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Annalise Weindel, right, eavesdrops on Hope Smith and Katrinah Lewis gossiping about her.

Dave Doody

Annalise Weindel, right, eavesdrops on Hope Smith and Katrinah Lewis gossiping about her.

Sealing wax on a letter did not always secure its privacy.

Barbara Lombardi

Sealing wax on a letter did not always secure its privacy.

J. E. Knowlton suspects his private conduct is being bandied about in public by Katharine McEnery and, right, Savannah Mitchell.

Dave Doody

J.E. Knowlton crowds in on Katherine McEnery.

J. E. Knowlton suspects his private conduct is being bandied about in public by Katharine McEnery and, right, Savannah Mitchell.

Dave Doody

J. E. Knowlton suspects his private conduct is being bandied about in public by Katharine McEnery and, right, Savannah Mitchell.

Physical, Intellectual, Biographical:

Our Ideas of Privacy and Their Evolution

by Cathy Hellier

Privacy. The word is ubiquitous. The doctor asks us to initial a paper attesting that we have seen and understood the practice’s privacy policy. Dad may not see his son’s or daughter’s college grades, though he is writing the tuition checks, because federal law guarantees students privacy unless they formally waive it. Debate breaks out when Facebook changes its privacy policy, or a potential employer asks to see an applicant’s private Facebook page. Distribution of private data, willing or not, is ever easier in the Internet Age, regardless of legislation intended to protect it.

Nearly fifty years ago, way back in the twentieth century, the Supreme Court of the United States discerned “a right of privacy older than” the eighteenth century’s Bill of Rights, which mentions one not at all. Nevertheless, the ideas of privacy, and its near relation individualism, are centuries older. New concepts of the individual arose in the Renaissance. Between the end of the seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth, when our Constitution was adopted, Western ideas about the self and its public and private iterations changed quickly.

Scholars have spilled a lot of ink debating why. Among other things, they have attributed such changes to increased intervention of the state, to the availability of books and education—and thus, in the ability to read and reason for oneself, by oneself—to the Great Awakening’s emphasis on individual piety, and to the production and marketing of goods like eating utensils for individual use. Probably the cause was a combination of catalysts.

The word “private” derives from the Latin privatus, meaning “deprived” or “separated,” particularly from public office or participation in government. In that sense, the private man was the opposite of the public man. Yet privacy, as understood in the eighteenth century and today, is more than the separation of public from private. Privacy carries connotations of public anonymity, of seclusion, of secrecy, and of the right to be left alone. There were, and are, aspects to privacy. Let’s consider three that were important in the 1700s and are still central to our sense of privacy.

Physical privacy is the bodily separation of the self from others. Mental or intellectual privacy is the right to private contemplation, the privacy of one’s thoughts. Biographical privacy is the degree to which information about an individual’s life is revealed or concealed.

Every culture has privacy customs, and sometimes laws, that determine which parts of life are guarded from others and how that is accomplished. Some of our privacy customs are rooted in the eighteenth century, but they evolve.

In colonial America, physical privacy was the privilege of the well-to-do. In Virginia, for example, most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses had but one or two rooms, and in them occurred all the activities of family life. In the second quarter of the eighteenth century, the gentry began to build larger homes, creating such public spaces for entertaining as dining rooms and parlors, and such private spaces as bedchambers and libraries. In larger houses, the parents slept in a bedchamber apart from the children. William Byrd II considered his library so sacrosanct that his wife was not welcome there. The ability to separate oneself from guests and the rest of the family was a luxury not available to most colonists.

Most of us like our separate spaces at home. Although some households subscribe to the idea of a family bed, most have separate bedrooms for the children. Except in studio apartments, our homes normally have designated spaces for entertaining and family interaction and such spaces as bedrooms and bathrooms, which are more private.

In the eighteenth century, ideas about how to separate oneself physically while in the presence of others were changing, too. No longer was it desirable to eat from a communal dish, for example. The eighteenth century saw a proliferation of dining customs that included tables set with individual plates, glasses, bowls, and eating utensils. The fashionable replaced forms or benches with matched sets of dining chairs. Etiquette books stressed the necessity of maintaining what we would call personal space in company with others. Young people were told, “Come not over-near to the person thou speakest to,” and, “Come not near two that are whispering or speaking in secret.” It was impolite to lean on another’s chair, or to walk too closely to another when strolling out of doors. Our knowledge of germs makes us unwilling to share utensils and glasses, and we feel uncomfortable when someone stands too near us, too.

Colonial multihole necessary houses suggest that elimination of bodily waste was less private. Public drunkenness was generally accepted. Travelers expected to sleep in the same tavern room or bed with strangers. Ideas about self and privacy were changing, but they were not ours.

Society was coming to value intellectual privacy. People had improving access to education and to printed material, and it became more acceptable to withdraw from company for secular and spiritual study and contemplation. Individual reading was becoming a permissible alternative to reading aloud in company. Etiquette books, however, counseled against solitary reading, as well as writing, in company. “You are not,” one said, “to read or write in the Room where your Company is.” Philip Fithian, a plantation tutor on Virginia’s Northern Neck in the 1770s, often declined social invitations, preferring to remain in his room and read. He kept a diary, too, a solitary activity the popularity of which increased in the eighteenth century, and he wrote letters to friends. Putting one’s candid thoughts on paper was risky. It supposed that others would be too polite to read them.

Etiquette books discouraged reading the writings of others without permission. One said, “Touch not nor look upon the Books or Writings of any one, unless the Owner invite or desire thee.” Another said, “Never look into Papers which lie about.” These prohibitions wouldn’t have been necessary if people hadn’t been nosey. As any girl whose little brother has read her diary knows, people are curious. And when their curiosity gets the best of them, people aren’t always trustworthy. John Adams told his wife, Abigail, that when she had received his letters, she should “put them up safe.”

Sending a letter raised colonial Americans’ concerns about privacy. The safest conveyance was usually a friend or relation, but everyone knew it was possible to open a letter by carefully pulling up the wax seal. A busybody could quickly heat the back of the seal enough to melt the wax a bit and then reseal the letter discreetly. Public transport of letters was supposed to be safe. The Post Office Act of 1710 required the postmaster to take an oath that he wouldn’t open the mail. He could be fined £20 if he succumbed to temptation. Some postmasters left the letters out in the open in the post office, however, and the curious might look through them. Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor Francis Fauquier was incensed when his official instructions from England were opened in transit. During the American Revolution, both sides intercepted and opened letters regularly.

Today we seldom worry about the postal carrier reading our letters, but advances in technology make our private thoughts as vulnerable as our ancestors’. Hackers invade e-mail accounts. Reporters for Rupert Murdoch’s news empire in Great Britain hacked into the cell phone messages of politicians, celebrities, sports stars, and a murder victim. Anyone can read the text messages on cell phones left unguarded. Wireless networks are not always secure means of transmitting information. Nor is our intellectual privacy beyond the reach of electronic eavesdroppers.

In the colonial era, biographical privacy was slippery. If a person lived in a locality for a long time, his or her life story and reputation, for good or ill, were known. If an individual chose to move away to escape indiscretions, what the person revealed about that past in the new locale was that person’s business. In a small colonial town or neighborhood, however, residents were well informed about the details of each other’s everyday lives. Neighbors knew when the doctor visited, which young gentlemen called on the girl next door, and how many months after the wedding a couple’s first baby was born. In the summer, passersby could hear conversations through open windows. Information was routinely passed along. Primary sources tell us that gossip was a source of entertainment. Biographical privacy was hard to maintain.

Besides what neighbors might know about us, biographical privacy today involves our medical records, cell phone records, banking data, and such identifying information as our Social Security numbers. Data can get into the wrong hands, and criminals can steal identities. Sometimes a person has no control over what is shared, especially on the Internet. An employer might feature a project on the company website, or a house might be pictured on a maps database. Social media allow people to post facts about themselves on the Internet, risking the results of sharing information about recreational drug use, binge drinking, or opinions of bosses. Because college admissions officers and potential employers can search applicants’ information online, the consequences of inappropriate sharing can be dire. Information can remain on the Web for years. Companies have sprung up to scrub besmirched Internet reputations.

Privacy was becoming attractive to our forebears, but not everyone in the eighteenth century favored it. Dictionary definitions of “privacy,” including “secrecy” and “taciturnity,” had negative overtones. Some people were antagonistic to the concept of privacy. In a face-to-face society where neighbors enforced community norms by observing one another, privacy could be suspect. How could the neighbors know if a man was misbehaving if they couldn’t see what he was doing? How could they know if his thinking was orthodox if he didn’t share his thoughts? How could they know what he was reading all alone in his library? And how could they determine what to make of the immigrant next door if he didn’t tell them his life story? An advice book said that “Excessive privacy and retirement are apt to make men out of humour with others and too fond of themselves.” Privacy could be a cloak for sin, too. A poetical essay on education said:

Yet vice still worse by privacy is made As noisome weeds grow faster in the shade.

Privacy was then, and is now, a source of tension. Conduct books reveal the tug-of-war between privacy and sociability. Readers were advised to freely join in conversation, but to be discreet. A book warned, “It would be a sin against hospitality when you open your doors to your friend to shut your countenance.” Our interest in physical privacy or anonymity in public places conflicts with our desire for security. Surveillance and traffic cameras record activities in stores and on the highways, in the interest of public safety. We trade away a measure of privacy by ordering merchandise online, knowing that our data will be sold. An eighteenth-century man chose to read in solitude, knowing that members of his family wished he would read aloud to them and that they would grumble about him behind his back. Privacy has long involved choices about what to guard and what to reveal, whether to be social or solitary.

Privacy choices can have far-reaching effects. Web reputations bounce around the world. The eighteenth-century person also had to make good choices. A poor reputation might not have spread as far then as now, but the social costs could be as high, including loss of friends, family, and livelihood.

Eighteenth-century men and women had changing and conflicted ideas about privacy, just as we do. Their privacy customs weren’t always the same as ours, but ideas about the public and the private self trace to a past when other people cared about physical, intellectual, and biographical privacy. They weren’t always consistent about guarding privacy. Neither are we.



Cathy Hellier, a historian in The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s department of training and historical research, contributed to the winter 2012 journal “Gentleman’s Servant,” a history of the valet.


Extra Images

Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Savannah Mitchell

Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Savannah Mitchell

Colonial Williamsburg interpreter J.E. Knowlton

Colonial Williamsburg interpreter J.E. Knowlton

Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Katharine McEnry

Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Katharine McEnery




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