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Handwritten account book
Details from the account page of Jean Beats, from the 1765-1766 ledger of Glassford’s Alexandria store, 1766. John Glassford and Company Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Tobacco Lords and Virginia Women in the Records of John Glassford and Company

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When tobacco planters in colonial Maryland and Virginia wanted to sell their slave-grown crop and buy imported goods produced by Britain and its empire, they could go to one of the stores established along Chesapeake waterways by representatives of merchant firms based in Glasgow, Scotland. The Manuscript Division has the records of one of the largest of these Glasgow merchants, John Glassford and Company. The Glassford records tell the story of the Chesapeake tobacco trade in the 18th century. They also show how women participated in this trade.

The presence of tobacco merchants like John Glassford (1715-1783) in the Chesapeake colonies was made possible by Scotland’s union with England in 1707.[1] To squeeze maximum profit out of its colonies, England required that the colonists limit their trade to the mother country.[2] The 1707 union opened this lucrative trade to the Scots. Merchants in the Scottish port city of Glasgow were so successful in America that they came to be known as the “tobacco lords.”[3]

The records of Glassford and Company in the Manuscript Division consist of 228 volumes, including ledgers, letterbooks, invoices, shipping records, and more, all documenting the daily business of the company’s Chesapeake stores mainly from 1760 to 1820. Store ledgers containing accounts for each customer reveal details of the lives of Marylanders and Virginians who came in every day for their tea and sugar; pins, thread, and yards of fabric; books and magazines; pickles, cheese, teapots, nails, and hoes.

Married women appear repeatedly as customers in Glassford’s books. Their presence is unexpected, since in Anglo-American law a married woman’s civil identity was almost always subsumed beneath that of her husband, and she usually lost control of her property. (The same system determined that legal marriage, with all its benefits and drawbacks, was not available to enslaved women.) This concept was called coverture, and it meant that a married woman could neither buy nor sell on her own account.[4] If, for example, a married woman sold a house on her own behalf without the permission of her husband, the buyer would have reason to worry about the validity of their title. But for smaller transactions, both husbands and shopkeepers were willing to ignore the law, even allowing married women to establish their own accounts. While the law of coverture is recorded in law books, Glassford’s accounts for women show how it did, and sometimes did not, operate in daily life.

Here are just a few examples of women customers randomly chosen from the 1765-1766 ledger kept at Glassford’s store in Alexandra, Virginia.[5] The first two are Jean Beats and Mary Earp, married women with accounts independent of their husbands’ accounts on the same pages. Jean and Edward Beats separately bought yards of fabric, pins, needles, ribbons and sheeting, shoes and gloves, a grindstone, knives and forks, and a teapot. Edward bought a necklace (for his wife?), and Jean bought powder and shot. Mary and Joseph Earp bought fabric, thread, buttons, pins, a scarlet cloak, and two fur hats, with each spouse bringing home goods more or less equal in kind and quantity. The accounts the Glassford store kept for Jean Beats and Mary Earp show that even though husbands controlled family property, they sanctioned their wives’ spending, and the Glassford store recognized this common practice.

Handwritten account book
Details from the account page of Milche Pearson, from the 1765-1766 ledger of Glassford’s Alexandria store, 1766. John Glassford and Company Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The case of Milche Pearson is more fraught. Like Jean Beats and Mary Earp, Pearson had her own account at Glassford’s Alexandria store in 1766. But unlike them, she was separated from her husband. Her story can be followed in the papers of George Washington. In 1763, when Milche Pearson and her husband Simon had been living apart for about three years, she stymied Washington when he attempted to buy land from her husband. Even though married women could not control property during their marriages, the law protected their interest, known as their dower rights, in property that could save them from destitution as widows. A husband could not sell property without the consent of his wife, and her consent was acquired apart from him in a private interview overseen by the court. When Washington attempted to buy land from Simon, Milche refused to give her consent. Two years later she relented, and Washington got his land. While the law protected Milche Pearson’s right to the land she could inherit as a widow, it did not give her the right to spend her husband’s money while he was alive. And yet by 1766 she was doing exactly that, with or without her husband’s permission, as her account page in Glassford’s ledger shows.[6]

Handwritten account book
Details from the account page of Sybil West, from the 1765-1766 ledger of Glassford’s Alexandria store, 1766. John Glassford and Company Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

With a husband’s death, coverture lifted, and a widow could gain control of her family’s property. As a result, most of the women who did business on their own in early America were widows. Sybil West, a wealthy Alexandria widow, appears in the same ledger as the Beats, Earps, and Milche Pearson. Born around 1705, she was widowed in 1754. She owned a large tract of land just west of the town of Alexandria, and when she died in 1787 at the age of eighty-three, the local newspaper described her as “one of the first Inhabitants of this Town.”[7]

West’s Glassford account page shows her buying yards of chintz from a weaver named Miss Walker and 50 ells of “hemp ozenbgs.” An ell was a unit of measurement roughly equivalent to a yard, and Osnaburg was a coarse fabric used in colonial Virginia to clothe enslaved workers. She also bought snuff, paper, sugar, tea, possibly for her son Hugh, and a two quart urn (or two quarts of rum?). When she needed nails, she had two local men get them for her. These details about West’s material life, her family, her status as an owner of persons, and her ability to rely on her neighbors for chores she did not want to do herself are all revealed in the Glassford ledger.[8]

Handwritten account book
Details from the account page of Sally Dade, from the 1765-1766 ledger of Glassford’s Alexandria store, 1766. John Glassford and Company Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Coverture reduced wives to dependents of their husbands, depriving them of both rights and responsibilities. Just as women lost control of their property when they entered marriage, they also handed over to their husbands the responsibility for paying their debts. The same Alexandria ledger shows the account of “Miss Sally Dade” with a note: “married to Thomas Triplett.” On the opposite page Thomas Triplett paid the debt his wife had incurred while she was single.[9]

The story of John Glassford and Company turned downward with the American Revolution. When Americans began to boycott British goods in the late 1760s, the shoppers in Glassford’s ledgers, men and women alike, had to rethink their relationship with those imported goods. When the Revolution erupted a few years later, British merchants, including the tobacco lords, lost the ability to monopolize the American trade that had enriched them since 1707. Many of them, including Glassford, saw their businesses diminish or collapse.[10] As the old world collapsed, a new one opened—but it would take more than a century for women and people bound as slaves to begin to find equal places in it.

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[1]Act of Union 1707,” UK Parliament.

[2] This was mandated by the seventeenth-century Navigation Acts. See Danielle Herring, “The Hands that Spun the Revolution,” In Custodia Legis, Library of Congress, October 25, 2022.

[3] T. M. Devine, The Tobacco Lords: A Study of the Tobacco Merchants of Glasgow and their Trading Activities, c.1740-1790 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990); Jacob M. Price, “The Rise of Glasgow in the Chesapeake Tobacco Trade, 1707-1775,” William and Mary Quarterly 11 (April 1954): 179-199; J. H. Soltow, “Scottish Traders in Virginia, 1750-1775,” Economic History Review 12 (1959): 83-98. A portion of the Glassford records have been digitized and transcribed at History Revealed, Inc., https://www.historyrevealed.co/projects, with the list of account holders for the Alexandria and Colchester stores at https://www.historyrevealed.co/accountsindex.

[4] For coverture in Virginia see “Of Husband and Wife” in St. George Tucker, Blackstone’s Commentaries: With Notes of Reference, to the Constitution and Laws, of the Federal Government of the United States, and of the Commonwealth of Virginia (Philadelphia: William Young Birch and Abraham Small, 1803), vol. I, Part II, 441. Historians have noted that married women, who were technically unable to control property, did so anyway, generally with the consent of their husbands. See, for example: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (New York: Vintage Books, 1991) and Woody Holton, Abigail Adams (New York: Free Press, 2009). For the legal status of enslaved women see, for example, Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1999).

[5] Alexandria Ledger, 1765-1766, John Glassford and Company Records, microfilm reel 52, Mary Earp, 24 July 1766, Joseph Earp, 24 July 1766, and Milche Pearson, 24 July and 25 August 1766, p.166; Sybil West, 2 August – 29 September 1766, p.170; Jean Beats and Edward Beats, August 16, 1766, p.173, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] George Washington Cash Accounts, 1763, note 1, in the published edition of Washington’s papers on Founders Online and in Ledger A, George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Simon Pearson died in spring 1797; see George Washington to Bushrod Washington, October 9, 1797. For Milche or Milkah Pearson’s separation from her husband, see note 7 with this letter in the published edition of Washington’s papers.

[7] Sybil West’s land is visible on Beth Mitchell, An Interpretive Historical Map of Fairfax County, Virginia, 1760, Donald M. Sweig, editor (Fairfax County, Va.: Office of Comprehensive Planning, 1987) and at the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Death notice for Sybil West, Virginia Journal and Alexandria Advertiser, June 14, 1787, available at the Library of Congress on America’s Historical Newspapers. See it and other newspaper databases under the heading Historical News. For more on widows in early America see: Conger, Vivian Bruce. The Widow’s Might: Widowhood and Gender in Early British America. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

[8] Alexandria Ledger, 1765-1766, John Glassford and Company Records, microfilm reel 52, Sybil West, p.170, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] Alexandria Ledger, 1765-1766, John Glassford and Company Records, microfilm reel 52, Sally Dade, 14 October 1765, p.135, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[10] T. M. Devine, “Glasgow Merchants and the Collapse of the Tobacco Trade, 1775-1783” Scottish Historical Review 52 (April 1973): 50-74.

 

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