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The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty

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The remarkable Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland in 1659, a brash and ambitious twenty-two-year-old bent on making her way in the New World. She promptly built an empire of trading ships, furs, and real estate that included all of Westchester County. The Dutch called such women "she-merchants," and Margaret became the wealthiest in the co The remarkable Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland in 1659, a brash and ambitious twenty-two-year-old bent on making her way in the New World. She promptly built an empire of trading ships, furs, and real estate that included all of Westchester County. The Dutch called such women "she-merchants," and Margaret became the wealthiest in the colony, while raising five children and keeping a spotless linen closet. Zimmerman deftly traces the astonishing rise of Margaret and the Philipse women who followed her, who would transform Margaret’s storehouse on the banks of the Hudson into a veritable mansion, Philipse Manor Hall. The last Philipse to live there, Mary Philipse Morris—the It-girl of mid-1700s New York—was even courted by George Washington. But privilege couldn’t shelter the family from the Revolution, which raged on Mary’s doorstep. Mining extensive primary sources, Zimmerman brings us into the parlors, bedrooms, countinghouses, and parties of early colonial America and vividly restores a forgotten group of women to life.


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The remarkable Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland in 1659, a brash and ambitious twenty-two-year-old bent on making her way in the New World. She promptly built an empire of trading ships, furs, and real estate that included all of Westchester County. The Dutch called such women "she-merchants," and Margaret became the wealthiest in the co The remarkable Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland in 1659, a brash and ambitious twenty-two-year-old bent on making her way in the New World. She promptly built an empire of trading ships, furs, and real estate that included all of Westchester County. The Dutch called such women "she-merchants," and Margaret became the wealthiest in the colony, while raising five children and keeping a spotless linen closet. Zimmerman deftly traces the astonishing rise of Margaret and the Philipse women who followed her, who would transform Margaret’s storehouse on the banks of the Hudson into a veritable mansion, Philipse Manor Hall. The last Philipse to live there, Mary Philipse Morris—the It-girl of mid-1700s New York—was even courted by George Washington. But privilege couldn’t shelter the family from the Revolution, which raged on Mary’s doorstep. Mining extensive primary sources, Zimmerman brings us into the parlors, bedrooms, countinghouses, and parties of early colonial America and vividly restores a forgotten group of women to life.

30 review for The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty

  1. 5 out of 5

    The Colonial

    Hailing from New York and showing a sound appreciation for the history of Manhattan in both her non-fiction works and novels, Jean Zimmerman steps into the heart of colonial New Amsterdam and unmasks the history of a vintage home and the generations of a Dutch family who inhabited it. She chronicles the lineage and life of Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse, her daughters, and ensuing ancestral legacy through the very home that the colonial matriarch’s entrepreneurial spirit thrived in. This is with Hailing from New York and showing a sound appreciation for the history of Manhattan in both her non-fiction works and novels, Jean Zimmerman steps into the heart of colonial New Amsterdam and unmasks the history of a vintage home and the generations of a Dutch family who inhabited it. She chronicles the lineage and life of Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse, her daughters, and ensuing ancestral legacy through the very home that the colonial matriarch’s entrepreneurial spirit thrived in. This is without a doubt an unusual approach to a biography, however, Zimmerman’s work has the benefit of including a history of New Amsterdam from the mid-seventeenth century, through to the end of the American Revolution with the rise of early Manhattan. Due to the fact that most of the resources and primary material relating to Margaret Philipse pertain to her financial records including inventory-keeping, taxes, and loans obtained, it makes sense that a solid portion of the book is dedicated to both the mansion known as Philipse Manor Hall, and that of the culture of Dutch Manhattan. Zimmerman at times speculates a bit too far on the feelings and emotions of Margaret and those occupying the manor, but this is easily overlooked by the fascinating and altogether monumental differences between Dutch and British law pertaining to women. Dutch women held the right to represent themselves in court, inherit or even dispose of their property, and partake in the daily economy and mercantile trade business—which is where Margaret would make a name for herself as a financial force to behold in Dutch-occupied Manhattan: The she-merchant’s holdings included not only the Bergen land but also four substantial Manhattan properties. Margaret took over, too, the active import-export business she had built as a partnership with her husband. The trade was lucrative, heavy on tobacco, and she probably could have sold her interest for cash, taken on a partner, or kept the operation at its current level—a good business thumping along at a manageable canter rather than an outright gallop. But it was not Margaret’s desire to cash out or partner up. Nor was she inclined to keep the business exactly as it was. Adding to the one ship Pieter owned, Margaret purchased two more to expand her fleet. As the story comes to an end for Margaret and the spotlight is carried over to the later Philipse generations, the audience may find themselves a bit confused with the quickened pace. Indeed, Zimmerman unfortunately changes focus to the subsequent yet trivial lives portrayed, leaving the reader longing for what could have been instead a great solo biography of the matriarch and the estate she perfected. Fortunately, Mary Philipse Morris’ story as a Loyalist residing in Revolutionary New York is both fascinating and agonizing, as her whole way of life and home country is changed in just the span of a few years. When viewing the history of the manor as a whole, it is rather miraculous to consider the commitment Zimmerman has kept consistently throughout her chronicle, while using what few resources were available. All things considered, Zimmerman expertly depicts the history of a family and their residence, a city on the brink of transition, and the customs of the time period. Illustrations are provided, including a bird’s-eye view of New Amsterdam, and portraits of both Margaret and Mary Philipse—though unfortunately the book is lacking a viable Family Tree. Read the Full Review and More

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    In the 1600s the Dutch had a much more progressive attitude toward women than the British. Women were free to take part in most trades, represent themselves in court, dispose of their property as they wished even if they married. When a person died the eldest male didn't inherit the most. Daughters had the same rights as sons to the decedent's estate. This attitude was also prevalent in New Amsterdam. The British, on the other hand, considered women as basically chattel. When they married everyt In the 1600s the Dutch had a much more progressive attitude toward women than the British. Women were free to take part in most trades, represent themselves in court, dispose of their property as they wished even if they married. When a person died the eldest male didn't inherit the most. Daughters had the same rights as sons to the decedent's estate. This attitude was also prevalent in New Amsterdam. The British, on the other hand, considered women as basically chattel. When they married everything they owned became the husband's. In essence they returned to childhood. A male inherited at least twice as much as a female. Margaret Hardenbroeck created a fortune and a dynasty while New Amsterdam was held by the Dutch. When the British took over the rights of women were inexorably decreased to that of British women. While her daughters retained some of their power by being able to influence their husbands their legal rights essentially became non-existent. Her descendants chose the wrong side in the Revolutionary War and most of them had to continue life elsewhere in reduced circumstances. My one complaint is 'foot-end noting.' There are no markings for notes. So one doesn't know what is being noted unless one goes to the notes section to ascertain what phrase on which page is being noted.

  3. 5 out of 5

    BAM Endlessly Booked

    This was one of the most mundane reads I've ever suffered. After a promising first couple of chapters, the author slowly began regurgitating events, nothing more. Surviving the American Revolution became as dull as dish water. Although there were some factual gems, they in no way made up for the dispassionate rehashing of 17th and 18th century American history

  4. 5 out of 5

    Correy

    The first third of this book was really interesting. Once the story moved on from Margaret I couldn't get back into it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    Fortunes come and fortunes go. 17th century women were a strong breed. The author did an amazing research job and I will never think about early New Amsterdam the same way.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Pam

    As Winston Churchill said, "History belongs to the victor." For the United States much of our history and concepts of life reflect the British domination of this land. But there were many of cultures that helped build this nation and influenced its people. This book by Jean Zimmerman focuses on the Dutch heritage of NY and mid Atlantic states. As the title clearly states this book is about the women in a Dutch family and the power that they had and used. The book begins very strong but falters a As Winston Churchill said, "History belongs to the victor." For the United States much of our history and concepts of life reflect the British domination of this land. But there were many of cultures that helped build this nation and influenced its people. This book by Jean Zimmerman focuses on the Dutch heritage of NY and mid Atlantic states. As the title clearly states this book is about the women in a Dutch family and the power that they had and used. The book begins very strong but falters as it progresses through younger generations. Regardless of its faults, this book will enlighten many Americans about the power and freedom that Dutch women had while British women lived under the yokes of their husbands.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Gail Glogowski

    I just could not get through this book. It reads like a history book and is so bogged down with boring details, I found myself skipping to any parts I could find with human interactions.

  8. 5 out of 5

    John Pierre

    Very well written in great detail and historical accuracy.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Olga Vannucci

    The traditions of the Dutch Let the women take on much, Like to own and trade and such.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Essie Bee

    Dense, but in a good way. Chock full of delicious facts about women in early America. Zimmerman writes with her senses, so there's rarely a dull moment.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mariel

    My students were assigned this book, and from my informal survey about 15 out of 75 actually read it. But the ones who did said that they found it much more readable than the textbook (high praise?), so I hope that if they open it, they will get something out of it. Zimmerman traces the descendents of a Dutch woman who came to New Amsterdam in 1659, had a family while building a merchant empire and left a fortune for her husband and children. In some ways, it reads like a novel, which I found fru My students were assigned this book, and from my informal survey about 15 out of 75 actually read it. But the ones who did said that they found it much more readable than the textbook (high praise?), so I hope that if they open it, they will get something out of it. Zimmerman traces the descendents of a Dutch woman who came to New Amsterdam in 1659, had a family while building a merchant empire and left a fortune for her husband and children. In some ways, it reads like a novel, which I found frustrating at times because we don't really know if Margaret gazed off into the distance, envisioning her future house and the realization of her dreams. Footnote please? Citation? But I am willing to accept that the Prof. approved it and has no problem with her evidence, which is mostly pulled from other secondary sources. I concede. What is useful about this is the way it discusses the rights and independence of women under the Dutch, and the gradual contraction of rights as successive generations bowed to British rule. There is some interesting social history eked out along the way (like how Dutch women dealt with menstruation) and the evolution of the family is quite interesting. As Margaret's enterprise moves from importing Dutch goods to importing slaves to complete dependence on the slave trade, the personalities become less compelling and less sympathetic. I will be interested to see how my students react to the change from an independent woman who enjoyed greater independence than they thought possible for a woman outside of their own experience to an indifferent slave trafficker. I like that it is readable, that it has far greater to engage this particular audience more than their poor unread textbook, and that the information it gives is solid about Dutch women and their devolution under British rule. I am concerned that they will not see Margaret's experience as exceptional and that they will not be able to connect this story with the larger historical narrative. We'll see.

  12. 4 out of 5

    SadieKate

    Such a surprising treasure. This books contains a wonderful wealth of information about the Dutch colonization of New York that is rarely mentioned in the average "founding of our nation" history books. It is worth a read just to gain a perspective of women's rights per the Dutch vs the English, the travel of the era, fashion, hygiene, politics, you name it - an incredible gathering of factoids relayed via personal histories. The intertwining of timelines gets a bit convoluted periodically but d Such a surprising treasure. This books contains a wonderful wealth of information about the Dutch colonization of New York that is rarely mentioned in the average "founding of our nation" history books. It is worth a read just to gain a perspective of women's rights per the Dutch vs the English, the travel of the era, fashion, hygiene, politics, you name it - an incredible gathering of factoids relayed via personal histories. The intertwining of timelines gets a bit convoluted periodically but doesn't confuse the overall story. I also would have liked to see a family tree to keep all the players straight.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Readingjunkie

    I enjoyed reading this book and learning a bit about the generations of a family that first settled in Manhattan. While not as riveting as "Island at the Center of the World: The History of Dutch Manhattan" by Russell Shorto, this book still gives us a glimpse of what life was like for one successful family in the city of New Amsterdam which became New York. I think the book would have been helped by a family tree, especially since spouses and children's names are often given. I'm looking forward I enjoyed reading this book and learning a bit about the generations of a family that first settled in Manhattan. While not as riveting as "Island at the Center of the World: The History of Dutch Manhattan" by Russell Shorto, this book still gives us a glimpse of what life was like for one successful family in the city of New Amsterdam which became New York. I think the book would have been helped by a family tree, especially since spouses and children's names are often given. I'm looking forward to visiting Phillipse Manor this fall and see if I can conjure up a moment of what it may have been like for the families that lived here.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mia

    Really interesting history of Margaret Hardenbroeck, a merchant who owned her own fleet of ships and created a business dynasty in the early days of the Dutch colony on Manhattan. It's a shame that so few first-hand clues exist to her personality and temperament, but the government and legal documents that are available do provide enough to indicate that even for a woman of her time (Dutch women were more equal and protected by the laws of their country than British women more common in other co Really interesting history of Margaret Hardenbroeck, a merchant who owned her own fleet of ships and created a business dynasty in the early days of the Dutch colony on Manhattan. It's a shame that so few first-hand clues exist to her personality and temperament, but the government and legal documents that are available do provide enough to indicate that even for a woman of her time (Dutch women were more equal and protected by the laws of their country than British women more common in other colonies) she was driven and successful in a male-dominated field, despite wars, changes in government and status, and all the other challenges a mother of 11 faced in the 17th century.

  15. 4 out of 5

    JodiP

    This was a wonderfully written, fact-filled book about early colonial life in New Amsterdam. The amount of research must have been daunting. However, Zimmerman makes it so lively: you are in these women's lives. You can see the streets they walk upon, the houses in which they live. I knew a bit about Dutch society, but this was eye-opening in terms of the position of women. Oddly enough, I had tried to read a fiction piece by Zimmerman, The Orphanmaster, and couldn't even finish it. Her non-fict This was a wonderfully written, fact-filled book about early colonial life in New Amsterdam. The amount of research must have been daunting. However, Zimmerman makes it so lively: you are in these women's lives. You can see the streets they walk upon, the houses in which they live. I knew a bit about Dutch society, but this was eye-opening in terms of the position of women. Oddly enough, I had tried to read a fiction piece by Zimmerman, The Orphanmaster, and couldn't even finish it. Her non-fiction is far stronger, and she brings a novelist's ear for the story telling. I see she writes mostly fiction; perhaps I will give other of her books a try.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Alicia

    The author tried too hard to create an historical narrative from too few records. While Margaret Hardenbroeck's life was interesting, not enough information exists to make a full book. Unfortunately, her descendants aren't interesting enough to fill out the rest of the book. The book does serve, however, as an interesting history of New York City from the height of its Dutch commercial roots to just after the American Revolution. Overall, the book isn't focused enough or interesting enough to re The author tried too hard to create an historical narrative from too few records. While Margaret Hardenbroeck's life was interesting, not enough information exists to make a full book. Unfortunately, her descendants aren't interesting enough to fill out the rest of the book. The book does serve, however, as an interesting history of New York City from the height of its Dutch commercial roots to just after the American Revolution. Overall, the book isn't focused enough or interesting enough to recommend unless you are doing research on the lives of colonial women in New York.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I well written book about the earliest years of New Amsterdam (aka NYC). It follows the lives of a Dutch she-merchant, the empire she builds with her husband, and the legacy she leaves for women in her family. Very well written with many quick tangents to further describe live in late 17th century and 18th century New York. Also a great insight to the events leading up to the American Revolution.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Becky Berry

    I found this book captivating. It presents a part of American history that is given short shrift - the women merchants who came to New Amsterdam from Holland. Zimmerman paints a clear picture of how the lives of these women played out. The book contains detailed descriptions of daily life, including the first walkers for babies. I felt like I had a better understanding of why the women's movement started in the northeast along with an appreciation of the women merchants.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rosalinda Morgan

    Great history of the Philipse family of New York. I did not know what part the Philipse family played in the history of New York till I read this book. They were the richest family in New York all through the early history of the city. They were the biggest landowners and it all started with the ambitious Margaret Hardenbroeck who started it all in 1659 at the age of twenty-two. Very informative with extensive research.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    A multi-generational study of a Dutch family in colonial New York, centered on the wealth built by several clever and well-endowed wives who managed the trading business, and the abrupt transition from Dutch law (which favored women as property owners and business actors) to English regulation after 1665.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

    This book was really interesting - you learned history, but not just the dates & wars, but what was important to the real people. Little tidbits of information that brought history alive. And in school, you never learned about strong, self-reliant women. Who knew they were out there in the 1600's & 1700's! This book was really interesting - you learned history, but not just the dates & wars, but what was important to the real people. Little tidbits of information that brought history alive. And in school, you never learned about strong, self-reliant women. Who knew they were out there in the 1600's & 1700's!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Alice

    really enjoyed learning about the Dutch attitude toward female. Said that those attitudes lost out to British -Anglo interesting historical tidbits -- ie pg 24 type of alcohol shape of bottle-- gin square. knives assigned to guest pg177 Interesting information about menses. Slave trade and slave uprising.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Stacey

    I was looking forward to finding out about these women; I couldn't finish. I learned more about Margaret's birthing room and color of the stone in her home than about her. There are some great facts about the beginnings of New York and the role of women in early New York, and if this is your interest this book is for you. There is considerable information, just not on the women themselves.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Norma

    Set in New Amsterdam (and later New York). Follows several generations, beginning with a Dutch woman who conducted business and owned her own merchant ships, bought and sold furs, and owned a large portion of nearby New York state.

  25. 4 out of 5

    C Anderson

    Always interesting to read about women in history. Learned a lot about New Amsterdam and the proverbial, 1st generation makes it, second grows and uses it, third spends it and loses it. Learned more than I wanted about the negative influence England and Europe exerted on rights of women.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kerri

    The first third was a lot of stage-setting but once Zimmerman started telling the story to Margaret it picked up a lot. It's amazing how progressive the Dutch were compared to the English. Also, if you are from Manhattan or the Hudson Valley you will recognize many of the places written about.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    Wonderful and informative. Learned a lot about Dutch women and how business like they were. Book was about the founding of NYC in the 1600's. Very good details and lots of info about life back then.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Charmaine E. Pooh

    I loved this book! Tons of history about New York City and what it was like when the first Dutch settlers landed there.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    So far I'm finding it remarkably readable and interesting. The story recounts the Dutch beginnings of New York City from around 1650 or so from the women's perspective.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Good atmospheric writing; some historical problems.

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