Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"Obliged to Earn Subsistence for Themselves": Women Artisans in Charleston, South Carolina, 1763-1808

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"Obliged to Earn Subsistence for Themselves": Women Artisans in Charleston, South Carolina, 1763-1808

Article excerpt

IN THE EARLY 1760S, AGNES LIND, THE WIFE OF FACTOR Thomas Lind, operated a millinery shop in Charleston. In October 1766, Agnes Lind died, and within two weeks, Thomas Lind, eager to continue his wife's successful business, announced that he had "engaged Miss Katherine Smith to carry on the Millinery Business at the said shop in Tradd Street, as usual." Katherine Smith must have proved a fine replacement for Agnes Lind because within two months of Agnes's death, Thomas Lind married Katherine Smith.1 To Thomas Lind, his two wives, Agnes and Katherine, were more than just deputy husbands; they were, economically at least, collaborative partners. The Linds' dual-income household was atypical of the eighteenth-century South. The two Mrs. Linds' ability to manage a business and survive in a capitalist economy dominated by men and confused by the Revolution was not. The women of Charleston did not have much political or social power either before or after the American Revolution. A closely connected planter elite controlled South Carolina's political and economic culture.2 The women artisans who worked through this difficult time did have economic savvy, however. From seamstresses to highly skilled mantuamakers, women learned how to navigate in the masculine world of revolutionary Charleston. Without many surviving financial records or literary sources, measuring the economic success of these women is difficult. It is not even clear how these women defined success. A case study of the behavior of women artisans as they appear in the public records, such as newspaper ads, directories, municipal records, and petitions, indicates that women of all economic levels understood the forces that affected their trade and could work through legislatures and courts to get what they needed. Yet many also showed a sense of desperation, trying multiple and simultaneous trades. In a world dominated by patriarchy, maternal instincts motivated these women to survive.

Eighteenth-century travelers often generalized about women in the cities they visited. An English traveler in 1774 described with few exceptions the women of Charleston as "not tolerably handsome, for most have Pale Sickish Languid complexions and are commonly ill-shaped, their shoulders seeming to have longing intent to rise high enough to hide their ears, and in their conversation they have a disagreeable, drawling way of speaking, which is no advantage to help make up the deficiency of their persons."3 Carl Bridenbaugh, using travelers' accounts as a major source, also commented on the pale complexion of the women of South Carolina. Yet Bridenbaugh wrote that "the glory of Carolina was its women." The women of Carolina had strength of character, he noted, along with "fortitude and resourcefulness."4 It took fortitude and resourcefulness to be a female artisan in revolutionary Charleston.

More modern scholarship on workingwomen places them within the complex realities of their lives. Geography, race, class, religion, education, marital status, life cycle, and political climate have all been factored into studies of both eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women. None of the studies see any age for females as being particularly golden, but instead focus on women's resourcefulness and survival strategies. The questions asked by historians center around the notion of how much autonomy and choice women had in a world dominated by expectations, constraints, and patriarchy. Studies of workingwomen have focused more on northern cities and the impact of nineteenth-century industrialization.5 Studies of southern women have focused on the empowerment or restraint of their patriarchal world. This case study of women artisans in revolutionary Charleston aims to add to the literature on women in the eighteenth-century South by focusing on a largely overlooked set, those who worked for a living.6

Revolutionary Charleston was a social, political, and economic center for much of the South. …

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