Date of Award
Master of Arts in History
United States History
Ian R. Mather
This study examines the lives of poor women in Providence, Rhode Island between the end of the American Revolution in 1781 and the formation of Providence’s municipal government in 1832. In this same Early Republic period, many historians have described a crackdown by local authorities in cities throughout the northern United States on perceived threats to social order and stability, in stark contrast to the Enlightenment-inspired rhetoric of egalitarianism that marked the Revolution and its immediate aftermath. This crackdown was the result of long-term and interlocking economic, social, and political changes, and frequently took the form of the arrest and removal from town of women—both white and African American— associated with so-called disorderly houses. ‘Disorderly house’ was a blanket term used by local authorities to encompass a wide variety of illicit or suspect establishments like racially integrated boarding houses, brothels, unlicensed liquor stands, dance halls, or family homes that entertained company too late at night.
Providence records, such as town council meeting minutes, county court records, deeds, and town directories, reveal that trends similar to those in major cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston were present in a mid-sized regional town. They also demonstrate the importance of disorderly houses, both as a focus for town authorities’ efforts to prevent disorder by removing women through existing poor laws and in women’s resistance to removal. In Providence’s expanding maritime economy, disorderly houses provided income for women who were often left to fend for themselves as the result of a mariner husband’s absence at sea, an absence that was often permanent. At the same time, such houses also connected poor women with benefactors from the ranks of Providence’s elite, many of whom rented properties in the town’s disreputable neighborhoods, like Olney’s Lane and Hardscrabble, and sometimes turned a blind eye to disorder or intervened with the authorities to protect reliable tenants. Local evidence also demonstrates that Providence disorderly houses served as community institutions, providing women with cheap lodging, rudimentary social services, and a network in which to hide from town authorities.
Polta, Andrew T., "Disorderly House Keepers: Poor Women in Providence, Rhode Island, 1781-1832" (2018). Open Access Master's Theses. Paper 1185.