Sensibility and the Road: The Journal of Madame Knight and the Cultural Refinement of Eighteenth-Century New York

By Melissa Antonucci


In 1704, Sarah Kemble Knight took a journey from Boston to New Haven, traveling over 400 hundred miles on horseback, over five months, roundtrip, to conduct a little family business in place of her husband, who was indisposed at the time. In her journal, written for the entertainment of family and friends, Knight, acting as deputy husband,[1] talked about conditions on the road, the fear she experienced as a woman,[2] and the people she encountered on the periphery of Boston and New York, then one of the major cities in the colonies.


Much of her diary records the slovenly life and attitudes of those living in this in-between wilderness. From these descriptions, Knight establishes herself as someone who has the authority to speak about, and ultimately judge, others. She presents herself in the process as a polite, cultured, and educated woman. But it is not until she arrives in New York that she encounters a degree of refinement and civility that aligns with her own tastes and sensibilities. Although the descriptions of her time in New York are brief—comprising just four pages in the journal, despite a delightful two weeks spent in the city—these observations nonetheless provide significant clues into the architecture, social interactions, culture, and customs of early eighteenth-century New York.

Very little is known about the details of Knight’s life. In his 1990 introduction to the journal, Sargent Bush, Jr. provides the most extensive biography of her life. From him, we know that Kemble married shipbuilder Richard Knight, a man much older than she, sometime after April 1688. A little over a year later, she gave birth to her only child, Elizabeth. By the time she traveled to New Haven, she was an established merchant—an occupation she maintained even before her husband’s death—as well as an unofficial schoolteacher.[3]

Bush echoes the popular claim “that the young Benjamin Franklin was among her pupils,” although the evidence for this rumor has yet to be discovered. But false or not, the claim highlights the context of her life.
As Bush notes, Knight’s journal was penned the year of Franklin’s birth, “halfway between the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 and the beginning of the revolutionary war in 1775.”[4] Much of her young life passed in the Boston of Increase Mather and his son Cotton, who in 1702, published Magnalia Christi Americana, his famous tome of New England history. In it, Mather included a map that shows the route Sarah Knight would follow just two years later.[5] Parts of this route, known as the Post Road, would later form U.S. Route 1, the Boston and Maine Railroad, and the New England Turnpike.[6] Although Knight’s journal remained unpublished until 1825, the record of her journey—of the places she visited and of the people she encountered—embodies New England’s transition from a stronghold of Puritanism to a secular commodities market where the organizing principles of one’s life centered not around religion, solely, but increasingly on conversation, fashion, economic status, and race.

Sketches of Eighteenth-Century New York

Throughout her journal, Knight notes the difficulties of travel in early America, the dearth of adequate and available lodgings. But just as revealing are her tense interactions with the supposedly rude, impolite people who occupy this uncultured, uncultivated space outside the more proper cities. Arriving in Kingston with a party of travelers, Knight notes her immediate aversion to the local tavern family, a disgust based on genteel colonial norms of appearance and language. Mr. Devil, Knight writes, was “quite as ugly” and old “as the Divel himself,” but it is the family’s inability to even acknowledge their demands that most frustrates Knight. She notes that the old man “was as sparing of his words as his daughters had bin, and no, or none, was the reply’s hee made us to our demands.” The group eventually decided to leave, finding more “tollerable accommodations” some two miles up the road.[7]

Here again, what strikes Knight as most notable is the woman’s inability to communicate with others. Unlike the Devils, her new hostess is not sparing with words. Instead, she is “pretty full mouth’d”—too much so, having “entertain’d our fellow travailer, ye french Doctor wth Inumirable complaints of her bodily infirmities; and whisperd to him so lou’d, that all ye House had as full a hearing as hee: which was very divirting to ye company . . . as one might see by their sneering.”[8]


As David S. Shields has explained, Knight “had an acute ear for conversations”, for talk “as a social marker, reveal[ed] one’s true standing on the index of gentility.”[9] To be sure, one’s standing in colonial America was informed in part by taste, described by Shields as a “sensitivity to beauty and pleasure” ; which, he adds, could not be “transmitted by mechanical imitation.”[10] But it was “[m]ost readily” acquired through polite conversation, with people who had already acquired it. The goal of such conversation was not simply the conveyance of a vocabulary of taste, but a knowledge and acceptance of what that vocabulary stood for. Shields: “apperception of one’s sensitivity made taste ‘conscious.’”[11]

Knight’s close attention, and sensitivity, to the conversations of others, reveals her own social refinement, but also the framework by which one categorized others in a social hierarchy.[12] This framework was not solely based on one’s penchant for conversation. Knight, for example, also distinguished herself from others based on her wealth, race, and cleanliness; elements of appearance and interaction. In the hinterlands, in homes and in taverns, Knight is often disgusted by what she encounters and witnesses.

But in New York, she is refreshed by the cultivation of taste in the city. After noting blandly that it “is a pleasant, well compacted place, situated on a Commodius River wch is a fine harbour for shipping”,[13] she launches into an impassioned description of its architecture and cleanliness. The language underscores her aesthetic sensibility, and captures, as well, New York’s maturation in the eighteenth century. The buildings, she writes, are “very stately and high, though not altogether like ours in Boston.” The homes are pleasing in decoration and structure, with “very agreeable” colors and patterns in the outside bricks giving way to admirably neat woodwork and plastered walls inside.

“The Sumers and Gist,” are plained and kept very white scowr’d as so is all the partitions if made of Bords. The fire places have no Jambs (as ours have) But the Backs run flush with
the walls, and the Hearth is of Tyles [the finest and cleanest she has ever seen] and is as farr out into the Room at the Ends as before the fire, wch is Generally
Five foot in the Low’r rooms, and the peice [sic] over where the mantle tree
should be is made as ours with Joyners work, and as I suppose is fasten’d to iron rodds inside.[14]

For many, Knight’s description of New York architecture is surprising. Nowhere else in her journal does she devote so much space to the construction of homes and buildings. But New York provides her with plenty of material. As she emerges from the ruggedness of the hinterlands, Knight notes the rise of Georgian architecture in New England, highlighting as well the rise of individual comfort and style, a much-welcomed change from her earlier experiences on the road.

Offering Knight an extended diversion from her travels, New York materializes as a mecca of refinement and culture. The city’s layout and architecture provide the first glimpses, but as Knight moves on, she is increasingly taken by its social aspects, the region’s religion, fashion, and entertainment. Although New Yorkers were “Generaly of the Church of England,” Knight is struck by the city’s diversity – Dutch, Quakers, and Baptists! – claiming that the interactions among these various groups are “Curteos and Civill”. Situated alongside the descriptions of religious communities are those of a more recreational nature: New Yorkers treat themselves “with good Liquor Liberally,” and enjoy winter sledding “about three or four Miles out of Town, where they have Houses of entertainment at a place called the Bowery.”[15] And she does not simply record what others tell her about New York; she is an active visitor, partaking in the city’s diversions and pleasantries.


These images contrast greatly with Knight’s earlier experiences. At Billings’s public house, for instance, she encounters a young woman there who suggests nervously that Knight must be a prostitute for appearing so late.[16] “‘I never see a woman on the Rode so Dreadfull late, in all the days of my versall life. Who are You? Where are You going? I’me scar’d out of my witts—with much now of the same Kind.’. . . she then turned agen to mee and fell anew into her silly questions, without asking mee to sitt down. I told her shee treated me very Rudely, and I did not think it my duty to answer her unmannerly Questions.”[17]

Knight is accustomed to a certain class of people, who adhere to a particular standard of behavior. The people she meets in her travels, because they are outside of the city—in the wilderness or frontier, so to speak—are not. They have their own social rules and norms, which Knight does not understand. She compensates by disparaging them. When the young tavern mistress leaves to retrieve some rings, Knight writes, she returned and “sett herself just before me, showing the way to Reding, that I might see her Ornaments, perhaps to gain the more respect.”[18] The assumption is that she deserves respect, and that the young lady has to show off to receive it. But as Shields argues, taste cannot be faked. No amount of rings will raise her status. Lacking genuine taste, this woman cannot assume it simply by bejeweling her outward appearance.

But in New York, taste is not presented as artifice. There, for Knight, it is an inherent trait. Not only are New York women courteous, sensible, and civil, they are also fashionable: they adorn their ears “wth Jewells of a large size and many in number. And their fingers hoop’t with Rings, some with large stones in them of many Coullers as were their pendants in their ears, which You should see very old women wear as well as Young.”[19] Thus, politeness and fashion are not mutually exclusive. To be considered fashionable, one must also be considered polite. One cannot exist without the other. An individual’s physical appearance aligns with one’s inward behavior and feelings.

Women and Urban Spaces: Sites of American Sensibility

As other scholars have noted, Knight adheres to racial and social hierarchies, often relying on these constructions to stabilize her own identity as she moves throughout cities and towns.[20] But she also constantly expressed her “pride in venturing out into public spaces where women commonly did not go,” and shows, as Shields writes, “that she championed . . . projecting female presence in public places and affairs.”[21]

The same pride that informs her mobility also extends to Knight’s construction of herself as a traveler. Her entrance into such spaces does not expose her as a timid woman unsure of her surrounding. Instead, she emerges as a confident traveler, a persona she sustains by filtering her experiences through her identity as a middle-class, educated, polite woman. And early eighteenth-century New York emerges, even if only briefly, alongside her as a city constructed on the tenets of American sensibility. As is Knight, New York is cultivated, refined, and, most assuredly, entertaining.

Melissa Antonucci is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Tulsa, and will be starting at the University of Oklahoma in the fall of 2016.


[1] For a detailed discussion of the role of deputy husband, see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives, (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 35-50, wherein she writes, “Should fate or circumstance prevent the husband from fulfilling his role, the wife could appropriately stand in his place. As one seventeenth-century Englishman explained it, a woman ‘in her husband’s absence, is wife and deputy-husband, which makes her double the files of her diligence. At his return he finds all things so well he wonders to see himself at home when he was abroad’” (36).

[2] See Sargent Bush, Jr., introduction to The Journal of Sarah Kemble Knight, in Journey’s in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives, ed. William Andrews, Bush, Annette Kolodny, Amy Schrager Lang, and Daniel B. Shea (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1990), 69-83.

[3] Ibid., 70. According to Bush, “there is no record of [Richard Knight] having living past 1706” (70).

[4] Ibid., 70.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Ibid., 70-71.

[7] Knight, Sarah Kemble, The Journal of Madam Knight (Boston: Small, Maynard, and Co., 1920. Reprint, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2004), 20, 22.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Shields, David S., Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 117.

[10] Ibid., 39.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] This sense of refinement is also expressed through the preparation and consumption of food. As in Rowlandson’s spiritual narrative, the culinary practices observed by Knight are themselves markers of cultural and social status. For instance, a few days into her journey, she stops at a tavern and “[h]ere, having called for something to eat, ye woman bro’t in a Twisted thing like a cable, but something Whiter; and laying it on the bord, tugg’d for life to bring it into a capacity to spread; wch having wth great pains accomplished, she serv’d in a dish of Pork and Cabage, I suppose the remains of Dinner. The sause was of a deep Purple, wch I tho’t was boil’d in her dye Kettle . . . and what cabbage I swallowed serv’d me for a Cudd the whole day after” (8-9). Knight’s narrative is peppered with similar descriptions of inedible food that emphasize differences in taste among various groups of disparate people.

[13] Knight, 52.

[14] Ibid., 52-53.

[15] Ibid., 54-55.

[16] Prince, Thomas, The Vade-Mecum for America: A Companion for Traders and Travellers (Boston, 1731), Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), Gale (CB3330343044). For a detailed discussion of Knight's interactions with this young lady, see Stern, Julia, "To Relish and To Spew: Disgust as Cultural Critique in The Journal of Madam Knight," Legacy 14 (1997): 3, 5.

[17] Knight, 5-6.

[18] Ibid., 7.

[19] Ibid., 54-55.

[20] See for instance Bush, introduction to The Journal of Madam Knight, wherein he has written: “Confident of her own middling economic and social standing, she is condescending in her comical descriptions of country people encountered on her route, from the hostesses at various inns who give themselves airs to illiterate bumpkins, Indians, and blacks, for whom she shows even less respect. Knight accepts her society’s hierarchical layering, including the existence of slavery” (72).

[21] Shields, 118.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L., ed. Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Bush, Sargent, Jr. Introduction to The Journal of Madam Knight, by Sarah Kemble

Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Person, Houses, Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Knight, Sarah Kemble. The Journal of Madam Knight. Boston: Small, Maynard, and Co., 1920. Reprint, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2004.

Knight. In Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives, edited by Williams L. Andrews,69-83.Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

Prince, Thomas. The Vade-Mecum for America: A Companion for Traders and Travellers. (Boston, 1731). Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), Gale (CB3330343044).

Shields, David S. Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Stern, Julia. "To Relish and To Spew: Disgust as Cultural Critique in The Journal of Madam Knight." Legacy 14 (1997): 1-12.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New
England, 1650-1750. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.