GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Rhodes
Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A LIKELY NEGRO GIRL … that understands … Spinning.”
During the era of the American Revolution, Matthew Allen of Barrington, Rhode Island, placed an advertisement offering “A LIKELY NEGRO GIRL” for sale. Allen stated that the enslaved young woman “understands all Kinds of Houshold Work.” In particular, she was familiar with spinning. That young woman spun wool on a spinning wheel, perhaps contributing to the revolutionary cause even as she remained enslaved. In The Age of Homespun, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich argues that women “played a critical role” during the “decades of resistance leading up to the War of Independence.” When “Americans throughout the colonies began boycotting the importation of British goods in protest of increased taxation on everyday items,” women participated in spinning bees. Ulrich declares, “One writer described the Daughters of Liberty at Newport, Rhode Island, ‘laudably employed in playing on a musical Instrument called a Spinning Wheel, the Melody of whose Music, and the beauty of the Prospect, transcending for Delight, all the Entertainment of my Life.’” What did the sound of the spinning wheel mean to the enslaved woman in this advertisement? She may not have experienced the same enthusiasm.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Ulrich examines accounts of spinning bees in New England. Reports about those public demonstrations staged by women received positive coverage in the early American press, celebrating women who devised an appropriately feminine means of making political statements in the wake of the abuses perpetrated by Parliament. According to Ulrich, “Only six newspaper stories explicitly described the spinners as ‘Daughters of Liberty.’” Others made reference to “young women,” “the fair sex,” “Daughters of Industry,” and “noble-hearted Nymphs.” Some writers were even more verbose. One presented the spinners in Taunton, Massachusetts, as “young Blooming Virgins … with all their Native Beauties of Sixteen.” Another lauded the spinners who gathered at Daniel Weeden’s house in Jamestown, Rhode Island, asserting that they were “of good Fashion and unexceptionable Reputation.”
The enslaved woman advertised in the Providence Gazette possessed the same skills as the women who participated in the spinning bees, yet, as Samantha notes, spinning likely had a very different meaning for her. To a young enslaved woman marketed as someone who “understands … spinning,” the noises made by spinning wheels did not resonate with the ideals of freedom and resistance enunciated by white women who attended spinning bees, white observers who witnessed or read about their efforts, and white writers who memorialized their activities. This form of domestic labor became a form of political protest for some women in the colonies, but not for every woman. In private spaces, the enslaved woman in this advertisement may have labored alongside other women who became visible symbols of the American cause when they participated in spinning bees observed by the public. Her efforts at the wheel may have been part of a chain of production that ultimately resulted in homespun cloth that replaced imported textiles when nonimportation agreements were in effect. Yet spinning did not hold the same promises of freedom for that “LIKELY NEGRO GIRL” offered for sale in the Providence Gazette that it did for the young women acclaimed in so many accounts that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper.