The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth
by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
Threads of History
A review by Alan Taylor
Trained to seek and to interpret written documents, American historians usually are flummoxed when confronted with the past's household objects. What are scholars to do with cloth, clothing, furniture, tools? Of what use is a spinning wheel or a linen tablecloth to a historian? Long abstracted from their original context and deposited in the display cases or dusty drawers of museums, such things seem mute with social meaning and best left to antiquarians and art curators who can doggedly trace the stylistic connections and developments that matter so much to collectors but so little to historians.
But perhaps these objects can help historians who operate where the paper trail peters out. Such is the plight, certainly, of historians who study the colonial era; and doubly so when they seek the traces of common people rather than the well-documented elite; and triply so when their subjects are women rather than men. Women's historians now enjoy a growing demand for their methods and their ideas, as readers and students seek to fill the gaps left by past generations of scholars who slighted female lives as historically insignificant as apparently trivial as the spinning wheels themselves. Yet these historians must struggle to extract meaning from a paucity of surviving writing by colonial women. Even for New England, the most literate region of colonial America, the texts by women are preciously rare: some letters and a handful of diaries or account books.
Necessity being the mother of scholarly invention, women's historians have proved especially resourceful and ingenious at teasing meanings from stray references in the records of civil, criminal, and probate courts. Among these adept scholars, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich especially stands out. Ulrich raised a family before turning in midlife to pursue graduate study at a relatively small public university during the late 1970s, and she courageously devoted her dissertation to a topic then doubly damned by conventional scholarly wisdom as trivial: colonial women in northern New England. Surely only someone consigned to academic marginality would investigate marginal people dwelling in marginal places rather than, say, men in Massachusetts or Virginia. Her early career, in sum, was a path that never before led to the Harvard faculty, to which she now belongs.
But sheer ability is sometimes a stubborn thing. An astute editor at a prestigious publishing house snapped up Ulrich's dissertation, recognizing its literary qualities and its timely contribution to the emerging interest in early American women. When it was published in 1982, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750> exemplified a distinctive and authentic new voice in historical scholarship. Trained in the then-prevailing "New Social History," Ulrich dutifully plunged into the court cases and probate inventories of local records to document the lives of common women. But she broke with the social science model that turned statistical averages into bland types, an approach that Ulrich characterizes as "freezing people into a collective anonymity that denies either agency or the capacity to change."
Instead, in obscure records she found vivid stories that illuminated the lives led by so-called "common" people. Determined to evoke the past as well as to analyze it, Ulrich offered "an extended description constructed from a series of vignettes." And she found drama where no one else had bothered to look, presenting "much about housekeeping, childbearing, and ordinary churchgoing, about small conflicts experienced by forgotten women, and about little triumphs that history has not recorded." Although attentive to scholarly questions such as whether colonial women were losing or gaining in status Ulrich primarily sought to recover what mattered to past women: "the magnification of motherhood, the idealization of conjugal love, and the elevation of female religiosity." With a humane imagination and a keen eye for telling details, Ulrich enabled readers to feel a sense of connection to kindred people dwelling in the alien culture of a distant time, bringing into focus a surprisingly coherent and forceful picture of colonial life.
Eight years later, in 1990, Ulrich published a still more eloquent, moving, and important book, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. As in her first book, she took on a risky subject rejected by more conventional historians: the life of an obscure woman from central Maine who left a long but repetitive and cryptic diary. Full of daily chores and transactions but thin on observation, the diary seemed dry, dull, and trivial to the few historians who bothered to examine its cramped handwriting. Through innovative and exhaustive research in local records, Ulrich reconstituted Martha Ballard's familial, social, and economic relationships with hundreds of neighbors children, women, and men to restore the rich meanings implicit in the diary's terse entries.
Recast as an "earnest, steady, gentle, and courageous record," the diary revealed the long-lost life of a country village in the early republic. Ballard's diary helped Ulrich to uncover the vibrant female networks for exchanging labor and making household produce, including homespun cloth. Eighteenth-century women re-appeared as earthy, vibrant, and essential, and no longer as the passive dependents of stereotype. In a vivid and telling metaphor, Ulrich likened the social interplay of men and women to cloth: "Think of the white threads as women's activities, the blue as men's, then imagine the resulting social web. Clearly, some activities in an eighteenth-century town brought men and women together. Others defined their separateness." No historian has done more to recover a detailed sense of the past from so many disparate scraps of apparently opaque evidence.
Striking as literature and as research, A Midwife's Tale presents Ulrich's findings in a lyrical prose attentive to a reader's imagination. By focusing each chapter on a particularly difficult but implicitly rich passage, Ulrich drew her readers into the challenges and the rewards of historical research as detective work. She then constructed tight and compelling descriptions of action and place in a distant time and culture, rendering tangible the differentness of the early republic. And yet Ulrich also treats her subjects with empathy, rendering them understandable as fellow humans in their abilities and limits, their joys and sorrows. While feeling the alienation of time, readers of her book also garner a sense of kinship with the people who lived in the distant past. No book in recent memory has better combined the respect of fellow scholars with the affection of general readers.
What could ulrich do for an encore? In her new book, she takes on the especially daunting task of finding meaning in the woven things of New England's museums: "sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths, napkins, towels, quilts, blankets, grain bags, handkerchiefs, aprons, coverlets," and Indian baskets. "This is a book," Ulrich explains, "about the objects nineteenth-century Americans saved, the stories they told, and the stories that got away." For small things she makes large claims: domestic objects reveal "the flow of common life" that generates "the electricity of history," providing the context for more famous events such as the coming of the American Revolution. And who better to make history from mute objects than the historian who moved a Maine midwife and her diary into the center of historical scholarship?
To succeed, Ulrich must again convert a dense obstacle into a crystalline prism for viewing the past. Between us and the eighteenth century there looms a formidable nineteenth-century mythology that romanticized the colonial era as an "Age of Homespun"a simpler, happier, and more authentic time when virtuous living and hard work by self-sufficient households produced an almost universal sufficiency, without extremes of wealth and poverty, power and exploitation. The myth emerged during the 1840s and 1850s as compensation for a new and troubling time of factory-made and store-bought goods. As household production withered, Yankee antiquarians avidly collected and displayed the old tools, furnishings, and clothing of their newly sanctified forebears. Ulrich observes that "the mythology of household production gave something to everyone. For sentimentalists, spinning and weaving represented the centrality of home and family, for evolutionists the triumph of civilization over savagery, for craft revivalists the harmony of labor and art, for feminists women's untapped productive power, and for antimodernists the virtues of a bygone age."
Yet those mythic and protean qualities tend to distance the objects from contemporary historians. Attentive to the ideological distortions of nineteenth-century "memory," historians cannot see beyond to find colonial meaning in the old things. Surely a display of spinning wheels reveals more about nineteenth-century collectors than about eighteenth-century users. But Ulrich, by contrast, wishes to proceed beyond debunking the myth-makers. Instead she thanks them for saving so many objects made and used by the ordinary women who left so few documents.
Ulrich's book does attend to the sort of big social transformation that historians ordinarily seek: in this case, the rise and fall of a female-conducted household mode of cloth production. During the early seventeenth century, in New England as in the mother country, male artisans wove cloth as a specialized and centralized craft. But at the end of that century and the beginning of the new one, cloth-making in New England became decentralized and feminized, conducted in most households by women and their daughters rather than by men.
In an era when cloth and clothing were relatively precious and rare, linen tablecloths were more valuable than the tables they covered. As the producers of critical goods, New England women enjoyed considerable importance and authority within their households. During the mid-nineteenth century, however, the women of New England lost productive clout at home as the market and the new technologies centralized the production of cloth in factories. Lower-class women had to seek wage work in the factories, while middle-class women struggled to transcend new roles that threatened to be merely ornamental or admonitory.
Ulrich also works to correct the nineteenth-century mythology that sanitized New England's colonial past. She detects "the dark underside of New England history" in beautiful embroideries that others read only for their fine workmanship and exquisite taste. Noting the wealth and the leisure that allowed Eunice Bourne to create fine needlework in 1753, Ulrich remarks that "the economic development that elevated the Bournes ... to the provincial elite left urban poverty and economic unrest in its wake." In particular, the Bournes derived their wealth from exploiting their trustee power over the Mashpee Indians to accumulate valuable lands on Cape Cod.
Throughout her book, Ulrich restores the Indian presence formerly erased by a mythic history that downplayed their violent dispossession and suggested their consent to marginalization and disappearance. By emphasizing the bucolic harmony of the "Age of Homespun," the myth implied that Indians had vanished smoothly and voluntarily, giving way to an improved landscape conducted by a happier people favored by divine providence. Yet Ulrich will not absolve domestic life and colonial women from the public violence of colonial men. Instead, she concludes that "cloth literally transformed the landscape as Algonkian beaver passed into the hands of English felt-makers and English sheep began to graze on American meadows."
While noting the colonists' grim effectiveness as conquerors, Ulrich denies their descendants' claims to total victory, their mythic insistence that New England's Indians had vanished. She closely analyzes the nineteenth-century Indian baskets collected by the myth-makers, who remained oblivious to their testimony that the natives adapted and persisted long after their supposed disappearance. Ulrich also corrects the museums that have long defined Indians as a timeless, primeval essence that could experience change only as a form of decay.
The Maine State Museum, for example, displays a pocketbook made by an Abenaki (or Pigwacket) Indian woman named Molly Ocket. Treated as a vestige of ancient tradition, the displayed object loses its richest meaning: as a syncretic piece made in 1785 for a Yankee consumer by a native woman particularly savvy in Yankee ways. Although woven in a traditional manner, the pocketbook is a European form, and Molly Ocket combined settler wool with native materials: hemp and moose hair. Ulrich notes that "the pocketbook is both an Abenaki and a colonial artifact." Through this syncretic pocketbook, Ulrich redefines the essence of "Indianness" away from an impossible purity to, instead, an adaptability that consistently interwove tradition with innovation in a struggle for cultural survival in a transformed land. Thus recast, New England's Indians reappear as a continuous presence, putting the lie to the mocking label formerly applied to the pocketbook by a nineteenth-century curator:
Made this Pocket
She was a Pequawket
And last on the Docket
Although attentive to the big questions, Ulrich is once again primarily interested in the many details, in the textures and the relationships of daily life: in "the unseen technologies, interconnections, and contradictions that lie beneath audible events." She delights in explaining the cultivation of flax, the operation of spinning wheels, the variety of stitches used in fine linens, and the diverse weaves employed in baskets. Above all, Ulrich loves to find and tell stories generated by supposedly ordinary people. Setting aside her larger argument for long stretches, she narrates "the stories of individual peoplemakers, collectors, and users of ordinary household goods."
Although individually fascinating, the stories are ultimately too many and too diffuse to preserve a clear sense of directionwhich marks The Age of Homespun as even more daring but finally less successful than A Midwife's Tale. In contrast to most academic writing, which remains unnecessarily abstract, A Midwife's Tale is enriched by an attention to life's descriptive particulars. But thanks to a central focus on one woman dwelling in a single town, A Midwife's Tale perfectly balances the details with a clear story line: Martha Ballard's struggle to adapt to a society transformed by the American Revolution and to a life cycle that diminished her power over her children. In her new book, however, Ulrich ranges among dozens of capsule biographies and distinct episodes scattered over three centuries and six states, producing a knotted texture that ultimately defies her creative ability to highlight a central thread.
Ulrich names, begins, and frames each chapter with a particular object or two crisply illustrated in black-and-white photographs. The featured fourteen include Indian baskets, spinning wheels, a cupboard, a chimneypiece, a niddy-noddy (for winding yarn), a bed rug, a silk embroidery, a pocketbook, a tablecloth, a counterpane, a blanket, and a stocking. As opening gambits, the objects catch the eye and intrigue the imagination. Arranged in a chronological sequence from 1676 to 1837, the things and their chapters generally draw their readers forward through timebut with many digressions backward and anticipations forward. After discussing the object's apparent provenance and the original story (if any) provided by the donor, Ulrich sets to work in the local records to correct or complete the original account, illuminating the piece's social and cultural context.
This innovative framework sometimes works brilliantly. The best chapter features the largest and most striking piece, a cupboard made about 1715 in Hadley, Massachusetts. Its bright blue columns frame a bold array of flowers, vines, Roman letters, and the owner's maiden name: Hannah Barnard. By boldly asserting a woman's identity and power of possession, the cupboard refutes the notion that colonial women were passive, anonymous, and powerless. True enough, the legal system awarded men a monopoly on family identity, real property, and the documents that survive for historians to use; but the cupboard testifies that the written documents do not tell the whole story.
With the help of the cupboard, Ulrich recovers the informal and customary power that colonial women exercised within their families and through the generations. Women inherited and controlled the dispensation of "movables"cloth, clothing, furniture, and some livestock. These items usually eluded the legal records but were as essential to a farm family as the land owned by men. With ingenious research, Ulrich demonstrates the recurrence over the generations of the name "Hannah Barnard," whose owner, in turn, inherited the precious cupboard. "The cupboard helped to preserve the name," Ulrich writes, "but the name also transformed the cupboard. Marked with the first owner's name, it became ... an inalienable possession." She concludes: "The cupboard teaches us that in a world where most forms of wealth were controlled by male heads of household, certain objects were informally owned by women." Through the transmission of names and objects women created lineages that sometimes paralleled, but often crosscut, the more conspicuous and official patrilineal system. In this particular chapter, the featured object proves eloquent and central to the analysis, from beginning to end.
In some other chapters, though, the featured objects are far less revealing. Once introduced, they quickly recede, as Ulrich instead pursues an eclectic set of stories loosely connected to the things themselves or to her larger subject. Thus the fifth chapter begins with an intriguing niddy-noddya cross reel for winding and measuring yarnfrom Newburyport in 1769. But the chapter soon abandons the particular object and races far beyond that town and year. Ulrich discusses the widespread patriotic spinning bees that supported the boycotts to protest British taxation; then she turns to a detailed recounting of the diverse stories within a succession of eighteenth-century diaries kept by five disparate and far-flung New Englanders.
Two New Hampshire men, Samuel Lane and Matthew Patten, noted the importance of their daughters in the production of cloth. Young Deborah Sylvester of Massachusetts linked cloth-making to religion and marriage. Mary Cooper of Long Island vividly lamented her hard work and her callous husband. Wealthy Elizabeth Porter Phelps mused about courtship, slavery, and religion in western Massachusetts. Ulrich asserts that "household manufacturing is the thread that binds these stories together." Often it is a slender thread. Drawing upon Phelps's diary, Ulrich reports that a servant named Sarah Bartlet burned down a tavern in 1767; her apparent tie to the larger story is that Bartlet began the fire in some flaxen yarn. Perhaps, Ulrich muses, Sarah felt cheated by her master's accounting of her spinning. Given Ulrich's talents as a researcher and a narrator, the twisting and turning stories are all fascinatingbut readers may well wonder where they are bound.
And in contrast to Hannah Barnard's eloquent cupboard, the opening niddy-noddy provides scant information. The object's cameo appearance is merely symbolic: a convenient visual image. In the rest of the chapter, Ulrich applies her distinctive talents to interpreting the sort of written documentsdiaries, letters, genealogies, and inventoriesthat are the stock-in-trade of social historians. She does not really need the niddy-noddy except to launch the story-telling. In sum, the niddy-noddy fails to deliver on the apparent promise that things can serve as powerful sources in their own right.
Ulrich's last chapter begins with an unfinished stocking from 1837, still attached to two needles and balls of linen. What does it mean? "No one knows who began it or why it was saved," Ulrich laments. After catching the reader's eye, the linen stocking vanishes from the chapter as Ulrich turns instead to an entertaining ramble through the various new forms of cloth-making introduced by market incentives during the 1830s. Ulrich describes the brief, colorful, but futile boom in silk-making; the development of textile factories with new forms of time and labor disciplinewhich led to strikes by their young women workers; and to the outwork production of straw and palm-leaf hats in country towns. Along the way, she details the lives and the cloth-making of Sarah Weeks Sheldon of Vermont and Persis Sibley Andrews of Maine, as revealed by their letters and their diaries. Finally, Ulrich narrates the experiences of two other Yankee women (Patty Sessions and Lucy Meserve Smith), who converted to Mormonism, emigrated to Utah, and continued to make cloth until the end of their lives.
Despite its range, the final chapter seems incomplete. For balance, Ulrich's book would benefit from a concluding counterpart to the previous attention afforded to the creation of New England's domestic mode of cloth production. In the early chapters, Ulrich presents detailed research in probate records to specify with quantitative precision the dissemination of spinning wheels and weaving looms at the start of the eighteenth century. But she offers nothing comparable for the 1830s and 1840s to quantify and to define the pace at which those objects left New England households.
Ulrich demonstrates the emergence of domestic cloth-making with precision, but she merely asserts the system's decline. Rather than concluding with Patty Sessions and Lucy Meserve Smith, who remained lifelong cloth-makers to the end of the nineteenth century, Ulrich might have provided examples of women gradually forsaking the spinning and weaving of their earlier lives. For want of that closure, the suggestive but unfinished stocking proves an apt symbol for the last chapter and more generally for the difficult task of reading objects as texts.
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