(Also see the related Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.)
This week Katie Cannon has agreed to deal with this myth that has pestered her for years. She has more than a dozen years of experience working in history museums as well as a masters in Museum Studies, and she currently works at Mount Vernon. Katie says she is especially fond of living history, having never quite grown out of playing dress-up.
This is something you hear all the time, about different places and times in American history. While I will certainly not dispute our ancestors’ ingenuity and skill, and many people did make a variety of objects for their own use, it is simply not true that anybody made everything— or even most things— that they used. Pre-Industrial Americans were part of a global economy and were consumers as well as producers; you can see this in all three centuries of early American history.1
When the first English settlers arrived on American shores, they thought they were landing in an untamed wilderness full of savage beasts and “savage” men. (Not true of course, but that’s a topic for another discussion.) This meant they were totally on their own and had to fend for themselves, right?
While they could not purchase the manufactured goods they were used to on this continent, they eagerly awaited regular ships bringing them European goods: cloth, thread, sugar, salt, furniture, paper, etc. etc. That romantic image of Priscilla Mullens industriously spinning wool while John Alden stumbles through wooing her? A bit difficult since there is no record of fiber processing tools in the colony until the late 1630s (and the two were married over a decade earlier).2
Here is an excerpt from a letter by Edward Winslow, 1621. He is writing to a friend and advising him on what to bring to the new colony:
“…bring good store of clothes and bedding with you. Bring every man a musket or fowling-piece…Bring juice of lemons, and take it fasting; it is of good use. … If you bring anything for comfort in the country, butter or sallet oil, or both is very good. …Bring paper and linseed oil for your windows, with cotton yarn for your lamps.”3
The 18th century saw the birth of the United States of America, land of the free, the brave… and the avid consumers. Prior to the Revolution, this country was heavily dependent on British imports; England even forbade the colonies from producing certain goods themselves, ensuring that they would be England’s customers.4
For political reasons around the time of the Revolution there was a push for “homespun” and other goods produced locally.5 This did not mean that everyone could be self-sustaining, however. Just think of all the tools and knowledge necessary to make every single item in someone’s home! An encyclopedia published in the 18th century shows images of craftsmen and their tools; take a look at what was required to make a single pin, necessary for sewing and fastening clothes:6
If you look through probate inventories of the time, even for those in the lowest income brackets, you get the sense of all the many trades (needing years of training and specialized tools) that went into making that inventory. Consider this inventory of Patience Gilbert from 1742; she is listed in the lower wealth category of the York County, Virginia, probate inventories.7
Her list of possessions includes:
- 3 kettles, 2 frying pans, 1 copper kettle, 1 brass candlestick, and other metal items that would have been made by various smiths
- Several items of clothing but no loom or spinning wheel so she at least purchased the fabric if not the finished clothes
- Tea that she could not have grown in this climate
- A looking glass which she certainly did not make
- … and so forth.
You will find similar inventories for other years, wealth categories, and locations.
Ah yes, the self-sufficient pioneers, heading off into the frontier for a fresh start away from any outside assistance! … or not.
Becky Lauterbach, Senior Facilitator at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park whose specialty of over 20 years is early life in 19th century Indiana, says, “they were able to get to a store in Indiana, and it probably wasn’t all that difficult. Fur traders… had been in the area for 200 years. Even the Native Americans had become dependent on manufactured goods. St. Louis, MO was the “Gateway to the West” by the 1830’s. People moving on to the “frontier” could stop there to stock up and could no doubt buy anything they needed (and plenty of things they didn’t). Most settlers never intended to be self-sufficient, but were willing to “rough it” for a while to gain the advantage of being first on the scene.”
She also provides this list of just a few items offered at an Indiana store in 1834-35:
Guns and the gunpowder to fire them
- Lead – While balls could be molded easily, you needed the bar lead to start with.
- Salt – so necessary for preservation.
- Metal items – tools, at least the heads, cooking pots, cooking utensils, horse shoes, nails, …
- Dye stuffs for colors like blue, red, purple
- Cotton – not grown in large quantities around here
Why does this matter?
I won’t deny that before the Industrial Revolution all items had to be made by a person, whether it was a person working with hand tools or operating a machine such as a loom. But, no single person was able to make everything they owned, nor did they have to; they could purchase items made locally or shipped from abroad, the same as we do today.
We honor the self-sufficient aspects of our ancestors quite readily; I think we should also recognize them as active consumers of a global marketplace, lest we do a disservice by diminishing the scope of the world they lived in.
1 I will be focusing on American history starting with European colonization. Pre-European contact also involved extensive trade networks, but this is meant to be a short article, not a doctoral thesis!
2 Jill Hall. “The Truth About Priscilla, Spinning in Early Plymouth Colony,” Spin Off. Winter 2010. Available online at http://www.sail1620.org/history/articles/220-truth-about-priscilla-spinning-in-early-plymouth-colony.html
3 Dwight Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1963), p. 86. Many thanks to Elizabeth Rolando of Plimoth Plantation for providing the quote.
4 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), pp. 84, 159.
5 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), p. 176.
7 York County Probate Inventories, provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s digital library. http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/BrowseProbates.cfm accessed January 19, 2013.