mobile population. A new economic practice in
America-shopping-mobilized hierarchical and friendly relationships
into wide-ranging consumer networks that depended on these same
Rhetoric emerging after the Revolution downplayed the significance
of expanding female economic life in the interest of stabilizing
the political order. But women were quintessential market
participants, with fluid occupational identities, cross-class
social and economic connections, and a firm investment in cash and
commercial goods for power and meaning.
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