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The Age of Homespun (thoughts)

March 5, 2010

I read my first book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich as part of my women’s history month reading last year: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. She’s the historian who wrote that sentence, which is now on countless shirts, bumper stickers, etc. (sometimes the seldom is changed to rarely). The book was marvelous, mixing the academic background of the sentence with a look at the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s with historical analysis of various American women. I loved it, but unfortunately I don’t have a review, since I read it during the annual Great Migration South.*

I’ve been wanting to read more of Ulrich ever since, and so when I was putting together my list for the Women Unbound Challenge, I added The Age of Homespun. I love textile work myself: knitting, crocheting, sewing…I’ve done the latter two since I was a child.* Since this book was about late seventeenth, early eighteenth New England women and their textile work, as well as the later mid nineteenth-century New England romanticism of the Age of Homespun, it sounded perfect.

And oh my gosh, I loved every singe page of this book. The text itself is a touch over 400 pages, and I wish it had been twice as long. I fully intend to read all of Ulrich’s other books, I understand why she won a Pulitzer for her grad thesis, and I want to convince everyone to go read this too! Is that gushy enough?

I should say upfront that I have no inherent interest in New England, which is why I didn’t pick up the book straight away for the challenge. But now I see that that’s silly; just because Ulrich sticks to a certain region, doesn’t mean that her writing is less than universal. This book is about women, living, breathing, individual women, and we can all connect with that. After the marvelous introduction, each chapter is devoted to shaped around one particular artifact. In that context, Ulrich explores the women who had contact with that object, other women of different circumstances making similar objects, how this tied into the stories New Englanders told themselves, and she regularly uses excerpts from journals of that time period. Each chapter is that sweetspot in length for nonfiction too: less than 40 pages but over 25. Oh, and have I mentioned the photographs? Of course, each chapter has a front page with the main object’s photograph. But then scattered within the text are lots of other photographs, of objects or women, and many times the main object’s photograph will appear again when Ulrich is analysing it. It makes it so much easier when I don’t have to flip back and forth to find the correct pictures, and it just enhanced my experience of an already marvelous book.

Have I convinced you yet? Perhaps I should mention that Ulrich doesn’t whitewash her history. Several of the chapters deal with Native Americans, and Ulrich looks into all sides, digs up their own accounts, etc. She also looks at New Englander’s stereotypes about Indians, like this passage*:

Apess helps us understand that the myth of the disappearing Indian covered a darker truth, that to make way for white farms, Indians had to disappear. In the seventeenth century, people believed that God brought illness to make way for his chosen remnant. In the early republic, writers more often appealed to the logic of the new political economy.

And the book opens with a super-helpful map of the New England region; the first side of it is “Major Indian Groups at Time of Contact” while on the other side of the page is “Northeastern Settlements.” There isn’t as much discussion of African Americans, but in one chapter she explains how Free Blacks got along, how societal acceptance was stronger in the earlier periods and decreased in the later ones, and she profiles a few individuals. She also never hesitates to point out when people she’s talking about are slave owners, or when their trade/crafts/etc. were created with slave labour.

So, Ulrich’s a pretty awesome historian! But she’s also an incredible writer. Here’s how the book opens:

If this book were an exhibit, I could arrange it as a room, one of those three-sided rooms you sometimes find in museums, open on one side like a dollhouse, with a little fence or rope across. My room wouldn’t represent a time or place but an idea-New England’s age of homespun.

She goes on to describe the room, but the paragraph’s a bit long, so I’ll leave you to discover it. :) She’s great at creating images with her words and really describing the lives of these women in a way that’s detailed yet fascinating.

For Betty and Nabby the word work had multiple meanings. When Nabby wrote that she “did the work,” she meant housework, the largely invisible but essential everyday tasks a wife or daughter did for her family. When she wrote “Prudence Otis come here to work” or “betty went to Mr Pomroy to work,” she ment work for pay. A third use for the word appears in her entry for July 12, 1775: “I went to Mr Otis’s and spooled some of Mrs Wrights yarn and come home about noon and got my piece to work and Eliza Wells was here and I helped Israel pole hay a little.” That singe entry records both paid labor (Nabby is weaving cloth for Mrs. Wright) and family labor (she is helping her brother with the hay), but it also refers to informal exchanges between the house holds (the use of the Otises’ spooling equipment) and the skill that allowed one woman to get a particular piece of weaving “to work.”

Ulrich also has a great sense of humour, and this sentence from her afterword had me smiling:

Urban fantasies about rural life are as old as the Greek eclogues and as American as the L.L. Bean catalog.

Traditionally, historians have overlooked the day-to-day lives of women. They were in the background, less likely to appear on official documents, less likely to be leading the halls of the power, less likely to be considered ‘worthy’ of study. I feel so grateful to Ulrich, for making these women her focus. I feel like, even though I have no New England ancestors whatsoever, she’s connected me to my heritage, the heritage of all women. She gave me the chance to peep in on how ordinary women lived, in a frontier place three hundred years ago, and she made me enjoy every moment of it.

I believe I have a new favourite author. And I strongly urge you all to pick up one of her books. Whether you usually read nonfiction or not, I believe you’ll be entranced.

Do you have a favourite nonfiction author? I’m always looking for more!


Footenote One: Which is coming up again in a couple of weeks!Woo-hoo!But it will only be a week this time, so I shall probably just leave the laptop at home, as always.
Footenote Two: In 5th grade, I started a club for my friends called the Cozy Club during which I tried to teach them how to crochet and handsew. It was so much fun! For the record, I was half girly-girl and half tomboy back then; I would also climb any tree I could find, played soccer year round, and road my bike faster than the boys who lived across the street.

Footenote Three: The Apess mentioned is William Apess, an Indian author in the nineteenth century. I very much want to read some of his work’s now, including an essay Ulrich references entitled “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man.”

45 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2010 2:40 pm

    I’m going to be adding this to my TRB list on Goodreads.

    Thanks. :)

  2. March 5, 2010 2:48 pm


    I already gushed at you about it on Twitter, but just chiming in to agree wholeheartedly with your opinions here. And the thing that most appealed to me about it was how artifact-based her history is – how each chapter uses a single artifact as a window into a whole set of meanings and circumstances. Being a hand-crafter myself, I found that an INCREDIBLY effective and fascinating method of entering history, because it implies that we endow the objects we interact with, and especially those we make, with bits of our stories, and that those stories can be extracted from those objects (carefully, with a bit of imagination & a lot of research) after we’re gone. I just find that a very compelling idea.

    I especially loved the chapter about the Revolutionary-era sewing bees, & how the women used spinning as an assertion of colonial independence from British goods, but also to kind of elbow their fathers/husbands/brothers, who were out getting drunk & talking big in the name of independence – they were like “see? you don’t have to get wasted to sock it to the Brits!” (I am not such a goody-two-shoes as this comment makes me sound; I was just kind of tickled by the notion of the women spinning archly in their mens’ direction.)

    Um, wow! Long comment. This is an excellent book, the end.

    • March 7, 2010 11:03 am

      Yes it is! And I agree w/ everything you’ve said here. :D

  3. March 5, 2010 4:25 pm

    Ooh, is Ulrich going to end up on your Author Sidebar of Fame?! I hope so :-)

    I know her quote but I haven’t read any of her books, and this post has reminded me that I’m very much lagging on the non-fiction component of Women Unbound. I am reading a non-fiction now, but I don’t think it qualifies. SIGH. Life is never fair.

    I love when authors take a seemingly singular idea and make it universal- such as textiles here!

    • March 7, 2010 11:04 am

      lol! I’m definitely thinking about adding her! And Isabel Allende. :) Sometimes I think I was mean to make a nonfiction requirement for Women Unbound. But most of the time I don’t feel *that* guilty, lol. There’s lots of great nonfic out there, something for every reader.

  4. March 5, 2010 4:54 pm

    I have no real interest in New England or, frankly, textile work (unless its mass-production during the industrial revolution) but I absolutely want to read this book! Even before you started quoting from it, I was ready to add it to the TBR list based on how interesting it sounded, preparing myself for an informative but heavy read (alleviated, I hoped, by the promised pictures). But the style seems delightful! I can’t wait to track down a copy from the library!

    Also, the Cozy Club? Adorable. I tried to do much the same thing in Grade 3, but wanted to couple crochet lessons with a book club. It failed miserably.

    • March 7, 2010 11:05 am

      Before I started reading it, I as prepared for a heavy read too, so I was very happy to see Ulrich’s style. :D I never tried making a book club-I thought about it in college, but we were all poor & there weren’t enough copies of any books in the libraries we had access to. lol

  5. March 5, 2010 5:02 pm

    Wow, she really sounds like an interesting writer. I love women writers, especially when talking about women and women’s history. I’d never heard of Ulrich until now but that title – “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History” – of the other book you mentioned intrigued me. I think I’m going to have check some of Ulrich’s writing out now. :D

  6. March 5, 2010 6:12 pm

    My favorite nonfiction author is Annie Dillard. I’ll definitely have to check out Ulrich soon.

    • March 7, 2010 11:20 am

      I’ve actually never read Dillard, although I’ve heard of her. I must give her a try soon! Where would you recommend I begin?

  7. March 5, 2010 10:22 pm

    Wow, this book and author sound amazing! Definitely adding to my list!

  8. candletea permalink
    March 6, 2010 1:25 am

    Your bookblog is impossible, at this rate I’ll be adding books to my TBR list daily!

    I read a book about everyday lives of women in the 18the century last year, The Gentleman’s Daughter by Amanda Vickery, but it was a bit of a dry read and I had some trouble finishing it. Your review made me feel like this book won’t be like that at all! Even though I have to admit that I’m not especially interested in New England or textile, I think I’d really like to read this book. Thanks for the review.

    • March 7, 2010 11:21 am

      lol: I don’t gush over all the books I read! Promise. :) That’s too bad Gentleman’s Daughter was dry; this one definitely isn’t that.

  9. March 6, 2010 1:33 am

    Hope you enjoy Goodbye Tsugami. Man, it makes me feel tired just reading your blog. So much interesting stuff! I am way behind with my posts, as usual… I’m bookish_violet on Twitter. I’ll send a request to follow.

    • March 7, 2010 11:22 am

      I’m looking forward to it-I’ve loved both the Yoshimotos I’ve read!

  10. March 6, 2010 3:53 am

    Laurel Thatcher Ulrich sounds pretty amazing! My library doesn’t have any of her books (boo) but she’s definitely on my wishlist now. This is my kind of history, using smaller relatable incidents to describe bigger trends.

    • March 7, 2010 11:26 am

      Boo to your library! ;) Maybe you can mooch one or something.

  11. March 6, 2010 5:16 am

    The book sounds amazing, I added it to my Amazon wishlist which I use to catelogue what to search out in the library, on bookcrossing or to buy.
    I keep trying to crochet, but can only do circles and messy ones at that!

    • March 7, 2010 11:28 am

      Yay! :) If I lived near you, I’d help you sort out your crocheting, hehe.

  12. March 6, 2010 7:03 am

    I feel like every time I turn around you are adding another book to my list for Women Unbound. I think I am going to have to move this one to the top. It sounds fantastic!

    • March 7, 2010 11:31 am

      I know-I’ve read so many awesome books for the challenge! :D

  13. March 6, 2010 10:22 am

    If you are interested in the day-to-day life of women, you should read Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years of Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times….or some such title. The author’s last name is Barber. I’m eyeballing the book on my shelf right now…the TBR shelf that is. :)

    • March 7, 2010 11:32 am

      That one is on my Women Unbound list too. :)

  14. March 6, 2010 1:37 pm

    You had me convinced before the end of the third paragraph.

  15. March 6, 2010 4:53 pm

    So I definitely started this review thinking, New England? Textiles? Boring boring, and as I carried on this sounded more and more fascinating. Thanks for this review! It’s not at all what I would normally read, but I’m adding it to my list. :)

    • March 7, 2010 11:33 am

      lol! I think Ulrich will make you interested in it if you pick it up. :)

  16. March 6, 2010 6:27 pm

    I bought one of those tee-shirts at a darling shop in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was visiting the U of W campus. I had no idea the shop was for lesbians until much, much later when it dawned on me. Still, I like that shirt a lot!

    • March 7, 2010 11:33 am

      My roomie had one of those shirts-I coveted it! :)

  17. tarynwanderer permalink
    March 6, 2010 7:02 pm

    I’ve got two left thumbs and about as much skill at textile work as I’ve got at not killing my houseplants (i.e, none), but you’ve made me want to read this book. :D Sounds like a really engaging and fun read!

    • March 7, 2010 11:33 am

      I’m not good w/ houseplants either! :/ I hope you enjoy it if you get to it!

  18. March 7, 2010 4:56 pm

    I have Well-Behaved Women on m shelf, waiting to be read. I read bits of A Homespun Life for my one history grad class. It wasn’t a good time, so I don’t have positive memories of the book. Imagine my surprise, though, when I figured out who she was. She’s definitely getting a second chance, I just have to figure out when to squeeze her in!

    • March 10, 2010 4:19 am

      Oh, that’s too bad. :( I hate it when classes ruin books for me! I hope you enjoy Well-Behaved Women, though.

  19. March 10, 2010 9:54 pm

    This sounds fascinating!


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