Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Survival Strategies of Poor White Women in Savannah, 1800-1860

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Survival Strategies of Poor White Women in Savannah, 1800-1860

Article excerpt

The emergence of feminist historiographies since the 1970s has provided southern historians with the wealth of work on plantation mistresses and on slave women, but, at least initially, largely overlooked poorer white women. This was partly due to the source material, because poorer white women were rarely sufficiently literate to leave a written legacy. Gradually, however, scholars such as Victoria Bynum, Martha Hodes, Kathleen Brown, and others began to show how the lives of these women can be recovered through the use of a variety of quantitative records such as those of courts, churches, poorhouses, female asylums, and newspapers, as well the federal census. Much, however, remains to be done, and this article will examine specifically how poorer white women coped in slave societies where racial slavery constrained the amount and type of work available.1

Savannah, antebellum Georgia's largest city, had a population that on the eve of the Civil War topped 20,000. Fairly evenly divided between black and white, and thus between slave and free, the city also boasted a noticeable free black population. Local planters with townhouses and permanent-resident merchants and professionals constituted the civic elite, who generally resided in the center of the city in elegant and wellmaintained dwellings. The eastern and western fringes of the city, by contrast, were characterized by densely packed, low-quality housing that proved affordable for the large immigrant population. In 1860 only about 10 percent of the adult white population was locally born, whereas roughly two-fifths were born overseas. Only a minority of taxpayers owned slaves in the antebellum era, and members of nonslaveholding families probably constituted two-thirds or more of the city's white population. A significant proportion of Savannah's white residents lived meager existences, where merely providing food and shelter could be difficult.2

Poor white women in Savannah used four principal strategies to ensure their own survival - charity, marriage, employment, and crime. These strategies were essentially the same for all poor women in the Americas in the early nineteenth century, but it is clear that southern women were able to use their particular position as white women in a slave society to their advantage. Although Savannah has retained relatively good antebellum records, the major issue facing any historian of poorer white women in antebellum America is the source materials. Low levels of literacy, perhaps only marginally above that of the enslaved population, meant that poor white women did not leave many first-hand documents, since comparatively few could do more than write their name. Unlike middle-class and upper-class white women, who were schooled either privately by tutors or in fee-paying schools, girls from poor white families were often given minimal schooling, at least before the 1850s. Of 750 white girls under the age of fifteen in 1820, for instance, only about a hundred were attending the Savannah Free School or Chatham Academy. By the mid 1850s, about 300 children (about 20 percent of those aged five to fifteen) were receiving free tuition at one of the city's public schools, but most white girls acquired little in the way of an education. Even if some poorer white women attained an education, Savannah's archives do not bulge with their personal diaries and correspondence since paper and ink were expensive items, as was postage. Uncovering the lives of these "silent" women is not straightforward, as only rarely do we find their "voices" as recorded by those they encountered.3

Because qualitative sources are thin on the ground, attention inevitably falls on quantitative sources. In many respects historians of Savannah are fortunate, since the city's records have survived the ravages of time very well. Major repositories have weathered hurricanes and the visit in late 1864 of Sherman's troops; however, we are faced with inherent class and gender biases in the records that have survived. …

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