Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun

cover, The Age of Homespun Subtitled “Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth,” The Age of Homespun is a collection of meticulously detailed historical yarns spun around a number of household artifacts created and initially used in New England during the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries. The “myth” in the subtitle refers to the romanticized interpretation many late nineteenth century historians and other commentators imposed on these artifacts, all of which have something to do with the production of textiles during the so-called “age of homespun.”

Ulrich is a historian, currently a professor of Early American History at Harvard, where she also directs the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. Her 1991 biography of the midwife Martha Ballard (based on that woman’s diaries) won her a Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction and attracted the attention of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her one of its prestigious fellowships in 1992. At least in part, the MacArthur Fellowship supported the research for this book, buying Ulrich’s time and that of several graduate students who assisted in the collection of data from resources including genealogies, probate records, newspaper articles, diaries and journals of the period. I offer this background to suggest that The Age of Homespun is not aimed at — nor likely to appeal to — the casual reader. Alas, I am not convinced that even an avid “textilian” — i.e., a textile historian — would find it terribly interesting or useful. The amount of historical detail is too great and simultaneously too chaotic for the book to pass muster as good scholarship.

An overview of a single chapter may serve to document the nature of the problem. “A Chimneypiece” refers to a needlepoint picture on exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A young woman named Eunice Bourne is credited with its creation and its completion date is given as 1753. I use the dreaded passive voice in the preceding sentence because Ulrich’s narrative neglects to tell the reader how we know who created the work or when it was done. The chapter begins with a small black and white photo of the piece, which unfortunately crosses over a two-page spread so that part of the design is lost in the binding. It depicts a pastoral scene with a number of male and female figures engaged in various rural pursuits such as harvesting grain, catching fish, and spinning yarn. They are surrounded by trees, flowers, animals, birds and butterflies; a number of quaint buildings appear in the background. Sections of this piece appear on the book’s dustjacket, enabling the reader to appreciate its color and design.

In just over thirty pages of text, Ulrich attempts to convey a great deal of information. Her opening paragraph suggests that the chapter’s themes concern relationships between households and the spheres of commerce and politics as well as commonalities experienced by women of different races and social classes during this period. These themes are very broad, and her way of presenting material related to them is extraordinarily difficult to follow. In large part this is so because she doesn’t organize it in any obviously meaningful way.

For example, Ulrich includes biographical information on Miss Bourne, daughter of a wealthy Cape Cod merchant, who learned her needlework skills at a school in Boston. Professor Ulrich surmises that a teacher at the school would have copied the design for Miss Bourne and would have sold her the canvas and thread she needed to complete the project. At various points throughout the chapter, we learn more about Miss Bourne’s life and untimely death, but the intervening narrative wanders far afield of this. Ulrich devotes a number of paragraphs to a discussion of the needlework styles featured in Bourne’s piece and to its pastoral theme, which appears to have been very popular in America as well as in England and Europe during this period. At this point, Ulrich digresses into a critique of the whole concept of pastoral art, noting its idealized depiction of both rural life and of relations between men and women.

With an abrupt transition, Ulrich moves from her critique of pastoral art into a description of a yarn-spinning demonstration that took place on Boston Common in the summer of 1753, the same year the chimneypiece was completed. The story that emerges from this image concerns the efforts of a group called the Boston Society for Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor to establish a factory in which low income women and children could earn a modest living spinning linen thread. With subsidies from public coffers, the factory survived for nearly fifteen years before folding under the weight of its own expenses. This is really a fascinating story, but — apart from its proximity in time and place — its relationship to Eunice Bourne’s needlepoint is not at all evident.

With another, equally abrupt transition, Professor Ulrich takes the reader from the spinning factory in Boston to the relative wilderness of Cape Cod, where the colonists were engaged in open warfare with the Wampanoag Indians who occupied a prime piece of land at Mashpee. But land ownership appears to have been only part of the basis for the conflict. The colonists sought to convert the Wampanoags to their brand of Christianity and otherwise to introduce them to their ways of “civilization.” The only obvious tie to Eunice Bourne is that her father, Sylvanus, was a member of the Governor’s Council responsible for overseeing Indian affairs on the Cape. Ulrich makes no connection to textiles in this section, although she notes in ending the chapter that Miss Bourne’s gentle pastoral scene stands in stark contrast to the bloodshed and economic privation that characterized life for many residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during this period.

Typical of other chapters in The Age of Homespun, “The Chimneypiece” includes a number of small black and white photos showing details from this piece, a few similar chimneypieces, and other images loosely related to the themes presented in the narrative. As is the case for the selection of the artifacts that organize the chapters, the underlying logic for Ulrich’s inclusion of these particular images is not evident. At all levels, a more judicious selection of material might have enabled Ulrich to tell a more coherent story.

(Knopf, 2001)

Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.

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