Women and the Sea logo
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Myths and Mermaids
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Life in Port
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Going to Sea
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Lighthouse Keepers
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Changing Roles for Women
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Women in the Military
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Women in Wartime Production
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Early Yachting and Racing
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Women and the Sea in the 20th Century
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In This Chapter

Sailor's Departure

The Press Gangs
Working Women
Sailor's Return


Working Women

Boarding a Man of War
From Jack's Kit or Saturday Night in the Forecastle
The Mariners' Museum Research Library and Archives


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women normally were not considered capable of managing businesses. Yet records and account books show that, in fact, many women were involved in business. Some women helped their husbands run a tavern or inn and continued to run the business once he left for sea or died. In many city directories, there are listings of boarding houses run by women near the wharf. Of course, marriage was still considered a woman's proper path. But if a woman married, all of her property became legally her husband's. A woman had more control if she maintained the property herself.

Alice Thomas: The First Female Tavern Keeper in America

In the 1670s widow Alice Thomas ran a tavern in Boston, Massachusetts, and earned the distinction of becoming the colonies' first female tavern keeper. Things soon took an unsavory turn, however: after complaints against her establishment, she was arrested and convicted of " . . . selling liquor without a license, profaning the Sabbath, receiving stolen goods, and promoting frequent secret and unseasonable entertainment in her house to Lewd Lascivious and Notorious persons of both sexes, giving them the opportunity to Commit Carnale Wickedness." Thomas was fined, whipped, and sent to prison, but she apparently won the authorities over again through a large financial contribution to the City of Boston.

Jack in a White Squall, Amongst the Breakers--on the Lee Shore of St. Catherines
1811, Handcolored etching
The Mariners' Museum

This satirical image shows two women, presumably tavern keepers or boarding house owners, chasing a sailor, "Jack Tar," to get him to pay his bill. Sailors were notorious in spending money when they returned from sea. Female tavern owners were often portrayed as overweight, unattractive, and without manners.

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