Better lives for women

I tend to think of the 1700s as static in terms of women’s lives but of course it wasn’t. Although Colonial women spent significant time spinning, weaving (if they had a loom) and making candles, as the century wore on households transitioned from frontier living where everything had to be made in-house to a time where necessities could be purchased. Of course the coastal cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston enjoyed a higher standard of living even before the Revolution. Clothing or fabric, furniture and other luxuries were imported from England and the daughters of affluent households, well staffed with servants and/or slaves, had no need to use the wheel. They did ‘fancy’ work: embroidery of other decorative needlework.

But I digress.

By the late 1700s even rural communities, even in Maine, had access to items which could be purchased – such as dress goods – that would make a woman’s life easier. (Salem with its fast merchant ships and ties to the Orient, imported cloth of all kinds from cotton muslin to silk, cashmere shawls from India and more. Some of these goods made it away from the coasts. It is no surprise to learn that Salem at this time was the wealthiest city in the United States.) Labor could be hired to help in the fields and in the house. Will Rees, traveling weaver, was not the only (male) weaver who went from house to house plying his trade. (Women weavers were bound to their homes.) Spinners could also be hired, Usually widows or unmarried daughters in a large family, these women would spin for an agreed upon price.

But what about the frontier women. The frontier continued to push west and, by the late 1790’s, was pushing past Pittsburgh. Contemporary observers of Pittsburgh were vastly critical of the dirty streets, through which hogs ran unheeded. Most of the houses were wood or frame, but brick was beginning to take over. Glass for windows was imported at large expense. For women, moving to town no matter how dirty, made their lives less arduous. Tasks could be given over to the candlemakers, the washerwomen, dressmakers and shoemakers. Galatin (an important figure during the Whiskey Rebellion) was a weaver. By 1807 there were six professional bakers. In fact, by the 1800’s, the wealthy began building mansions outside of town and Pittsbugh began offering social and cultural opportunities.

The frontier had moved west to Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois.


Goodreads giveaway

The give away of my second book, Death of a Dyer, will end this Saturday. So far I have almost 400 people signed up. If you want a free copy, put your name in before the give away ends.

Goodreads Giveaway ends

I am thrilled to announced that 880 people put their names in for “Death in Salem”. That is just about half the number in two weeks than “A Simple Murder” did in four. Thanks everyone. Good luck!

Witches and witch hunts after Salem

Although the witch craze in Salem ended, with many consequences as I have mentioned in an earlier post, the belief in witches did not end. With an increasing interest and belief in science, a belief in witches faded but did not disappear, either in Europe or in the Colonies – new United States. Legally, a witch trial and a judicial solution to perceived witch craft became unlikely (and I imagine that the uncritical acceptance of spectral evidence by Samuel Parris in Salem had a lot to do with increasing skepticism) hanging by lynch mobs could still happen.

In Europe women were still attacked and in some cases executed for witchcraft. In Denmanrk (1800), in Poland in 1836 and even in Britain in 1863. Violence continued in France through the 1830’s. And in the United States, as previously mentioned, Ann Lee of the Shakers was arrested and charged for blasphemy in 1783. But she was released.

In the 1830s a prosecution was begun against a man (yes) in Tennessee. Even as recently as 1997 two Russian farmers killed a woman and injured members of her family for the use of folk magic against them.

Why am I blogging about witchcraft? Well, one of the comments about one of my earlier posts talked about the influence of one person in swaying a community to hunting a witch. No matter how you look at it, most of the motivations behind witch hunts show the worst of human nature. Readings I’ve done point to class warfare and gender conflict. And while it is true that in some European countries men have been accused, in most of Europe and the United States the ones hunted have been women. There are a variety of opinions: control of a woman’s sexuality for one. The control of women’s reproductive life (and the eradication of midwives) for another. Considering what is still happening here I believe it. But some of the other motivations are equally as unflattering: greed, malice, revenge.

With all of this bouncing around in my head, I’ve decided that my next Will Rees (after Death in Salem) will look at some of these themes. You heard it here first.


My new Will Rees mystery will be coming out next spring. This time, he travels to Salem, Mass and, of course, is embroiled in a mystery.

I went to Salem to research the area.

I mixed real people and characters of my own invention but tried to keep the facts of the sailing industry accurate.

This is a photo of the custom house, but a few years later. During the 17902, the location switched among several buildings.

custom house

This is the India store. I based the store run by my widow on this store.

india store


and this is a museum representation of a counting house. Again, I based my description on this.

counting house

I’m sure I will get questions on the tunnels underneath Salem. Although I read about them, I did not see any. I guess it’s time for another road trip!

The jack loom

The jack loom is a horizontal loom; i.e. the warp runs horizontally and most of the size is front to back, not up and down. The weaver can sit on a bench. With the vertical looms, like those still used in Scandinavia and previously in Greece, the warp threads hang down and the weaver must stand on a stool or the floor itself must be lowered to provide enough room.

folded loom

A loom this size could easily be put into the back of a wagon and transported from place to place, as I have my main character/detective doing in my historical mysteries. This is a back view, by the way. The white canvas is for the back apron. I prefer to have my finished cloth roll up on the back beam so i tie on the warp threads to the back and then thread them through the heddles and the reed.

Heddles; what are they? I’ve mentioned them several times and then someone emailed me and said I don’t know what heddles are. Well, mine are long metal wires with an eye exactly like a needle. Mine are made of metal, but the looms I saw in Greece had thread heddles. I think I would find weaving with those confusing.

heddles one heddles two

In the first photo, it is possible to see three of the four sheds. Each one has its own set of heddles. Threaded and tied up to the treadles, these sheds make it possible to weave many patterns.

And finally, the reed. The dents, or spaces, determine the fineness of the fiber and is another mechanism for keeping each thread smooth and untangled. I hope you can see the spaces here. Weaving with silk, for example, requires a reed with many many slots,








Shakers and the Simple Life

The Shakers formed in the middle of the 1700’s and moved to the United States in 1774. So, at the time of  “The Simple Murder” in 1795 they were already established and rapidly growing. During the mid- nineteenth century the Shakers numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 members living in 19 communities that stretched from Maine to Kentucky. Several of these remain as museums. The converted community in Hancock, Mass has  interpretive guides after the Williamsburg model: Today, there are still three living Shakers residing in the Sabbathday Lake community near Auburn, Maine.

The more formal name for the Shakers, which they gave themselves, was United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or the Believers for short, but they were called The Shaking Quakers for the dancing, singing and twirling in their services. They also called their Church the Millennium Church since they expected their Church to last a thousand years.

            From the very beginning women played a significant role in the formation and shape of the sect. Ann Lee, who joined in 1758, claimed revelations regarding the fall of Adam and Eve, and preached celibacy. She became a highly influential and revered leader, called Mother Ann by her followers.  Many of her admonitions became part of the Shaker canon.

               “Good spirits will not live where there is dirt.”

            “Do your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow.”