Women, Work, and What We Save

Visitors to the second floor Hands on History rooms at the Old State House will find a new display among the timelines and reproduction clock. Our Hands on History Board is all about colonial food this fall, and we’d like to share a “taste” of this history with our blog readers.

0021.1884 Franklin Saucepan

When I was looking through the food-related objects in our collection for our new Hands on History board, one of the objects that immediately stood out to me was a small copper saucepan. In addition to being quite beautiful, this pan also comes with an impressive background – it was once owned by Benjamin Franklin. This is certainly why it was originally donated to the Society in 1884, but when I looked past its most famous connection, a more complex history emerged. Before the pan came to our collection, it was passed down to a granddaughter from her grandfather, and that grandfather originally received it as a memento from Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane Mecom.

When talking about this pan, one of the difficult things to determine was who might have actually used it for cooking, since that was the topic of our project. While we don’t know how long Jane owned it, she seems to be the most likely option of the names we know, since Benjamin Franklin is unlikely to have done his own cooking and the later owner is unlikely to have used an object seen as a keepsake. Jane’s narrative surrounding food also turned out to be an interesting story to tell. Like many women in this time period, Jane spent a lot of time cooking. In her case, this was part of her role as wife and mother, but because of consistent financial troubles eventually made worse by the death of her husband, it was also a way to provide for her family in a society that offered few options for paid work for women. Jane occasionally worked in other capacities, but her most consistent source of income was serving as a landlady, renting out rooms in her home to boarders. Her boarders tended to be people of high social standing, including many representatives from far out in Massachusetts who needed a place to stay while attending sessions of the General Court here at the State House. Jane’s skill in preparing food would have been an important part of her ability to attract these sorts of customers and maintain a successful business – gentlemen certainly would have expected something better than they could get at the local tavern.

Unfortunately, while we can draw some conclusions about Jane based on what we know about these sorts of women and businesses at the time, it is difficult to come up with details about life at Jane’s boarding house due to a lack of sources. This is a common problem in women’s history for many reasons – women’s tasks being seen as unimportant and not worth writing about, women not being able to write their own stories (even in 1700s Massachusetts, where everyone was taught to read, many women did not learn to write), and documents not being saved. In Jane’s case, we know that she did learn to write from her brother and that she wrote letters to him throughout her life. However, it’s difficult to put together too much of her life from this correspondence, because it is mainly Benjamin Franklin’s side of those letters that has been preserved, while many of hers have been lost (and just like our saucepan, those that were kept were likely kept because of their relationship to Franklin). While the correspondence we have suggests a woman who was smart and engaged in her brother’s writing and the ideals of the revolution, it’s hard enough to piece together her day-to-day life, much less discover her as a full and complex person. That’s the fault of course of the social structures at the time, but also the fault of those who choose what pieces of history should be preserved. Jane Mecom’s story inspires me to do better work on that front moving forward.

For more on Jane, see Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin.