A black petticoat on a peg line billows in the breeze. Pegged next to it are several carefully-arranged table napkins. To uninformed passerby, it simply looks like laundry hung out to dry, but to those in the inner circle of the Culper spy ring, it’s a secret signal about a nearby meeting place.
Anna Strong used her laundry to send coded messages about times and locations for Abraham Woodhull and Caleb Brewster to meet. A black petticoat on her peg line indicated that Brewster was in the area and available to ferry messages, and the arrangement of the handkerchiefs hung next to it indicated the specific cove where Brewster could be found. The roots of this signaling system go back as far as ancient Rome, where the military would use groups of flags to send and receive messages.
Petticoats are the epitome of intimate apparel, the undergarment that most women were required to wear during the 18th century. They were also the most accessible weapon women had at their disposal. Anna Strong’s use of her laundry on her clothesline was an example of the ingenuity of women of the time.
Traditional homemaking skills were essential to the espionage work of women during the Revolutionary War. Both the British and American armies used housewives and young girls, known as “camp followers,” as laundresses, cooks, nurses and maids. Women at the time were considered non-threatening and were often overlooked as possible spy threats. With access to campsites and the homes of military officials, women could eavesdrop on conversations and gain vital information without raising suspicion. These women secretly provided significant intelligence to military and civilian leaders, often at great risk to themselves and their loved ones.
As the circumstances of the war spilled beyond the battlefield and into women’s everyday lives, many took refuge in what they knew best: taking care of their farms, families, and homes. They used domestic weapons at their disposal to gain access and brilliant creativity to find ways to send coded messages in plain sight, ultimately helping to gather and distribute some of the most vital intelligence of the war. Patriots in petticoats like Anna Strong operated under the radar, and made an essential impact on espionage that still resonates centuries later.Read More