Philobiblon: The lace entrepreneur

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The lace entrepreneur

In her comment on my post two days ago on women servants, Sharon kindly pointed to her bibliography on early modern servants here.

She also reminded me in her Denbighshire account of another woman of my "acquaintance" who was not a servant but an entrepreneur in her own right: Hester Pinney.

Born in 1658 in Dorset, the daughter of a Puritan minister who was ejected from the ministry for his beliefs and then took up lace-trading, she moved to London in 1682. His wife, Jane, and Hester's four older sisters were also involved in the trade.

She lived in London for the next 58 years, although never with a permanent address. This might seem to be a "female" pattern, but her relation by marriage, the poet John Gay, did the same thing. Hester seems to have sometimes "lived in" with aristocratic patrons, being a high-class servant and semi-independent contractor, perhaps somewhat above a lady's maid, but she also spent much time trading independently at the Royal Exchange.

The stalls there did not have storage, "so the sisters presumably stored their bundles of lace in taverns" (where Hester also sometimes boarded). (Which brings up the old issue of women in taverns, also discussed here.)

Her brother Azariah was sentenced to be hung in Monmouth's rebellion, but she managed to bribe an agent who convinced the Lord Chief Justice to commute the sentence to transportation. (And he quickly set up a lace business in the West Indies.)

After her sister married (unwisely), Hester operated on her own, but didn't please her family (particularly the tavern bit). Yet she also met other businesswomen in taverns e.g. Dorothy Rose, a seamstress who seems to have been planning to make her lace up into clothes and drapery, in a tavern on the Strand.

By the 1690s she had built up her business (which also involved money-lending and other financial dealings) so that she was a serious "catch" on the marital market but although she showed definite affection for one suitor, she chose, and to some extent was pushed by the family, to remain single.

From "Dealing with Love: The Ambiguous Independence of the Single Woman in Early Modern England,' Gender and History, Vol 11, No 2, July 1999, pp. 209-212.

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