J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Mary Palmer: young "city lady" in the country

This blog seems to have developed a small following among local knitters, so I looked for some handwork stories to share. This installment also has more than its share of unabashed gossip.

At the start of the Revolution in 1775, newborn Mary Palmer’s family was near the top of Patriot society. Her paternal grandfather was one of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress’s leaders: Braintree manufacturer and militia general Joseph Palmer. For a time her father, Joseph Pearse Palmer, was commissary for the provincial troops. After the war, however, the family fell on hard times. They blamed John Hancock for collecting debts when they had sunk all their cash into Continental scrip and a salt-making enterprise, but it’s clear that psychological depression was also involved. Mary later wrote, “my beloved father’s spirits sank, he seemed totally discouraged.”

Her maternal grandparents let Joseph P. Palmer farm some of their land in Framingham for half the crops. Mary recalled how she and her sisters adjusted from town life to farm life in the 1780s:

We learned to spin, borrowing wheels of our good-natured neighbors, who seemed pleased to teach the city ladies their craft. We learned, while we lived there, to spin flax, on a little foot wheel, and wool, tow and cotton, on a large wheel. . . . a plump rosy faced girl whose name was Zerniah Price…taught us how to card wool, cotton and tow, and how to hatchel flax, some of which we raised upon the farm; and my mother would change work with Zerniah’s mother and other women, knitting and sewing for them while they would weave cotton and flax into cloth which we would get dressed into fustian at the mill.

Eventually Joseph P. Palmer left his family to work in northern New England. After various indignities, Mary ended up marrying author Royall Tyler. What indignities? It seems clear that Royall got Mary pregnant and put off marrying her until months after she gave birth. And researchers now believe that he had earlier impregnated her mother, and perhaps tried to seduce one of her sisters. The Tyler family settled on a farm in Brattleboro in 1796; Royall would eventually become chief justice of Vermont while Mary published one of America’s first parenting books.

Earlier I quoted Royall’s deliberately quaint description of a spinning bee. Here’s Mary on the work of organizing textile production on the Vermont farm:
All this time my dairy and spinning wheels were busily attended...by myself, with the assistance of one and at times two girls. Our sheep furnished wool, and we raised flax. I spun all the thread I used for years, whitening some, and coloring some, and some keeping flax color. I hired a girl to spin that I wanted wove, and the tow also, with which we made cloth for sheets and common table linen.
Later Mary convinced Royall to buy her a loom for her women to weave on. She also sent some blankets “to have them fulled at the mill and dressed,” but “the clothier…fulled it so much” that she was “sadly disappointed.” The system back in Framingham seemed to work better.

These quotations are from Grandmother Tyler’s Book, a compilation of Mary Tyler’s and her mother’s memoirs edited by descendants Frederick Tupper and Helen Tyler Brown. The evidence of Royall Tyler's sexual behavior is discussed in Bruce A. Ronda's Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Megan Marshall's The Peabody Sisters.


Anonymous said...

Was Mary Palmer Lady Palmer III? Did she write this: "My husband, My hero, My heart"?

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t recognize that phrase, and to my knowledge Mary Palmer never went by “Lady Palmer.” She published one book in her lifetime anonymously.