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Loosening the Bonds

Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850

Joan M. Jensen
Copyright Date: 1986
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Loosening the Bonds
    Book Description:

    The first book to investigate the rich and complex lives of rural women during the late colonial and early national periods. Jensen focuses on women in the Philadelphia hinterland and shows how they became an essential part of that area's rise to agricultural prominence. Examining not only the Quakers, who formed the dominant group in the region, but also black and other ethnic groups, Jensen offers fascinating details on the ways farm women functioned in the varied spheres of their lives. Her book makes a major contribution to women's history.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15679-9
    Subjects: Sociology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    This is the first book to focus on the lives of women of the rural majority in the critical century that spanned the late colonial and early national eras. Drawing on a wide range of sources and methods, I have attempted to show the complex lives of rural women in the Philadelphia hinterland during it’s rise to prominence as one of the wealthiest agricultural regions in the country. The tools women used, such as churns, the letters they wrote, and the brief records left by others provide a rich textural background. There was hard work in the lives of these...


    • CHAPTER 1 Culture on the Brandywine
      (pp. 3-17)

      Today, as in 1750, the farmlands of the Brandywine Valley stretch mile after mile through the Philadelphia hinterland. From its source in the Welsh Hills, sixty miles and three thousand feet above the tidewater, the Brandywine River flows southward to join the Delaware River at Wilmington. It cuts through what farmers once called the Great Valley—a trough between the Schuylkill and the Susquehanna rivers. The river forms this smaller valley, joining Chester County in Pennsylvania and New Castle County in Delaware, into one geographical unit. Much of the area is still forested—actually reforested—giving it an appearance similar...

    • CHAPTER 2 Reproducing the Farm Family
      (pp. 18-35)

      On February 5, 1747, Sarah Heald Harlan of Kennett made her last will and testament, appointed her daughter Mary Evans executor, signed the document with a mark, and turned her mind to coming death. When she died less than a month later, Sarah Harlan left a substantial personal estate of 199 pounds. In addition to bonds and debts, she left almost one hundred yards of cloth, spinning equipment, sheep, cows, calves, heifers, pigs, and beehives to be divided among her grandchildren. Her married daughters, Charity, Elizabeth, and Mary were each to receive twenty pounds and she remembered a cousin Martha...

    • CHAPTER 3 Farm Household Labor
      (pp. 36-56)

      It was early July, mid-way in the annual farm cycle, the beginning of the harvest. The rye, in gray-green sheets, stretched across the rolling hills. Farther on, the thick yellow hay waited for the scythes. Flax stood ready for pulling. Oat fields were still green, the buckwheat just covered the fields, and broad deep green leaves of corn were knee-high. The potato plants were just blossoming. Along the fields, split-rail fences marked the boundaries set against wandering cattle. Beyond these fences worming through the countryside, narrow roads cut through woods to log houses, a few barns, and here and there...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Social Geography of Dependency
      (pp. 57-76)

      Quakers in Chester County and New Castle County had always cared for their poor on the assumption that all are God’s children, and we should care for one another. The men’s and women’s business meetings handled welfare informally at first. They collected and dispersed money to the poor, including widows, orphans, the aged, and ill, who had no relatives able to support them. Quakers built their own almshouse in Philadelphia in 1713 and expanded it in 1729, and rural Quakers continued the old informal system of welfare, soliciting money for the poor into the 1780s. As the Quakers became a...


    • CHAPTER 5 The Economics of the Butter Trade
      (pp. 79-91)

      For the middling families of the Philadelphia hinterland strategies for prosperity were more important than survival strategies. Within this culture, women were active shapers of economic development. Seeking ways to make their farms more profitable and increase their cash income to purchase commodities from the commercializing cities and industrializing river valleys, women shifted their work from textile production to dairying. In the late eighteenth century, farm families diversified their farms; in the early nineteenth century, they specialized. In both periods, women’s involvement in the butter trade provided an underpinning for the economic development of the Mid-Atlantic region.

      Almost every historian...

    • CHAPTER 6 Churns and Butter-Making Technology
      (pp. 92-113)

      During the century in which butter became a central commodity on Mid-Atlantic farms, the technology of butter making grew elaborate. It left a rich material culture, principally in churns. The study of churns and other butter-related tools thus provides one more way of analyzing the work of rural women. Churns, a part of the material life of our foremothers, are often seen in museums. Whether lovingly jumbled together with other farm implements from the age of wood, decorously displayed as a part of domestic life exhibits, or still in use at living farm museums, the churn is a constant reminder...

    • CHAPTER 7 Rural Domestic Economy
      (pp. 114-128)

      The crucial role of women in reproducing the farm family, providing labor, developing the economy, and refining the technology of butter making did not mean that these important functions would necessarily be reflected in the literature of the time. Although literature is the mirror of a people, it reflects only what those who write it wish to see. Literature extends the experience of life; thus it is a chief way of measuring the significance of one’s life and beliefs or ideology. Embedded in literature are the wishes and needs of the group that produces it, so that it may provide...

    • CHAPTER 8 Esther Lewis: Biography of a Farm Woman
      (pp. 129-142)

      One day in 1827, while walking around her farm, Esther Lewis noticed that an area of the ground had loose surface stones of a peculiar color. She remembered seeing similar stones before—at an iron ore mine—so, picking up several samples, she sent them off to be assayed in Baltimore. She was right. It was hematite iron ore, and her Vincent Township farm was soon the site of an active iron ore mine.¹

      Esther Lewis was forty-five that spring, a widow of three years with four daughters, Mariann, Rebecca, Graceanna, and Elizabeth, aged eight, seven, six, and three. A...


    • CHAPTER 9 “Centre Then, O My Soul!” Ministering Mothers
      (pp. 145-166)

      Between 1750 and 1850, women of the Brandywine Valley became visible in the public sphere in three major ways—through ministering, teaching, and reforming. In each area, Quaker women were the most visible. Quaker mothers, almost alone among women, occupied official positions of religious leadership as ministers in the eighteenth century. Quaker daughters led the movement of young women into the public sphere as teachers early in the nineteenth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, Quaker women were appealing to the bonds of sisterhood in an effort to expand occupational and political rights. Although they were not the only women filling...

    • CHAPTER 10 “Not Only Ours But Others” Teaching Daughters
      (pp. 167-183)

      Given the example of mothers as ministers, it is not surprising that Quaker daughters were among the first young women to enter the public sphere as teachers. Teaching was the first middle-class occupation opened to women in the nineteenth century. Teaching also signaled women’s emergence into full literacy and into the reform currents that eventually led to the women’s rights movement. Thus, the ideas that marked the acceptance of women as teachers in the opening decades of the nineteenth century have attracted considerable attention from historians.

      In their search for the ideological origins of the women’s rights movement, historians have...

    • CHAPTER 11 “True Earnest Workers” Reforming Sisters
      (pp. 184-204)

      On February 6, 1852, Hannah M. Darlington sat down in her Kennett farmhouse to write a letter to Jacob Painter, a wealthy Middletown acquaintance, about holding a women’s rights conference. “The interest I feel in the cause impells me to it,” she wrote, “yet in truth I scarce know what to say—if we could get up such a convention as weoughtto have great good would result from it, but if we get up afailureit will be a misfortune to the cause, and tho I have unwaivering confidence in the eternity of truth and the certain...

    (pp. 205-208)

    In 1850, the rural women of the Brandywine Valley must have been conscious of growing differences with women of the village of West Chester, two miles west, as well as the town of Wilmington, the “upstart village” at the mouth of the Brandywine and Christiana rivers that had grown to almost three thousand buildings, and the city of Philadelphia twenty miles east. Urban women in these towns and cities lived their lives amid an increasing concentration of male professionals—clergy, physicians, attorneys, bankers, public officials, and educators. Created primarily by males, the public spaces of urban areas were also mostly...

    (pp. 209-230)
  11. Notes on Sources
    (pp. 231-234)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 235-264)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 265-271)