When Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse died in 1691, at the age of 53, she was the richest woman in what was then the English province of New York. Although she was helped early on by an inheritance from the death of her first husband, the achievement was almost exclusively hers. She had a rare combination of extraordinary business acumen including attention to detail, a single-minded ambition and vision with regard to how to achieve continued growth and diversity in her businesses. Jean Zimmerman tells Margaret's story and that of three of her descendants in the lively and informative The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty.
Zimmerman says Margaret's independent spirit was central to her successes, but acknowledges that luck also played a crucial role. Growing up during the Dutch Golden Age, Margaret was a product of an egalitarian Dutch tradition, which made such success not only legally possible but also socially acceptable. She had landed in a new country in the process of inventing itself, a place where Old World rules did not always apply. Although higher education was not available to girls and women, Holland was the sole nation in seventeenth-century Europe to offer girls primary education as a matter of course, Zimmerman writes. Further, the Dutch Reformed Church urged equality for women and the Dutch legal system was fairer to women than any other in Europe. When New Netherland came under English rule in 1664, however, the rules began to change; with each passing year, there were fewer women engaged in commerce and their entitlements were restricted. Even then, Margaret, tough and shrewd, was able to exercise much control over business matters.
Zimmerman writes that New Netherland had a number of power couples that grew their fortunes as partners, but no colonial duo matched Margaret Hardenbroeck and Frederick Philipse (her second husband) for mutual involvement in a large-scale commercial enterprise. The family had extensive real estate holdings, but shipping was their area of expertise; they dealt in furs, linens and other textiles, tobacco and slaves ( neither Margaret nor virtually any of her American contemporaries saw trafficking in slaves as wrong, Zimmerman tells us).
Almost half of the book tells Margaret's story, but Zimmerman also paints vivid portraits of three other women in the family, giving us a mini-history of the wealthy circles in which they moved and how they were affected by events. Catherine, who married Frederick after Margaret's death, was a first-generation American whose main role was to be a wife. Beyond that, her legacy was to oversee the construction of an impressive stone church. Joanna, who married Margaret's grandson, concentrated on matters of taste and style and promoting her husband's career. Her world was shaken when her husband presided over conspiracy trials stemming from a suspected slave revolt. Joanna's daughter, Mary, was courted by a young George Washington and then married a Loyalist.
Anyone interested in the Colonial period will enjoy The Women of the House. Jean Zimmerman's extraordinary research and energetic writing helps readers better understand and appreciate the roles played by women during that era. Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.