Abigail Adams and Her Times

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter VII - In Happy Braintree

WHAT was home life like, when Johnny and Abby Adams were little? It would be pleasant to see something of it in detail; if Mrs. Adams had only kept a diary! As it is, it is mostly by side-lights that we can get a glimpse of that Braintree home, so happy in itself, so shadowed, in the days of which I write, by the tremendous cloud of public events. We know that Mrs. Adams spent some part of each day in writing letters; but we have to stop and think about the other things she did, some of them were so different from the things women do today. Take the spinning and weaving! A spinning wheel, for us, is a pretty, graceful article of furniture, very useful for tableaux vivants and the like; in the Adams household it was as constantly and inevitably used as our own sewing-machine. So was the loom, which is banished altogether from New England homes, though in some parts of the South it is still in use. Mrs. Adams and her maids, Susie and Patty (poor Patty, who died that summer of 1775!), not only made, but spun and wove, every article of clothing, every sheet, blanket, table-cloth, that the house afforded. The wool-wheel is a large clumsy affair, very different from the elegant little flax-wheel. You may still find it in some New England households. Some years ago, driving along a remote road, I came to a little brown house, so old and moss-covered that it seemed almost a part of the wood that surrounded it. I knocked, and hearing a cheery "Come in!" entered to find a neat kitchen, half filled by an enormous wheel, in front of which a little brownie of a woman was stepping back and forth, diligently spinning yarn. It was a pretty sight.

Thinking of this, and trying, as I am constantly doing, to link the new time to the old, I find myself calling up another picture, a scene on Boston Common in the year 1749, when a society, formed for promoting industry and frugality, publicly celebrated its fourth anniversary. "In the afternoon about three hundred young female spinsters, decently dressed, appeared on the Common at their spinning wheels. The wheels were placed regularly in rows, and a female was seated at each wheel. The weavers also appeared, cleanly dressed, in garments of their own weaving. One of them working at a loom on a stage was carried on men's shoulders, attended with music. An immense number of spectators were present."

I wonder if Mrs. Adams and her maidens made any "Bounty Coats." When Washington gathered his army in May, 1775, there were no overcoats for the men. The Provincial Congress "made a demand on the people for thirteen thousand warm coats to be ready for the soldiers by cold weather." There were no factories then, remember: no steam-power, no contractors, no anything—except the women and their wheels. All over the country, the big wool-wheels began to fly, the shuttles sped back and forth through the sounding looms. Every town, every village, every lonely farmhouse, would do its part; long before the appointed time, the coats were ready. Inside each coat was sewed the name of town and maker. Every soldier, volunteering for eight months' service, was given one of these coats as a bounty. We are told that "so highly were these 'Bounty Coats' prized, that the heirs of soldiers who were killed at Bunker Hill before receiving their coats were given a sum of money instead. The list of names of soldiers who then enlisted is known to this day as the 'Coat Roll,' and the names of the women who made the coats might form another roll of honor."

I cannot be sure that one or more of these coats came from the lean-to farmhouse in Braintree, but I like to think so, and certainly nothing is more probable.

The women who refused to drink tea determined also to do without imported dress materials. From Massachusetts to South Carolina, the Daughters of Liberty agreed to wear only homespun garments. General Howe, finding "Linnen and Woollen Goods much wanted by the Rebels," carried away with him, when he evacuated Boston, all of such things as he could lay hands on. He reckoned without the spinners! In town and village, the Daughters flocked together, bringing their flax-wheels with them, sometimes to the number of sixty or seventy. In Rowley, Massachusetts, "A number of thirty-three respectable ladies of the town met at sunrise with their wheels to spend the day at the house of the Rev'd Jedidiah Jewell, in the laudable design of a spinning match. At an hour before sunset, the ladies there appearing neatly dressed, principally in homespun, a polite and generous repast of American production was set for their entertainment. After which being present many spectators of both sexes, Mr. Jewell delivered a profitable discourse from Romans xii. 2: 'Not slothful in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.'"[19]

There was always a text and a sermon for the spinners; a favorite text was from the Book of Exodus: "And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands." The women of Northboro, forty-four of them, spun two thousand, two hundred, twenty-three knots of linen and tow, and wove one linen sheet and two towels, all in one day!

This is amazing; but another record outdoes it: an extract from the diary of a young Connecticut girl, Abigail Foote, in this very year, 1775:

"Fix'd gown for Prude,—Mend Mother's Riding-hood,—spun short thread,—Fix'd two gowns for Walsh's girls,—Carded tow,—Spun linen,—Worked on Cheese-basket,—Hatchel'd flax with Hannah, we did 51 lbs. apiece,—Pleated and ironed,—Read a Sermon of Doddridge's,—Spooled a piece,—Milked the cows,—Spun linen, did 50 knots,—Made a Broom of Guinea wheat straw,—Spun thread to whiten,—Set a Red dye,—Had two scholars from Mrs. Taylors,—I carded two pounds of whole wool and felt Nationly,—Spun harness twine,—Scoured the pewter."

One feels confident that Abby Adams had no such record as this to show. She was an industrious and capable girl, but Mother Abigail would see to it that her day was not all spent in household work. There were lessons to learn and recite; the daughter of John Adams must have a cultivated mind, as well as skilful fingers. John went to Mr. Thatcher's school, but for "Nabby" and the two younger boys, "Mother" was the sole instructress. Both parents were full of anxious care and thought for the children's well-being. There is a beautiful letter from Mr. Adams, written in April, 1776, in which, after describing his multifarious labors, he thus pours out his mind.

"What will come of this labor, time will discover. I shall get nothing by it, I believe, because I never get anything by anything that I do. I am sure the public or posterity ought to get something. I believe my children will think I might as well have thought and labored a little, night and day, for their benefit. But I will not bear the reproaches of my children. I will tell them that I studied and labored to procure a free constitution of government for them to solace themselves under, and if they do not prefer this to ample fortune, to ease and elegance, they are not my children, and I care not what becomes of them. They shall live upon thin diet, wear mean clothes, and work hard with cheerful hearts and free spirits, or they may be the children of the earth, or of no one, for me.

"John has genius, and so has Charles. Take care that they don't go astray. Cultivate their minds, inspire their little hearts, raise their wishes. Fix their attention upon great and glorious objects. Root out every little thing. Weed out every meanness. Make them great and manly. Teach them to scorn injustice, ingratitude, cowardice, and falsehood. Let them revere nothing but religion, morality, and liberty.

"Abby and Tommy are not forgotten by me, although I did not mention them before. The first, by reason of her sex, requires a different education from the two I have mentioned. Of this, you are the only judge. I want to send each of my little pretty flock some present or other. I have walked over this city twenty times, and gaped at every shop, like a countryman, to find something, but could not. Ask everyone of them what they would choose to have, and write it to me in your next letter. From this I shall judge of their taste and fancy and discretion."

Husband and wife are full of forebodings, yet have always a heartening word for each other.

"I have some thought," writes Mr. Adams, "of petitioning the General Court for leave to bring my family here. I am a lonely, forlorn creature here. . . . It is a cruel reflection, which very often comes across me, that I should be separated so far from those babes whose education and welfare lie so near my heart. But greater misfortunes than these must not divert us from superior duties.

"Your sentiments of the duties we owe to our country are such as become the best of women and the best of men. Among all the disappointments and perplexities which have fallen to my share in life, nothing has contributed so much to support my mind as the choice blessing of a wife whose capacity enabled her to comprehend, and whose pure virtue obliged her to approve, the views of her husband. This has been the cheering consolation of my heart in my most solitary, gloomy, and disconsolate hours. . . . I want to take a walk with you in the garden, to go over to the common, the plain, the meadow. I want to take Charles in one hand and Tom in the other, and walk with you, Abby on your right hand and John upon my left, to view the corn fields, the orchards, etc. . . ."

Shortly after this, on June 3d, Abigail writes:

"I wish to hear from you every opportunity, though you say no more than that you are well. I feel concerned lest your clothes should go to rags, having nobody to take any care of you in your long absence; and then, you have not with you a proper change for the seasons. However, you must do the best you can. I have a suit of homespun for you whenever you return. I cannot avoid sometimes repining that the gifts of fortune were not bestowed upon us, that I might have enjoyed the happiness of spending my days with my partner, but as it is, I think it my duty to attend with frugality and economy to our own private affairs; and if I cannot add to our little substance, yet see to it that it is not diminished. I should enjoy but little comfort in a state of idleness and uselessness. Here I can serve my partner, my family, and myself, and enjoy the satisfaction of your serving your country. . . .

"Everything bears a very great price. The merchant complains of the farmer and the farmer of the merchant,—both are extravagant. Living is double what it was one year ago.

"I find you have licensed tea, but I am determined not to be a purchaser unless I can have it at Congress price, and in that article the vendors pay no regard to Congress, asking ten, eight, and the lowest is seven and sixpence per pound. I should like a little green, but they say there is none to be had here. I only wish it for a medicine, as a relief to a nervous pain in my head to which I am sometimes subject. Were it as plenty as ever, I would not practice the use of it."

Beside spinning, weaving and making all the clothing, Mrs. Adams and her maids must make all the soap for the family; this was a regular part of the housewife's duty, and a disagreeable part it was.

"You inquire of me," she writes, "whether I am making saltpetre. I have not yet attempted it, but after soap-making believe I shall make the experiment. I find as much as I can do to manufacture clothing for my family, which would else be naked."

Many women were making saltpetre for the gunpowder; let us hope they had fewer other necessary occupations than Mrs. Adams.

Be sure that with all the plainer parts of housewifery, Abby was also instructed in its graces. We can picture her sitting by her mother's side (Brother Johnny, perhaps, reading aloud the while from "Rollin's Ancient History," a work which he found entrancing) working at her sampler, or knitting a purse for Papa, far away, or mittens for her brothers. All the mittens and stockings, of course, were made at home as well as the clothes. Mitten knitting could be a fine art in those days. We read that one "young New Hampshire girl, using fine flaxen yarn, knit the whole alphabet and a verse of poetry into a pair of mittens!" Then there is the wonderful story of Nancy Peabody. How her brother, coming in from work at night, announced that he had lost his mittens. How Nancy ran to the garret for wool, carded and spun a big hank of yarn that night, soaked and scoured it next morning, and as soon as it was dry, sat down to knit. "In twenty-four hours from the time the brother announced his loss he had a fine new pair of double mittens." "I tell the tale as I've heard told."

Did Abby learn netting with all the rest? Doubtless she did. Lady Washington set the fashion, and netted so well and so industriously that all her family were proud of trimming their dresses with her work. Then there was quilting, a fine art indeed in those days, and the exquisite embroidery which we find in our grandmothers' cupboards, and over which we sigh partly in admiration, partly in compassion for the eyes which were so cruelly tried; and a dozen other niceties and exquisitenesses of needlework. To quote the advertisement of Mrs. Sarah Wilson, who kept a boarding-school for girls in Philadelphia:

"Young ladies may be educated in a genteel manner, and pains taken to teach them in regard to their behaviour, on reasonable terms. They may be taught all sorts fine needlework, viz., working on catgut or flowering muslin, sattin stitch, quince stitch, tent stitch, cross-stitch, open work, tambour, embroidering curtains or chairs, writing and cyphering. Likewise waxwork in all its several branches, never as yet particularly taught here; also how to take profiles in wax, to make wax flowers and fruits and pinbaskets."

Boston would not be behind Philadelphia in matters of high fashion.

In the Boston News-Letter, in August, 1716, we read:

"This is to give notice that at the House of Mr. George Brownell, late Schoolmaster in Hanover Street, Boston, are all sorts of Millinery Works done; making up Dresses and flowering of Muslin, making of furbelow'd Scarffs, and Quilting and cutting of Gentlewomen's Hair in the newest Fashion;[136] and also young Gentlewomen and children taught all sorts of fine works, as Feather-work, Filigree and Painting on Glass, Embroidering a new way, Turkey-work for Handkerchiefs two ways, fine new Fashion purses, flourishing and plain Work, and Dancing cheaper than was ever taught in Boston. Brocaded work for Handkerchiefs and short Aprons upon Muslin; artificial Flowers work'd with a needle."

And what did Abby Adams wear, say in 1776, when she was ten years old? Why, she wore a large hoop, and, I fear, very uncomfortable corsets, with a stiff board down the front; high-heeled shoes, and mitts reaching to her elbows, and a ruffled or embroidered apron. Of all this we may be tolerably sure, as it was the costume of the time. We may hope, however, Mrs. Adams being the sensible woman she was, that Abby did not suffer like Dolly Payne (afterward Dolly Madison), who went to school wearing "a white linen mask to keep every ray of sunshine from the complexion, a sunbonnet sewed on her head every morning by her careful mother, and long gloves covering the hands and arms."

When Nelly Custis was four years old, her step-father, General Washington, ordered an outfit for her from England, "pack-thread stays, stiff coats of silk, masks, caps, bonnets, bibs, ruffles, necklaces, fans, silk and calamanco shoes, and leather pumps. There were also eight pairs of kid mitts and four pairs of gloves." Poor Nelly!

But to return to Abby Adams. One article of her winter costume has a personal interest for me, because it survived to my own time, and I suffered under, or rather in it, in my childhood. The pumpkin hood! It has genuine historical interest, for it dates back to the days of the unwarmed meeting-house, when a woman or a girl-child must wrap up her head, and smuggle in a hot brick or a hot stick for her feet, if she would keep alive through meeting. How ugly the thing was! Of clumsy oblong shape, coming well forward over the face; heavily quilted, an inch thick or so; knots of narrow ribbon or of worsted sticking up here and there; I detested it, thought it a hardship to be condemned to wear it, instead of being thankful for warm ears and a historic atmosphere. I think our pumpkin hoods were among the last to survive, and some of the other girls had already beauteous things called skating-caps, fitting the head closely, displaying pie-shaped sections of contrasting colors, gray and purple, blue and scarlet, knitted or crocheted, I forget which. Looking back to the early Sixties, the skating-cap still seems among the greatly desirable things of life.

Perhaps we have gone as far as we can in picturing little Abby Adams, who grew up an accomplished and charming young woman, and in due time married, by curious coincidence, a Mr. Smith, thus taking as a married woman her mother's maiden name. Let us return to the elder Abigail.

Left alone to manage all affairs, household and educational, it is not strange that her keen, alert mind sought wider fields for exercise than home life afforded. She thought for herself, and her thought took a direction which now seems prophetic. No doubt she was in merry mood when she wrote to John on March 31st, 1776, yet there is a ring of earnestness under the playfulness.

(Note that the Assembly of Virginia, roused by the burning of Norfolk, had just voted to propose to Congress "that the colonies be declared free and independent"; and afterward the British flag had been hauled down at Williamsburg and replaced by a banner with thirteen stripes.)

"I long to hear," writes Abigail to her dearest friend, "that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

"That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your sex; regard us then as beings placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness."

Mr. Adams replies, in high amusement:

"As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won't blot it out. Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight; I am sure every good politician would plot, as long as he would against despotism, empire, monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, or ochlocracy. A fine story, indeed! I begin to think the ministry as deep as they are wicked. After stirring up Tories, land-jobbers, trimmers, bigots, Canadians, Indians, negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholic, Scotch renegades, at last they have stimulated the——to demand new privileges and threaten to rebel."

Doubtless John thought this settled the question; but Abigail had the last word to say.

"I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives. But you must remember that arbitrary power is, like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and, without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet:—

Charm by accepting, by submitting sway,
Yet have our humor most when we obey."


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