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The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty Hardcover – August 1, 2006

4.5 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1659, 22-year-old Margaret Hardenbroeck arrived in New Amsterdam as a highly independent, unattached "she-merchant" who collected debts from a Dutch cousin's customers and sought out buyers for European merchandise. When she died three decades later, Margaret was an enormously rich, twice-married mother of five with a real estate empire stretching from Westchester and New Jersey to Barbados and a fleet of trading ships trafficking in slaves, furs, tobacco, textiles and molasses. Zimmerman's (Made from Scratch: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth) prodigious research unearths a mother lode of data on colonial American women, from the differences in Dutch and English inheritance laws to the fact that wealthy female colonists eschewed underpants and menstruated into exquisite handcrafted gowns. This rich history loses some momentum when the spotlight shifts from the feisty Margaret and her bustling Manhattan milieu to minibiographies of those women who followed in her wake on her Westchester estate. Her husband's pious second wife, Catherine, built a church; granddaughter-in-law Joanna was a socialite political wife whose privileged realm was rocked by an alleged slave revolt; and Joanna's daughter Mary rejected George Washington for a Tory soldier. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

At the time of her death, in 1691, Margaret Hardenbroeck was reputedly the richest woman in the English province of New York. Over the course of the 30 years since she had immigrated to colonial New Amsterdam as a self-sufficient young Dutch maiden determined to carve out a place for herself in the New World, she had amassed an impressive fortune, operated a thriving business as a fur trader, assembled a fleet of sailing vessels, built an impressive real-estate portfolio, and earned a well-deserved reputation as a shrewd she-merchant. Margaret's most important legacy, however, was the example she set for the generations of female descendents who followed in her remarkably independent footsteps. This extraordinary story of an American dynasty founded and perpetuated by women will be a valuable addition to both colonial and women's history collections. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1ST edition (August 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 015101065X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0151010653
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.8 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,160,163 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John Matlock on November 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Early America, and indeed most of the world, was a man's world. Women couldn't own property, vote, etc. etc. Margaret Hardenbroeck must have stood out as a wolf among sheep. In 1659 she moved to New Amsterdam (Manhattan) -- young (22), single, a business factor or agent for her family's business, a 'she-merchant' or today what we could call an entrepreneur.

Our limited studies of the women of the time usually show them as individuals but reflected in the light of their husbands. Martha Washington, Abigail Adams were indeed strong women, but we would never have heard of them except for their husbands.

Margaret made her own life, hers was not a reflection of her husband. She made her own way. She was probably not a nice person. In the way we think of Martha Stewart, she was tough. And as a slave trader we need to remember her in the light of her time, not of ours.

Much of the book covers life in New Amsterdam at the time, with only supposition that this was how Margaret lived or what she did. There was limited material available on her personal life, much more on her business activities.

This book opens up a new aspect of life in Dutch America, and of the rights and lives of women in our history.
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Format: Hardcover
If the walls of the Philipse Manor Hall could talk, what stories would they tell? Zimmerman gives voice to the women who lived in the house, from humble beginnings to New York's high society.

Margaret (1659-1691) would become the richest woman in New York. She attended elementary school in Holland and would use her reading, writing and math skills to become a she merchant. She would own trade vessels, property in Manhattan, New Jersey, Albany and Barbados. Margaret would also have a family and raise five children. (She merchant was a term applied to females who were respected for their skills in commerce.)

Catherine (1652-1730) was an heiress who married Margaret's widowed husband, Frederick. She would build a church and was appointed the guardian of Frederick II, her step-grandson. Frederick II would inherit a large portion of Margaret and Frederick's estate.

Joanna (1700-1765?) married Frederick II. Due to the hard work and the business savvy of Margaret and Catherine, Joanna was able to be a society matron. I loved the description of the dessert buffet, complete with marzipan hedgehogs made by the hostess and her daughters.

Mary (1730-1825), Margaret's great granddaughter, was a beautiful socialite. She had a number of eligible bachelors after her hand in marriage, among them George Washington. Mary and her family lost most of the family fortune during the American Revolution.

The book also deals with the unethical practices of this time period: slavery and piracy. (However, in the 17th and 18th Century, many people did not think these practices were wrong.) Margaret and Frederick added to the family fortune through transporting and trafficking slaves from Africa.
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Format: Paperback
A fascinating account of several remarkable women who were lost in the mists of historical records, The Women of the House entertains its readers while still providing historical knowledge of the time period. Women were and will forever be crucial aspects of our society, yet they are constantly forgotten in history. This book allows us to look at the colonial lifestyles in a new way, in the perspective of a talented woman.

In 1659, one of the most remarkable women in history arrived at New Amsterdam, determined to establish her presence in the form of a she-merchant. Her name was Margaret Hardenbroeck, and she would be one of the first to defy societal norms and create a dynasty at Philipse Manor Hall. She arrived with a duty to serve as a representative for a trading business conducted by her cousin, a well-off merchant named Wouter Valck. Margaret had grown up in a middle-class family, and possessed particular skills in the art of business transactions. Arriving at Manhattan, she wasted no time and soon established herself as an important figure within the community. Within a couple months of settling, on October 10, 1659, Margaret wedded Pieter Rudolphus de Vries, who was six years older than her father. The couple hurried to the alter due to their coming baby, despite the Dutch Reformed Church's sinful outlook at premarital sex. By the time the hot sickness of 1661 killed Pieter, Margaret had become a young and financially secure woman. She then married Frederick Philipse, who would become her future business partner. Margaret bought three hundred acres of Westchester County in 1670 to create her storehouse, which would later be developed into the magnificent Philipse Manor Hall. After arranging the betrothals of all of her children, Margaret passed on peacefully in 1691, at age 54.
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Format: Hardcover
I truly enjoyed reading this book, but it wasn't what I expected. I expected a real biography/history of Margaret Hardenbroeck and the women in her family who followed. Instead, the scant factual information about these women is set in a cultural and historical context that could apply to any (rich) women of that time and place. The author mostly imagines the lives of these women within a specific cultural framework.

The book is a welcome addition to the cultural history of women in colonial Dutch New York, and I was fascinated by the wealth of information provided. The contrast shown between Dutch and English mores and laws, for example, as they pertain to women, is thorougly presented.

I would like to have known more about the specific lives of the three main women in this book. Except for a few legal documents, these women left no records, such as letters, journals, etc. Thus, the culture and even details the author presents (for clothing styles and having a baby, for example), are GENERIC to the time and place, but not specific to these women. I wanted to know much more about Margaret Hardenbroeck. She doesn't seem like a real person to me because her views are unknown. What does she think about her business, her husbands, her children, the switch to English governance, her travels? We simply don't know.

Later generations are less accomplished than Margaret. It's true the culture changed and women had less opportunities, but I got the sense that these women and their families did little of note as time passed. They were simply very rich. Boring. They deserved what happened to them at the end of the American Revolution, in my opinion.

Picky comment: The details of the maps are unreadable to these eyes.
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