06 November 2006

The Age of Homespun

The Age of Homespun: Objects and stories in the Creation of an American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has to be one of the most interesting books about early American history that I have ever read. I like it even more than A Midwife's Tale.

Ulrich takes everyday items like niddy-noddies, bed rugs, and chests to create a fascinating look at early American life. She writes about the transformation of weaving from a man's task to a women's; she talks a great deal about the Native American influence on the area even though we tend to think the Native Americans had disappeared from New England by the 1700s. A good example of what's here can be seen here at Harvard Magazine where most of the information from the chapter about this woodsplint basket can be found.

My favorite chapter was probably "Hannah Barnard's Cupboard." Ulrich writes about women's families and how their "movables," transportable items, as opposed to land, trace women's families. Probate records tell what people owned when they died and what fathers willed to their children, but documenting the history of individual items more often tells the story of women. To conclude the chapter, Ulrich writes:

Hannah Barnard left no written record to explain the meaning she attached to her cupboard. Over time, however, it became her memorial and a link between generations of women who bore her name. Hannah's cupboard helps us see that the nineteenth-century Americans who attached label to old shoes,spinning wheels, sheets, towels, tablecloths, and cupboards were not only memorializing their families. They were creating them.

Obviously I was particularly interested in this book because I like to spin myself, but this book is much more than a history of early American textiles. If you're not interested in textiles, it's easy to gloss over the technical details of spinning, weaving and dyeing. Instead, read this book to see Ulrich's brilliance in taking everyday objects and telling one corner of the history of New England.


  1. I enjoyed this book, too. You did a great review. Have you read Good Wives yet? I just bought it and I'm hoping it's as good as Ulrich's other books.

  2. I haven't yet. I checked it out once but didn't have time to read it. I'll have to get it again.