What can an account book tell us about the distant past? Quite a bit! The fantastically detailed account book of Ann Elizabeth Staats Schuyler (1690-1768/9)—preserved in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library—provides a unique window into the lives of women in the 18th century. Born and wed into the Dutch mercantile elite of New York City, Elizabeth found herself widowed in 1722 and took over the trading activities of her husband, Philip Schuyler. (For fans of Hamilton, Philip was a distant relative of Eliza Schuyler, who married Alexander Hamilton.)
The account book contains transactions conducted between 1737 and 1769 in her house and store on Broad St., near the Exchange and the Docks (see the red circle on the map above). This area was the economic core of New York City, and the location allowed Elizabeth to reach not only a local urban clientele, but also a significant number of rural customers living in the colonies of New York and New Jersey. Though she mostly imported and sold tea, fabrics, trimmings, apparel accessories, and porcelain, she also traded in foodstuff and materials such a wood and iron that landowners, farmers, and artisans gave her in exchange for consumer goods.
Aside from telling historians about the city’s economy, Elizabeth Schuyler’s account book is even more precious for what it tells us about the lives of women. Indeed, 97 women held an account in their own names— approximately 1/6 of her clientele. If Elizabeth was among the few female traders in 18th-century New York, her account book reveals more names of women who, like her, made trading their business, including Margaret Vetch, Joanna Kelsall, and Mary Stockea. Most of Elizabeth’s woman–to–woman transactions however, were with female customers such as Femmetje De Foreest and Ann Brown, and these moments provide wonderful snippets about the lives of women who are otherwise absent from historical records.
Femmetje De Foreest
Little is known about Femmetje De Foreest other than her appearances in Elizabeth’s account book. From her transactions however, we can decipher that she worked as a wage-earning laborer in New York City in the 1730s, perhaps to complement, or to fully sustain, the income of her household. On July 25, 1738, Femmetje De Foreest purchased five yards of calico for one pound, two shillings and six pence from Elizabeth’s shop. Between then and the August 21 of the same year, she labored for Elizabeth for no less than 27 days, receiving daily wages of six pence to pay for her purchase. In today’s currency, that would mean that De Foreest worked for 27 days at $3.82 per day, to pay for a mere five yards of fabric worth $171.49.
Since the typical women’s outfit of the day consisted of an outer petticoat and a jacket or a gown, five yards of fabric would hardly have sufficed to create a complete outfit. Likely, De Foreest could only make a jacket or a petticoat with the five yards and not an ensemble. Why, then, would one work 27 days for a mere five yards of calicoes?
Calico was a printed cotton imported by the British East India Company from East Asia into the British Atlantic economy from the 17th century onwards. East Indian calicoes became so popular in European, African, and American markets that European textile printers also started to produce calicoes in the 18th century. Up until then, purchasing colored and patterned wools and silks was costly—vivid colors were achieved by using expensive dyes and fashionable patterns created by weaving and embroidering techniques were labor-intensive. Wash-resistant and brightly-printed cottons made both colors and patterns more affordable. Femmetje’s desire to integrate this exotic and fashionable fabric into her wardrobe was strong enough for her to dedicate a month’s worth of wages to purchase such a small amount of cloth. Her story shows the hard labor necessary for ordinary people to participate in an expanding world of consumer goods, including fashionable clothes. It also shows the willingness of ordinary people to use fashion to show off their identity and earn respect and attention from their peers.
A little more is known about the widow Ann Brown, another woman who frequented Elizabeth’s shop. Because of her work as a midwife, her name appears on some birth certificates, but her regular purchases hint at her taste and lifestyle. It’s noteworthy that she paid for all of her purchases in cash, suggesting a somewhat regular income. Interestingly, Brown never purchased large quantities of fabrics at the store, but did regularly buy thread skeins. It’s possible that she simply acquired larger yardages of fabric elsewhere and used these thread skeins to make clothes and needlework. One cannot help but wonder if Brown also used these threads and sewing silk in her medical practice. Brown’s other purchases suggest she was a respectable and discreetly fashionable woman. She acquired ribbons and trimmings, the typical luxury goods 18th-century consumers indulged in to personalize and elevate their outfits. Brown also bought expensive, high-quality white cotton and cotton lace used in the making of caps and handkerchiefs. Both of these apparel accessories projected respectability. Finally, in 1738, Brown went into Schuyler’s store every month to purchase tea, sometimes with a loaf a sugar and occasionally with some additional chinaware. Without revealing the exact nature of Ann Brown’s social status and wealth, the goods she purchased from the store indicate how a New York midwife of the first half of the 18th century engaged in genteel and respectable forms of fashion and sociability.
Taken together, these transactions and the others in Elizabeth Schuyler’s account book show how women frequented commercial spaces, how they paid with cash or labor, and their tastes in small fineries and fashionable goods. They reveal women’s place in a globalizing world of trade.
Written by Sarah Templier, member of the Center for Women’s History’s Early Career Workshop, and doctoral candidate in history, Johns Hopkins University