In the early nineteenth century a woman in the emerging middle class was often dependent on her father or husband’s position. Many women, however, chose or were forced to seek independence and autonomy in their work and family lives. Anne Carson was one such person. With an alcoholic father and a timid mother, her middle status in port city Philadelphia was always shaky. She attended one of the first coeducational academies in the new nation but her unemployed father forced the 15-year-old to marry a 41-year-old ship captain. Her husband’s frequent abuse and absences left her without financial support, and Anne worked as a seamstress and opened a china shop to support her parents, siblings, and four children. She achieved modest success, but economic distress after the War of 1812 and her involvement in a murder case sent her spiraling into Philadelphia’s underclass. In an effort to earn money she published her autobiography, where she recorded the variety of work available to women in the commercial cities of the early Republic.
Shortly after this, my unfortunate self made my entrée into this vale of tears, for such indeed it proved to me. I was their second child; my father continued in the mercantile trade with considerable success; his family increased rapidly; and I can truly say that my days of childhood and youth were uninterrupted scenes of perfect happiness. I received my education at the best seminaries Philadelphia then afforded; no expense was spared, but the volatility of my disposition, and that haughty independence of mind, which has so strongly marked my riper years, interfered too much with my studies, and prevented me from obtaining that pre-eminence I ought to have acquired.…
Oh! could we think of the anxiety of our parents, the expense they incur in our education, and the blessing that it may prove to us, how few would waste, as I did, those precious hours, days and years in idleness, frivolity and carelessness; and would teachers be more attentive to the solid and genuine improvement of their pupils, by enforcing the performance of their duties on their minds, not as they do, in a light trifling manner, but with a proper understanding, more real utility would rise from our seminaries than they at present afford; for notwithstanding my carelessness in studying, and repeating my lessons, and the wild volatility of my disposition, I was ever a favourite pupil of my preceptors, who suffered all to pass with impunity. Thus encouraged by those who ought to have restrained me, I grew up a proud, careless, self-willed girl, in defiance of all my fond mother’s care, who, having a number of children to share her attention, could not govern me with that despotic authority so essentially requisite for a mind as firm and decided as mine naturally was.
At school I formed an acquaintance with two young ladies and with them passed those hours in diversion that ought to have been devoted to study. I must here also remark on the gross impropriety of associating boys and girls in the same seminaries, as at school I imbibed those seeds of coquetry, which have essentially injured me in the estimation of the world, and acquired many of those opinions that have tinctured my mind with ideas almost masculine. I was ever an admirer of personal beauty, and my young mind even then aimed at conquest; we all had our favorite beaux, and ever ambitious of excelling my companions to attract and hold the attention of the handsomest boys in the school, was an object to my young heart of pleasure and triumph.
My mother’s anxiety to make me a proficient in needlework was more conspicuous than the cultivation of my mind (she being a matron of the old school). In this I forwarded her views by an unremitting attention to my work; I therefore became complete mistress of my needle, and excelled in plain sewing and fancy work. This gratified my fond parent, who overlooked many of my failings in consideration of my attention to, and excellence in, this her favourite branch of my education; this, and writing, were the only arts I ever excelled in while at school. My father’s profession keeping him so much from home, the care of the family devolved solely upon my mother, and as there were seven of us, all small at one time, viz., five girls and two boys, she could not be expected to have time to eradicate from my mind those weeds. Thus I grew up fair to the eye, and of a pleasing exterior; my heart was warm, rather than tender, generous, humane, and susceptible; affectionate to those that were kind to me; but haughty, cold, and vindictive to those that attempted to controul my will, or restrain my pleasure. Fond of dress, and amply provided with the means of gratifying this my favourite propensity, vanity formed a conspicuous trait in my character. My figure increased rapidly; I was ever uncommonly tall of my age; before I had attained my fourteenth year, I was of the middle stature. This rapid growth gave me the appearance of womanhood, before age justified the idea, or my understanding was sufficiently cultivated to render me a suitable companion for gentlemen of my father’s standing in society and profession… .
My father’s affairs continued prosperous. The luxuries of the West Indies were in our family added to the delicacies of our plentiful city. I knew not a care but to amuse myself or perform my part of the plain work of the family. The first check my vivacity ever knew was occasioned by my father’s being detained in France for eighteen months by the French embargo. On his return, he had contracted a habit of indolence and a disgust to his profession, which prevented his engaging in business for three years. This neglect on his part, and his keeping my mother in total ignorance, at length introduced pecuniary embarrassment, that awoke me in common with the rest of my family from our dream of pleasurable tranquility…. [My mother] communicated to my elder sister and myself, with many tears, the situation of my father’s affairs; and this, I can truly say, was the first sorrow I had ever known. We then agreed to retrench our family expenses, hoping by frugality and economy to continue our independence…. The family was now reduced, in some measure, to dependence on my father’s pay and success in business. This was a precarious support for a family consisting of seven children, five of them girls educated in ease and plenty and taught to look forward to brilliant prospects. How were their views obscured, if not annihilated, and themselves reduced to comparative poverty. This we bore with patience, and some degree of fortitude; every retrenchment was made in our household establishment consistent with comfort. My grandmother returned to the house of my uncle, Samuel McCuthchen, then a lieutenant in the navy of the United States.
My mother, from habit and her early marriage, was considered by my father incapable of conducting any business, and we knew not what method to adopt to add to our scanty income, my father’s pride forbidding the idea of his daughters' learning any trade. Had he permitted my mother to keep a shoe, grocery, or grog shop, now at this time our family might have been opulent, and some of its members probably lawyers, doctors, and even clergymen….
In June [I801] Captain Carson and myself were married by the command of my father, who was lying very ill. I then wanted two months of being sixteen years of age. Oh Mary, how cruel, how weak in parents thus to almost force, or compel a girl, scarce past the days of happy childhood, to enter into a state that forever afterwards stamps her future fate with happiness or miseries extreme. I did not love Captain Carson, to that passion I was a perfect stranger. It is true, my girlish vanity was flattered by his dashing appearance, elegant figure, and handsome face; nay my pride was gratified by being the bride of a United State’s officer, and my sense of right satisfied by my obedience to my parents in becoming his wife…
I had married Captain Carson without loving him. The flame his kindness kindled in my heart one day, his stormy temper extinguished the next; accustomed to the kindest treatment in his absence, from all my family and friends, and experiencing only the extreme of misery when with him, at my own house, both became alike hateful to me: for can human nature love a being that tantalizes, teazes, and even domineers over her—impossible. The slave toiling beneath the burning sun, and shrinking from the lash of a cruel overseer, can still anticipate a respite from his labour when the sun shall have sunk down beneath the western waves, or be secure if he fulfills his duty by performing the task marked out for him. But alas! I could never find a mitigation of my sufferings, night or day; a word, a look, might raise a storm in his mind. Thus was my naturally haughty temper rendered fierce and intractable from self-defence. To tell the truth, I was a spoiled child, and never could from my infancy endure the slightest contradiction. If Captain Carson ever presumed to command me, I recoiled with abhorrence from this assumption of power; and, when after our differences, his harshness melted away, and he would sue for forgiveness, I would repay him back with scorn and contempt… I was very young when married to him, my heart unbiased by any attachment; he had received my unreluctant hand and vows of fidelity. Had he then endeavoured to gain it, my heart would soon have accompanied them; but his haughty soul disdained to try to gain the affection of a girl he fancied bound to love him, and like the Turkish bashaw, who, when his female slaves are endeavouring to attract his attention by their blandishments, haughtily throws a handkerchief to the happy she with whom he condescends to pass an hour. So did Captain Carson fancy that I was compelled to meet and return his love, when he condescended to be in a good humour. To this kind of conduct, I never could or would bend. I was an American; a land of liberty had given me birth; my father had been his commanding officer; I felt myself his equal, and pride interdicted my submitting to his caprices. Therefore the ill treatment I received from him (but which many a simple wife might consider good) I resented. Thus we lived: can any thing on earth equal the misery of matrimonial infelicity?—to find a tyrant where we expected a soothing companion, and to know that dire suspicion is corroding the bosom on which we depend for protection, sympathy, consolation and confidence. If not to a husband, where can a woman look for happiness?...
I had now been one year without receiving any means of support for myself and children from him. The money he left me on his going to Baltimore, was rapidly wasting away, and I found that I could not depend on Capt. C. for a renewal of my funds, when they would be exhausted. I had never been accustomed to any employment, except needle-work for myself and family. How then could I seek for it? —from the rich and great? —that seemed impossible—my soul shrunk from the idea. Of business I knew nothing; yet something I must do, else become the victim of penury, or a dependent on my parents, who had a large family and very slender income, my father’s half pay being then their sole dependence. After devising and revising a variety of plans, all of which my mother opposed, saying, as none of the family had ever been in business, I could not expect encouragement, and would quickly exhaust my finances in stock, which would lay dead on my hands. My mind ever active and enterprising, was not to be intimidated by her imbecile doubts and false pride. Independence was my idol, and I resolved, flattered by hope, and impelled by my guardian angel, to endeavor to realize my plans. I therefore sold all my superfluous furniture, and as Capt. C. had brought me a considerable quantity of china in the early stages of our marriage, which, at this time, was getting scarce, as the India trade was very much embarrassed by the national disputes between Great Britain and these States which terminated in the late war [the War of 1812]. Those articles were therefore to me a valuable acquisition, as I had determined to enter into the sale of china and queens-ware. I therefore rented a house in Second-street [for $500 per annum], a part of the city well calculated for business, where I commenced with a slender capital; and being, as I thought, too young to live entirely alone in so public and exposed a situation, I prevailed on my parents to remove to the same house, and reside. Thus protected by parental care, I entered into business, with hope, confidence, and activity. Heaven smiled on my endeavours, and prosperity crowned my exertions; peace and plenty were the inmates of my humble dwelling; industry is the parent of both, as indolence is that of vice, want, and misery. I now had no leisure for painful reflections, or disagreeable retrospections; time flew on downy pinions; the day was never too long, for I was usefully, pleasantly, and profitably employed. My children engrossed my affections, and promised to amply reward my paternal cares of them. My sisters were my companions, my parents my friends, the public patronage was equal to my most sanguine expectations, and I was happy. Yet whence did this happiness arise? —from industry. I was now a useful and active member of society; I lay down with ease and arose but to be content and happy.
How delightfully flew those hours of bliss, winged with every comfort.
I envied not the rich and great,
Contented with my humble state….
I, meantime, became again entirely devoted to my business. My mother had got a share of the contract for making clothes for the use of the army, and, as the war had greatly injured my trade, I pursued this new avocation to increase my income, and procure for my children such indulgences as they had been accustomed to. My time was continually employed in cutting out work for the females that depended on us for bread, and the support of their families. I was indefatigable in my attentions to this and the store. Disgusted with man, and sick of the very name of love, I met all the advances of those that sought my favour with cool indifference, which soon dismissed them from the pursuit; whether honourable or otherwise, I cared not. Of the deceptions of that sex, I was perfectly convinced, and laughed at their efforts to again enslave me. I could not be mistaken in the views of some, who, as they were men of families, I was conscious were dishonourable. Among this number, I will here rank a certain general, commander of our forces in the northern department of the army, and a gallant major, who had lately arrived from the green shores of Erin, whose sole merit consisted in a handsome exterior, which far exceeded any thing I had as yet beheld of manly beauty; but, like Nascissus, he had become so enamoured with his beautiful self, that he considered his exquisite form a sufficient recommendation to every female heart, totally forgetting he had a mind. For a few days this Adonis dazzled my imagination, by charming my sense of sight, but my understanding soon became conscious of his mental deficiencies; his low, vulgar manners, and the ignorance of his conversation, completely disgusted me.
Source: Ann Baker Carson, The Memoirs of the Celebrated and Beautiful Mrs. Ann Carson, 2d edition (Philadelphia, 1828), 19–21, 22–25, 40, 58–59, 76–77, 100.