Viens on Miller, 'Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood, and Landscapes of Change in Rural Massachusetts'

Marla R. Miller. Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood, and Landscapes of Change in Rural Massachusetts. Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 384 pp. $64.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4214-3274-8

Reviewed by Katheryn Viens (Boston University)
Published on H-Nationalism (December, 2020)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version:

A compelling image graces the cover of Marla R. Miller’s Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood and Landscapes of Change in Rural Massachusetts: a detail of an 1830 map of the town of Hadley on the Connecticut River. The shadows and creases of the image suggest that it has just been unfolded and its lines and symbols offer the reader a ready guide through the nineteenth-century landscape. Yet, as Miller’s Entangled Lives demonstrates, even the most carefully rendered sources omit important details, while male-dominated surveys of the past have failed to account for women’s lived experiences. 

Thankfully, we have Miller to lead us on this journey. When, at the start of her introduction, “Placings,” she directs the reader, “walk with me down the Hadley Common,” Miller sets the scene and demonstrates that, then as now, our view of historical actors and the spaces they inhabit is necessarily fleeting and incomplete. This is no trite literary device; rather, it signals the principal methodological challenge of Entangled Lives: how to recover the voices of ordinary women, in particular poor whites, the enslaved, and free women of color, those in Hadley’s “Back Street” who lived on the margins of society.  

The locus of the book is Forty Acres, a 160-acre farm that was the home of the widow Elizabeth Pitkin Porter; her daughter, Elizabeth Porter Phelps, and son-in-law, Charles; and their children, Charles, Betsy, and Thankful. Forty Acres was likewise the home and workplace of free and enslaved women, such as Peg, her daughters Phillis and Rose, and the destitute German widow Mary Andries. Entangled Lives introduces readers to them and an even greater number of working women—elite, free black, Native American, enslaved, disabled, and poor white women—from Hadley and surrounding towns. In the process of exploring their lived experiences, Miller establishes place as a metaphor for class status, whether “place” refers to one’s role, hometown, or the social spaces one is free to occupy. 

Miller’s ambitious aim is “to understand (gendered) social relations of labor in the early republic, and class as both process and lived experience in rural western New England in the decades following the American Revolution” (emphasis added). She stakes this goal on her ability “to introduce readers to women at work in Hadley, Massachusetts, to contemplate their lives in constellation, and to explore what they have to tell us about the broader world they inhabited” (p. xiii). 

Entangled Lives explores four popular occupations—domestic service, cloth production, hospitality (including tavern keeping), and healing and caregiving—to advance our understanding of local economies in several ways. Miller’s focus on women’s labor leads her to tackle the question of what constitutes “work.” As she astutely observes, “grounding our questions principally in occupation, whether of men or of women, risks misrepresenting to greater and lesser degrees lived experience, as it does not account well for variations over time or through seasons, and masks the extent of multiple employments” (p. 18). 

“Like both clothing and cloth production,” Miller notes, “the work of caregiving overlaps with the work women did for and within their own families, blurring lines between women recognized for their special training, experience, or talent, and others who were simply attending to their families’ everyday needs” (p. 170). When they labored for others, women received remuneration in the form of wages, credit, goods, and/or services, often represented as obligations that, as Christopher Clark observes, “embodied the distinctive moral demands made by rural people on each other” (quoted on p. 27). Yet one woman’s “work” might be another woman’s leisure pursuit, and such distinctions served to mark class differences.  

Such scholars as Mary Babson Fuhrer have shown that class distinctions were subtle in rural New England in this period. However, Entangled Lives vividly demonstrates that even women of means required the labor of other households to manage their own, many women needed to work for others to secure their families’ well-being, and all were bound by a culture of reciprocity. One’s place was precarious, to be sure, but many women had the opportunity to improve their situation. Conversely, a shortage of help could leave even genteel women, such as Phelps feeling “embarrassed.” By extension, then, “domestic, laboring, and social space were mutually constitutive,” Miller finds, “defining, distinguishing, and collapsing on each other” (p. xv). 

Finally, Entangled Lives engages the scholarship on the decline of the commons and the rise of an individualistic society, as well as the literature that documents the transition from the gentility of the few to the refinement of the many, to show that in Hadley and other rural communities, “women’s labors both curbed and accelerated the development of what would become the rural middle class” (p. 2). Indeed, Entangled Lives is so inclusive and expansive that it effectively succeeds in narrating the history of Hadley’s social, cultural, and economic landscape almost exclusively through the lives of its women. 

In Miller’s own words, this effort “demands a sharp focus and a steady gaze” (p. 2). Hadley is well documented in Elizabeth Phelps’s diary and the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, including ledger books, at Amherst College. However, it took meticulous and creative research in these and other sources, including tax lists, probate records, and the structure and landscape of Forty Acres itself to recover the lived experiences of more than sixty free or enslaved domestic servants, laundresses, spinners, weavers, gown makers, nurses, and midwives who provided labor to the Phelpses over six decades.  

Entangled Lives employs a three-part structure that, in turn, establishes the participants and the geography of women’s labor, explores key occupations, and considers changes over time. Part 1, “Woman, Work, and Community,” comprises three chapters. The first, “From Nolwotogg to Hadley,” gives readers an essential history of the English in Hadley and the eastern Algonkian peoples whose homeland they settled. It establishes the economy of Hadley and characterizes the networks of exchange that developed as “residents cultivated relationships voluntary and involuntary” (p. 26).  

While Miller is referring here to limitations on the rural economy, tangible and intangible forms of credit and indebtedness, and expectations of reciprocity embedded in white society, she effectively pivots to discuss the Connecticut Valley slave trade. The section “Slavery and Antislavery” adds to our understanding of slaveholding in Massachusetts, but its principal contribution is to uncover the various ways enslaved women negotiated their freedom, “more often a process shaped by local relationships than an event codified in a legal document” (p. 33). 

Chapter 2, “Women, Work, and the Business of Gentility,” gives “the View from Forty Acres,” while chapter 3, “Women, Work, and Economies of Makeshifts,” turns the reader’s perspective toward the farm, to accord laboring women’s point of view comparable status and prove that it yields equally valuable historical insights. These chapters provide a rich understanding of women’s economic activities after the revolution, including the broom making of African American and mixed-race families, such as Mary Trainer’s, and the artistic pursuits of disabled entrepreneurs, such as Martha Ann Honeywell. As Miller observes, when the Native American domestics Zerviah and Assinah used a basket Elizabeth Phelps owned, this not only demonstrated how one form of labor (basketmaking) helped to construct another (cheesemaking) but also belied the modern classification of the basket as a Euro-American artifact by virtue of its presumed use by a white owner.

Part 2, “Livelihoods,” explores the occupations of domestic service, cloth production, hospitality, and healing and caregiving in four chapters. Chapter 4, “Domestic Service,” gives readers their most intimate view of women’s labor at Forty Acres. Even as “women in a position to hire help engaged in a constant calculus that was not merely financial, but weighed personalities, convenience, family privacy, and a host of other intangible factors,” domestics such as Polly Randall made their own calculations (p. 89). With a son and aunt to care for in another town, Randall left Forty Acres to take up braiding straw hats in an effort to make ends meet. As an employer, Elizabeth Phelps became bound up in the matter of servants’ unsanctioned pregnancies and childcare, circumstances that took an emotional toll on all involved.

In chapter 5, “Making Cloth,” readers learn how fields of flax were planted and that the wool from a single sheep produces about two pounds of yarn. These periodic deep dives into production processes occur throughout Entangled Lives and provide valuable context for the interpretation of sources related to rural life. Yet they also serve a more immediate purpose. Here readers learn that the multiple stages involved in processing flax and wool and the characteristics of the fibers, which governed the size of spinning wheels, dictated both the pace of women’s work and the space where it could occur in the home.  

Chapter 6, “Hospitality Work,” further expands the geography and social reach of Entangled Lives. Out of all the occupations, tavern keeping gave women “the highest public profile,” since they were “closer to the pulse of public life” than those in other roles (p. 147). Yet Miller reframes the popular narrative by shifting readers’ gaze from the license holders and their families to the numerous domestic servants and enslaved women who were responsible for preparing and serving food and drink, cleaning rooms, and keeping order in male-dominated spaces. In contrast, the midwives and nurses who appear in chapter 7, “Healing and Caregiving,” earned their living by providing skilled health care based on their specialized knowledge of the body, botanicals, and restorative practices and by their personal demeanor. 

The decline of household textile production created a divide between the Phelpses, who patronized the new manufactories, and women who left domestic service for new opportunities in and around the mills. In consequence, “long-standing relations of work among Hadley families gave way to new associations that were colored more by anonymity and brevity—or, depending on one’s point of view, brevity and privacy—than familiarity and continuity” (p. 136). When the trend toward professionalization in medicine and new notions of refinement gave rise to advice literature, women not only ceased to consult male physicians but also often stopped calling on one another.

Entangled Lives explores these nineteenth-century developments further in part 3: “Topographies of Change,” which comprises two chapters. Chapter 8, “Working Women and the Domestic Landscapes of Forty Acres,” closely examines the changes that occurred during successive renovations to the home. With each step that the Phelpses took toward new standards of refinement, the literal steps between the home’s formal, “processional” entrance and the servants’ entrance increased. This distance offered privacy to domestics and farm hands even as it complicated the task of supervising their behavior. When workers encountered the new, more fashionable domestic interiors, these further reinforced their social distinction from the Phelpses. As Miller observes, Elizabeth’s desk, books, and papers represented the wealth, education, leisure time, and powerful acquaintances that eluded most laboring women.

The final chapter, “New Labor, New Landscapes,” foregrounds the changes that occurred in Hadley and at Forty Acres following Elizabeth Phelps’s death in 1817 when her daughter, Betsy Huntington, was mistress of the home. Miller observes that the relocation of free people of color represented only the third significant transformation of women’s labor relationships, after the elimination of slavery and Yankee women’s flight from domestic service. Hadley became more white in other ways as well, as the yearning for order and cleanliness led to a preference for white painted buildings and the desire to remove Native American place names. 

In the coda, “Remembering Women and Work,” we return with Miller to view Hadley Common today and explore the nature of historical memory. Only a single slave has been memorialized with a marked grave, while the history of pauperism was erased when locals shortened the name of “Town Farm Lane.” Yet the Porter-Phelps-Huntington home has been preserved, as have the Forty Acres barn and many of its tools, at the Hadley Farm Museum. These sites continue to support research on the generations of men and women who lived in the Connecticut River Valley.  

Miller notes in the preface that Entangled Lives flows from her work as a public historian, including in Hadley, where she has lived for more than thirty years, and it completes a trilogy of academic works that began with her first book, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (2006). Yet her current work stands apart for its major contributions to women’s history, social history, and labor history. In Entangled Lives, Miller assiduously dismantles the barriers between archives-based research, community history, and the study of material culture broadly defined to include the vernacular landscape. In so doing, she crafts a valuable resource for local practitioners even as she challenges scholars to embrace the opportunities that her academic boldness represents.

Citation: Katheryn Viens. Review of Miller, Marla R., Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood, and Landscapes of Change in Rural Massachusetts. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.