Total Pageviews

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

More about a Spinster: A Spinner of Cloth or an Unmarried Woman?

Thanks to one of my readers who inquired about the term spinster.  Anonymous asked, “Could a widow woman from the 1800 be described in a legal document as a spinster?  She would be unmarried at the time so is it possible that the clerk could label her as such?”  The question was posted on my September 30, 2011, post, “A Spinster—Not What You Think!”  The question motivated me to do more research on the term, spinster, as it was found in early documents.
In my post on September 30, I related how astounded I was when I found that my 2nd great grandmother, Nancy Land, who was married and whose husband was still living in 1860, was listed in the 1860 census as being a spinster.  The genealogy librarian at the State Library of North Carolina in Raleigh told me that ladies who spun cloth were often recorded as spinster in the census data.  She did not address its double usage—for occupation and for marital status.
Therefore, in this post, I am sharing some of the information that I have learned on the subject from my Internet research.
Public records, dating from 1800 to 1804 in the New Bern-Craven County Public Library provide examples of the term, spinster, when it is used as an occupation.[i]  I am listing a few examples below to show how various occupations, including that of spinster, were recorded.
10 Mar 1800—Samuel Willis, a free Negro aged 19 years, son of Dorcas Moore, bound to Francis Lowthrop, Esq., as a mariner.
8 September 1800—David Moore, a free Negro boy aged 11 years, bound to Ebenezer Slade as a cooper.
9 September 1800—Sally Pittman, daughter of Jourdan Pittman who is deserted by her father, bound to Nathan Tisdale as a spinster.
10 December 1800—William Jones, orphan aged 16 years next March, bound to Elijah Clark, of New Bern, as a chair maker and wheelwright.
14 December 1801—Nancy Carter, a free person of color aged 8 years, bound to Benjamin Mitchell as a spinster.
According to the 1856 edition of Bouvier’s Law Dictionary,[ii]  in wills and other legal documents, the term, widow, is used to identify a woman whose husband is dead and who has never remarried.  The term, spinster, is given to a woman who was never married.
The Oxford Dictionaries[iii]  traced the origin of the word, spinster, from the late Middle English period in history and determined that the term is taken from the verb, spin + ster, meaning one who spins.  This term was attached to the names of women to denote that their occupation was spinning.  Albeit, this occupation may not have been for remuneration but was work they performed for the family in the home.
Deborah J. Mustard,[iv]  in her on-line publication, provided an excellent explanation of how the word, spinster, likely evolved to describe “the old maid” in the family.  Mustard explained that “the word spinster came into common use during the early 19th century when the thankless task of spinning cloth had been pushed off to unmarried women as a way to earn their keep in the home.”  Over time, when the masculine form, spinner, began to be used for women as well as for men, the problem was solved to some degree.  However, Mustard indicated that because so many women were engaged in spinning during the 17th and 18th centuries, many of these spinners are probably not accurately identified by researchers today because they assume that those ladies identified as spinsters were the older, unmarried women, a common assumption of contemporary society.
According to Jacob Field and Amy Erickson,[v]  the enumerator in the first national census in England in 1801 distinguished occupations for different family members in 96 households.  In this census the term, spinster, was used both as an occupation and a marital designation.  The use of the word for occupation and for marital status was employed for approximately 300 years.  As field and Erickson stated, “Only where the enumerator identifies married women as spinsters is it possible to be certain that he was using the word in its occupational sense.”
From what I have been able to determine, no specific solution to the ambiguity exists.  Therefore, if a woman is identified as a spinster, the researcher will need to dig deeper to find out if she were married and assume that, if she were married, she was a spinner of cloth.  On the other hand, if she were not married, the researcher will assume that she was a spinster as we commonly use the word in today’s society.  However, one must, also, keep in mind that the lady may have been both, an unmarried woman and a spinner of cloth!
I wish I could provide a more definitive answer to my anonymous reader’s query.

[i] New Bern-Craven County Public Library, Records from 1800 to 1804. (
[ii]Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, 2012 (
[iii] Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, 1856 Edition, (
[iv]Mustard, Deborah J. “Spinster: An Evolving Stereotype Revealed through Film,” Journal of Media Psychology, on-line publication, January 20, 2000. (
[v] Field, Jacob and Amy Erickson, “Prospects and Preliminary Work on Female Occupational Structure in England from 1500 to the National Census,” (

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in my blog and for your comment. I have the option of allowing your comments to become public. I will not publish comments with home addresses, phone numbers, or email addresses unless the responder gives permission. I receive notification when someone adds a comment. However, I cannot reply directly to these comments. In order to see my reply, you will need to check the post again.

You may click on photos to enlarge them.