In the household economy of eighteenth-century America, the family was the center of economic life. Most work revolved around the home, and all members—men, women, and children—contributed to the family’s livelihood. The independence of the small farmer depended in considerable measure on the labor of dependent women and children. “He that hath an industrious family shall soon be rich,” declared one colonial saying, and the high birthrate in part reflected the need for as many hands as possible on colonial farms. Most farmers concentrated first on growing food for their own consumption and acquiring enough land to pass it along to their sons. But the consumer revolution and expanding networks of Atlantic trade drew increasing numbers of farmers into production for the market as well.
As the population grew and the death rate declined, family life stabilized and more marriages became lifetime commitments. Free women were expected to devote their lives to being good wives and mothers. Already enshrined in law and property relations, male domination took on greater and greater social reality. In several colonies, the law mandated primogeniture— meaning that estates must be passed intact to the oldest son. As colonial society became more structured, opportunities that had existed for women in the early period receded. In Connecticut, for example, the courts were informal and unorganized in the seventeenth century, and women often represented themselves. In the eighteenth century, it became necessary to hire a lawyer as one’s spokesman in court. Women, barred from practicing as attorneys, disappeared from judicial proceedings. Because of the desperate need for labor, men and women in the seventeenth century both did various kinds of work. In the eighteenth century, the division of labor along gender lines solidified. Women’s work was clearly defined, including cooking, cleaning, sewing, making butter, and assisting with agricultural chores. The work of farmers’ wives and daughters often spelled the difference between a family’s self-sufficiency and poverty.
The Van Bergen Overmantel. The opportunity to achieve economic independence was central to American colonists’ idea of freedom. This section is part of a seven-foot-long painting by John Heaten from around 1773, probably designed to hang above a wide fireplace in the home of Marten Van Bergen, a Dutch farmer in colonial New York. The house and farm buildings are in Dutch style. The painting offers a rare contemporary view of a prosperous colonial farm, with its full granary and livestock. Native Americans and African-American slaves, as well as workers who probably were indentured servants, are among the individuals depicted by the artist.
1 What does the painting suggest about gradations of freedom at the time it was created?
2 What indications of prosperty are evident in the painting?
This portrait of the Cheney family by an unknown late eighteenth-century artist illustrates the high birthrate in colonial America, and suggests how many years of a woman’s life were spent bearing and raising children.
“Women’s work is never done.” This popular adage was literally true. Even as the consumer revolution reduced the demands on many women by making available store-bought goods previously produced at home, women’s work seemed to increase. Lower infant mortality meant more time spent in child care and domestic chores. The demand for new goods increased the need for all family members to contribute to family income. For most women, work was incessant and exhausting. “I am dirty and distressed, almost wearied to death,” wrote Mary Cooper, a Long Island woman, in her diary in 1769. “This day,” she continued, “is forty years since I left my father’s house and come here, and here have I seen little else but hard labor and sorrow.”