Researching Late 18th Century Women in Pennsylvania

Jan 08, 2014

Catherine Burnhart, Jude, Weanever Carbrite, Het, Carolina dePool. These are names of Pennsylvanian indentured and enslaved women during the late 18th century. The only reason we are aware of a small sliver of their lives is for one exceptional fact: that they chose to run away from their masters. And those masters, in order to recoup funds outlaid for their purchase, placed newspaper advertisements for their capture. If not for this documentation of their lives, these women would not exist in the historical record.



Indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans created a diverse community of unfree laborers in Philadelphia and its surrounding environs. Arriving in waves to the colonies throughout the 17th and 18th century, immigrants to the colonies were auctioned at the wharves in order to pay for their trans-Atlantic voyage. Enslaved women in Philadelphia either were recent arrivals or had descended from people who survived forced migration in past generations.



While depicting servants captured the imagination of 18th century British artist and printmakers, few printed images were being made in the American colonies at this time. A rare American print by esteemed painter Charles Wilson Peale depicts a servant woman who has been accosted by chimney sweeps in the street, causing her to drop her pie. She wears no stays (the 18th century term for a corset), and her short gown and petticoat are crudely rendered. In the absence of visual information about how 18th century American working women looked, we have to rely on the data listed in runaway advertisements to learn more about these women. In order to identify and recapture the women, masters would often describe their clothing and physical appearance in detail.



Runaway advertisements have long intrigued genealogists as a source for family history. Treated as a commodity, the servants in those advertisements were also consumers, particularly of dress and textiles. I’ve used runaway advertisements to learn more about indentured and enslaved women as a community and their dress. It has long been assumed that the poor had no interest or ability to participate in fashion, but my study has revealed a significant use by working women of cheap printed fabrics, ribbons, and silk handkerchiefs and hats to embellish their appearance. By collecting 1,000 runaway advertisements, 1750-90, from across the American colonies, I’ve been able to study more about this otherwise historically invisible and poorly documented group.



Consider the rotten luck of Mary Allen, an English woman who came to Cecil County, Maryland when she was 12. After her service was complete, she pursued a free life in Philadelphia and under suspicion of not being free, was thrown in jail. Having found nothing against her, she was sold again into servitude in order to pay for her jail expenses. When she ran away from her new master, she wore a calico jacket, dirty linsey petticoat and old straw hat, but attempted to follow fashion by dressing her hair “high on a roller” and wearing high heeled shoes. Working women have long been believed to have endured colorless, drab, and dirty clothing. But it would be wrong to believe that those at the bottom of the consumer chain weren’t interested in dress.



Servants received clothing from their masters both specifically made for them, as well as hand-me-downs from the mistress and perhaps second-hand clothing dealers. Colorful printed fabrics became increasingly popular during the late 18th century for working women, replacing heavier and non-washable worsted fabrics. Textiles were stocked by merchants to cater to this clientele, like the “very lowest priced India Callicoes not exceeding 16d [pence] per yard Small Figures & full of work” as Abraham Wister did when ordering from textile merchants Robert & John Barclay & Co in January 1785. These cheaper but colorfully printed textiles can be compared to the slightly more expensive chintzes he ordered that day, in “lively patterns with running gay Flowers 2/6 [2 shillings 6 pence] to 3/3 per yard.”[1]



So little of the material lives exists of the poor for us to study. Statistical studies are often the only recourse. This project aims to harness data long considered as valuable in the study of the working class, but difficult to study in quantity. It revives the human element otherwise lost in the historical record. For more about this project, visit The Still Room Blog and search for “indentured servants” or “slavery.” You may also read an introductory article on the project 'Had on When She Went Away . . .': Expanding the Usefulness of Garment Data in American Runaway Advertisements 1750–90 through Database Analysis in Textile History, May 2011, available for free download.



[1] Wister Family Papers, Order Book, 1784-1789. 56 x 17.10. Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera. Winterthur Museum and Library, Winterthur, DE.

Image: Elizabeth Low ran away from her Philadelphia master, who advertised for her recapture in the Der Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote on January 19, 1773. Library of Congress.


Rebecca Fifield is Collections Manager for the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ms. Fifield received an M.A. in Museum Studies with a focus on collection care administration and American material culture from The George Washington University in 1999. Her interests focus on the study of American 18th century working women, dress and textiles, preventive conservation, and emergency preparedness, and she has lectured and published on these topics in both the United States and Europe. She was recently awarded a research fellowship at Winterthur Museum and Library, and is a former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is currently Vice Chair of the American Institute for Conservation’s Collection Care Network. She is the author of The Still Room Blog.