The Age of Homespun (thoughts)
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.”