Summer support from the National Endowment for the Humanities will allow
me to study and interpret an obscure but significant source in the history
of early American women, the two-volume manuscript diary of Martha Moore
Ballard of Augusta, Maine. Consistent daily entries for more than twenty-seven
years, 1785-1812, made Mrs. Ballard the Samuel Sewall of her community.
Though no historian would claim the same importance for Ballard's Augusta
as for Sewall's Boston, the comparison is nevertheless appropriate. Augusta
was in many ways representative of the rapidly growing settlements which
began to fill northern and eastern New England in the years just after
the revolution. As a midwife and healer, Mrs. Ballard stood at the center
of life in her little community, and fortunately she had the earlier diarist's
penchant for facts. Since most accounts of rural life in this period were
written by men--ministers, travelers, and a few self-conscious farmers--her
work is of great interest.
Martha BaIlard's diary, though one of the oldest and most detailed female
diaries in the region, has been neglected by historians, perhaps because
the Maine State Library is a considerable distance from anywhere, but
more probably because Charles Elventon Nash published extended excerpts
from it in his History of Augusta, 1904. Those historians who have
used the work at all have used the published version. Nash's diary is
not Ballard's diary, however, as even a cursory examination will reveal.
With the genealogical bias of a local historian, Nash concentrated on
birth records, adding other entries according to whim to provide the flavor
of the diary without its structure. Systematic interpretation of the printed
version is impossible.
For me, the Ballard diary has both immediate and long-range interest.
A single source study makes an attractive and easily definable summer
project, and preliminary investigation has convinced me there is ample
material for a journal article testing and extending certain key themes
in my first book, a study of women's roles in northern New England before
1750. Since I am about to begin a second book, tentatively entitled Houses
and Their Keepers: The Origins of Democratic Domesticity, the diary
has even greater appeal. I intend to use it as a kind of bridge between
my old material and my new.
Recent books by Mary Beth Norton, Linda Kerber, and Carl Degler have pointed
to the late eighteenth century as a crucial period in the history of American
women. Degler argues that what we today call the modern American family,
with its clear separation of gender roles, emerged first in the years
between the American revolution and about 1830. Though Norton and Kerber
would place greater emphasis upon the revolution itself, they would not
disagree with his essential point. In these years, so all three historians
argue, mothering and housekeeping were highlighted and celebrated as never
before. Whether or not women's actual status improved remains arguable,
but no one seems to doubt that their ceremonial status improved. These
books, all published in 1980, followed other influential works which gave
prime importance to the years before 1830. Nancy Cott and Ann Douglas
have both argued, though in very different ways, that American domesticity
was redefined in the early years of the republic.
All these books, despite impressive research in later periods, demonstrate
a poor understanding of the pre-revolutionary period, which appears as
a static backdrop to later changes. My own research has suggested that
many key features of these changes, including the magnification of motherhood
and the celebration of domesticity were clearly visible in northern New
England before 1750. As early as 1703, young women were embroidering cheerfully
naked Adams and Eves on their crewelwork samplers, testifying not so much
to the survival of Puritan Biblicism as to the ascendancy of a genteel
"huswifery" which, in its self-conscious materialism, proclaimed
an earthly Eden. In the same period, Cotton Mather, the supposedly dour
persecutor of witches, began to wonder about the existence of a Heavenly
The problem of domesticity cannot be solved on the ideal level, however.
Only close attention to the actual patterns of women's lives can document
cultural change with real precision. As is so frequently the case, a cluster
of related studies has increased rather than diminished the excitement
of a subject. My first book was a "study in role definition,"
a delineation of seven discrete though interrelated roles expected of
the good wife in traditional society. Since I believe I broke new ground
in this study, especially in defining the texture of ordinary life, I
am anxious to extend my work into the early nineteenth century.
Houses and Their Keepers will bring together insights from written
sources, like diaries and probate inventories, with evidence from the
study of early American material culture. Much women's history in America
has been strangely disembodied, describing women's lives and words with
little reference to the physical settings which gave them reality. In
the past ten years, specialized studies have greatly expanded the record
of material life in America, yet much of this work remains inaccessible
to the general public and in some cases even to scholars working in different
but related disciplines. Historical archeologists, for example, have been
extremely sIow to publish their results. Yet such materials can be very
illuminating in a study of ordinary life. Using archeological site reports,
architectural studies, probate inventories, diaries, account books, letters,
store and shop accounts, selectmen's indentures, records of female charitable
societies, and household objects, I propose to answer three broad questions:
1. Specifically, how do housekeeping tasks change as houses and furnishings
change? Most studies of early American material culture focus upon
style. The underlying questions are almost always related to the diffusion
of new forms, whether English or local. Few scholars have asked how new
forms actually affect daily life. To take a homely but by no means insignificant
example, James Deetz has noted the dramatic expansion of English ceramics
in late eighteenth century trash pits. He sees this as a triumph of "Georgian"
over "medieval" values, of a symmetrical relation of object
to user uncharacteristic of traditional culture. Yet the transition from
common trenchers to individualized cups, plates, and saucers also of necessity
meant a transformation in daily work. Not only were there more objects
to wash, but these objects were more fragile than those commonly used
in the past. The examples could be multiplied indefinitely. It is almost
impossible to change the material arrangements of a dwelling without affecting
patterns of work within it, as any owner of a new wood stove can testify.
2. How do relationships between the utilitarian and the ceremonial
aspects of houses and furnishing change over time? Domesticity is
in one sense simply a heightening of the non-utilitarian meaning of the
home. This can be reflected in changing uses of space, in the separation
of public from private areas, in an increase in "socio-technic"
household objects such as tea pots and card tables, in variations in exterior
and interior woodwork, in paintings and embroideries, and in literature.
Since style and to a certain extent lifestyle were transmitted from genteel
to ordinary households, this relationship is a complicated one, tightly
bound up in the early republic with the competing needs to reflect republicanism
and to prove civility. To reject genteel pretensions and at the same time
to imitate genteel forms required a new perception of self and class.
3. How do changes in housework reflect and affect changing relationships
between household members? Although the core of women's work has always
been housework, in most premodern societies women have also had the responsibility
to assist their husbands in the larger work of the family. Many historians
have seen domesticity as a reaction to industrialization, as many production
activities were shifted from the household setting. If domesticity in
the form of increased attention to the house and family preceded industrialization,
as recent work has suggested, then women may have assumed new burdens
before they were fully relieved of others. Did changing patterns of male
work, including the ownership of slaves, free women to spend more time
on housework? Did women find new ways to recruit and utilize servants?
Did a higher age at marriage provide a greater pool of female labor? Women's
work can never be seen in isolation from male work or from patterns of
childrearing and education. Nor can housekeeping in middle and upper class
families be removed from the study of the poor.
This very big project will obviously proceed in small stages. I have already
begun a survey of archeological resources, and I have compiled a bibliography
of available diaries, the most promising of which is that of Martha Moore
Ballard. Research support for the months of July and August will allow
me to explore this promising source. I plan about 15-20 days of archival
research, most of it to be spent with the diary at the Maine State Library
in Augusta, though I will probably also need a day with the vital records
at the Maine State Archives and another exploring the geography of Mrs.
Ballard's world. Some background research can be done in Durham, using
Nash's history as well as other published works in Maine history.
I will begin the diary research with a one or two day visit to Augusta
in early July, using the notes from this visit to develop standardized
data sheets to use on later visits. I will begin with four questions:
1. Aside from obvious seasonal variations, what housekeeping routines
appear in the diary? Is there any evidence of a rationalized approach
to housework (wash an Monday, iron on Tuesday, etc.)? 2. What is the frequency
and distribution of specific household tasks? How does this change over
time? 3. Who are Mrs. Ballard's helpers? Where do they come from? How
are they recruited? How long do they stay?4. Aside from the obvious example
of midwifery, how does Mrs. Ballard's work involve her in the lives of
her neighbors? Although I will need to use quantitative methods in dealing
with some of these issues, I will be looking for evidence of attitudes
and feelings as well.
The last two weeks of August will be spent interpreting the evidence and
beginning a draft of a journal article which I will complete during fall
I cannot claim earthshattering significance for an unknown diary by an
unknown woman in a small American village. I am convinced, however, that
the questions I bring to this project are not only of value to historians
but to a wider public as well. I was surprised to find in a copy of Society
for Jan./Feb. 1981, articles by three social scientists which depended
in some way upon an interpretation of domesticity. Jessie Bernard began
a discussion of contemporary role definition by proclaiming, like many
others before her, that gender specialization originated in the 1830s.
Michael Novak, writing in celebration of "bourgeois values,"
correctly noted a dramatic transformation in material life in the eighteenth
century, but his lyrical conclusions about the relationship between freedom
and well baked bread would have been more persuasive had he really known
something about breadbaking, or any other aspect of domestic work, in
the American past. Yehudi Cohen, erected an anthropological explanation
for changing family roles, yet he too was hard put to document his argument
with specific historical data, being able to talk with far more precision
about various tribes of hunters and gatherers than about the American
households he proposed to explain.
That the historical content in all three of these articles is highly schematic
testifies as much to the rigidity of disciplinary boundaries as to the
thinness of available documentation. Historians need to learn more about
ordinary life and we need to find ways to share what we already know.
I believe that my proposed book will do both. Support for a summer study
of the Ballard diary will help make it possible.
Jan Cohn, The Palace of the Poorhouse: The American House as a Cultural
Symbol, (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1979).
Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere in New England,
1780-1835," (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977).
James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American
Life, (Garden City. NY: Doubleday, 1977).
Carl Degler, At Odds: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution
to the Present, (New York. Oxford U. Press, 1980).
Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1978)
David P. Handlin, The American Home, Architecture and Society,
1815-1915, (Boston: Little-Brown, 1979).
Linda K. Kerber, Daughters of Columbia: Women, Intellect, and Ideology
in Revolutionary America, (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press,
Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience
of American Women, 1750- 1800, (Boston: Little-Brown, 1980).