Revisited Myth # 138: Women in early America didn’t play the violin or flute because they would have to raise their arms, revealing their elbows.

January 7, 2018

Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, England 1835

This well entrenched myth is trickier than I suspected, but when one digs into the details (“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say), it seems there is no evidence to back up the belief that the reason women and girls didn’t play the violin or flute was because they would have to raise their arms and reveal their elbows. This statement has long been made by historic interpreters and volunteer docents at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites and is still found in some CW podcasts.

The idea that elbows were indecent seems to have no historical foundation. Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and an expert on 18th-c. costume, expressed surprise and dismay that this was still being said by CW interpreters. “Almost all gowns of the 18th century typically did cover women’s elbows, because that was the fashionable silhouette. . . I have not seen period sources stating that women’s elbows were considered indecent. In fact, working women did not hesitate to roll their sleeves up when work demanded it. When fashions changed at the very end of the 18th century and early 19th century, most women readily adopted the new short-sleeved styles. Again, I have not found any period sources [such as manuals of manners and deportment] saying that women found the visible elbows to be shocking.”

18th-c female with typical sleeves and exposed elbows

For more information see the article at http://www.history.org/search/google_search_results.cfm where it states, “The concepts of comfort and modesty have always been relative and subject to the influence of fashion and the needs of the occasion. Like us, eighteenth-century people needed clothing for warmth and comfort, but they quickly abandoned those needs if fashion or the occasion dictated. During much of the eighteenth century, women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”

But is it true that women did not play the violin or the flute? John Watson, conservator of instruments and associate curator of musical instruments for Colonial Williamsburg, says that few women played these instruments because, in general, they were not considered ladylike instruments. In Music and Image: Domesticity, ideology and socio-cultural formation in eighteenth-century England, author Richard Leppert contrasts the English guitar (a strongly female-associated instrument) to the violin. He points out that the guitar “was never an instrument of high musical caste…There was no ‘art’ music for the instrument… Men by contrast took up the violin, archetypal instrument of the ‘best’ music from the European Courts” (p.167) Leppert goes on to say (p.168) “There is no ‘natural’ reason why women should not have taken up the violin; indeed, they would have had far more time available to learn how to play it well. That they did not do so was a cultural or ideological matter involving the instrument’s appropriation by men, as the musical enthusiast Hester Lynch Piozzi understood perfectly and so stated in the silence of her diary [1789]: ‘How the Women do shine [in music] of late! . . . Madame Gautherot’s wonderful Execution on the Fiddle; — but say the Critics a Violin is not an Instrument for Ladies to manage, very likely! I remember when they said the same Thing of a Pen.’” [Ouch!]

Colonial Williamsburg’s Research Librarian Juleigh Clark sheds further light on the subject with her discovery of a 1722 London publication by author John Essex, The young ladies conduct: or, rules for education, under several heads; with instructions upon dress, both before and after marriage. It seems there were several instruments that were “unbecoming the Fair Sex.” Essex writes, “The Harpsicord, Spinnet, Lute and Base Violin, are Instruments most agreeable to the Ladies: There are some others that really are unbecoming the Fair Sex; as the Flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike, and would look indecent in a woman’s mouth; and the Flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the Juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d, to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion. Musick is certainly a very great Accomplishment to the Ladies; it refines the Taste, polishes the Mind; and is an Entertainment, without other Views, that preserves them fron the Rust of Idleness, that most pernicious Enemy to Virtue.” Interesting logic, huh? Women need to conserve their saliva for digestive purposes, but men don’t. 

John Watson suggests that it is also worth considering whether the “female” instruments (keyboards and guitar) were considered suitable for women because they were seen as more for accompaniment for the voice and less soloistic.

It isn’t so hard to imagine that some instruments were considered feminine and others masculine. The same is true today–although the instruments have sometimes switched sexes! I interviewed a retired, female violinist who played for the Richmond symphony for decades who told me that over the past 60 years, certain instruments have been played predominantly by one sex or the other. It is mostly men, for example, who play percussion, horns,  double bass, tuba, and saxophone; while women are almost exclusively in possession of the harp. Considerably more women than men play the violin today, she said. A cursory glance at contemporary music shows that it is mostly men who play the guitar nowadays, an instrument considered feminine in colonial times. So the guitar, a female instrument in the 18th century, and the violin, a male instrument, changed sexes in the 20th century! 

Long story short: the violin and flute were among the instruments considered unsuitable for women, but not because of their elbows. 

 

 

Previous comments.

  1. James Meek says:

    As to whether the violin was unsuitable for women in the 1700’s, maybe in America.

    But tell that to Anna Maria from Venice, (1696-1782) for whom Vivaldi wrote numerous violin concertos.

    There’s a wonderful book about this

    http://www.barbaraquick.com/annamaria.html

    and a superb BBC4 video (both visually and musically).

    The full documentary is here:

  2. Jake Pontillo says:

    Another great and informative posting!

  3. Ha! I was hassled by a very entertaining interpreter a year and a half ago at a tavern in CW, and she rebuked me for showing my elbows. I raised my eyebrow but didn’t challenge her. Vindicated in retrospect!

  4. Lisa D says:

    Perhaps at least with instruments that required a certain lung capacity wearing a corset could make it more challenging

  5. Stephen Herchak says:

    Enjoy these very much — just yesterday I was thinking about something I might as well pass along to you now.

    I know you’ve addressed the notion of “sleep tight” and the ropes supporting mattresses but something I often hear also associated with Colonial furnishing and in the Heyward Washington House where I used to volunteer here in Charleston, is the expression “to square a room away” comes from the practice of moving the furniture against the walls and out from the center of the room when not in use.

    Is that the origin of the term, or is “squaring” something just like “tight”, be it sleep tight, sit tight, just hold tight a minute — and so forth?

    Thanks once again for the great posts, Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’ve never heard of that phrase, Stephen, but since furniture was often pushed to the edges of the room when it wasn’t being used, I imagine the origin might have come from that practice.

  6. Deborah Brower says:

    Up until your post I had seen a woman playing fiddle in two other 18th century images. One was Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment and the other was a French print. Thanks for tackling this question.
    Big thank you to James Meek for his comments and link. That documentary is stunning, it gave me chills.

    Mary, thanks many times for keeping this blog going. You add so much to our understanding of myths by providing a forum where the weirdest statements can be put under the microscope.

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Revisited Myth # 126: “A boot of ale” derives from the custom of using old boots as drinking vessels.

July 22, 2017

The myth says that the expression “a boot of ale” comes from the custom of cutting off the top of old boots and using them as serving containers. (How the top of an old boot transformed into a vessel is unclear–to me, at least.) 

As most of you who work at or visit colonial-era museums know, the American colonists drank out of leather vessels called jacks or blackjacks. These were lined with pitch to make them waterproof and are very sturdy. Decades ago, my stores in Colonial Williamsburg sold reproductions, and I believe they still do. These large leather jugs and mugs made such an impression on the French visitors to England in the 17th century that they reported that Englishmen drank out of their boots! A funny story, not meant to be taken literally. (Waterer’s Leather in Life, Art, and Industry, 1946, London) 

Why use leather to make a drinking vessel? It’s an English tradition. In medieval England, there was little glass manufacture, so aside from wood, pottery, or tin, what are you going to use to make a mug or goblet? (Yes, gold and silver, but those are for the nobles, not taverns or average folks, so let’s not go there.) Leather worked very well. Still does. But not boots.

 

Comments:

  1. Can you tell us about bootlegging, then? It must come from the same origin. I can’t imagine it’s a reference to carrying liquor in the boot of one’s car. I’m reading your novel, so it’s on my mind! Well, actually I’m listening to the audiobook from Audible, but I still call that “reading”.

    • Mary Miley says:

      The word first appeared in the 1850s in Maine and of course it refers to smuggling liquor. But this seemed odd to me because Prohibition didn’t start until almost 70 years later. That is, except in Maine, the first dry state, where it became illegal to manufacture or consume liquor in 1851. Because Maine shares a border with Canada, the law was easily flouted. Ordinary folks wanting to smuggle liquor into the country could hide a couple bottles in their pants legs in Canada and walk into the United States.

    • Andrew says:

      It’s not about the ‘boot’ of a car, but a literal boot, where flasks of whiskey would be hidden and carried across the border. I live in one of the major cities known for it’s role in the prohibition.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Looking at your illustration/example above, you can’t blame anyone for jumping to a conclusion that people were drinking out of their boots! Except for the stitched handle, that example looks very much like an inverted riding boot. Perhaps they were made from the same leather stock, and from a similar pattern.

 


Revisited Myth # 119: “Too many irons in the fire’ refers to ironing and laundry.

April 30, 2017
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Susan Armstrong wrote: I enjoy your blog very much. I recently saw a video of Civil War (re-enactor) laundress explaining her work. She made a statement about the term “too many irons in the fire” originated during the Civil War, when the laundress was ironing and had too many “irons” heating up by the fire.
I have NEVER heard this about laundry-ironing.

Neither have I, Susan. I believe the expression originated in the blacksmith trade. I checked with master blacksmith Ken Schwarz of Colonial Williamsburg who explained the smith’s point of view. “Iron can be overheated and ‘burned,’ damaged beyond use. If a smith tries to increase productivity, he may put more than one bar into the fire in order to minimize the time waiting for a bar to heat to a working temperature. If the fire is fanned and the iron is not withdrawn before reaching the burning point, the attempt at increased production can actually lead to a reduction in efficiency and material loss. Therefore, too many irons in the fire is counterproductive, causing the smith to work frantically to try to stay ahead of the process.”   

The laundry interpretation seems illogical to me. A laundress traditionally used two irons (although Mrs. Pott’s sadirons with detachable handle, below, were sold in sets of three)–one heating on the stove while she ironed with the other. Why have “too many”? You can only use one at a time.  For more about irons and ironing, see Myth # 95. 
  1. Previous Comments:
    Brian Leehan says:

    My particular historical interests are the Civil War era and the American West of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and although a “city boy,” I always took an active interest in the history and life of the Cowboy. My understanding of the term “too many irons in the fire” has always been that it referred to the spring roundup and branding: a lot of cattle “outfits” would come together to separate-out the cattle that had been wintering on open range. Each outfit would brand their new calves, and there would be a lot of branding irons “in the fire.” I assume “too many irons in the fire” would refer to the chaos that could naturally occur with a lot of outfits trying to agree on who owned what, roping, holding and branding, etc.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of branding irons. I checked with the Oxford English Dictionary and learned that the earliest known written use of the phrase dates to 1549 (in England): “Put no more so many yrons in the fyre at ones.” Another intriguing mention in the OED is the one from 1624 from America’s own John Smith: “They that have many Irons int he fire, some must burne.” And another from 1751, “I had now several important irons in the fire, and all to be struck whilst hot.” Medieval Europeans did brand cattle, so the phrase may refer to that practice, but the blacksmith story seems more likely to me.

  2. Susan Armstrong says:

    Thank you for the post. It is interesting how we use adages, attributing them to everyday / common activities. Researching a term can tell you where it “originated” or what it is “attributed to”.


Revisited Myth #107: Cooks went barefoot so they could sense where it was hot on the brick hearth in order to avoid burns.

January 14, 2017

 

 

hearth-275px

Thanks to Brian Miller at Historic Odessa in Delaware for submitting this oddball. He says it is often stated in Odessa kitchens that cooks went barefoot for this reason.

I had not heard this one before, nor had Frank Clark, food historian and supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s foodways program, but he said, “I can pretty much tell you from experience that would be impossible. You might not burn your feet on the hot brick, but the heat of the fire on any bare skin is hard to take, especailly when you have to get your feet up next to the fire to get out coals and the like. Plus the chance of stepping on a stray ember is constant. I do it all the time. Sounds like a unsubstantiated myth to me. I think if someone was barefoot, it was only because they had no shoes, not for any advantage in hearth cooking.”

 

COMMENTS”

Keena, Katherine says:
March 9, 2013 at 10:49 am (Edit)
Mary – now this is a new one on me…I cannot help but respond that in Girl Scouting we insist on shoes for everything, especially coking!

Katherine Keena

Program Manager

Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace

Reply
Roger W. Fuller says:
March 10, 2013 at 10:01 am (Edit)
Sounds like somebody (un)wittingly transposed the dubious practice of “firewalking” onto a historical question. The suggestion becomes fact, if it’s told often enough….

Reply
Deborah Brower says:
March 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
It’s official: people will believe anything if they think it cool enough.

Reply
azambone says:
March 12, 2013 at 8:22 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
I think this is one of the most bizarre “just so” stories told in a historic house museum. Most of them are attempts to square the circle, to give some sort of “practical” or “common-sense” explanation for some sort of human behavior that, like a lot of human behavior, defies common-sense. But this is so counter-intuitive that it baffles me, just a little bit. Does that mean I don’t think that someone has spun this story to a group of rapt visitors? No. I can easily believe that they did.

Reply
Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 6:55 pm (Edit)
Somebody was afraid to say, “I don’t know.” You should never be afraid of saying “I don’t know”, if you actually don’t know.

Reply
Gregory Hubbard says:
March 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm (Edit)
This myth is truly bizarre.

I am a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the Other CIA) and an historian. With apologies to The Food Channel’s Barefoot Contessa, I can say with certainty that anyone who works in a kitchen barefoot is crazy. They won’t last 5 minutes.

1713, 1813 or 2013, working barefoot would be extremely dangerous. Not simply coals, as mentioned above, but with spattering grease from pan frying, roasts drippings, splatter and drips from kettles, and this list could go on and on, the tops of your feet would be badly burned as well.

Bare legs or short pants would be equally loony. This myth presumes our forbearers were stupid. Who thinks this stuff up?

Gregory Hubbard
Chatsworth, California

Reply
Mary Miley says:
March 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm (Edit)
Thank you Gregory. To answer your question, “Who thinks this stuff up?” I have no earthly idea, but it never seems to stop. But yes, many people do presume our ancestors were stupid. That’s one reason myths are so enduring–they appeal to our sense of superiority.

Reply


Myth # 145: It was the custom to bury old shoes in a new building for good luck.

December 17, 2016

 

Susan Smyer wondered about the custom of burying a shoe in the walls or foundation of a house. For good luck? To ward off evil spirits? Is this a myth?

Not a myth. There is ample documentation for this practice at various times and in various cultures. It seems people did and still do put a shoe in the walls or foundation of a building, probably in order to ward off bad luck or bring good luck. According to June Swann, a footwear historian and keeper of the boot and shoe collection at the Northampton Museum in England who began studying concealed shoes in 1957, the practice has been reported in Germany, France, Australia, and the New England states of America. A few examples date from the 15th century, after which the practice appears to have become more common. It peaked in the 19th century and has fallen away since the 1930s. According to Ms. Swann, most of the shoes are well-worn, utilitarian sorts, and nearly half belonged to children. (To read more, click HERE.)

However, Marc Carlson, Librarian of Special Collections at the University of Tulsa who has compiled references of shoe-related superstitions at www.personal.utulsa.edu/%7Emarc-carlson/shoe/RESEARCH/CONCEALED/shoestuff.htm, warned in 2008 about making unwarranted assumptions on this topic: “. . . there is an increasingly common modern assumption that shoe concealments are intended for a superstitious or ritual, so we should look at a wide variety of actual superstitious and ritual practices regarding shoes. My personal position is that we don’t know why these items were concealed in walls way back when, and it’s sloppy to assume that they all were for ritual reasons (which is where this trend is currently heading). Some may well have been, others likely were not. Since the idea was first proposed by June Swann back in the 60s, the idea that they were ritual deposits has certainly influenced the reasons why people are currently depositing shoes, as well as the assumptions about the past.” 

I acknowledge Mr. Carlson’s warning against over-generalizing, but my own view is that most instances of shoes in the wall were prompted by superstition. 

 

 


Revisited Myth # 105: Colonial women dipped their hems in water when they worked around fires to keep their skirts from catching fire.

November 5, 2016

kit_woman

Reenactors tell me they get this question all the time. As the women work around the campfire, on-lookers ask whether their hems are wet. Costumed interpreters also hear this question as they work in kitchens. It’s related to the myth about burning being the most common cause of death for women in “the olden days” because of their long skirts catching fire (see Myth #2).

800px-French_and_Indian_War_reenactment

Generally speaking, only formal wear was worn so long that hems skimmed the ground. While skirt length in America has varied throughout the past four centuries according to fashion, working women (which is to say, most women) were more likely to wear skirts that were several inches above the ground. Even then, they might hike up the hem and tuck it in their waist to get the skirt out of the way. “During much of the eighteenth century,” writes textile curator Linda Baumgarten, “women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”

Another point worth noting, as many reenactors have discovered from personal experience, is that natural fabrics that are common in historically accurate clothing–wool and linen–don’t burst into flame when they come into contact with fire. They smolder.

Just for fun, here’s an old poem (1568) by Sir Philip Sidney that mentions young women hiking up skirts to play sports!

"A time there is for all, my mother often sayes, When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes." --Sir Philip Sidney, 1568

“A time there is for all, my mother often sayes, When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes.” –Sir Philip Sidney, 1568

PREVIOUS COMMENTS:

Elizabeth (@leezechka) says:

February 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
Linen can still burn though it does not light up like cotton, wool has amazing fire resistant properties, which also is why it works well for military uniforms, which can easily come into contact with sparks and flames from guns and cannons.

Reply
Caroline Clemmons says:
February 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm (Edit)
Very interesting, and your point about fabrics hit home. Nylon melts to the skin. Sometimes, old ways were best. Not that I’d ever want to cook over an open fire. I prefer modern conveniences.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:55 am (Edit)
Amen, Sister! I’ll take mod-cons every day.

Reply
madamepdg says:
February 5, 2013 at 1:36 am (Edit)
A reblogué ceci sur La médiathèque de la Compagnie des Cent Associes and commented:
Un blog intéressant sur les “mythes historiques”. A suivre.

Reply
Beth says:
February 5, 2013 at 9:24 am (Edit)
Love the poem!

Reply
Petticoat Burns « Kitty Calash says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:47 pm (Edit)
[…] on an English site catering to reenactors. There’s a variation I’d never heard, about wetting petticoat hems to keep them from engulfing the wearer in flames. (OK, mild exaggeration: to keep the petticoat from igniting fully, thus… hat tip to Back […]

Reply
Pam says:
April 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm (Edit)
I have my doubts that it is a true “myth”. It seems like such common sense to me to wet long skirt hems when working near a fire. How would anyone now really know how each individual person would handle this?

Reply
Mary Miley says:
January 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm (Edit)
The Voice of Experience:
Alena who works in costume wrote me,

“Hi Mary,

I am a long-time reenactor who recently started working at a museum, and since starting I have twice heard about women wetting the bottom few inches of their skirts so they would not catch fire while cooking on the hearth. I believe this to be a myth for two reasons. One, as you know, skirts made of natural fibers don’t catch fire all that easily. I have stood too close to the cook-fire in my wool skirts, I got a scorch hole in my skirt, but no flames, I promise. The other reason I can not imagine this is true is the weight that a couple of inches of water add to a skirt. When reenacting outdoors we inevitably run into wet weather, and once the bottom few inches of our skirts soak up the moisture they get so heavy, they stick to the ankles and ultimately become harder to control. None of us would ever willingly soak our skirts then work over the fire. That would make hard work even harder!

Thanks, Alena

 

 

 


Revisited Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.

September 14, 2016

spinning-51789982a

It’s a pervasive image, isn’t it? A woman in old-fashioned dress sits by the cozy fire with her spinning wheel, spinning the yarn that she will later weave into “homespun” fabric, which she will later use to sew her family’s clothing. Surely every early American household had a spinning wheel and a loom, right? Most people wore “homespun,” right?

It is true that most women made most of the clothing their families wore, but few actually spun the yarn and fewer wove their own fabric. Why? Because imported fabric was cheaper and better than homespun and could be purchased in stores throughout colonial America and during the early decades of the federal period. In fact, when you examine store inventories from the colonial and early-American period, fabric makes up the bulk of the inventory. While some was exotic and expensive (silks from the Far East, for example, or printed cottons from India), much was cheap. Woolens and linens from England could be purchased for less than it cost to make them in America, which is why people overwhelmingly chose to buy fabrics rather than to weave their own. Even slaves’ and servants’ clothing was usually made from imported fabric.

Colonial Williamsburg’s textile curator Linda Baumgarten writes, “Only in frontier areas was most clothing homespun and homemade – and even there, traders and storekeepers quickly penetrated the backcountry to make imported goods available.” Retired colonial historian Harold Gill recalls that in his many decades of researching household inventories in the Williamsburg area, he never found a single reference to a loom. He did find that many (perhaps “most”) households had a spinning wheel. 

And as one blog reader pointed out, “You neglect to mention the “homespun” movement, a popular protest against the Townshend Acts. Women learned to spin in order to forgo the imported, taxed fabric. In reality, even during the protest, nobody was producing enough fabric to truly replace the imports. And note that they were LEARNING how to spin, as in they hadn’t done it before. Still I think the protest probably contributed to the place that spinning has in the image we have of early America.” Excellent point. 

1996-1

 

COMMENTS:

janice says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:45 am (Edit)
though i loved the part in Laura Ingills Wilder’s book, Farmer Boy, where her husband’s mother would weave wool to make coats for the family. she wove it and then shrank it to make it warmer. i think her loom was in the attic. i like when the women bring their looms, drop spindles and spinning wheels to the fair. i would like to have learned how to do that. didn’t they use their looms for rugs and carpets? those that raised sheep, did they use the wool for other purposes?

Reply
Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 9:15 am (Edit)
Laura tells about her life on the frontier where women like Mrs. Wilder had less access to stores, at least for the first few years.

Reply
Ginger says:
December 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Mrs. Wilder was in upstate New York, wasn’t she? Was that still considered frontier?

Mary Miley says:
December 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
A quick check shows you are right, they lived in western NY state until Almonzo was 18 and moved to Minnesota in 1875. But remember, Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing fiction. She based her tales on true events but changed details quite a bit.

Erin Blake says:
December 2, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
My great grandmother, a homesteader on the Canadian prairies, used her spinning wheel to make yarn for sweaters, mittens, etc., not for weaving. She was famously baffled when my mother wanted a picture of her spinning: spinning was what you did in the evening, when it was dark and cold, and you were too tired to do anything else but had to do something to keep moving and be useful.

Reply
Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm (Edit)
Also, there were differences in who used looms in New England vs. the Mid Atlantic. See Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s books “A Midwife’s Tale” and “The Age of Homespun,” and her article “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” as well as Andrienne Hood’s articles “The Gender Division of Labor in the Production of Textiles in Eighteenth-Century, Rural Pennsylvania.”

In short, in the mid-Atlantic in the late 18th c., labor divisions adhered to the old model of weaving being a male occupation. In New England, women developed an informal system of home-production. A few households had the large and expensive loom, and women exchanged daughters to share the work of the weaving.

In my thesis work on textile production in late 18th-early 19th c. lower New York State, I found that there was indeed a complicated system and division of labor. Mary Guion, a young, unmarried, middle-class woman, wrote about fiber production parties (“frolics”) with her friends, mostly spinning, some carding. She spent days on her horse delivering the processed flax or wool to the dyer, the weaver, and by the early years of the 19th c., the “machine” (the carding factory)

Oh dear, I could go on forever on this subject! It’s so fascinating!

Reply
Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm (Edit)
Thank you for adding so much to the subject!

Reply
Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm (Edit)
Oh, I should also add that Mary bought imported fabric from the pedlar, ordered fabric and other clothing items from “the cart” (a pedlar or a townsperson who made trips to NYC?) and made trips to NYC herself, where she spent time shopping for fabric with her friends. So, yeah, she definitely didn’t make all her own fabric. It’s impossible to say what percentage, but if I had to make a guess I’d say around 20% of the fabric she used was made locally.

Reply
Elizabeth Bertheaud says:
December 3, 2012 at 10:39 am (Edit)
Might I recommend: Jensen, Joan. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. Ms. Jensen discusses how the women of SE PA soon realized their efforts were better spent making cheese and butter to sell than in manufacturing textiles. A great read on many levels.

Reply
Alaina Zulli says:
December 3, 2012 at 11:20 pm (Edit)
Elizabeth, thanks for that recommendation. It sounds great, and is now on my Amazon wishlist!

Reply
Katie says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:25 am (Edit)
Just to comment about Farmer Boy with Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was Almanzo’s family that was in upstate New York (I visited – Canada’s but miles away), not Laura. Albeit fiction, she usually based all her writings on fact – and most of the “facts” she changed were about her family to make a better story, not about the activities. It is mentioned in the book that Almanzo’s mother making all their fabric was very unusual, especially for their economic status, for the time and region. This region was far from being the frontier and Almanzo’s family was considerably well-off compared to the pioneering Ingalls family. I just wanted to make sure Laura is not discounted because her books are “fiction;” most of them are very factual. From a loyal Little House fan.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:34 am (Edit)
As a loyal fan of Laura’s, I would never discount her writing. I discovered her books as a mother and read them to my children. And we loved the TV series too. It was wonderful finding books and TV programs that taught values as well as history.

Reply
Ginger says:
December 5, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
Thank you for clarifying this! It’s been many years and I did not recall the statement about it being unusual for her to spin and weave. And while I’m aware that Laura changed things, I also thought it was unlikely for her to insert a made-up detail like that. Thank you.🙂

Reply
Rena Lawrence says:
December 4, 2012 at 11:36 am (Edit)
I also recommend “Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production, 1822-1880” by Dr. Paula Mitchell Marks. Very nice treatment of spinning out of necessity (with women often learning from grandmothers or slaves) and the production of penitentiary cloth by prisoners at Huntsville.

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Alaina Zulli says:
December 4, 2012 at 10:16 pm (Edit)
sounds like another great book! Thanks, I’m adding it to my to-read list.

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Deborah Brower says:
December 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm (Edit)
Great choice of myths!!!!!!
This one really needed to be explored, because there is so much confusion on the subject. Spinning wheels have survived to such a degree that they have become icons. Spinning does not equal fabric it’s only part of the process.

The followups have been very informative. Thanks again it’s like an early Christmas gift.

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goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm (Edit)
Wow, this is shockingly incorrect! The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

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Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm (Edit)
Excuse me, I’m a little confused. Which part of the post or comments is shockingly incorrect?

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goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm (Edit)
The post. People definitely spun their own wool and made their own fabric. Especially during the War of 1812.

Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm (Edit)
Of course some did. Sorry if my post wasn’t clear–it says that the practice was not common, not that it didn’t ever happen. On the frontier where European fabric was not available or during brief periods when shipping was interrupted (like the War of 1812), women had to resort to buying homespun fabric, often made by professional weavers since few women owned expensive (and big!) looms.

Judy Cataldo says:
December 16, 2012 at 11:06 am (Edit)
Boston and surrounding towns are hardly the frontier. There are multiple primary accounts in the newspapers of the 1700s noting locally manufactured textiles. New England had a vibrant textile culture starting in the mid 1600s. Fashion fabrics were imported cheaply from England as with the other colonies but local manufacture was alive and well. It is not correct to paint all colonies with the same broad brush.

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QNPoohBear says:
December 22, 2012 at 11:30 pm (Edit)
Right. Cloth was imported in the early colonial period until the mid-17th century when a weaver set up shop in Boston. The first textile mill,Slater Mill, in the United States was built in Rhode Island in 1793. Almost all the old farm house museums in Rhode Island have large weaving looms and spinning wheels. Women spun flax and wool. Check out this link for the story of one family’s looms
http://www.hearthsidehouse.org/news/2012.talbot.html

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Mary Jean Adams says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:52 am (Edit)
Perhaps someone has already brought this up, but how about the notion of homespun as a political statement? My understanding has always been that toward the revolution, as more and more English goods were boycotted and goods from other countries embargoed, wearing homespun became a sign of your allegiance to the cause.

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Mary Miley says:
February 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm (Edit)
You are quite correct. there is a marvelous (true) story about the Governor’s Palace ball that took place in Williamsburg, hosted by the last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, where the ladies wore dull-colored, homespun ball gowns. It made quite a statement.

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Tracy says:
April 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
It is my understanding that North American women of the 18th century spun yarn mostly for practical knitting, and that most home weaving was limited to toweling, rugs, and sometimes bed linens and underthings like shirts and shifts. And that most homes did not have a loom but did have a spinning wheel.
I do know that pioneer women in the west (Utah) in the 1840’s and 50’s did quite a bit of weaving out of necessity due to their geographical and cultural (Brigham Young’s emphasis on self sustaining industry) isolation.

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Mary Miley says:
April 10, 2013 at 1:55 pm (Edit)
For some perspective, I checked with Harold Gill, a highly respected (retired) historian from Colonial Williamsburg who, during his many decades of researching colonial inventories, recalls that he never found a single example of a Williamsburg house with a loom. He recalled that many, perhaps “most” houses had spinning wheels.

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Patricia Shandor says:
February 20, 2014 at 1:01 pm (Edit)
I work at a museum in South Carolina that owns dozens of 18th/19th Century locally-made spinning wheels used for various mediums, such as flax, cotton, and wool. And I know of a few 18th/19th Century looms in the area (one still located in its original privately-owned house). We are located in the midlands of South Carolina and near what would have been considered the American frontier until around 1820…at least. Though we certainly did have access to Charleston which was one of, if not THE richest city in Colonial America. So I know there was both weaving and buying going on.
Interestingly, we own locally-made quilts from the 1830s-1850s which include homespun dress fabrics as identified by scholars and also quilts that include Chintzes, imported from England (which were used in South Carolina quilts well into the 1850s). My point is that I would guess that there were more spinners and weavers in the South than in the North. Plus there were more factories and mills up North. So…the abundance of spinning wheels in the antique stores of New England and the Mid-Atlantic region could just be misplaced Southern antiques? LOL. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

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Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm (Edit)
I’m sorry but I think your history is inaccurate and based upon a modern viewpoint of industrial production expectations.

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Mary Miley says:
July 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
No need to apologize, just explain why you think that and share your evidence.

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Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 10:02 pm (Edit)
Colonial Agent J. Bridger in 1719.

Elizabeth Barber’s book, Women’s Work: the first 20,000 years

Documentary on the loom and it’s working status at Mt. Vernon.

Those are just 3 off the top of my head.

There are many books, articles, references..etc that are pre-industrial to give an idea that spinning was not in fact a leisure activity of a woman sitting by the fire. Many homes needed the income from spinning or weaving in order to survive. And many villages/towns/commonwealths had dozens of spinners to feed the local weavers. Spinning often super ceded food storage and preparation in a home. It is not inconceivable to understand that home spinners were essential to their communities. The yarn they produced was beautiful, smooth, lustrous and their cloth was as well. For thousands of years Egypt was renown for their linen and cotton to the point where even modern machinery can not duplicate how fine and even it really was. France was known for silk, Scotland, Ireland and England for wool. These are the fore bearers of Colonial America who brought their trades with them across the pond. And without competition sold their wares back across it at a mighty profit.

Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 10:07 pm (Edit)
I forgot to mention flax…which when spun is called linen. Linen production in Europe during the Colonial period was vast and it traveled across the Atlantic as well. I mentioned Egypt as an example of what ancient spinners and weavers could do on a massive productive scale. Somehow the paragraph didn’t separate France. And that’s not even going into China and their sericulture economy (which also made it across the Atlantic during Colonial times).


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