It has become increasingly clear that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represented a period of dramatic economic and social change in England. Indeed, the latest research from CamPop’s ‘Occupational Structure of Britain, 1379–1911’ project suggests that the most significant developments in English economic history may have occurred in these earlier centuries, and not in the period classically associated with the Industrial Revolution (c.1760-1840). Moreover, there is a growing sense that economic changes in the early modern period may have had much to do with changes in the working lives of women: Jan de Vries famously hypothesised that the century between 1650-1750 witnessed an ‘Industrious Revolution’ in which workers came to dedicate fewer hours to leisure and more hours to working, or especially in the case of women, came to direct their time not only towards domestic and subsistence work, but increasingly towards the production of goods to sell commercially.
Yet for all the emphasis on the extent of these changes, we still have remarkably little empirical evidence about the everyday working lives of early modern women. Part of the problem is that much of the ground-breaking research into the economic changes of the period focuses on the prevalence of different occupational groups at different times. As both Tawny Paul and Jonas Lindström have pointed out on this blog before, there are some important limitations to this approach. One is that women are rarely given an occupational title in the archival records from our period – they tend to be described by their marital status – and another is that occupational labels often obscure the fact that a man who is known as a ‘carpenter’, for instance, may actually be engaged in a wide range of work activities, such as farming or retailing ale, that are not captured by that title.
An Irish immigrant passes along the plastered stone walls and tiny windows of her New York employer’s basement kitchen and ascends the stairs. One flight takes her to the family’s main living spaces and another to the halls outside their bedrooms before she opens the door to the winding, steep and narrow set of tower stairs that offer the only access to the attic, and the three adjoining servants’ rooms there. A row of pegs on the plaster walls suggest that no chests of drawers sit on the room’s pine floors, but her modest wardrobe would scarcely require one. She reaches toward a shelf mounted high on the wall and lights a candle, the only flame in this hearthless room. Soot drifts across the whitewash.
Today, domestic servants like this woman often languish in what curator Patricia West has called “documentary obscurity.” The Irish women who once labored in and around Lindenwald–the Kinderhook, New York, home of retired U.S. President Martin Van Buren [1782-1862]–rarely appear in the archival record apart from the occasional passing reference in family correspondence, census records and other fragmentary mentions. The carbon shadow still visible on the wall today is among the few physical traces that remain of these women’s lives on Van Buren’s estate. Continue reading “Learning to Look: Built Environments as Sources of Insight on Women’s Work”→
The issues of ‘space’ and ‘place’ have been sources of increasing interest for historians in recent years. Concerns relating not only to where people lived and worked, but what those locations can communicate about the nature, sociability, and respectability of lives and occupations have inspired exciting new research questions that help us to understand not only where people lived, but how they lived. Of course, one of the main drawbacks of this avenue of enquiry, particularly for medieval and early modern historians, is the paucity of sources. Information regarding location can sometimes be pieced together, but discrete sources that clearly communicate locations are few and far between.