Abstract: Cleaning Up or Scraping By? Women in the Early Atlantic Service Economy

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor


The eighteenth-century trading economy generated a broad base of customers for urban women in American ports, who increasingly sought employment as laundresses, drink-sellers, and boardinghouse keepers in the outsourced work of the Atlantic service economy. While their activities have often been interpreted as the "natural" extension of female unpaid labor, evidence from civil court records, newspaper advertisements, city directories, and business correspondence suggests instead that these women were entrepreneurs of a particular sort. Female entrepreneurs were more likely to change their businesses to respond to family demands and often drew skills from domestic life into the marketplace. When they expanded, it was often through intensifying existing customer relationships rather than cultivating new ones. These features of female entrepreneurship created the shape of the Atlantic service economy. Forging ties across many of the seeming divides of the eighteenth-century economy, women linked home and market, paid and unpaid labor, and production and consumption. Using the lens of entrepreneurship helps us to see these connections as deliberate constructions rather than the "natural" default of female employment. Rather than see them as captives of their own flexibility, we can observe how entrepreneurial women drew upon both flexibility and specialization to make "women's work" pay in the marketplace.