Jewish Women in Colonial America

Tall ships sailing toward New Amsterdam. Windmills and Dutch houses in the distance.
Johannes Vingboons, Memory of The Netherlands. Source: Public Domain

The first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam (what would become New York in 1664) came to escape the continuation of the Holy Inquisition when Portugal wrested control of Brazil from the Dutch in 1654. There were six women among the twenty-three refugees, and only two of their names survived in the record because they were widowed heads of households — Ricke Nunes and Judith Mercado.

For the most part, “at a time when Jews elsewhere were so often locked away behind ghetto walls, colonial Jews found a remarkable degree of toleration and diversity.”1

Daily Life

The lives of colonial Jewish women, like their Christian neighbors, centered on the household as well as religious life, allowing the rhythms and cycles of sacred times to govern their days. They also dressed the same in their bonnets and gowns, practiced needlework, and wealthier wives employed servants and owned slaves to help with chores and childrearing.

A plaque that reads: The first cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, Shearith Israel, in the city of New York. 1656-1833
Shearith Israel, first cemetery. Source: Public Domain

Jewish law does not require women to pray in synagogue. Before coming to America, they rarely attended. However, once in America, they chose to attend like Christian housewives. The first synagogue in colonial America, Shearith Israel, was founded in 1654 (it would take 2 years before a cemetery became necessary) and still serves the community in Manhattan to this day.

At home, Jewish housewives made sure kashrut — dietary laws — were followed, including separate dishes for meat and dairy. They were also responsible for teaching their children Jewish culture and traditions. But it must be mentioned that Jewish households, then as now, ran the gamut of observing every Jewish law to disregarding what didn’t serve them.

Marriage

The average age for a Jewish woman to marry for the first time in the 18th century was twenty-three. Men, needing a means to support a future family, took time to establish themselves. They were therefore about ten years older when they married.

A Jewish couple standing under the chuppah are blessed by the rabbi, surrounded by friends and family.
Daniel Moritz Oppenheim (1801-1882), 18th Century Jewish Wedding

Because the Jewish community in America was relatively small (by 1776, there were about 2500 Jews in colonial America, hailing from all over the world), spouses were chosen locally or as far away as the Caribbean or in England. When marriages straddled the Atlantic, they offered a commercial advantage to merchant families, creating profitable networks.

Unfortunately, as happens too often in history, Jews in British Jamaica were blamed for being “too successful,” causing anti-Jewish sentiment. In 1695, the Jamaican assembly passed an additional tax on Jews.

Education & Business

Many Jewish women were literate, having been educated by private tutors or having attended a school maintained by the Jewish community. In fact, Shearith Israel opened their first school in 1731. Even poor children attended by financial contributions left in wills. 

Abigail Franks wearing a blue gown with ruffles.
Portrait of Abigail Franks (c. 1696-1756), circa 1735. Source: Public Domain

We find further evidence of literate Jewish women in family documents, letters, and wills. Abigail Franks, born in colonial America in 1688, left a substantial quantity of letters written to her son while he lived in London.

Many Jewish widows acted as the executors of these wills, suggesting they had some business experience by assisting their husbands. They regularly received property and money that the law of coverture denied their Christian neighbors.

Though it was rare for a woman to own a business in her own right, it wasn’t impossible. Grace Levy Hays (1690-1740) kept a retail store. Esther Pinheiro on Nevis, a British colony and the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, owned several ships in her own right and partnered with merchants in Boston between the years 1710 and 1728.

Jewish women in colonial America also built cottage industries selling jams and pickles, taking in washing, and running kosher boarding houses.

Jarred pickles covered with cloth and tied with twine.
Pickles

Conclusion

If it weren’t for colonial American Jewish women who held business in their own right, wrote letters deemed worthy enough to be saved, or became heads of households after the death of their husbands, more of their names and accomplishments would be erased from the historical record.

Footnotes:

  1. Nadell, P. (2019). America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today. United States: W. W. Norton.

Sources:


Lydia hampers her father's plans marry her off while the man she used to love, smuggler & soldier, foils his ambush.
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Magic Lanterns & Peep Shows

Two hands form the shadow of a rabbit.
Hand shadow of a rabbit. Source: Public Domain

The history of optical projections goes all the way back to playing with shadows. Obviously such a point in time isn’t on record, but one can only assume, based on human behavior, that the shadow, as it does all living beings, intrigued early humans.

As a stupendous example of shadow fascination, one of my Doodles of Mayhem™, the perspicacious Willow, has been known, while on a brisk walk, to chase the shadow of a bird on the pavement before her, and face-plant in an attempt to catch her prey.

Around 1420, Giovanni de Fontana recorded the first use of an optical projection by lantern. He included an image of a man holding a lantern, projecting the image of the devil on a wall. The lantern shows a small cut-out of the devil, while the wall shows a much larger version. Fontana describes it as a nocturnal appearance for terrifying viewers.1

[The text reads: Apperentia nocturna ad terorem videntium.]

Camera Obscura

The Romans invented the camera obscura, or dark chamber, though the term has only been in use since 1604. It works by allowing a bright light, usually sunlight, through a pinhole or lens in the wall. Through this whole, the image projects onto the opposite wall. The camera obscura, sometimes referred to as a pinhole camera, is actually a predecessor of the modern photographic camera.

Reads, "Fig 7. Camera obscura". The images shows a building's image through a hole in the side of a building where the image is projected upside down on an interior wall. An X shows the crossing of the light's rays.
Source: http://www.essentialvermeer.com/camera_obscura/co_one.html

The image from a camera obscura is projected upside down, reversed left to right, and has a very low luminosity.2 The reason for the image appearing upside down is due to the crossing of the light’s rays through the hole. (See image above.)

To Be Seen: By desire of several Gentlemen and Ladies, The Solar or Camera Obscura Microscope which has given such general satisfaction, and so great a Concourse of Gentlemen and Ladies continually attend to see it…House of Mr. John Kip in Broad Street, where the Sun will serve all the Day long…
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

The camera obscura was useful in studying solar eclipses without damaging the eyes. Artists also used it to enhance accuracy in their designs.

In the 18th century, it evolved for entertaining purposes.

Magic Lantern

The magic lantern takes the technology of the camera obscura and advances it to the next level, using moving glass slides with painted images on them. In this way, it was the predecessor to the slide show. Early images included a gun in which a red, fiery discharge shoots out before the bullet does.

A set of 4 images of children playing in the snow. 1 sledding, 2 building a snowman, 3 snowball fight, 4 ice skating
Source: Digital Museum

Later, projectionists stacked glass slides together for depictions like a ship at sea during a storm. The scene would start with a calm sea, slowly increasing in movement by manipulating the individual slides until the ship bounced dangerously on the waves.

A crowd is frightened by images of the devil and a death's head floating above them in the dark.
Ghostly illusions by magic lantern. 18th c. Source: Library of Congress

Images from the magic lantern were projected onto smoke and moved about the room, creating the illusion of flying ghosts. These phantasmagoria (horror) shows were meant to frighten audiences.

Peep Show

The peep show, which had a very different connotation then than it does now, was another popular form of entertainment for colonists. Taking the experience to a personal level, the magic lantern’s glass slides, like the camera obscura before it, were constructed inside a box with a viewing hole. These new scenes depicted depth and movement by manipulating lenses and light. The peep show was the predecessor of the stereoscope. 

Man stands at his peep show box. Three children in front of it, looking into the holes. An older lady waits in a chair.
Theodor Hosemann, 1835. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Remember Mr. John Bonnin from my Living Monsters and Curiosity blog post? He’d surely be offended if you didn’t, considering he was his greatest promoter.

I realize this gets confusing, but in 1748, Mr. Bonnin used the mechanics of the peep show and projected the images onto a screen using mirrors, instead of a viewing in a box. This way, he could draw a large crowd at once to show off his “Philosophical Optical Machine.” In this way, he brought “most of the famous palaces and gardens in England, France, and Italy[,] … the siege of Barcelona, and the cities of Rome, Naples, and Venice.”3

“Instead of the common Chat, there is nothing scarce mentioned now but the most entertaining parts of Europe.”

― Mr. Bonnin, New York Gazette

For the colonists who were homesick or had never been to England, this gave them a chance to imagine walking through the pleasure gardens and palaces of London. These included Kensington, Hampton-Court, Vaux Hall, Ranelagh House, among others.

New York Gazette: 
We hear that Mr. Bonnin is so crowded with company to view his perspectives that he can scarce get even so much time as to eat, drink, or say his prayers, from the time he gets out of bed till he repairs to it again.

1748
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

These shows were so popular, they ran from “eight o’clock in the morning and continued showing until nine at night.”

Here is a terrific example of a peep show scene:
Six overlapping hand-colored engraved panels. Approx. 6½x8x15 when extended in apparatus. Scene depicts garden fountains, gates and a flower garden surrounded by tall hedges. Numerous people are also depicted, including a musician, children, lovers embracing, etc.

Peep show of a garden scene, as described.
Mid 18th Century Peep Show of a Garden Scene,
c. 1750. Mart. Engelbrecht

Your Turn

If you’d like to make your own peep show, here is a tutorial:

https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/make-your-own-paper-peepshow

If you do make one, please send me a pic and I’ll it add here!
hallie [@] halliealexanderauthor [.] com

Footnotes:

  1.  http://www.magiclantern.org.uk/history/
  2. http://www.essentialvermeer.com/camera_obscura/co_one.html
  3. John Bonnin

Sources:

  • About Magic Lanterns
  • F.W., “Peep-Show Prints,” Bulletin of the New-York Public Library 25, no. 6 (June 1921), p 364.
  • Optical Instruments Used with Prints in the Eighteenth Century
  • Scribner, V. (2019). Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society. United States: NYU Press.
  • Singleton, E. (1902). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets, and Country Homes, with Chapters on Fashions, Furniture, China, Plate, and Manners. United States: D. Appleton.

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Living Monsters & Curiosities

Just like their European cousins, American colonists enjoyed cabinets of curiosities, public shows, and really anything that might entertain, educate, or, to be honest, offend my 21st century sensibilities.1 It wasn’t just about seeing the exhibits; it was about being the first and then having the pleasure of talking about them after. 

The elite of New York might assemble in their stately homes to discuss paintings and vases, but they also might join the lesser classes in taverns and private homes to view traveling exhibits the world had never seen before.

The Greatest (Colonial) Showman

There is no good way for me to introduce Mr. John Bonnin, 18th century advertiser and showman of curiosities, except by his own words:

“There’s no Body can set up the least Face for Politeness and Conversation, without having been to Mr. Bonnin.”

― Mr. Bonnin, New York Gazette

What were colonists coming to view in his home near the New Dutch Church, a couple of streets north of city hall? Why, porcupines of various colors and crab fishes.

To Be Seen: A curious live Porcupine armed with Darts which resemble Writing Pens, tho of different colors, and which he shoots at any Adversary with ease when angry or attacked tho otherwise of great good humor and Gentleness.
John Bonnin’s advertisement for a colorful porcupine.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Two years prior to the rainbow porcupine, he exhibited the “greatest curiosity in nature.” Mr. Bonnin’s own advertisement claimed it was beyond “our power to fully describe.” The crab fish must have looked fairly special, for I cannot find an image to go along with it. Apparently it was a petrified fish sandwiched between crab shells.

Competitive Curiosities

Electrical Fish: Those who choose to gratify their curiosity by viewing this very extraordinary production of nature, at the small expense of two shillings each, are desired to attend speedily.
John Rowdon’s advertisement for an electrical fish.
Source: Singleton / Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Mr. Bonnin, of course, had competition.

Mr. John Rawdon, hairdresser of Broad Street, which curved from the East River near the bottom of Manhattan up to City Hall, exhibited a “wonderful electrical fish.”

Roger Magrah showed off his four foot long “living” alligator to anyone willing to pay the admittance fee.

And, lastly, Captain Seymour of the ship, Fame, thought he could do better than the others by bringing home two lionesses and two ostriches from the African coast. However, the ostriches did not survive the passage. I dread to think what else was among his cargo.

Waxworks

Waxworks, as well as Punch and Judy puppet shows, were very popular not just for entertainment but for colonists to familiarize themselves with the Royal Family of various European countries. As traveling exhibits, they were shown for a limited time, typically in taverns, from seven in the morning until six at night.

18th century waxworks: Musée de la Révolution française.
Source: Wikimedia

There is one unfortunate event that occurred involving an extensive waxwork collection that came to an abrupt and embroiled end.

Mrs. Wright was an “ingenious” artist and mother who worked from home. Her sculptures were said to be very lifelike, which I can only imagine took a lot of time to produce. I don’t know what kind of mother she was, nor what kind of help she had in raising them, or even how old they were. And, without these details, I am making a wild assumption based on the available facts.

All that is to say, while she was “abroad” with her children left at home, one of them set fire to a curtain surrounding one of her sculptures. Neighbors and fire-engines saved the house and most of their valuables, however the entirety of her waxworks succumbed to the flames.

Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr2 in the title roles of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949). Source: Paramount, Public Domain

Two months later, she exhibited two new sculpture sets, one being the murder of Cain by Abel, the other, the Treachery of Delilah to Sampson.

Go ahead, I won’t judge. I think Mrs. Wright was deep in her feels and had some things to work out.

Next Week

Peep Shows and Magic Lanterns! I promise this is safe for all eyes. We will examine optical entertainments of the time.

18th Century Peep Show: Victoria and Albert Museum Online

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to know the range of what entertained colonists, however offensive material will never appear in my fiction, therefore my blog won’t be the place to read about them either. This also isn’t the right space to examine the social, political, or just plain ignorant things 18th century folks found entertaining. I recommend the Singleton book in my sources to begin your research.
  2. The same Hedy Lamarr who invented wi-fi in 1941.

Sources:

  • Bushman, R. L. (2011). The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. United Kingdom: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
  • Scribner, V. (2019). Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society. United States: NYU Press.
  • Singleton, E. (1902). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets, and Country Homes, with Chapters on Fashions, Furniture, China, Plate, and Manners. United States: D. Appleton.

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Drinking & Gaming in 18th Century New York

“What’s the use of a great city having temptations if fellows don’t yield to them?” 

― P.G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves

The Province of New York was never considered part of the New England colonies. More than the Hudson River separated them. While New England colonies had strict puritanical laws because they were, uh, founded by Puritans, New York was on a mission of dissipation.

King Charles II

Where did this desire for vice come from? Why, King Charles II and his court during England’s Restoration period. He’d spent the Interregnum in France and absorbed their culture of bon temps, taking an interest in horseracing and gambling. When he brought those pastimes back to England with him, the aristocracy eagerly joined him.

“Unless one gambled freely, it was quite impossible to be counted a gentleman, or, for that matter, a lady of fashion, in the Court of Charles the Second.”1

Gentlemen toasting the King.
“God Save the King,” Charles Williams, 1805 – public domain

At about this time, White’s, Almack’s, Crockford’s, and Cavendish’s came into being. For those who either don’t know London history or haven’t read historical romances, these places were exclusive clubs where gambling and libertine amusements entertained the aristocracy. They were called “gold and silver hells” for this reason.2

The Province of New York

What does King Charles II’s dissipation have to do with Colonial New York, considering it was under Dutch rule at the time?

"New Amsterdam becomes New York." The English captured New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664 and re-named it New York in honor of the Duke of York.
“Fall of New Amsterdam,” Museum of the City of New York, 1914

In a fit of pique over Dutch interference with British shipping, King Charles II gave New Amsterdam—ideally positioned for its harbor—to his brother, the Duke of York. Governor Stuyvesant had little power to resist, having only a small navy against the British. The Dutch capitulated, and New Amsterdam became New York.

Gaming Laws in New York

Satire illustration of gentlemen playing billiards, dogs playing at their feet, some anxious over the outcome.
“Billiards,” Thomas Rowlandson, 1803 – public domain

Until 1741, the good times rolled unchecked in New York. After various fatalities from excessive drinking and gaming (gambling) to threaten the health of society, the New York General Assembly passed a law prohibiting gaming in public houses where strong liquor was served. It went further than that. It also prohibited anyone ‘under the age of twenty-one, or any apprentice, journeyman, servant, or common sailor’ to gamble with dice or cards.3 In this way, gaming became a restricted entertainment for wealthy merchants and the gentry.

By 1772, the ratio of taverns to inhabitants in New York City was one for every fifty-five. They weren’t all the same. Some taverns catered to the wealthy, while others to the middling class, or the poor. In taverns for the ‘lower sort’, it wasn’t uncommon to see a diverse population mixing. Black and white men and women danced and drank together. On the opposite end of the spectrum, taverns for the upper class prohibited gently bred ladies from drinking, let alone, entering.

Colonial Holidays

In the New York social club, St. George’s, they celebrated St. George’s Day. (St. George being the patron saint of England.)

“Friday last being the anniversary of St. George, his Excellency Sir Jeffrey Amherst gave a ball to the gentlemen and ladies of this city at Cranley’s New Assembly Room… TWENTY-THREE TOASTS were drunk and the company parted at dawn in high good humour.” (New York Gazette, 1762)
Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776
Image: Hallie Alexander, 2021

Many taverns thrived adjacent to churches. When services let out, congregants walked next door. This contributed to the rise in celebrants of “Saint Monday,” which was a day of rest after a day of rest.

Gaming

Gentlemen sitting around a table playing cards.
“A Pig in a Poke; Whist, Whist,” James Gillray, 1788 – The British Museum Collection Online

As for gaming, colonists enjoyed all matter of games. If a tavern kept billiard tables, allowed card games or dice, or any other wagering games, they could be fined twenty shillings for each offence, and up to three pounds if they allowed any of the prohibited class to gamble. Cheaters and professional gamblers also faced steep fines and/or sanctions for breaking this law.

In 1774, the Continental Congress requested that the American colonies reflect on the severity of their political situation by forgoing music, theater, cockfighting, and horseracing. It went over as well as you can expect for New York’s aristocratic upper class. They generally ignored it.

And lest we forget New York’s pleasure gardens, where drinking, entertaining, and, depending on the venue, horseracing, were enjoyed.

Footnotes:

  1. E. Perkins, Gambling in English Life 10 (1950) (quoting Games and Gamesters of the Restoration (1674-1714) introd. (C. Hartmann ed. 1930)).
  2. S. Tenenbaum, The Incredible Beau Brummell 169 (1967).
  3. E. Singleton, (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902).

Other Sources:


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Law Enforcement in 18th Century New York

Law enforcement in colonial New York worked similarly to law enforcement in England. It was the responsibility of the local government to protect its citizens.

There were three main categories of criminal behavior dealt with by the courts in colonial New York: thefts, acts of personal violence, and disruptions of public order. Without an effective police force, which didn’t come about until the 19th century, these crimes put tremendous strain on the welfare of the community and individuals responsible for law enforcement. There was a severe shortage of able night-watchmen, constables, sheriffs, jail-keepers, and justices of the peace.

Night-watchman: A man carrying a lantern on a staff is followed by his dog through town
Night-watchman: Wikimedia Commons

Sheriffs, appointed by the governor, enforced the laws, collecting taxes, supervising elections, and taking care of the legal business of the county government. Constables, elected by the people, could make arrests, serve warrants, and testify in court. Night-watchmen were merely responsible for patrolling the city at night, looking for fires, crimes, or riots.

Peacekeeping

There were three forms of peacekeeping in colonial New York. The first of which included the obligation of the citizens to take their turn as watchmen. If they didn’t want to do it, they had the option to pay for a substitute. Other times, the government paid constables to do the job, but they lacked authority and resources to prevent crimes and maintain order. Their only real choice was to apprehend a criminal in the act. The third option occurred during times of war. The governor sent militia to take over the watch. However, this was an expensive and unpopular choice.

Master of the forge, mid-18th century
Blacksmith, mid-18th century. Source: Diderot’s Encyclopedia

Paid constables were often hired from among artisans and tradesmen. With little pay and a lot of responsibilities between their regular profession and work in law enforcement, it was hardly worth the dangers the job presented. Since there weren’t enough constables, they were rarely able to subdue suspects who resisted arrest, especially when the suspect resorted to violence.

Law Enforcement Stretched Too Thin

An angry mob chases after the stamp collector
Andrew Oliver, Stamp Collector Attacked by the mob. Source: James H. Stark

In 1765, a mob of over 200 men ousted four families from their homes in Dutchess County in protest of the Stamp Act. Nothing was done about the 200 men since it was too difficult to arrest all 200, let alone ten. Law enforcement lacked the resources to stop the unrest.

A Lack of Quality Law Officers

Because of the dangers implicit in the job, and the lack of resources, many New Yorkers preferred to pay a fine than serve as law officers. If they couldn’t afford the fine, they took the job but were often negligent in their duties by, for example, not showing up to testify in court. Another problem law enforcement faced was the inclusion of those with questionable integrity. They would take bribes to release prisoners or fix juries; extort money from prisoners in exchange for preferential treatment; assault innocent citizens without just cause; charged suspects excessive fees — food and lodgings were paid by suspects held in jail; committed a variety of crimes without consequences; and used the office to advance their personal interests.

A Lack of Quality Prisons

Jack Sheppard escaping from prison by climbing down with a sheet
Prison escape, source unknown

Prisons in the Province of New York were not fortified places. For those awaiting trial, many escaped. The sheriffs were faced with a dilemma. They were criminally liable if suspects escaped, but were not given enough jail-keepers or more secure jails to do their job. Further, if a suspect crossed county lines, they could not be apprehended because arrest warrants issued by county.

A Lack of Quality Judges

William Hogarth, The Bench, 1758. Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

If a suspect didn’t escape prison or evaded recapture, they would appear before a judge. Depending on who was sitting on that particular bench could make a big difference in the suspect’s case. There is much evidence to indicate that judges of colonial New York were, on the whole, an ignorant lot, ill-suited to hold office, and often anxious to abuse the power which such office afforded them. (Greenberg, Douglas)

In 1763, fifty-nine percent of justices of the peace in New York had no legal training. Some could neither read nor write! One can only imagine their ability to uphold the law. In fact, 36% of criminal cases in court records from 18th century New York were never resolved.

In Conclusion…

The Province of New York wasn’t lawless, but it had its challenges. Law Enforcement was neither setup to succeed, nor respected for its authority. As a historical romance writer, these facts give me a lot of fodder with which to torment my characters.

Sources:


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A Quick Guide to Becoming a Female Artist in the 18th Century

Note: I intend for the word “female” to cover those who identified and were accepted as female. I do not mean to police the term in any way.

Lately, I’ve been curious about the lives of female artists in the 18th century, painters in particular. They are a hard lot to track down.

In 1971, feminist art historian, Linda Nochlin, wrote, “Why have there been no great women artists?”

Continue reading “A Quick Guide to Becoming a Female Artist in the 18th Century”

Public Houses, Inns, Taverns

Churches and taverns had a complicated relationship in Colonial America. As early as 1656, it was a finable offense in Puritan Massachusetts for a town not to have an ordinary.

As you can see by their definitions, the words for a drinking-eating-lodging establishment are mostly interchangeable. (Ordinary became the regional word for a tavern throughout New England.) However, only places called “inns” were reliably somewhere to stay while switching horses or waiting for one’s horse to rest for the next length of travel.

Continue reading “Public Houses, Inns, Taverns”