These Ladies Weren’t Flouncy: Nantucket’s Petticoat Row
In the nineteenth century, much of Centre Street between Main and Broad Streets became known as Petticoat Row because so many of the shops were run by women. Women ran the businesses not only to support their families while their husbands were away, but to be prepared for an unsuccessful voyage or the not infrequent case of husbands being lost at sea. Within the heavily Quaker-influenced society, women were encouraged to work for a wage, and working women were highly esteemed within our small island community. They may have been harassed by a few –usually men – but the community relied on their shops and the work they did in the small manufactories that were developed during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were not “feminists,” although they were a part of and also influenced future women’s rights activists, many of those whom, like Nantucket-born Lucretia Coffin Mott, grew up with their mothers running such shops. And like the equality found at Quaker meeting, this public role gave women a bit of leverage and social prestige.
Shops run by women were not only on Centre Street however. They could be found throughout town, many run from the front parlors of homes and you just need to think of that as you walk through Town. Neighborhoods were busier, nosier, like tiny little towns themselves with all sorts of activity, including these at home shops. The women who ran the shops – from storefront or homefront – hired other women to be the sales clerks, apprentices, and counter help. From dry goods, to confectioneries, to variety stores and grocers – women, rich and poor, managed much of the economy on the island and became known around the world for their independence and good business sense and the fact that they kept the island functioning while most of the men were away at sea. Although women elsewhere in America did work and become involved in their communities, Nantucket women were making decisions and managing finances that not only affected their families directly; they were making decisions that had a direct impact on the island’s economy and its place in the world.
Further strengthening this independence was something called the Mariner’s Power of Attorney. Nantucket women were the first women in the country to have this and it was the precursor to our power of attorney today. This legal document gave the wives, sisters, mothers, daughters, and even female friends of whalemen, legal rights that were typically denied to women – such as the right to sell property. It was given to them for the duration of their husbands’ voyages. Between 1774 and 1847, 182 women on Nantucket enjoyed the right of the Mariner’s Power of Attorney.
The Nation of Nantucket
The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847. It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820. Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea. I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels. I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world. My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well. Stay tuned and to read my blog for the Maria Mitchell Association go to “Maria Mitchell’s Attic” at: http://www.mariamitchell.org/category/maria-mitchells-attic
Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999. She holds a Master’s in History. Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture. The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents. She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, their son, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.