THE PERILS OF PAULINE: CHALLENGES FACING MID-19TH CENTURY ONTARIO COUNTY WOMEN
The period from the American Revolution to the Civil War was one of tremendous change in American society. Women shared in the benefits of increasing wealth, urbanization and industrialization. In the eastern states, middle class women were becoming educated and, as the pioneer period rapidly receded, they had the leisure to aspire to becoming “ladies,” a term previously reserved for the well to do. But they also were faced with economic hardships in times of crop failure or financial panics; educational, legal and social barriers to self-sufficiency; premature death from diseases now easily prevented, accidents or even violence at the hands of their spouses or significant others. Disasters awaited them, just like the heroine of a silent movie. This paper will consider these “perils” and their effect on the lives of the women of Ontario County during the years 1830-1860 from sources stored at Ontario County RAIMS and the Ontario County Historical Society.
By the 1830s the frontier had moved west. The inhabitants of Ontario County were prospering from improvements in transportation as surfaced roads, canals, steam navigation and railroads were connecting upstate New York with the rest of the eastern seaboard. These made it easier for people to move into the area—immigrants were arriving from Europe, while New Englanders were seeking economic opportunities here and further west. These newcomers brought new ideas and ways of viewing society with them.
In the home, Irish and German girls were doing housework formerly done by wives, maiden aunts and girls. Labor saving devices were reducing the amount of hard manual labor needed to feed and clothe the family as factories turned out cloth for clothing, cooking stoves fueled by coal replaced wood-burning fireplaces for cooking, and ice houses sold ice to cool food in summer. Hand-powered sewing machines, mason jars for canning and safety pins were looming on the horizon. Pioneer grandmothers must have been amazed at their granddaughters’ leisure time.
Ironically, this was happening at a time when society was trying to force women to stay in the home where they were expected to guide their children and inspire their husbands to a virtuous life. Professions, which had been open to them in the colonial period, were now closed by licensing and educational requirements restricting them to men. Even their clothing was a barrier to freedom—a well-dressed lady might wear 10-15 lbs. of whalebone, petticoats and heavy skirts. One wonders why they did not die of heat prostration during hot summers!
One acceptable outlet for a woman’s energies was the church. Although the records do not list the roles of women in organizing early congregations in Ontario County, the fact that organizational meetings and early services were held in private homes suggests women’s participation.
For the middle and upper classes, it was expected that women would embrace the needs of helping the less fortunate. Religious and moral revival movements were sweeping the nation, reaching this area by 1831 when Presbyterian congregations held revival meetings. These also influenced women’s thinking. Charles Finney, one of the leaders in the “burnt over district”, noted as he traveled to Utica and Rochester that upstate women were organizing and participating in the revivals to such an extent that 75% of those “born again” were female. As they met in prayer groups, sewing circles (to make clothing for the poor) and Bible societies, they began to consider the evils of slavery, alcoholism, illegitimacy, prostitution and crime. They sought to formulate ways of improving society. The abolitionist movement in particular made them conscious of their own inequality before the law and their impoverished position in society.
Here in Ontario County, women could see these problems on a regular basis. Slavery had even reached upstate New York. Newspapers recorded female slaves for sale in Canandaigua in the early 1800s. One enterprising slave disguised herself as a man and ran away from her owner who offered a $10 reward for her return. Although slavery ended in New York State in 1827, events like these would still have been fresh in women’s minds.
Court records of the 1830s and 1840s record what happened to women who had no husband, brother or father to house them and no skills to earn their keep. In cold December of 1840, for example, Ruth Van Burger was begging for alms from door to door in Canandaigua while Eliza Jane Taft was reduced to sleeping in the stage coach yard and barns there in May, 1835. In July 1837, Julia Ingraham was found sleeping in fields. Since these women were not judged to be suitable for the public charity of the Poor House, they were thrown into prison on the proverbial diet of bread and water. Susan Ritchie was convicted of vagrancy for begging from door to door in Canandaigua in 1841. Because she was “not a notorious person,” she was judged to be a proper object for relief and sent to the Poor House. However, one wonders if she thought this was any better than jail since she was to be kept at hard labor there for 30 days!
One homeless woman, Cordelia Ann Hubbard, went to jail for the additional offense of wearing men’s clothing long before Amelia Bloomer started her dress reform movement.
Other women seem to have seen the clothing and possessions of their more fortunate sisters and decided to augment their own meager belongings through a form of “free enterprise.” Legal records list convictions of women for the theft of such items as a lace collar, ribbons (a very popular item!), Morocco leather shoes, stockings, fabrics such as calico, muslin and even silk and lace. In 1841, one Harriet Johnson decided to go shopping for herself with Bank of Geneva notes stolen from Abram Givens. Nancy Wiscom seems to have made a career for herself by stealing plates, towels, spoons, a silver watch and other goods from several victims.
It was inevitable that some women were driven to the world’s oldest profession to support themselves. Sometimes this resulted from homelessness and hunger. Elizabeth Whitford, discovered sheltering in a barn in Hopewell in 1837, confessed she had spent the preceding night in a wheat field in the company of a young man. Jane Warren was convicted of being a vagrant in March of 1840 and by the following October was found guilty of prostitution.
Some women managed to make a living by rising to the management end of the profession. While most of these were single, Sarah Hardy of Seneca was associated in the business with her husband Phillip in 1833. Three years later she was still in the same line of work but living alone in Geneva. There seems to have been a social hierarchy among these entrepreneurs for one Sally Jarvis, alias Fletcher, is described in the Court of Special Sessions records for Canandaigua in 1836 as “a very bad person” because her disorderly house is the resort of “tipplers and drunkards.” Phoebe Lewis, on the other hand, although frequently appearing in the courts, had her bond of $100 (a considerable sum for those days) posted by Samuel and Moses Clemens of Manchester. These bonds were supposed to ensure good behavior on the part of the ladies as well as making money for the community.
It became apparent to many women that education had to be first step for economic security and self-sufficiency. This was a time when female educational institutions were being opened all over the nation and women were playing a dominant role in their operation. One outstanding local school was Ontario Female Seminary incorporated in the village of Canandaigua in 1824 and constructed the following year on land donated by the manager of Ontario Bank, Henry B. Gibson. Two strong women from New England, Hannah Upham and Arabella Smith, took over the school in 1830 and made it prosper. Its graduates became teachers and writers as well as wives and mothers. The shortage of male teachers helped women to enter the profession although it should be mentioned that they earned half of what men did!
While most female seminaries as they were called were built for the Protestant middle class, the Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph (still prominent in education in this area) opened an orphan asylum and school near St. Mary’s on Saltonstall Street in 1855. This could care for the children of Irish immigrants whose lives were shortened by years of famine in the Old Country and backbreaking, dangerous physical labor here.
We can see from signatures in court records how women are becoming increasingly literate between 1830 and 1850. At the same time, census records show that they are moving out of traditionally women’s work as domestic servants, boarding house keepers or seamstresses and becoming teachers, nurses, weavers, innkeepers, tailors, bakers, confectioners and even serving on the faculty of the Clifton Springs Water Cure by 1860. During this period, too, Elizabeth Blackwell attended Geneva Medical College to become America’s first woman doctor.
This literate class supported a flood of magazines and novels written for women, an early form of continuing education. As women moved away from mothers and aunts, they learned about home furnishing, cooking, childcare, housekeeping and even moral standards from these publications. Although we do not recognize most of their names today (with the exception of Louisa May Alcott), several Ontario County natives such as Caroline Chesebro contributed to the day’s popular moral fiction.
Women still had a long way to go in gaining legal equality, however. A divorced woman’s property was kept by her husband. Court records show many cases of guardians being appointed for a female’s property, even if she was married. It took until 1848 for New York State women to gain control over their property and wages and another ten years for them to be executors of estates. While they still could not serve on juries, they were able to bring suit in court by 1840 when Hannah Bostwick of Naples charged her landlord Silas Hitchcock with keeping her possessions including a copper tea kettle, a dripping pan, spider and copper washing boiler. By that time women were also appearing as witnesses in court although Rachel Huntley found herself in jail because the judge feared she would run away rather than testify.
Women sought to better their lives by being active in the temperance movement. Legal records show that in many cases of violence against women, the men involved had abused alcohol. In March of 1844, a crowd of men who had been fishing and drinking tried to break into the house of Maria Persons in the town of Seneca in the belief that she was housing “girls” (presumably prostitutes) there.
Later that year, Edward Reed came home drunk and threatened to knock out the brains of his girlfriend Fanny Bainbridge because dinner was not ready. He kicked a plate out of her hand with such force that it cut her hand. Witnesses testified that on other occasions he slapped her and even dragged her across the floor by the hair. Rachel Brown requested legal protection from Elect Lee who came home drunk, hitting her and threatening to kill her. Of course, for every case that came to court, there were many more that went unrecorded.
Cases of men committing rape, bigamy and even murder of women are in the records. However, women could also be violent to men, other women and children. In 1840, Lavinia Ann Wooster was convicted of assault and battery against a minor child, Charles Russell. Hannah Cooper brought charges against Salmon Farr in 1844 for attacking her and her daughter with an iron fire tongs. Witnesses, however, testified that the daughter hit him first and that Hannah gave as good as she got in the fray. When two groups of women wanted to cross the narrow bridge on Water Street in Geneva that same year, blows were exchanged.
Death records show another factor in women’s lives—more men than women are recorded as dying from old age. Cooking and washing clothes may account for women’s deaths from scalding and fires in the home. Unlike today, diseases such as small pox, typhus, typhoid, anemia, diphtheria, meningitis and consumption were more of a threat than cancer and heart attacks. It is puzzling, however, that the 1855 and 1860 mortality statistics do not mention childbirth as a cause of death for either mothers or infants. Could this be due to a taboo against mentioning pregnancy and birth? Pregnant women at this time were supposed to hide away from public view.
In spite of all these challenges, Ontario County women, like their sisters all over the nation, made tremendous strides by the time of the Civil War. They were literate, working and managing their own finances, gaining legal rights and looking toward the day when true equality might be theirs. We would not be here today without the courage and fortitude of all those women who went before us.
Leslie C. O’Malley, Ph.D.