Last month, in honor of Black History Month, we took a closer look at the lives and times of our community’s 18th and 19th century black residents. We ended with a discussion of the remarkable life of Christiana Bannister, which was the perfect segue way into March. This month, which has been designated “Women’s History Month,” we are going to do something similar — examine the very specific set of circumstances that shaped the roles women played in North Kingstown during that same timeframe.
To begin, it is a common — and, in most cases, correct — perception, that for the most part, women’s roles in the 18th and 19th centuries were centered around home, hearth, and childrearing. In villages like Wickford, though — places where the vast majority of able-bodied men were either off at sea or involved in the construction of sailing vessels — things were different. Women who had the desire to do more with their lives had the opportunity to be more than just a wife and a mother. It was a simple matter of practicality — the village needed to function, most men were involved in maritime-related trades and women therefore were allowed to step into societal roles that would not be tolerated in the vast majority of communities. These unique circumstances allowed Deborah (Fowler) Whitford to own and operate a successful bakery adjacent to the home she also owned beginning during the Revolutionary era. She not only baked bread for the community, but also large quantities of hard tack — a biscuit-like cracker with a long shelf life — which she sold to ship’s owners and captains. Around the same time two remarkable sisters, Avis and Ann Smith, owned and operated an apothecary, the 18th version of a pharmacy, in the village as well. Ann Smith, an ordained Quaker minister, not only served the village’s medical needs, but its spiritual ones, leading services at the Wickford Friend’s Meeting House. Across the decades, numerous women, including Rhoda Ann and Abby Baker, Ruth and Eliza Thomas, Margaret Pearce, Margaret Bicknell, Susan Heffernan, and Abby Carpenter owned and operated various seamstress, tailor, dressmaking, and millinery shops and also often owned the property where these shops were located. The mid to late 1800s were dominated by two extraordinary women. Down on Main Street, Ellen “Mother” Prentice was the owner and operator of the Wickford House, an Inn and restaurant famed throughout New England, and the area around the intersection of Main, West Main, and Brown Streets was the center of the business empire of Avis Ann Spink, appropriately named after her two aunts, Avis and Ann Smith. Avis Ann was at that time the owner and landlord for much of the commercial and rental space in Wickford. Additionally, she owned a large farm that took up much of the land on the north side of West Main Street all the way up to the Post Road. These two business-savvy women were among the most important people in the village during that time. Upon Avis Ann’s death in 1871, she left her entire business empire to her niece, Mary Emma Shippee. It was Shippee who renamed the “Brick Block,” Avis Ann’s largest commercial building, to the Avis Block. This longstanding tradition of female business ownership has continued into the 21st century, and the majority of Wickford’s present-day businesses are woman-owned. In the next weeks, we will take a deeper dive into the extraordinary stories of the lives of some of South County’s most exceptional women.