Patricia Cohen, assistant professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is using the facilities of the American Antiquarian Society to study gender behavior in public in the 19th century. ``I'm interested in the ways in which men and women traveling in public between 1790 and 1840 interacted and what the customs and etiquette were, and also what the fears were about women in public,'' says Dr. Cohen, who spends her mornings searching through hotel registers, travel diaries, regular diaries, court records, newspapers, and letters.
By using original source material, she can find information not available in public records. Through this Sherlock Holmesian search through tiny clues, scholars like Cohen are discovering that the past might not be what we thought it was.
``There's a book by two young women who traveled in the 1850s who were traveling booksellers. They were confronting and flouting the gender rules, and they had a wonderful time! They sang in public; they flirted with men outrageously on trains and steamboats. Then I turn right away to the county history collection to try to find out who these women were. What kinds of families did they have? What happened to them after they published this book? I'm going through the city directory collection here to find out more about them.''
But they were the cheeky exception to the rule, says Cohen.
``Until the 1830s Americans seemed relatively unconcerned about the idea of women traveling in public without escorts. Strangers of the opposite sex even shared rooms in inns. I've checked diaries to see if women wore nightgowns to bed or went to bed dressed.
``I think the surprising thing that my research will show is that there might have been a period when women didn't fear so much to travel in public. Somewhere in the 1830s to '40s public acceptance of women traveling alone begins to change. That's when many more women started to travel; lower-class women who came to the cities to work as domestic servants.
``People began to report danger. Then you get changes in the legal code reflecting this, and etiquette books that warn more and more about the dangers. ``We assume that the kinds of gender behaviors that are prevalent today have always been with us; that the kinds of safety tricks that women abide by today have been there since time immemorial. And I'm finding that that's not true.''