The Ties That Buy

The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America by Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor

There is a hazy quality to Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor’s The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America. It is at once a women’s history, an urban history, an economic history, a comparative history and a gender history. Yet, it is not fully any of those sorts of histories. This gives Hartigan-O’Connor’s arguments a hazy, broad, unspecific quality.

Hartigan-O’Connor seeks to complicate our traditional understanding of the consumer/commercial revolution of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. She seeks to draw attention away from the ideological story of an “a world divided into ‘public’ masculine and ‘private’ feminine spheres” and towards the actual actions of women in the emerging market economy.[1] Her “focus on everyday practices of economic life” such as “finding living arrangements, working, obtaining credit , handling cash, and using material goods” reveals complicated and interconnected “commercial networks” of women. Focusing on such “networks”, argues Hartigan-O’Connor, “restore[s] [women] as active members of urban economic life.”[2]

These “commercial networks” of women included women of all classes and races – poor and rich, black and white. In some ways these networks could be empowering to women and even challenge class and racial boundaries – such as in practices a slaves being ‘hired out’ and acting as proxy shoppers.[3] One the other hand, these networks could also reinforce class, race and gender hierarchies – women’s relationship to credit, for example, were often contingent on their relationships to men and, of course, a hired out slave was still a slave.[4] At her best Hartigan-O’Connor avoids an either/or dictomony when it comes to affect of consumerism on women’s lives.

Hartigan-O’Connor’s most important contribution is her stressing of the “in-between” nature of women’s relationship in the emerging “market culture.” As Hartigan-O’Connor notes “women’s centrality to labor systems and politic culture in this period can be understood only by taking their actions as intermediaries ” seriously. When enslaved women birthed a new generation of enslaved persons and women acted as “[i]ntermediaries, proxies, and go-betweens” they were acting as in ways “central to political, economic, and social life.”[5] Women were often the intermediate step through which institutions and social structures – capitalism, republicanism, slavery – acted up on men. Hartigan-O’Connor’s “commercial networks” are one such way that processed happened.

Such insights give The Ties That Buy great value, yet, the book also has significant weaknesses. Despite drawing her evidence from two different but connected cities, Newport and Charleston, she fails to make any real comparisons between the two. There is much she could have mined along these lines. For example, how did these “commercial networks” differ between a society with slaves (Newport) and a slave society (Charleston)? This lack of contrast and comparison is the most glaring weakness of Hartigan-O’Connor’s book and what gives its most hazy, unspecfic quality.

The Ties That Buy could have also benefited from giving more direct attention – in the form of a chapter – to the experiences of African-American women. In her introduction, Hartigan-O’Connor makes some hay about how she does not do this but includes white and black women together “just as they [appeared] on the city streets.”[6] However, this leads less to an integrated portrait but, rather, too much of her discussion of African-American women being lost in her larger discussion of white women. This, taken with Hartigan-O’Connor’s failure to contrast Charleston and Newport, leads to the place of enslaved people in her argument becoming mostly lost.

Despite its interesting contribution to the literature, The Ties That Buy is a hazy, incomplete book. As noted above, it fails to make the most of its evidence and fails to provide a real integrated narrative of African-American and white women. Due to these flaws, The Ties That Buy does not live up to its potential.

[1] The quote is on: Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, The Ties That Buy: Women and Commerce in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Ibid, 4-5.

[3] On ‘hiring out’ see: Ibid, 7, 31-33.

[4] On women and credit see: 69-100.

[5] Ibid, 195.

[6] Ibid, 11.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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