The following is excerpted from former WHS curator Amber Degn’s paper, “‘That leisure hour I seldom find’: Hannah Hayden’s Work and Family Economy in Frontier New York, 1806-1822”, which she originally presented at the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife in 2001. The full text appears in the published proceedings from the seminar, available through Historic Deerfield.

I wish you would send me that blanket that Father carried…I want all the pieces of my blue gown. I want a bowl to make pye crust in & a dish to put sauce in…I wish you would dry some quinces for me…tell Mamma I hope this wont be the lot of all her children but if it is I hope they will submit to their fate more willingly than I do. I want a little otter if you have got any. if you have got any old pieces of swansdown I want some to mend jacket. […] I wish Father & Mother would come & see us this fall.1

Hannah Hayden letter to Miss Alla Hayden c1807

Figure 1. Hannah Hayden letter to Miss Alla Hayden, probably 1807. Hannah Hayden Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill.

Hannah Hayden (1778-1823) followed her husband Hezekiah (1777-1823) from Windsor, Connecticut, to Hartwick, New York in 1806. Despite the demands of her schedule, Hannah wrote regularly to her family in Windsor, revealing herself as a willful woman grappling with her new identity in frontier New York (Figure 1). More than sixty of these letters from 1806-1822 survive and are in the collection of the Newberry Library in Chicago. The letter above […] expresses themes that dominated the bulk of her correspondence. Her textile work and the burdens of caring for her brood of children, […] apprentices, and shop hands usually took center stage, while her focus on and longing for material goods and economic success remained subtle yet sharply detailed motifs. […]

Hannah and Hezekiah […] were married in 1801 or 1802, […] and like so many Connecticut residents, they left the crowded farms of New England for the vast, available lands in New York in the early 1800s. As the second eldest son of Levi and Margaret Strong Hayden, Hezekiah inherited little land and left Windsor to seek a more promising life for his family. Both he and Hannah had grown up in substantial houses and hailed from important families in Windsor (Figure 2). Their fathers had fought in the Revolutionary War [and] were successful farmers [who] owned large tracts of land[…]. Hezekiah’s father held town and state offices, owned slaves, and had an estate valued at more than $12,000 when he died in 1812. […] It is no wonder that Hannah’s letters emphasized the hardships of establishing her young family economically and socially in a new community and the differences between her new life in New York and what she imagined her life should be, based on what she had experienced in Connecticut. […]

Isaac Hayden house, 957 Palisado Ave, built 1773

Figure 2. Isaac Hayden, Hannah Hayden’s father, built this house in 1773. Hannah grew up in this house, which still stands today at 957 Palisado Ave. in Windsor, CT. This photo shows how it looked around 1933. WHS collections 1955.8.51, gift of Newton C. Brainard.

Hannah’s Work

Virtually every letter Hannah wrote included mention of her “work.” She used this term primarily for domestic, textile-related toil—spinning, weaving, knitting, sewing, or mending. […] She felt constant pressure to produce cloth so her family would meet cultural requirements for propriety, for she concluded that “it takes a great deal to clothe my family and have them decent.” She was particularly self-conscious and embarrassed when she sent her eldest daughter Fanny to Windsor to stay with her family in 1818: “I was very sorry to send her down so poorly dresst but we had so many ways for our money I could not fick [fix] her any better.” […]

The household tasks that she routinely completed, but considered too mundane to mention in her correspondence, included housecleaning, tending the garden, laundry, and food preparation. On only one or two occasions did she mention making cheese, feeding her family, or making soap. […] Her most constant and onerous tasks remained childcare and textile production, both of which could come to a complete standstill if Hannah became ill or had an accident.

[In 1811, she had her sixth child and the family had recently embarked on another move to] Springfield at the northern tip of Otsego Lake [New York]:

…we have sold our place to [Hezekiah’s brother] Strong and purchasd 50 acres of land in springfield. we are building a shop larg enough to live in a year or two. We expect to build a barn this summer. I have 13 in my family. I have no help but fanny [then age 8]. I sent her to school two days but I shall send her no more for I found she was a great help to me. We have lived here 4 weks…I like this place verry well. Our children have got the chicken pox. My babe has had thre swellings one on the side of his neck & one under each of his armes…We have namd him Isaac. …soon after I came her had a fall into the suller their being a trap door. I fell backwards from top to bottom…I was in great pain for ten days. I at turns I could hardly get up or sit down or walk about. I have about got over it now. (Figure 3)

Hannah Hayden letter to her sisters, June 3, 1811.

Figure 3. Excerpt from Hannah Hayden letter to her sisters, June 3, 1811. Hannah Hayden Papers, Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill.

Debt and the Family Economy

Hezekiah and Hannah began their new lives in Hartwick with significant debt from the purchase of their land. […]Hannah became increasingly preoccupied with money after the move to Springfield, but debt worried her early on in Hartwick, even though they had “plenty of work in the shop.” [In 1808 she wrote to her sister Alla:]

“Hez thinks it is a thing impossible for him to make his payment so soon as febuary he thinks he had better giv in our summers work and liv togetter another year. We are in hopes the times will be better then…I don’t like to do so much hard work for nothing.”

In virtually the same breath Hannah, wrote of Hezekiah’s payment, “our” summer work, and her reason for working. These sentences are particularly revealing of Hannah’s work ethic and personal values. If she had to work, she expected to receive something, preferably an object or income to buy material goods such as the sidesaddle she fancied.

Additionally, Hannah’s wording indicates that she considered Hezekiah’s work to be her work. Throughout the letters she used “we” and “ours” when referring to money, debt, and her husband’s mill work. […] While Hannah clearly did not work in the mills, and Hezekiah did not care for the children or mend clothing, Hannah’s tone suggests that their [personal] family economy was [fairly] integrated. […]

This integrated family economy did not, however, guarantee success. Hezekiah experienced problems with the water supply at his mill in Hartwick, and by 1809 land was selling for half of what it had been worth the previous year. […] Moving in 1811 did not resolve the Haydens’ economic problems because other competing textile mills had cropped up by 1820. […] Hannah’s lowest point occurred in August of 1820 as she wrote her parents about their hardship during this severe economic depression:

I think how much comfort you can tak to gether if you are sick or well and here poor me is all a lone… the times are very hard for them that are in debt as we be…I hav got most discouraged. I dont have much resolution to do anything.

Missing Female Companionship

Before 1812 Hannah repeatedly asked her sisters and mother to come to New York to help her with her work. […] [One strategy she tried was] promoting the numbers of eligible bachelors in the area: “Alta & Lucy [two of Hannah’s sisters] you tell [cousin] Esther if she will come up here & bring her needle and shears and live one year I dont dout but she will get a beau as smart as uncle perus or Lucetia either. There is enough beaus for all of you as good as Horis Filly & they have got bigger begs than he has.”

Hannah requested these working visits because she did not have the same network of female peers to run “in evry now and then to help” or provide the moral and emotional support her siblings had in Windsor. […] For Hannah, the burden of caring for her family became increasingly overwhelming after the 1811 move and resulted in feelings of intense loneliness and melancholy. As a young woman in Windsor, Hannah had been part of a tightly knit female community. She grew up as the second oldest child in a family of five girls and one boy, and her letters reveal a web of family and social relationships that was critical to her happiness.

Her own growing family in New York, however, was nothing like what she had known in Windsor. She had nine boys and three girls. Of these [daughters, one died as a child and another] was born in 1815, only eight years old when Hannah and Hezekiah both died in 1823. Fanny, born in 1803, was the only daughter old enough to perform any significant domestic labor. […] With so many young male children Hannah relied heavily on Fanny to assist with domestic duties. […] In 1822 Hannah bitterly bemoaned her loss when Fanny married Elisha Hall, a young man who ran a nearby competing mill. “[T]he trying time comes tomorrow of Fannys leaving her Fathers house. I find it verry hard to reconcile myself to the will of God.” […]

Lack of intimate female companionship distressed Hannah. She spent years trying to reconcile herself to her new identity as a wife and mother in rural New York. [In 1816 she wrote]:

we are all very well except my self. I am not very well but I say no more about it than I can help.…my dear Mother you dont now what a comfort it is to be surrounded with friends when you ant well becaus you never was deprivd of them as I be. oh if I could step in now and then and open my heart to a Mother or sisters. it seems as if it would be a great comfort…I cant speak to a hired girl or a neighbour as I could to one of you…

[…] Hannah was not completely isolated from her community, but her lack of close female companionship made her crave the relationships she had left behind in Windsor.

Desire and Consumerism

[…] Hannah rarely met her own expectations of what she should be producing in quantity or quality [in her work], nor did she have the life filled with social ritual and material success she craved. As Hezekiah dealt with problems with his dam and Hannah accomplished her solitary work, his brother and her sister’s husband were planning the 1807 election ball in Windsor. The ball managers were all within the Haydens’ social network, [including] Horace Filley (Hannah’s brother-in-law) and Martin Hayden (Hezekiah’s brother) (Figure 4). Hannah would have attended genteel social events as a young woman in Windsor, but in New York she had no opportunities for such entertainment. In the winter of 1812-1813 the Cooperstown Assembly held balls every Thursday throughout the season, but the managers limited attendance […]to those “deemed sufficiently genteel.”2 In their new life, Hannah and Hezekiah did not fall into this category. […]

Figure 4. Election ball invitation, 14 May 1807. Windsor Historical Society collections OD19-1439, 1933.7.2, gift of Edith Stiles Hale.

Hannah’s worries about money were legitimate. When Hezekiah died intestate in 1823, his probate inventory listed an extensive estate, […] however, his debts […] left virtually nothing for Hannah and their children. The inventory lists livestock, farming equipment, a “wheel and real,” crops, and kitchen and household furnishings. The Haydens had only a few objects that could be considered luxury goods: a woman’s saddle, a silver watch, a desk, a bedspread, a gun, and one-third of a pew in the meeting house. This inventory does not create an image of high-style surroundings. Yet Hannah filled her letters with references to material goods, indicating that in spite of the paucity of luxury objects, she was aware of the fashionable accouterments available and she desired a certain level of comfort and wealth.

Hannah Hayden’s letters chronicle the intersection of one woman’s desires and daily work. They reveal the roles she played in her family and community in the last phase of the frontier in New York. More importantly, these writings indicate one reason she toiled so hard. […] She wanted desperately to emulate her former Windsor life in her new home. […] As [her family] settled in New York, Hannah struggled to find her identity and relay it to her community. She was no longer the young, fashionable woman from cosmopolitan Windsor. Instead, she was a wife, mother, textile producer, and domestic laborer working to achieve the status and genteel lifestyle she left behind. […] By 1820 she finally resigned herself to her new identity: a frontier wife and mother of the middling sort.


By Amber Degn, curator, 2001

  1. All quotes contain original spelling and punctuation.
  2. Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 378.