Economic Circumstances

Elizabeth’s economic circumstances  would have been considered comfortable by the standards of the day. Although her  husband does not appear to have attained the same level of financial success as her father, he likely provided a decent source of income for the family through his various endeavors.

In addition to managing the farmlands and holding town offices, William White worked as a blacksmith, an important and valued trade in early America that would have demanded mastery in creating (and repairing) almost any item made of metal: horseshoes, door hinges, tools, candlesticks, pots and pans. (William almost certainly would have had the assistance of an employee, apprentice, servant, or slave to maintain the fire, operate the bellows, and assist in other operations, and when his sons were old enough, they would have been expected to help him (Watson 3, 25).

In 1714, perhaps with his growing family in mind, William decided to supplement his income by obtaining a license to serve alcohol. His and Elizabeth’s home did not necessarily operate as a full-fledged ordinary, hosting overnight guests, but the couple may have served refreshments to passing travelers (their house being located on a “main highway“ and near Hix’s Ferry) as well as to clients of William’s blacksmith shop.6 The responsibility of having to provide food and drink to customers certainly would have translated into extra work for Elizabeth, but it also would have offered her an opportunity to hear the latest news and gossip and to connect with the wider world.

It is important to keep in mind that Elizabeth may also have contributed to the family income by helping William keep the books for the tavern and/or the blacksmith business—her  lack  of  writing  ability  does  not  preclude  numeracy  skills—or,  like  many women of the time, by selling items she produced at home, like soap, candles, or clothing. The New  England  economy of the  time  was characterized  by  family production  in which men’s  and women’s  labors were interdependent (Ulrich, Midwife, 75, 80).

In general, colonial women held a much more conspicuous place in community life than is often thought. During Elizabeth’s lifetime, the gender-linked notion that equated men with public life and women with private life hadn’t yet come into full sway. (The concept of privacy, in fact, didn’t even begin to develop until well into the eighteenth century, a distinction that is reflected in the large, communal spaces of the First Period-era architecture of the Handy House.) This idea of “separate spheres” would eventually dictate that a woman’s place was in the home, but in the seventeenth and much of the eighteenth centuries men’s and women’s lives were closely intertwined. While women of the time were excluded from official public life, they held an influential role in what  historian Mary Beth Norton has described as the “informal public” by regulating their community’s social mores and even testifying in court. In other words, women of the  time were a visible and vital presence in their communities, and while Elizabeth’s history is inextricably linked to that of the Handy House, it is not solely defined by it.