In the 1700s, women’s opportunities were limited by society and politics. This is perhaps best reflected in a famous exchange between Abigail Adams and her husband, and later U.S. president, John Adams. Although their marriage is remembered as being a partnership of mutual respect and affection, when Abigail wrote to John in 1776 to “remember the ladies” and ensure equality when creating the new government, he replied, “I cannot but laugh.”
The law at the time allowed women to carry money and debts in their own name, although women required the permission of their husband to own a business. A widow often had the independence to manage her own future.
Female merchants, shopkeepers, and tavern owners worked in industries that required frequent credit and the ability to quickly and easily move money. In Philadelphia, women went to the Bank of North America, now Wells Fargo, to find the financial tools they needed for success. Known as America’s first commercial bank, the Bank of North America started a powerful trend of making credit more accessible to early American businesses.
Despite the expectations society placed upon them, women learned to use the limited power available to them to run businesses and build fortunes of their own — as illustrated in the stories below.
Widowed in 1778, Rebecca Young needed to find a way to support her family. Like many women, she had experience sewing. She used her skill to make flags, blankets, drum cases, and other supplies for the Revolutionary Army. She became well-known for her flags, which sold for as much as 26 pounds and 9 shillings at a time when the American dollar was just starting to enter the economy. Her family pitched in to help Young start her business. Her daughter helped her sew and her brother — the commissary general of military stores in 1777 — purchased her products for the military. Even after the war ended, she continued selling flags for several years to a patriotic public.
Like many artisans, Young often needed credit to buy her supplies and cover upfront business expenses. When she needed money, she turned to the Bank of North America. Unlike loans today, Young got a “discount” loan. Instead of paying interest and principal at the end of her loan term, her interest was deducted from the loan total. When Young took out a 31-day loan for $320 on July 2, 1782, she received $318.30. Records show that Young paid back $320 when her loan ended in August.
Margaret Duncan had always helped her husband run his store in Philadelphia. When he died in 1770, she announced in the newspaper that she “carries on the Business as usual, and has a large Assortment of Goods, which she will sell on the lowest terms.” Fifteen years later, she continued to operate his store on Water Street. She sold at wholesale prices a variety of fabrics imported from Europe, offering everything from linens and calicos to silks and sewing threads.
Duncan used many of the services the Bank of North America had to offer. She received discount loans, and she wrote checks on the bank to pay her creditors. In 1784, the Bank of North America processed her payments to merchants Robertson & Co. and Lewis & Co., covering some of the costs until she added money to her account.
Duncan’s daughter Elizabeth learned from her mother and opened her own shop in her own name while she was married to the Rev. David Telfair, the pastor of the local Presbyterian church. When he died in 1789, she continued her trade until her own death in 1793. Like her mother, she did business with the Bank of North America.
Hannah Holland was married to shopkeeper Benjamin Holland. By 1797, she was a widow and had taken over the business. Holland had an extensive account at the Bank of North America. When she needed a loan to cover expenses, she took out a $1,000 discount loan, paying the interest in advance and receiving $994.67 — about $20,000 today.
She was remembered by other merchants for her success through low-pressure sales and was “very popular for her easy manner, and liberal allowance for an adverse opinion of a customer — always happy if they bought, and content if they did not.” Her business savvy earned her a good fortune, as her fellow merchants noted: “Wealth settled upon her, and she settled it upon her only child — a daughter — afterwards Mrs. Singleton.”
Born in 1730, Mary Rhea was married to a popular merchant named John Rhea. Together they had several children who went on to marry other merchants and become merchants themselves. In 1773, her husband died, and while she could have left the business to her children, Rhea ran the store herself until 1805. She wrote checks to her suppliers on her Bank of North America account, and she received frequent discount loans to operate her store.
Rhea’s daughter, also named Mary, married the successful merchant William Turnbull in 1778. While married, she managed her own business interests. She invested in the shipping trade of merchant John Nixon, who later went on to become president of the Bank of North America. In the 1770s, Nixon’s business relied upon frequent orders of rum, sugar, and other commodities from Mary Turnbull. In a series of letters, he notified her of the arrival of shipments and sought her approval for the quality of the shipments he arranged.
Hannah Laboyteaux lived in New York with her husband, John Laboyteaux, who worked as a tailor. When the British occupied the city, Laboyteaux and her husband fled to Philadelphia, where they set up shop again. As an economically modest family, the two found different ways to bring money into the house. They sold cloth, took in boarders, and offered tailoring services.
When John Laboyteaux died in 1780, Hannah Laboyteaux continued operating the family’s cloth store in Philadelphia until 1784, when she moved back to New York. When in Philadelphia, she used the Bank of North America’s commercial loan services, who gave her a 12-day loan for $166.60.
Preserving history for future generations
Women who operated businesses and managed finances in early America often left few records. The stories of the women shared here come from the records of their bank, the Bank of North America, and are preserved by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The collection originally came to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1939 through a long-term loan made by a prominent Philadelphia bank, then called the Pennsylvania Company for Insurance on Lives and Granting Annuities, and today known as Wells Fargo. In 2012, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania received a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation to preserve the collection of approximately 650 volumes, 400 graphics, and boxes of loose manuscripts. Through Wells Fargo’s funding and the hard work of the staff of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the records of this unique bank will provide new discoveries for future generations of researchers.