Monday, August 31, 2015

Interesting information about seventeenth- and eighteenth-century northern New England

1. When a husband died, his household's goods went into probate: every single item, no matter how modest, was listed and priced, and the inventory became a matter of public record. Numbers of these inventories still exist, and in Good Wives historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich uses them as a way to learn how household work varied from woman to woman and place to place.

In 1670, what is now Maine's York County (Kennebunk, Ogunquit, and so on) was frontier. Along with Essex County, Massachusetts (Ipswich, Salem, and so on), it was the colony's northernmost stretch. Salem was a thriving seaport town, but most of the other communities were rural, and many were still battlegrounds in skirmishes among the British, the French, and the native tribes.

According to the 1670 probate inventories for these counties, not a single householder owned a fork. However, several owned mirrors (3 percent in York, 4 percent in Essex).

No forks. None. Not even in Salem, which received shiploads of imported English goods and probably had pewter and silversmiths. (Pewterware does exist in the inventories.) Yet a few Puritans did enjoy looking at themselves in mirrors.

2. "Sometime before 1782 Ruth Belknap, the wife of the minister at Dover, New Hampshire," wrote a comic poem about housework: "The Pleasures of a Country Life . . . written when I had a true taste of them by having no maid." Here's a sample:
Corn must be husk'd, and pork be kill'd,
The house with all confusion fill'd.
O could you see the grand display
Upon our annual butchering day,--
See me look like ten thousand sluts,
My kitchen spread with grease & guts,--
3. The poet Anne Bradstreet had a younger sister named Sarah Dudley who married Benjamin Keayne, "the son of a Boston merchant." In 1646, the couple visited London, where things did not go well for the pair. Sarah returned home alone and began to get into trouble with local church authorities for misdeeds such as "irregular Prophesying in mixt Assemblies" and, mysteriously, "Refusing ordinarily to heare in the Churches of Christ." Meanwhile, Benjamin was writing letters to his father-in-law and his childhood pastors, claiming that Sarah had "unwived herself." "[I have] hazarded my health & life, to satisfy the unsatiable lust of a wife" who, he said must also have been unfaithful, because she had given him a venereal disease. (Not his fault, he assured the ministers: no other woman had received, from him, "the due benevolence of a wife.")

Sarah's father, who was a mover and a shaker, managed to secure a civil divorce for his daughter, though she was subsequently excommunicated from the church for "odious, lewd & scandalous behavior" with a guy from Taunton, Massachusetts. Yet despite these black marks on her name, she did marry again, and then she and her second husband, Thomas Pacey, vanished into history. Let us hope he was more fun than Benjamin had been.


David (n of 49) said...

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

Maureen said...

I remember an article in Smithsonian magazine about eating utensils. Forks, from forked sticks to silver tines, have a fascinating history. The wealthy could afford solid-silver flatware (made from coins); the masses had to be content with pewter. Silver plate/electroplate changed that.

Love how you mine stuff like this for your poetry.