Business and Labor

Martha Ballard Visits the Sick, Cards Cotton, Builds a Fence

Martha Ballard lived a life of hard work along the wild Kennebec River in Hallowell, Maine, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Not only did she deliver nearly 800 babies and heal the sick, but she cooked, gardened and made the family’s clothes. She kept a diary that recorded the arduous life of a midwife on what was then the Massachusetts frontier.

Martha Ballard diary entry for July 27, 1786

Martha Ballard diary entry for July 27, 1786


On July 27, 1786, she was 51 years old. Her husband, Ephraim, was 61, and they had five unmarried children between seven and 30.

Like most early American women, Martha Ballard spent endless hours carding and spinning. Cloth was hard to obtain on the frontier, and it was up to the women to pick, spin, comb, dye and card flax, wool and, to a lesser extent, cotton. Alice Morse Earle writes that cotton was the last fiber to be adopted in early America. It was bought by the pound. Writes Earle:

…the seeds were picked out one by one, by hand; it was carded on wool-cards, and spun into a rather intractable yarn which was used as warp for linsey-woolsey and rag carpets. … Sometimes a twisted yarn was made of one thread of cotton and one of wool which was knit into durable stockings.

Martha didn’t weave the cloth herself. She took her spun cotton, wool and flax to Mr. Edson’s to be woven.

On July 27, 1786, Martha Ballard wrote in her diary:

Clear. I carded Cottne & Cutt Aulders and maid a Sort of a fence part round the yard By the mill Pond, and then was Calld to Eliab Shaws to See his Children, they being Sick with ye Canker rash. Hannah North, Tammy & Sally Cox here. Brot a quarter of Lamb, wt 7-1/2 lb. Polly Bisbe & Adams here to Day.

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