Seventy-year-old Sarah Mason died this date, December 19th, in 1851 of Pneumonia and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. There is only a small amount of personal data on Ms. Mason. The 1850 U.S. Census in the year before her death reported that she was born in Maryland in 1780. She lived with a family where the mother may have been her daughter. The family in 1850 included James Thomas (41 y/o) who was born in Delaware and was employed as a carriage drive. His spouse was Caroline Thomas (39 y/o), born in Maryland. They had two children William (17 y/o), a student, and Adelaid (3 y/o). Both children were born in Pennsylvania.
Ms. Mason and the Thomas family lived in a room on St. Joseph’s Avenue, an unpaved alley between Market and Chestnut Streets and what is now 17th and 18th Streets in center city Philadelphia. There is no mention of this thoroughfare in the 1837 or 1847 African American Censuses.
Research has been unable to discover Ms. Mason’s employment over the decades. However, by 1847, forty-nine percent of Philadelphia Black women were occupied as washerwomen and domestic servants.* Historian Gayle T. Tate explains the difference between a washerwoman and a laundress. A washerwoman had no set clientele as opposed to a laundress who would have a steady clientele of “five or six families.”
Mondays were often spent securing work assignments, augmenting one’s business, gathering work supplies, and setting up the general workloads based on expected days and times of delivery. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were designated as wash days, necessitating frequent trips to the fire hydrants, alternately boiling water while soaking clothes, washing and starching clothes in steaming hot water, and then hanging them, using the clothesline across the courtyards and the makeshift ones strung diagonally across the kitchen, as well as vacated furniture that served multifunctional purposes. Thursdays and Fridays would be the best exposure to the meager light coming into the apartment. Saturday was the day set aside for ironing, an all-day job, with women finishing late at night or early in the morning.*
All this while cooking, cleaning, shopping and caring for small children at home.
Ms. Mason was buried on a bitterly cold day in December. For weeks, Philadelphians had been experiencing “intense cold weather” that froze over the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers.