Judith Macy, Island Entrepreneur

A few months back, I posted a blog about Nantucket’s infamous daughter, Kezia Coffin.  While she may have been someone of our past that many islanders are not fond of, her sister, Judith Macy (1729 – 1819), was a bit better and a Quaker in good stead.  Like her sister, Judith was an eighteenth century entrepreneur but one who did not have a monopoly on her fellow islanders and who played fair – as far as I can see.  Unlike many of her sister islanders however, Judith’s husband was at home.

Widowed after just two years of marriage, Judith married second husband, Caleb Macy, a man who had faced many financial failures in his short life.  Like most island men, Caleb had gone to sea but did not fare well – it was a claim of the fact that his health did not cooperate with the life found at sea.  According to their son Obed, Caleb found not just a life partner and someone to tend to their household and children in his marriage to Judith, but he also found someone to help him in his business dealings.  With ten children and her husband’s shoe making business to assist in, Judith found herself taking care of several men who boarded with the family.  Sometimes as many as twelve men joined her family of twelve at the dinner table.  These men were likely Caleb’s workers.  In her daybook, which is in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association, Judith kept a fairly detailed, if sometimes scattered, account of items purchased and sold, work completed, and records concerning her boarders between 1784 and 1805.  Judith employed at least one of her daughters and several other women to spin wool, which she sold for profit.  In some cases, it appears that Judith hired out a daughter to do work, and she sold goods to her sons, several of whom were prosperous island merchants, including Obed.

The details of the lives of Judith and her sister, Kezia Coffin, and Mary Coffin Starbuck serve as some of the few examples of what life was like for women and the role they played in society and the island economy on Nantucket in the eighteenth century.   In reference to her boarders, Judith kept details of when they “came here to bord (sic)” and the number of meals they ate during the week.  For example, on the fifteenth day of the sixth month 1800, Judith recorded that boarder Daniel Gifford “Eat 2 meals this week” and on the sixth day of the seventh month 1800, he “Eate (sic) 7 meals this week.”  Judith “sold corn out of the crib,” nails, molasses, “scanes of yarn” – likely created in her home by herself, her daughters, and other women she                       hired – and candles.  She even made a record of candles that she sold to her son Silvanus.  Judith seems to have played the role of supplier and seller for Silvanus, selling wool for him and making him sign off on his acceptance of the payment by having him make a notation in her daybook.

Judith’s daybook served, not just as a record of what was happening, but as an account book for what she and people in her employ produced, what she sold, and her other income producing activities.  She kept track of how many hours people worked for her and on her behalf for others in her daybook.  It also appears that she may have made loans to people so that they could pay the rent on their homes (Perhaps owned by her sister?).  Judith Macy even kept a detailed tally of personal items she loaned to others – surprisingly, even noting the items she loaned to her own children.  Judith’s husband obviously did not disapprove of her work since she continued working for so many years – almost right until her death, it appears.  Meager evidence indicates that Caleb’s shoemaking business was successful and he owned a large amount of real estate on the island, so he did not need his wife to work.

Unlike her sister, Judith was a Quaker in good stead – serving on various committees, even serving as the clerk of the Women’s Meeting.  Thus, her Quaker beliefs and those of her husband may have furthered her ability to conduct so much business as a woman.  Judith may have been influenced in part by her sister’s entrepreneurial skills, but she was also living in a community that did not believe in idleness and needed everyone to work so that the island, its people, and its economy could survive.  In some respects, the island took this frontier style of life even further, allowing women to take on important roles within the community.

The image you see here is her home near Sunset Hill.

JNLF

From: The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island How Island Women from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries Lived a Life Contrary to Other American Women  by Jascin Leonardo Finger

What Lies Beneath?

(Or, Adjacent To?)

Beneath this frozen beachscape or just adjacent to it in the dunes there may have once been tunnels that led to smuggled goods or perhaps even stashes of gold.

Given climate change and erosion, I’m sure that the dunes were possibly quite a bit further out into where the water is frozen.  And, I’m sure this is a delightful legend that was passed on from generation to generation – and quite possibly grew – though most people today I don’t think are aware of it.

This legend has to do with Nantucket’s “she-pirate,” Kezia Folger Coffin (1723 – 1798), a cousin of Benjamin Franklin.  She was at least two generations older than Maria – but Maria would have known her story and her descendants.  I once included her in an exhibit on Nantucket women (about a dozen years ago – oh, make me feel old) and got some push back for it.  Yes, she was nasty, yes she took advantage of her fellow islanders, but she was smart, crafty, creative, and ingenious.

Kezia was an island merchant.  She had many real estate investments, had shops, and actively traded and sold goods.  She was largely in charge in her family – her husband was not very successful.  He had been at sea but seemed to come home to happily let Kezia manage and earn the family’s bread and butter.  It was not an unusual position for women on Nantucket – I’ve written about that quite a bit here.  With men away with whaling, coastal traders and fishing, with the heavy influence of the Quaker faith that believe in equality, and with the life of a frontier – a theory that I developed and wrote about in my book The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island – Kezia was joined by many other women in her pursuits on Nantucket – just not maybe in a “not-so-nice-way.”

With the American Revolution, Nantucket tried to do a bit of fence sitting – she had to.  With a harbor the only source of bringing goods in and sitting in the middle of an ocean, Nantucket had to play nice to the British and the Americans.  Kezia was a loyalist and as such she played to the British.  With blockades on the harbor, she began to develop a monopoly with her British “friends.”  She began to loan money to people, extend them credits in her shops and on other areas of services she provided.  Kezia developed a monopoly over trade on the island and held her fellow islanders captive.  She came to have liens on their properties and she became the only place in town to buy needed goods.  Kezia and her close male cohorts saw nothing wrong with working with the British in order to secure goods for the island.  Kezia in particular would take advantage of her fellow islanders by charging high prices for goods that only she could provide due to her connections.

Finally, Nantucket claimed neutrality – it was forced to stop its fence sitting when it became apparent to the American side what was happening.  Kezia was devastated financially – bankrupted.  Her properties, goods, everything, were put on the auction block and islanders came to bid – at super low offers in order to punch back at Kezia and what she had done to them.

When her home was repossessed, Kezia was supposedly carried out on her chair when she refused to leave.  She and the others (she was the only woman) were charged and tried at Watertown, Massachusetts for smuggling and aiding the British.  If they were found guilty, death was the punishment.  The charges were finally dropped and Kezia returned to the island with one purpose: to sue the Town and its people for taking away all of her possessions.  Her lawyer son-in-law told her that her plan would never succeed but Kezia supposedly said that she did not necessarily want to win.  The legend is that her intent was to tie everything up in court and allow it to drag on for as long as possible.  One scholar believes she may have been the inventor of the harassing lawsuit.

While an infamous figure, Kezia is a perfect illustration of the strength of character and the independent nature of Nantucket women.

JNLF

A Good Chair

Windsor Painted ChairQuite awhile ago, I wrote about some of my collection addictions, including pottery shards, 19th century kitchen mirrors, and of course, enamelware. Well, here is another one for you.

I love chairs. Yes, this is another collection addiction of mine. But not all chairs – chairs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Typically, I like plain, simple wood chairs with a horizontal piece or two of wood for the back and a plain, thick wood seat. Simple, not a lot of turns to the wood, and not a lot of decorative features or paint.

Several years ago, I had a meeting at the home of the leader of a group I was working with. She owned the Obed Macy house, very much untouched and quite a remarkable house. Yes, Obed was the Nantucket historian (among other things), as well as the son of island entrepreneur Judith Macy, and the nephew of the island “she-pirate” Kezia Coffin. We met outside on the side porch which was a late 19th century addition to the house and one that certainly reflected what life was like in the period it was added to the house. The owner had brought out every chair in her home. I was on a chair high (not a highchair!) – here I had my choice of nineteenth chairs to sit on. Since I was one of the first to arrive, I took my time picking out which chair I was going to sit on – I kid you not. I was like Goldilocks − though I was grown-up enough not to sit on every chair to decide which one I was going to claim for the meeting! I went on and on and likely on and on about all these lovely chairs to her.

Unfortunately, the day came several years later when she was faced with having to sell her beloved home to move off-island. She called me. She wanted to know if I wanted any of her chairs since she remembered how much I went on and on about them. It was a mixture of emotion because losing this island resident was a loss for the island and for its history and historic architecture. I went to her home a few days before she was going to have her sale and helped her move items from the house out onto the lovely 19th century side porch where I first reveled in her chair collection and also out into the large, simple backyard that looked like it too had not been touched since the 19th century. She told me to take whichever chairs I wanted as she wanted me to have them. Depressing. I told her I would not take but that I would buy. We had a little back and forth but she finally relented. Then, I had to choose and it was quite agonizing. Not wanting to be a chair hog, I limited myself.

I now have two matching and two others sitting around my dining room table made from salvaged Nantucket pine floorboards. We refer to them as “Helen’s chairs” – their previous owner. She likely found them here on Nantucket; one or more may have even come with the house when she bought it. We eat every meal sitting in them, spend time with our family in long discussions and laughter sitting in them, and each time I sit, touch, dust, or move them, I think of Helen and the house these chairs once sat in and the conversations and people they must have witnessed over the many years. A simple wood chair – a witness to history and time.

JNLF