“To Have The Bed Made”: Invisible Labor and the Material Culture of Nursing in the Revolutionary War

“To Have The Bed Made”: Invisible Labor and the Material Culture of Nursing in the Revolutionary War
Meg Roberts
University of Cambridge
August 25, 2022

Alongside the surgeons and physicians, the medical care of the thousands of sick and wounded Continental soldiers relied upon the tireless work of army nurses, camp followers, housewives, cooks, laundresses and local families. In contrast to the voluminous records of soldiers’ and military leaders’ wartime experiences, the contribution of women has often been summarized fleetingly with three verbs: washing, cooking and nursing. The rich detail of this everyday and mundane labor—the changing of linens, the preparation and feeding of medicines, the sourcing of heat and water, the emptying of chamber pots—is not immediately apparent from written sources alone. However, by turning to Revolutionary-era objects and material culture, we can begin to recover some of this invisible labor and reconstruct each element of nursing a sick or injured person in the Revolutionary War. This program accompanies the exhibition Saving Soldiers: Medical Practice in the Revolutionary War, on view through November 27, 2022.


About the Speaker

Meg Roberts is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research examines the effect of health crises on care networks, care practices and caregivers during the American Revolutionary War, and is informed by her academic and professional backgrounds in North American disability history and object-based museum research. She has been awarded several research fellowships including the William H. Helfand Fellowship in American Medicine, Science, and Society at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania/Library Company of Philadelphia; the David Center for the American Revolution Fellowship at the American Philosophical Society; the Robert M. & Annetta J. Coffelt and Robert M. Coffelt Jr. fellowship from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; the AHRC International Placement Fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress; and the AHRC International Placement Fellowship at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.