Boston trader Sarah Knight on her travels in Connecticut, 1704

Boston trader Sarah Knight on her travels in Connecticut, 1704

Sarah Knight traveled from her home in Massachusetts to trade goods. Through her diary, we can get a sense of life during the consumer revolution, as well as some of the prejudices and inequalities that shaped life in eighteenth-century New England.

Saturday October 7

Their diversions in this part of the country are on lecture days and training days mostly: on the former there is riding from town to town. 

And on training days the youth divert themselves by shooting at the target, as they call it (but it very much resembles a pillory), where he that hits nearest the white has some yards of red ribbon presented him which being tied to his hatband, the two ends streaming down his back, he is led away in triumph, with great applause as the winners of the olympic games. They generally marry very young: the males oftener as I am told under twenty than above; they generally make public weddings…

There are a great plenty of oysters all along by the sea side, as far as I rode in the colony, and those very good. And they generally lived very well and confortably in their families. But too indulgent (especially the farmers) to their slaves: suffering too great familiarity from them, permitting them to sit at table and eat with them (as they say to save time), and into the dish goes the black hoof as freely as the white hand….

There are everywhere in the towns as I passed, a number of Indians the natives of the country, and are the most savage of all the savages of that kind that I had ever seen: little or no care taken (as I heard upon inquiry) to make them otherwise. They have in some places lands of their own, and governed by the laws of their own making; they marry many wives and at pleasure put them away, and on the least, dislike or fickle humour, on either side, saying stand away to one another is a sufficient divorce. And indeed those uncomely stand aways are too much in vogue among the English in this (indulgent colony) as their records plentifully prove, and on very trivial matters, of which some have been told me, but are not proper to be related by a female pen, tho some of that foolish sex have had too large a share in the story….

They give the title of merchant to every trader, who rate their goods according to the time and specie they pay in: for example, pay, money, pay as money, and trusting. Pay is grain, pork, beef, etc at the prices set by the general court that year; money is pieces of eight, reals, or Boston or Bay shillings (as they call them) or good hard money, as sometimes silver coin is termed by them; also wampum Indian beads which serve for change. Pay as money is provisions as aforesaid one third cheaper than as the assembly or general court sets it; and trust as they and the merchant agree for time. 

Now, when the buyer comes to ask for a commodity, sometimes before the merchant answers that he has it, he says, “is your pay ready?” Perhaps the chap relies, “Yes.” “What do you pay in?” says the merchant. The buyer having answered, then the price is set; as suppose he wants a sixpenny knife, in pay it is 12d–in pay as money eight pence, and hard money its own price six dollars. It seems a very intricate way of trade and what Lex Mercatoria had not thought of.

Being at a merchants house, in comes a tall country fellow with his alfogeos (saddle bags) full of tobacco; for they seldom lose their cud, but keep chewing and spitting as long as their eyes are open,–he advanced to the middle of the room, and makes an awkward nod, and spitting a large deal of aromatic tincture, he gave scrape with his shovel-like shoe, leaving a small shovel full of dirt on the floor, made a full stop, hugging his own pretty body with his hands under his arms, stood staring around him like a cat let out of a basket. At last, like the creature Balaam rode on (a donkey), he opened his mouth and said, “Have you any ribbon for hatbands to sell I pray?” The questions and answer about the pay being past, the ribbon is brought and opened. Bumpkin Simpers, cries its confounded gay I vow, and beckoning to the door, in comes Joan Tawdry, dropping about 50 curtsees and stands by him: he shows her the ribbon…. Then she enquires, “Have you any hood silk, I pray?” which being brought and bought, “Have you any thread silk to sew it with says she, which being accommodated with they departed. They generally stand after they come in a great while speechless, and sometimes don’t say a word till they are asked what they want, which I impute to the aw they stand in of the merchants who they are constantly almost indebted to…

Sarah Kemble Knight, The Journal of Madam Knight, With an Introductory Note by George Parker Winship (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1920), 36-43. 

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