As the sisters peered out their window on Boston’s Queen Street, they were too stricken by the horrid spectacle playing out on the night of October 28, 1769 to be able to fathom its significance. A controversial newspaper publisher was chased and nearly killed by “Skreeming” and enraged respectable gentlemen. On the heels of this narrow escape, a thousand-strong mob tarred and feathered a bloodied customs service employee “befor [the sisters’] Dorr.” The night’s events made clear that the women were no longer safe, even in their home.
Violent street politics such as these would culminate with the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. In the wake of Parliament’s 1767 Townshend Acts, which levied customs duties on key imports to the colonies, explosive factionalism split Boston. Starting in March 1768, a new Committee of Merchants campaigned to halt the importation of British consumer goods.
Caught up in the volatile politics of consumption were Elizabeth and Ame (pronounced “Amy”) Cuming, small-scale entrepreneurs in their mid-30s who imported fashionable wares from London. Their business of selling luxurious accessories was “very trifling,” as Elizabeth described it. In their own eyes, they were “two industrious Girls who ware Striving in an honest way to Git there Bread.” Unmarried and without an adult male guardian, they were financially independent. They would fight to retain that unusual status.
The sisters were from nearby Concord. Their parents, natives of Scotland, had followed business opportunities in the wake of the increasing flow of trade between Great Britain and the colonies. These were not refugees starting over, but educated folk from Scotland’s upper ranks. Helen Cuming, Ame and Elizabeth’s mother, was the daughter of a baronet, a title that placed her family among the British aristocracy (though not the nobility). Their father died before the twentieth birthday of the elder Ame; their mother was gone soon thereafter. Their insufficient age may have prevented their brother John, a recent newlywed and on the path to a brilliant career in Concord, from securing them husbands. They did not wish to be wards of their brother. By 1765 they had relocated to Boston.
In 18th century colonial port communities, anywhere from 2–10% of shopkeepers were women. The ranks of Boston’s female entrepreneurs swelled with each passing decade. The number of newspaper advertisements for fashionable imported items sold by women increased. The Cuming sisters entered a network of Boston women in business. This network nourished their business acumen and provided them with credit, friendship, and social connections. They sold symbols of refinement to gentlewomen of means. They taught fine embroidery at their own school and boarded young ladies from the countryside in their home.
Shopkeeping was an increasingly popular means of making a living for both men and women. Shopkeepers had begun to contract directly with London suppliers, flooding the port markets with an uncontrolled volume of consumer goods. A successful non-importation campaign would, as Massachusetts Royal Governor Francis Bernard observed, “affect middling & little Traders, many of whom must be ruined by it, whilst Men of Great Property & credit might be benefitted by it by becoming Monopolists.” The Cuming sisters were among the “little Traders;” a shipment of wares reaching them in late 1769 was 300 pounds sterling worth of wrought silk, sewing silk, and haberdashery. As Bernard knew, livelihoods dependent on constant cash flow and frequently changing fashions would not survive a long-term boycott of British consumer goods. Signing a non-importation agreement would put the sisters out of business.
In mid-November, Ame and Elizabeth received a visit from the activist arm of the Merchants’ Committee. These men were aware that the sisters were selling the £300 shipment from London, “contrary to the aggremant of the Merchants.” The sisters defended themselves against these unwanted visitors with strong words, proclaiming that “[w]e have never antred into eney agreement not to import” and accusing the committeemen of “trying to inger” honest businesswomen. Either this group was reluctant to use violent tactics against women or they were messengers and not a street mob. They left with a threat that the young women “must tack the Conciquances” of their defiance.
The “conciquances” entailed a very public outing on the front page of Boston’s newspaper of protest, the Boston Gazette. The Merchants’ Committee denounced the Cumings as “enemies to their country” who “preferred their own little private Advantage to the Welfare of America.” By Christmas, every Whig-leaning newspaper had added the Cummings to their list of heretics. On March 19, 1770 Boston’s Town Meeting voted that the sisters and nine others be “entred on the Records of this Town that POSTERITY may know who those Persons were that preferred their little private Advantage to the common Interest of all the Colonies […]; who not only deserted but opposed their Country in a struggle for the Rights of the Constitution.” The price to be paid for financial independence was too high. The Cuming sisters retreated to their small property in Concord.
Though the Merchants’ Committee and those who enforced its aims never explicitly targeted Boston’s “she-merchants,” their niche position in that world of commerce guaranteed that women shopkeepers were vulnerable to the pressures of the boycott. Boston’s volatile politics drove the Cuming sisters from the port city. Elizabeth and Ame were among the over 1,000 Loyalist refugees who departed besieged Boston with the Regular Army troops in March 1776. As they watched Boston disappear from view, the ten years they had invested in attaining their own version of independence must have appeared wasted. Though the sisters did not understand themselves as political Loyalists, their insistence on their right to chart their fate as individuals had landed them irrevocably in the Loyalist camp. They settled in another port town: Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, again with the support of their friends, they made a new beginning. By 1780, “the Miss Cumings [were] well and doing well, by being thrown hither they [had] fallen on their feet and [were] more prosperous than ever they were in Boston.”
Sources & Further Reading:
T. H. Breen. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Patricia Cleary. Elizabeth Murray: A Woman’s Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth Century America (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).
Patricia Cleary. “’Who shall say we have not equal abilitys with the Men when Girls of 18 years of age discover such great capacitys?’: Women of Commerce in Boston, 1750-1776.” In: Conrad Edick Wright, Katheryn P. Viens, eds. Entrepreneurs: The Boston Business Community, 1700-1850. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997, pp. 38-61.