The Age of Homespun

by Laurel Thatcher
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1665

Through the study of artifacts—what is generally called material culture study in academic circles—scholars can paint a richer, more balanced, and more detailed picture of human experience, both present and past. Objects of all sorts embody cultural values. They are the products of human effort and intention and tangible clues to people’s lives, beliefs, and behaviors. Because artifacts are products of human activity, they can be very useful to those interested in studying human life. In recent years, scholars in a variety of disciplines have discovered the power that things have to reveal the workings of individual lives and the structures of the social world. Material culture study has enhanced traditional fields of inquiry, and has also opened up new areas—including the ways the human mind works, sensory activities, and the lives of ordinary people.

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Material objects provide access to people who would otherwise be difficult to know. Since the 1960’s, when the “new history” movement tried to bring the experiences of poor, nonliterate, and ordinary people into the historical record, material culture has taken on a heightened significance. This use of material culture as historical evidence forms the basis of historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s latest work, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of An American Myth.

The Age of Homespun is a study of ordinary household goods. Each of the chapters begins by focusing on a single object and uses it to organize a discussion of early American historical experiences, ranging from frontier encounters with Native Americans to the transformation of the household economy by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. The book’s chapters are framed by a forward and afterward, and are organized around fourteen different artifacts, including several baskets, some woodwork, a number of objects associated with the production of fabric, and soft goods, such as a rug, a bedcover, a pocket, and “an unfinished stocking.” At first glance, these objects seem trivial and uninteresting; they are not souvenirs of any famous historical event, nor are they the possessions of some historically significant personage. However, in Ulrich’s hands, these things become profoundly meaningful as she analyzes them and places them in the context of the experiences of the people who made them, owned them, used them, and/or preserved them.

For example, the first object Ulrich investigates is an Algonquian basket from 1676, presented to the Rhode Island Historical Society by Elenor Field in 1842. The basket came to the museum with a detailed label written by Miss Field that traced both the maker and owners of the basket from its moment of origin. For Ulrich, the basket’s value is not simply a matter of its age or provenance. She uses the basket as the starting point of a mediation on the differences between European and Native American cultures in the seventeenth century; by focusing on the ways in which textiles were produced and the uses to which they were put, Ulrich is able to highlight the issues of cultural difference and interaction that led to the dark history of colonial conflicts that ultimately led to the decimation of New England’s tribal peoples.

However, her investigation of the basket does not end with a discussion of its “nativeness” or a celebration of the skill of its maker. Ulrich’s interest in this Algonquian artifact leads her into archival research, and she weaves information drawn from local and family histories, genealogy, and folklore into her narrative. The story of the basket becomes the story not just of the Algonquian woman who made the basket and gave it to the wife of an officer who fought in King Phillip’s War (1675-1676). The story stretches into the nineteenth century, as Ulrich examines the ways in which curators contextualized the basket and interpreted it for nineteenth century museum-goers, as well as the meaning of the giving of such a gift to the historical society by its first single female donor.

As Ulrich’s research makes clear, it took an astonishing amount of work for early American families—and in most cases, generally the female members of the family—to produce ordinary goods. A simple piece of cloth represented days of labor: planting and retting flax, spinning, dyeing, and weaving. Once woven, homespun fabric was used to make a range of functional items that were part of everyday life, from grain sacks and curtains to clothing and bed coverlets. One of the great strengths of this volume is Ulrich’s detailed and complete knowledge of the processes that were required to make each object and the depth of research she focuses on the uses to which each artifact was put. She understands that “[a]lthough most Americans can recognize a spinning wheel, few understand how it works,” and she spends several paragraphs explaining both the mechanics of wheel and the requirements of successful spinning, concluding that “some writers refer to spinning as unskilled work. They have obviously never tried it.”

While each of the book’s chapters can be read as a separate, freestanding essay, The Age of Homespun has a thematic thread that unites all the chapters and introduces and closes the volume in a satisfying way. The book is not simply a history of domestic production in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Because Ulrich is a social historian, as well as something of a connoisseur of textiles, she is interested in the ways in which the realities of daily life in early America were transformed, and enlarged, by nineteenth century nostalgia into a mythology of the homespun that celebrates a version and vision of America as a pastoral Eden. As a matter of fact, this imagery has persisted into this century, and as one result, antique fabrics such as the textiles that are the focus of the book are highly prized by collectors and interior designers.

As her book’s subtitle reveals, however, Ulrich is less interested in the artifacts themselves than she is concerned with these “objects and stories in the creation of an American myth.” It is this myth that frames her treatment of these domestic things and provides a number of themes that run through Ulrich’s treatment of these artifacts collected and preserved by nineteenth century Americans. The book’s forward makes Ulrich’s goals very clear. She writes, “My purpose is not to debunk the sentimental vision of the late nineteenth century, but to trace its origins, exploit its contributions, and perhaps in the process explain its persistence.” The introductory chapter centers on the articulation of the myth of the homespun by Horace Bushnell, a Connecticut minister who gave the “age of homespun” its name in the mid-nineteenth century, signaling the nostalgic Victorian preoccupation with the symbolic power of early American goods.

Reverend Bushnell, speaking on the second day of the Litchfield, Connecticut, county centennial celebration, drew on Proverbs 31 as his inspiration and focused on the virtues attributed to women who weave. Bushnell exhorted his listeners to honor the ordinary people whose activities were the foundation of the county’s history and prosperity. He expanded the metaphor of home weaving to include a vision of the past and the present that celebrated a fabric of idealized values that united individuals, home, community, and republic. According to Ulrich, his speech “was a lyrical and cohesive rendering of one of the central myths in American history.”

Ulrich’s treatment of Bushnell’s speech, both what he said and what he left unsaid, leads her to frame The Age of Homespun in historical questions which she feels the artifacts she has chosen illuminate. She is certainly interested in the ways in which Bushnell’s speech reveals the Victorian sense of American history, the recasting of Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the yeoman farmer, and women’s roles. She is also interested in what is left unsaid in Bushnell’s extremely popular rendition of the moral power of America’s pastoral roots.

As a result, The Age of Homespun includes discussion of “blood and greed as well as beauty,” as it moves chronologically from its first object, “An Indian Basket” dated 1676 to the last, “An Unfinished Stocking” from 1837. Ulrich makes clear that early American experiences were more complex and “darker” than the mythology of the homespun suggests. From the start, for example, Ulrich argues that commonly held stereotypes of American colonial life such as those that Bushnell expressed, in which the world was simple, homogeneous, and largely harmonious, do not stand up under a careful scrutiny of the artifacts of the period. Similarly, Bushnell’s sermon reveals a tension about women’s roles that Ulrich traces throughout the book, as she examines the ramifications of the female economy that was the source of most of the goods with which she is concerned.

All things pass thorough an evolution of meanings, and the meanings people make for things are affected by a variety of factors. In her afterword to The Age of Homespun, Ulrich reviews the national ideologies that the myth of homespun, and the artifacts associated with it, have served. She reminds us that a homespun vision of the past is still with us, and it is a vision with both positive and negative aspects. The past is really another culture, and often a surprisingly exotic one, especially since the passage of time can obscure the meaning of things. Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun makes clear that each generation encounters the past anew and figures it out, or reinvents it (or perhaps, in appearing to do the former, actually does the latter). Ultimately, and most successfully, The Age of Homespun is not a work of revisionist history. Through her archival research and interpretive skills, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich offers readers a chance to reexamine and reconnect with the experiences and values of people who produced, used, and saved some wonderfully meaningful objects.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (October 15, 2001): 379.

Kirkus Reviews 69 (October 1, 2001): 1411.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (November 11, 2001): 11.

Publishers Weekly 248 (October 1, 2001): 46.

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