A chronicle of New England cloth production—as well as an exploration of the production of history.
Commonplace American objects, far from being ordinary, have contributed to our national identity, argues Ulrich (History/Harvard Univ.), who looks at 14 textiles and related tools preserved by 19th-century Americans. The accompanying tales offer the discerning eye a glimpse into 19th-century society’s ambivalence toward the Industrial Revolution. Ulrich notes that household textile production, as a symbol, held something for everyone: “For sentimentalists, spinning and weaving represented the centrality of home and family, for evolutionists the triumph of civilization over savagery, for craft revivalists the harmony of labor and art, for feminists women’s untapped productive power, and for antimodernists the virtues of a bygone age.” The author has a particular gift for richly detailed description, as when she skillfully scrutinizes a small basket dating from 1676 and its accompanying legend. An 1842 donor’s note claimed that a starving Algonkian woman made the basket in exchange for a portion of milk from a Providence garrison. This seemingly simple narrative, Ulrich demonstrates, overlays a complex historical reality of conflict between Indians and whites. Around the time the basket was made, Native Americans were attacking English settlements, killing cattle and destroying hay in hopes of eliminating the settlers’ livelihood. Why would a native woman approach an enemy garrison in wartime and ask for food that wasn’t part of her diet? In a splendidly detailed chapter, Ulrich shows that while the donor’s account may contain historical truths, it also contains romantic elements common to 19th-century narratives. Examining such diverse items as an unfinished stocking, a silk embroidery, and a flamboyantly decorated wooden cupboard, she considers the relations between English settlers and neighboring tribes, the evolution of household production from a male to a female economy, and the construction of identity.
Another gem from the author of the Pulitzer- and Bancroft Prize–winning A Midwife’s Tale (1990). (165 illustrations, 3 maps)