On an excursion to visit novelist Willa Cather’s gravesite in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, my sister and I stumbled upon a historic marker on the side of a road. This marker highlights two of Jaffrey’s most notorious citizens, Hannah Davis and Amos Fortune.
We recalled having heard of Fortune before, his story a remarkable one, but we had not heard of Hannah Davis who lived in Jaffrey from 1784 -1863. Davis’s story reveals an entrepreneurial spirit that still amazes today.
In 1818, after both parents had passed, only-child Davis was “a spinster of thirty-four, almost penniless,”(Robinson) an unenviable situation, especially in those days when occupational options for women were so limited.
What was Davis to do? Somehow, she devised a plan to manufacture bandboxes (often called hatboxes). It may have been an idea she had been contemplating for a while or one quickly conjured under pressure.
Some surmise that Davis inherited her maternal grandfather’s “mechanical ingenuity and manual skill,”(Annett) and perhaps some of her clockmaker father’s as well. Who’s to say it wasn’t her grandmothers and mother who instilled industriousness, creativity, and grit in their descendent? But necessity is the mother of invention; what lie dormant in Hannah Davis prior to her parents’ passing was then activated by the critical need to support herself.
At the time, bandboxes were popular for storing and protecting personal items, such as hats, gloves, collars, and more. Bandboxes were also used for travel; the boxes were packed with valuable items and placed in a bag with a drawstring for easier transport.
“Lots of people made bandboxes because there was a big market for them. Most were either box or wallpaper manufacturers. Because these boxes were made of pasteboard, they were quite perishable.
“But Hannah wanted her boxes to last, so she made hers out of wood”(Conn).
Good move on Davis’s part. Look at what’s selling like hotcakes and improve upon it!
To find the right wood, Davis would search the village of Jaffrey
“until she found a fine big spruce tree suited to her purpose. She would then visit the owner of the woods and make terms with him for the purchase of the tree. She would hire a man to cut down the tree and haul it to her house. The log was cut into appropriate lengths, and these stood on end on a wooden platform”(Robinson).
And here’s where Davis’s story becomes even more intriguing. It was Davis herself who designed the method and machine to manufacture these wooden bandboxes:
“She had invented a machine, run by foot power (and it took a strong man to run it) operating a sharp blade, which neatly cut off vertically a thin slice from the log about an eighth of an inch thick, for the sides of the bandboxes”(Robinson).
Davis assembled her oval “nailed wooden bandbox[es]”(Annett) and lined them with old newspapers purchased from a neighbor. She then artfully adorned the outside of the boxes with neighbors’ wallpaper remnants. Each of Davis’s bandboxes bears her distinct label on the underside of the cover.
These quality, beautiful boxes bartered and sold well in Jaffrey and neighboring towns, but it wasn’t enough to live on, plus she had more inventory to disperse. So, Davis expanded her sales route:
“She loaded her wagon to the roof, hired a sedate and trusty horse of her neighbors
and perched amid her treasures, set out like a fairy godmother for the factory towns where finery did most abound. In the large towns of Manchester and Lowell she was well known; and when, as was her custom, she halted her van at the mill door at the hour of noon, she was sure of eager customers and a thriving trade”(Robinson).
Clearly, Davis was much more than a fairy godmother! She was an ambitious and savvy businesswoman, and there was even more to her than this. To young and old, she was known as “Aunt Hannah” for her “overflowing kindness and goodwill”(Annett). It is also said that she was an enchanting storyteller and many of the young loved to gather around to hear her tales. Townsfolk regularly lavished Davis with gifts of firewood, baked items, and more. Later in life when she could no longer support herself, the community built her a house to live out her last years.
Hannah Davis manufactured and sold the best bandboxes at that time and “they have stood the test of time, and are still to be found in hundreds of attics after nearly a century of service”(Annett). Very fine craftswomanship indeed.
It is recorded that
“So timid was Aunt Hannah in her old age, that she kept an axe in her front hall and whenever there was a knock at the door she answered it carrying the axe in her hand”(Robinson).
Instead, I view this as bravery. Timid would be hiding and not answering the door, but carrying an axe with the intention of using it if necessary takes courage, at least in my book!
Hannah Davis is a #Nasty Woman of Ambition and we’re thrilled to have discovered her in her hometown of Jaffrey, NH!
And here are our posts about novelist Willa Cather, who is buried in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, New Hampshire along with entrepreneur Hannah Davis: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia: An Unusually Beautiful Read & Woman Writer Willa Cather: A Forever View of the Mountain.
© Maria Dintino 2021
Annett, Albert and Lehtinen, Alice E. “Hannah Davis” Jaffreyhistory.org. http://www.jaffreyhistory.org/05people/biographies/davis_hannah/davis_hannah.php
Conn, Carole. “Hannah and Her Boxes” Connecticut Country Antiques. 21 January 2020. https://www.ctcountryantiques.com/post/2016/12/03/hannah-and-her-boxes
Robinson, Margaret C. “Hannah Davis, a Pioneer Maker of Bandboxes Some Facts About an Interesting Character of Jaffrey, N. H., and the Industry, Unique of Its Kind, That She Started” Boston Evening Transcript, Saturday, November 14, 1925. http://www.rs41.org/jhs/hannah2.pdf