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Ruth’s seat is for a side chair. But there’s value in them thar seats. MMA 50.228.3

Sarah Brown had a sister, Ruth Smith. Ruth was good with a needle, and there is an extant chair seat made by Ruth. I’d always thought, in a fuzzy, not-thinking-too-hard kind of way, that Ruth had made the chair seat for her sister and brother-in-law because they were family, and how else would a lady spend her time but with her needle?

My thinking sharpened radically late last week when a colleague said, “Didn’t Ruth make shirts for John and James [Brown]?”

Yes, she did. In Ruth Smith’s 1785 daybook there are two entries, though the pages are lined for more.

The first records 5 shirts made for John Brown February; against this, in March, Ruth received a pair of shoes, and a pound of Hyson tea.

In April, she made 4 shirts for John Brown’s son, James; in May, she received 9 yards of lutestring from James.

The values didn’t seem to quite line up, so I’ll have to pull the day book again, but what seemed most important was Ruth’s trading shirts for shoes, silk, and tea. In “Dress of the People,” John Styles writes about servants drawing goods from merchants on their masters’ credit; did this transactional relationship allow Ruth wider access to the world of goods than her means might otherwise allow?

Shirt, ca. 1780. MMA 2009.300.62

And if Ruth makes shirts for John and James, are there other, less-well-off relations doing other work for the Browns? There are records of servants or slaves of African descent working in the house on Power Street, but we can only find evidence of three, one dedicated to the horses. That’s not nearly enough people to run a house with a dozen fireplaces and a kitchen, and six or seven occupants. It seems unfathomable that the Browns tended their fireplaces, hauled their water and cooked all their food themselves. John Brown writes to a daughter of “your Marr baking pies,” but it seems radically unlikely that Mrs John Brown, wife of the wealthiest man in Providence, would handle the heavy round of chores required to keep a household and its visitors fed, clothed, cleaned, and entertained.

Direct it, yes. Do it all herself, no.

Could we be missing the maids? Could we be overlooking evidence of work being done by extended family members “visiting” or “come to stay?” Could the poor and widowed and never married women of the Brown and Smith families be the people we should be looking for along with the servants or slaves of African descent? (By 1790 and later, it is not clear if the Browns’ slaves are working in the Power Street house, or if they are at the farm at Spring Green or Bristol, Rhode Island. Many records remain in private hands and others remain badly processed and arranged. I have referred herein to collections publicly held and well-processed.)

What this means, as always, is more research and more looking. It also means that the relationships between Mrs Brown and her ‘maids’ might be more complicated and more interesting. She knows these women, and their families, and how they fit into her world and her family. Could one be a distant cousin, a daughter of a mother no longer living, whose father is abroad, perhaps on a boat owned by John Brown or his companies? Might a young, unmarried woman in her twenties exchange work for room and board and credit with Brown & Francis? Perhaps.

Mourning Embroidery by Ann Barton, 1800. RIHS 1840.1.14

Mourning Embroidery by Ann Barton, 1800. RIHS 1840.1.14

That takes care of one or two of us–I’m looking for a widowed niece, with a son gone to  sea on a Brown ship to India. Mr S will have to tell me which battle he wants to widow me in, as he has rejected “lost at sea” and “frozen to death on the Oswego expedition” as possibilities. Actually, at my advanced age, I might have been widowed twice already. You’d think I would have done better with it.