www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 1 · October 2001
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich teaches history at Harvard University where she directs the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. Her latest book, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in November 2001.
"I had seen lots of sheets like this in New England museums but I never expected to find one in a research library. I was tempted to unfold it to its full length just to see the reaction of the sober scholars seated at the polished tables around me."
A Bed Sheet in Beinecke
I had come to Yale to give a lecture, but since I had a few hours on my own I decided to check some references in the Beinecke Library, the university's rare book and manuscript repository. I skimmed through the finding aid to the Jonathan Edwards Papers looking for the letters I wanted when I saw something unexpected listed for Folder 1655 Box 36. Confiding my astonishment to the woman at the desk, I called up the item. A few minutes later she took an acid-proof cardboard box from the library trolley, smiling as she placed it before me. I tenderly lifted the lid. There, cradled in tissue paper, was a handmade linen bed sheet folded to expose the blue cross-stitched letters TEE. A handwritten note sewn to the sheet explained: "This was spun by the Mother of President Edwards who was born in 1703 - It is probably now 155 years old - Nov 1846."
I had seen lots of sheets like this in New England museums but I never expected to find one in a research library. I was tempted to unfold it to its full length just to see the reaction of the sober scholars seated at the polished tables around me. Instead I concentrated on deciphering the note, which I later discovered had been written by an Edwards descendant named Hannah Whittlesey. I found her note confusing until I figured out that "President Edwards," not his mother, was the person born in 1703. (Jonathan Edwards had once been the head of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton, but the bed sheet didn't belong to him but to his parents.) Like many antiquarians before and since, Whittlesey had used fixed landmarks to date an undatable artifact. Knowing that Esther Stoddard married Timothy Edwards in 1694, she concluded that the sheet was "probably" 155 years old in 1846. The date was a guess, but the initials left little doubt of ownership. The elevated E stood for Edwards, the T for Timothy and the E for Esther. The initials confirmed the attribution and gave it a place in the Edwards Papers when they came to Yale in 1900. Yet the sheet had nothing to do with the famous theologian. It had passed from Esther Edwards to her daughter Hannah Wetmore, from Wetmore to her daughter Lucy Whittlesey, and then from Whittlesey to her daughter Hannah, the writer of the note.
A year or so after my visit to Beinecke, I stumbled across another example of Hannah Whittlesey's preservation work in the registration records of the Connecticut Historical Society. In 1840, she gave the Society a pair of silk shoes "worked by Miss Hannah Edwards daughter of Rev Timothy Edwards, of East Windsor, sister of President Edwards, and wife of Seth Wetmore, Esq of Middletown," and a fragment of crewel embroidery "wrought by Miss Molly Edwards, daughter of Rev. Timothy Edwards." Once again she identified the women who "worked" or "wrought" these items in relation to their presumably more distinguished male relatives. At the same time she memorialized their handiwork, claiming that the Edwards sisters had not only spun the thread in their embroidery but had dyed it "with the juice expressed from native plants." Esther Edwards may or may not have spun the thread in her bed sheet, but her daughters could not have produced the thread in their fancy embroideries. To Hannah Whittlesey, however, there was no distinction between plain linen and high-style crewel. Everything surviving from the colonial period had to have been the product of a woman's hands.
The embroideries in Hartford, like the bed sheet in Beinecke, exemplify the mythical power of New England's age of homespun. Whittlesey was not alone in memorializing fabrics she thought had been spun by her ancestors. The image of the colonial dame toiling at her spinning wheel was widely cherished in the nineteenth century--much more so, in fact, than it had been during Esther Edwards's lifetime. Between 1820 and the Civil War, New England novelists, poets, town historians, and creators of civic celebrations appropriated the spinning wheel as an icon of regional identity, laying the foundation for a complex and often conflicted approach to colonial women's history.
Five years after Whittlesey labeled her great-grandmother's bed sheet, the Hartford pastor and reformer Horace Bushnell told an audience at the Litchfield County, Connecticut centennial not to go into burying grounds looking for the monuments of famous men. "It is not the starred epitaphs of the Doctors of Divinity, the Generals, the Judges, the Honourables, the Governors, or even of the village notables called Esquires, that mark the springs of our successes and the sources of our distinctions. These are rather effects than causes; the spinning-wheels have done a great deal more than these." For Bushnell, the spinning wheel symbolized all that was positive about the preindustrial New England economy--hard work, neighborliness, cooperation between husbands and wives, and patriotism.
By diminishing the public distinctions that Whittlesey cherished in her male ancestors, Bushnell made a place for ordinary people in history. But he also abandoned the individual identities--the succession of names, the embroidered initials, the silk shoes, and the crewel-embellished bed hangings that were part of her heritage. Neither he nor Whittlesey understood the ways in which household manufacturing, commerce, and gentility were entwined in the economy and culture of eighteenth-century New England. Looking back, all they could see was the spinning wheel.
They had illustrious company. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow introduced romance into the mythology of homespun in his 1858 poem "The Courtship of Miles Standish." This was the story of how Plymouth Colony's gruff military commander, Miles Standish, asked the handsome, young John Alden to act as a go-between in his courtship of the beautiful Priscilla Mullins and how she, in response, told John to speak for himself. In the climactic scene, Priscilla sits at her spinning wheel with "carded wool like a snow drift/ Piled at her knee." Longfellow's legend was so popular that an illustrated guide to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 assumed that a spinning wheel displayed in the "New England Log Cabin" was the "very one which Priscilla, the Puritan maiden, whirled so deftly that poor John Alden could find no way out of the web she wove about him." By 1885, thrifty collectors could buy plaster casts of John Roger's sculpture of the famous couple with the immortal words inscribed on the base, "Why don't you speak for yourself, John." A Boston furniture manufacturer borrowed lines from the poem in an advertisement for parlor chairs made out of the discarded parts of old flax wheels. By the time of the Columbian Tercentenary, Longfellow's story was so firmly planted in American history that John Alden and Priscilla Mullins appeared in a New York City parade alongside Columbus and Isabella.
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