Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Pregnant Servant

The reason this story survives is because the teenage Gratz sisters at home in 1798 developed a relationship with the family maid, who was probably about the same age.

In September of that year, Rebecca was in Baltimore helping out her eldest sister Fanny Etting who had a new baby. The rest of the Gratz family, along with their servants, had just moved to Lancaster to escape a yellow fever epidemic raging in Philadelphia. It must have been at this point that Alley, the maid, confided to Rachel, the youngest Gratz sister, that she had been seduced, abandoned and now found herself pregnant.

Rachel wrote to Rebecca about it, and we have her reply. While she is sympathetic, she accepts that the maid's fate has been settled: "Poor deluded Alley," she wrote, was a victim of "inexperience" and having "too good an opinion of a worthless wretch.... [Alley] bartered every prospect of comfort in life for wretchedness and self-reproach. I thought the principles of virtue were too deeply imprest in her bosom ever to be eradicated...had she been educated with a proper respect for virtue, she would have been an ornament to the society of which she was a
member -- but in that rank of life vice is the attendant of ignorance."

Rebecca then assures Rachel that "our honor'd parents' humanity will not abandon her to want in a strange place."

We learn a number of things about the maid and Rebecca from this. First, about Alley, we find that she was not an indentured servant: if she had been she would not have feared abandonment. Her employer would have kept her on but added a year or two to her term of service to make up for the labor lost due to her pregnancy and ensuing motherhood. If her employer thought that an unwed mother was not fit to be around his unmarried daughters, he could rent out her out as a maid to someone else.

Alley, then, was a free woman. She was most likely to have been African-American since African Americans comprised the second largest group (after indentured servants) in the pool of domestics in Philadelphia, circa 1800. But she could also have been from the poor white immigrant class. Because she was free, her condition and its difficulties usually led to a swift termination of her services. Would an employer heartlessly throw a servant out in a strange city? This fear may have been a product of Alley's anxiety, but it is reassuring to find that Rebecca was confident that the Gratz family would not consider such a thing. We have to hope that they did not send her back to plague-ridden Philadelphia, but kept her on as long as the family was in Lancaster.

This incident also tells us something about 17-year-old Rebecca Gratz. She was a rational young woman who thought that through education Alley could have gained an understanding of the dangers she faced and thereby avoided her plight. Like Alley, Rebecca suffered from inexperience. She had not yet encountered reason's nemesis: that complex of emotions which make up romantic love and sexual attraction. When she did, she would emerge with a greater sense of reason's and humans' limitations.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)

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