On My Shelf: The Age of Homespun

I’m an enormous fan of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and especially of her book, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. It’s an old favorite, published first in 2001, and I especially like that she writes, “For all the textilians,” on the copyright page. I think I’m a textilian, as I have my own collection of bed linens, table linens, baby linens, and such, that I have cared for, lovingly, for over thirty years. I dream that someone in our family will cherish them one day, as much as I have, and preserve them with care for generations to come. The narratives of women, which are shared through American Fiber Arts and Textiles, are storytelling treasures of community, strength, love, discipline, courage, and even hope. Especially hope for mothers, daughters, grandmothers, sisters, and others, still, as Fiber Arts and Textiles represent a collective wisdom that transcends the decades and hopefully, even, the centuries.

Ulrich’s book title, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth could not be more accurately imagined. In the format of her book, Ulrich structures an arrangement of chapters that are conceptually referenced to her title throughout, which introduces her audience to the principle that material objects are attached to much larger historical narratives. It is Ulrich’s contention that, taken together, some interpretations of objects and historical narratives have at times served to mythologize much of what might be interpreted as an accurate history of homespun objects in America. Through her carefully documented research, Ulrich presents information on the objects themselves, even as she includes storytelling methods for the shaping of their context. As each chapter ends and another begins, Ulrich weaves together the significant relationships that these material objects have to one another and so defines a narrative about what it means for an object to be homespun in America. Beginning with an introduction for the reference to an age of “homespun,” Ulrich clearly defines the difference between the images that the term evokes for various themes of study and the productivity that the term signifies.

Homespun, according to Ulrich represents a thriving industry of work performed primarily by women with the cooperation of men that contributed to the thriving economy of the colonial, through to just before, the antebellum age in America. In reference to a speech given by Horace Bushnell, at the Centennial celebration in Litchfield Connecticut, Ulrich notes the romanticized notions of production that signified homespun for the purpose of national pride, and throughout her text she prefaces her chapters with references to Bushnell’s speech. This format provides readers with an opportunity to reference a nineteenth century perspective on the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries during which homespun objects were made. This important distinction in historical perspective, provides an interesting reminder that what researchers know about objects is often through a dated lens that requires the addition of a modern perspective.

While Ulrich crafts her historical narrative to communicate a broader perspective on the objects she examines in her text, her readers are provided with references to all manner of primary and secondary sources that include diaries, newspapers, probate records, journals, account books, scrapbooks, scholarly articles, biographies, autobiographies, letters, census records and more. Her thorough and exhaustive research leaves little doubt that the integrity of her work is sound and that her manner of study is that of an historian. Even so, she has written a text that is as interesting as it is informative and would be useful in search of a concise history for the purpose of American Studies, particularly material culture. What is unique to Ulrich’s technique is her ability to create a book that is also engaging, since her readers find themselves provided with an education on the homespun material objects that serve as the central characters in the unfolding drama that is early American history.

Beginning with an Indian basket from the Rhode Island Historical Society, Ulrich provides the background for the context of its ownership that continues to expand on the relationships that developed between Native Americans and English settlers in New England. The differences in Native American culture, the technique for crafting the basket, and the tensions between the English settlers during the early part of the seventeenth century all become components of the structure in the significance of this hand crafted object. Here, Ulrich vividly portrays the challenges faced by two distinct people groups and their ability to live peacefully together in a rapidly changing environment. All this, while explaining in much detail, the origin of a hand crafted basket used to provide a thirsty traveler with a drink of milk, as described by a hand written note accompanying the object upon its accession. In this, the basket becomes a catalyst in her unfolding account of the conflicts that emerged between Native Americans and European settlers that signifies the homespun technique and craftsmanship already established in the new world.

Likewise, Ulrich develops a chapter devoted to two spinning wheels found in a garrison in Dover, New Hampshire that she describes as relating to numerous stories about both war and cloth making. She writes that cloth making in colonial New England is about trade, household production, Irish migration, and English expansion. These distinctions are related to the making of different threads for the production of cloth from flax, hemp, cotton, and wool, which each require a different method of spinning for the variations in materials used and the cloth woven. Ulrich’s history of the spinning wheels, then, also includes detailed descriptions of the work required for production, as well as the necessary references to documents such as diaries that provide detailed accounts of the workday and the time allotted for the home manufacturing of these goods. Ulrich makes a case for the fact that weaving followed in production and increased over time in the eighteenth century, providing statistical information for the development of homespun in the economy of the time.

Of all the material objects that Ulrich examines in her book, the most compelling historical narratives are linked to a piece of furniture called “Hannah Barnard’s Cupboard”. Here, Ulrich explains the term “movables” that involves an understanding of the value of homespun goods and the places where they were stored in colonial New England, particularly in the passing of homespun and other goods through to the women in families, while property was passed to men. Probate inventories together with diaries and other relevant sources are used for making the assertion that an object alone does not provide enough evidence for interpretation. Ulrich cites the development of patterns for designs that appear on the object itself, as a means for mapping the origin and meaning of its ownership, thus making a case for the relevance of the cupboard in the life of a woman at the time. Ulrich contends that Barnard’s cupboard was both a container for goods and an expression of individuality, which by law was considered a movable. By marking the cupboard with her initials, Hannah Barnard leaves a guide for the understanding of herself, as well as her family, that allows for research and study generations later, but she also leaves some marker of her nature and character behind for future generations to interpret.

The history of the elaborate making of textile arts is best represented in Ulrich’s examination of a “chimneypiece” made by Eunice Bourne that is a highly stylized needlework and embroidery object, which provides a perspective on the importance of such an object in the life of an educated young woman in the eighteenth century. It is an object that signifies the value placed on romantic pastoral imagery, which is sophisticated, as well as a contrast to the developing events that lead to a new nation’s independence. Here, Ulrich chooses to elaborate on the study of needlework and embroidery relative to the cultural importance of its time. Her examination of the opportunities available to young women for the study of this art is thorough, but her focus shifts in the middle of her chapter on this subject to address certain events leading up to the gathering of some three hundred women on Boston Common for a demonstration of their abilities in spinning. This event was documented by a newspaper report that estimated some five thousand people in attendance beginning at the South Meeting House, where the Reverend Mr. Samuel Cooper raised 435 pounds to support the spinning factory being built on Tremont Street in Boston for, “Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor.”

While this is essential to the historical narrative concerning economics and the development of spinning in New England, it is a part of Ulrich’s historical examination that takes place in the middle of her discourse on the chimneypiece object, which may detract somewhat from her focus. Nevertheless, her method is successful, since her book demands that homespun objects be understood not only through the individual narratives that they convey, but also in relationship to the larger historical context that describes homespun textile goods and the rapidly growing and changing demographics in colonial New England. Inherent in Ulrich’s work is the central idea that homespun objects provide a starting point for research and study that depends upon numerous documented sources, but also that the information gathered always leads to a larger perspective that provides a more accurate history of the beginnings of a new nation. The contrast between the two types of homespun goods in the examples of a chimneypiece and the gathering of spinners reflects the growing divide between the women who lived in more affluent circumstances and the women who did not.

Terms that are unusual are defined by Ulrich in chapters such as one devoted to the “niddy-noddy”, which is an object attached to a whimsical rhyme. Used in the process of spinning, it is as much a part of the historical narrative concerning spinning and weaving, as are the women who did the work. Nowhere in Ulrich’s book is it more evident that the importance of spinning and weaving is nearly a patriotic duty in securing independence from the British, than in the accounts of the gathering of large crowds of women for spinning and weaving that took place in competitions and demonstrations that were often connected to both church authorities and activities. Once again, the use of a variety of sources documents the events that surround the homespun activity of the mid to late eighteenth century, which verifies the accounts that Ulrich provides. The division of labor, the accounts and records used to calculate the value of that labor, and the growing textile economy each reveal a massive number of independent minded women who knew how to manage their resources and their work in a way that benefited themselves, their communities, and their families.

An interesting contrast between Betty Foot’s bed rug and Prudence Punderson’s silk embroidery provides insight about the changing culture and society from which these women derived their inspiration for the objects they created. Ulrich documents both their work through their diaries as well as the objects they created, in order to make clear, the shift from surviving to thriving in the early part of the nineteenth century in New England. Likewise, Molly Ocket’s pocketbook is a material object Ulrich uses to document the shifting culture and relations in northern New England between Native Americans and Colonists, while offering her readers an understanding of the precarious circumstances through which the relationships between rural and coastal communities existed within contrasting economies. These homespun objects, the women who crafted them, and the families who treasured them play an important role in understanding the development of a new nation, but the documents that surround them such as diaries, letters, and other sources are all supported by the larger research available in probate inventories, census records, and scholarly research and study that connects anthropological, historical, and geographical perspectives to the interpretation of them.

A linen tablecloth, a rose blanket, and an unfinished stocking provide a view of the emerging nineteenth century that leads to the conclusion of Ulrich’s book. Here, the complexities of weaving and dying are examined together with the notoriety that the refinement of homespun goods obtained in reaching as far as the nation’s capital before the war of 1812. Dolley Madison’s letter of thanks to Abigail Wildes for her homespun gift describes the “valuable” and “beautiful” counterpane that does credit to her “ingenuity” and “industry.” The ingenuity and industry to which Dolley Madison refers is an understatement in considering Ulrich’s account of the work that defined the production of textiles by women during Wildes’ time. The sheer volume of production by individual women speaks to the often unknown and usually unwritten histories of America that account for extraordinary citizens performing seemingly ordinary tasks. In Ulrich’s text there is only the extraordinary to consider in the history of homespun goods that shaped the culture and society of colonial New England. Her demonstration of the use of numerous varieties of credible sources for research and documentation in crafting her historical narratives for material objects speaks to her own ingenuity and industry that includes her in the sisterhood of, The Age of Homespun.

Book Referenced and Reviewed: Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Copyright, Wise Welsh Witch, 2020.

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