Hannah H. T. Elliott: Chester County Feme Sole Trader
Under the early Pennsylvania legal system, single women or femes sole enjoyed relatively equal legal rights, with regards to property, as did men. Such was not the case for femes covert, or married women. In keeping with the English principle “Unity of person” the law recognized man and wife as a single legal entity under the husband’s management. Upon marriage, women relinquished essentially all of their public rights and responsibilities. They could not institute legal suit or even execute contracts (and thus conduct business) in their own names; such public activities had to be executed by their husbands. (1) Furthermore, until the 1848 married women’s property act, which gave women ownership of and disposal rights to their own property, (2) husbands had the legal right to manage their wives’ real estate and collect all profits produced therefrom, and to use and dispose of their wives’ personal property and wages as they pleased.
Theoretically, if a marriage were ideal- that is, if a husband provided for his wife and represented her wishes- this arrangement might not have been immediately troublesome. However, in a more realistic and dire situation, such as marital desertion, this could have put a woman in a precarious position. Without legal authority to publicly take action (and no husband present to do so for them) or to control the profits from her own work, a woman might not have had a means to support herself and her children. In an attempt to prevent abandoned women from becoming a burden on the public, Pennsylvania legislators passed an act in 1718 that stipulated that women, who were left while their husbands were at sea, could petition the court for feme sole trader status, whereby a feme covert could conduct business as if she were unmarried, in order to earn a livelihood. (3)
In 1855, the legislature expanded this statute. On one hand, it reinforced that a man does, in fact, have the right to claim against his wife’s will under normal circumstances. On the other hand, however, the statute actually further empowered feme sole traders in that it specifically invalidated a deserter husband’s right to claim his wife’s property. The act reads:
That whensoever any husband, from drunkenness, profligacy or other cause, shall neglect or refuse to provide for his wife, or shall desert her, she shall have all the rights and privileges secured to a feme sole trader, under the act of the twenty-second of February, 1 thousand 7 hundred and 18, entitled “An Act concerning feme sole traders,” and be subject as therein provided, and her property, real and personal, howsoever acquired, shall be subject to her free and absolute disposal during life, or by will, without any liability to be interfered with or obtained by such husband, and in case of her intestacy shall go to her next of kin, as if her husband were previously dead. (4)
In December of 1865, Mrs. Hannah H. T. Elliot of West Chester, Pennsylvania testified to the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County that her husband William, a traveling lecturer in Phrenology, had absented himself from her household several years earlier and had since failed to provide for his family.
Having been left responsible for 3 children (2 being from her previous marriage) and a household, Hannah was forced to borrow money from friends and relatives in order to open a small trimmings store from which to earn a living. To protect herself and her interests, Hannah petitioned the court and was granted feme sole trader status, whereby she could legally conduct business on her own behalf and retain the profits. (5)
Mrs. H.H.T. Elliot, as she was referred to professionally, ran the store at 7 West Gay Street for nearly 15 years (1861-75), selling various notions, trimmings, and Butterick clothing patterns. She appears to have been a successful independent entrepreneur, as by the time of her death in 1875 Hannah H. T. Elliot was a “well-known lady…who was highly esteemed for her estimable qualities, as well as for her business energy and connections.” (6)
Although the Elliotts never legally divorced, there is no indication that Hannah ever reunited with her husband. On the contrary, evidence suggests that she maintained her financial and legal independence until her untimely death at age 57. In fact, in her last will and testament she makes no mention of her roving spouse, yet, perhaps derisively, alludes to him in her final statement:
"Having been duly declared entitled to the rights and privileges of a feme sole trader…I trust that the small property which I shall leave, which is almost wholly the product of my own labor, will not from any cause have my disposition (as herein declared) interfered with." (7)
Without the proceeds of her business, Hannah H. T. Elliot and her children certainly would have faced trying times. Deserted, lacking the sponsorship of her husband, and technically unable to earn an independent living, Hannah likely would have become a burden on her family or even the state. However, because feme sole trader statutes permitted abandoned women to conduct business on their own and prevented their husbands from making claim to their property, Hannah Elliot, as well as other feme sole traders in Pennsylvania, was able to build a life separate from her husband in a time when it was not acceptable for married women to do so.
Other Sole Trader Petitions
To view the feme sole trader petitions of other Chester County women, please visit the Chester County Archives and ask about the files contained in the Miscellaneous Common Pleas Papers.
- Marylynn Salmon, “Feme Covert Status in Early Pennsylvania,” in Women of America: A History, eds. Carol Ruth Berkin and Mary Beth Norton (Boston, 1979); Women and the Law of Property in Early America (Chapel Hill, 1986).
- Supplement of 11 April 1848, Laws of Pennsylvania, 536.
- Act of 22 February 1718, Laws of Pennsylvania, 99.
- Act of 4 May 1855, Laws of Pennsylvania, 430.
- Petition of H.H.T. Elliot to be made a feme sole trader, 22 December 1865, Miscellaneous Common Pleas Papers, Court of Common Pleas, Chester County Archives (CCA), West Chester, PA.
- Daily Local News, 5 October 1875, Clippings Files, Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA.
- Hannah H. T. Elliot, will dated 25 December 1873, proved 7 October 1875, file 17889, CCA.