Female Laborers at Harvard

Essay by 2015 Arcadia Fellow Alicia DeMaio


Harvard in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a predominately male space, and the documents in the Colonial North American Project reflect this gender imbalance. Women, however, were present on Harvard’s campus as sweepers and members of the kitchen staff, often alongside men.


The people responsible for sweeping Harvard’s buildings—including the hall, the library, the room containing the scientific instruments, the Hebrew school run by Judah Monis, and the chapel—were typically married or widowed women but were occasionally men. Payment for sweeping the hall came out of student bills, and over the course of the 1740s, the sweepers received a raise from fourshillings per student to nine shillings. Other job perks included access to any provisions left over after breakfast and lunch, but only after the waiters had first dibs. With the state of food served in Commons, which was so bad it frequently incited student complains and occasionally outright rebellion, one wonders whether they actually helped themselves.


The kitchen of Harvard’s Commons, the eighteenth century version of the dining hall, hired a female cook and laundress. Susannah Morse, the laundress, earned 10 pounds a month for her work in Commons as well as money for laundering the clothes of other staff members, such as Samuel Shapleigh, College Librarian.


The kitchen staff often reported to work before the students arrived and stayed “longer after [the students’] departure; that time being necessary to scower the Utensils, cleanse the cellars and put the various articles in their proper order.” For commencement dinners, the regular staff, such as Katy Richardson, received extra wages, and additional temporary employees, such as Jemima Freaky and “Dido, a negro woman” were paid small sums for their labor, which mostly included scouring the kitchen utensils. Dido returned to help at commencement the following year, where she earned less than Sambo, the black man who helped cook. Katy Richardson, the regular kitchen assistant, earned around 10 to 12 shillings a day, while other temporary assistants earned much less (two or three shillings a day). In the 1790s, Eliza Martin and Betsy Thomas earned between 5.50 and 6 dollars a month, or around twenty cents a day. Betsy’s male colleague, Peter Waters, earned up to 9 dollars a month. Their duties are not described, but Waters’ gender could in part explain his higher salary, particularly if he was the head of a household.


Information about Harvard’s employment of women as wage laborers in the eighteenth century is important because it adds another dimension to women’s role in the larger economy. Typical narratives of women’s labor in the eighteenth century focus on their work in the home, producing goods that sometimes went to external markets, but often did not. The women who worked at Harvard performed the same duties as domestic servants, but they were paid by a large institution. They are alternatively referred to as “servants” and “employees” in the records, which illustrates how malleable categories of female labor were in the late eighteenth century.