Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America

In the early 20th century, when collectors of antiques, curators of museum exhibits, and directors of pageants needed information about colonial American life, they frequently turned to the works of Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911). Earle began her writing career in 1891 with the publication of The Sabbath in Puritan New England, and over the next twelve years she would produce sixteen more books on the life, manners, customs, and material culture of colonial America, including Colonial Dames and Goodwives (1895), Home Life in Colonial Days (1898), Old Time Gardens (1901), and Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620-1820 (1903).

Alice's copy of China Collecting in America
 In our library here at the Alice, we have a copy of Earle’s China Collecting in America, originally published in 1892. Alice Miner’s copy is the 1924 edition, acquired just as she was opening her own collection of china to the public. It seems quite likely that she also consulted Earle’s other books as she was making purchases and deciding how to arrange the rooms of the museum. Historian Susan Reynolds Williams’s new book, Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America, provides us with some very interesting insights into what was surely a significant influence on Alice Miner’s ideas about the colonial era.

Earle’s books were carefully researched and thoroughly documented, but because she wrote for a popular audience, she was dismissed by some academic historians as a writer of mere “pots-and-pans history.” It was not until the 1980s, with the development of women’s history and material culture studies, that Earle came to be appreciated as a pioneer in both of these areas. However, very little has been written about her, in part because she left behind no personal papers and hardly any other biographical material. Williams thus had to piece together Earle’s life and career from a variety of other sources—genealogical research, scattered correspondence in various archives, conversations with descendants, and Earle’s own published works.

Alice Morse in 1873, just before
her marriage to Henry Earle
Alice Morse was born in 1851 in Worcester, Massachusetts, the daughter of Edwin and Abigail Clary Morse. Alice had a comfortable, middle-class childhood which included an excellent education and time at a fashionable finishing school in Boston. In 1874, she married Henry Earle, a stockbroker, and moved to Brooklyn Heights, where she would live for the rest of her life. Alice devoted herself to the traditional concerns of middle-class women—home, husband, children (the Earles had four), as well as the many social, literary, and historical organizations that flourished in late-19th century Brooklyn. She began publishing her historical writing in 1890, and very quickly became both a popular author and a respected authority on the colonial era.

Earle frequently photographed her children in gardens and
historically-inspired settings 
Earle saw herself as a representative of white, middle-class American culture, and specifically that of families with roots in rural New England of the 17th and 18th centuries. In a time of rapid urbanization, technological change, and large-scale immigration, Earle looked to the past as a source of timeless values. While she rejected the harsh Calvinist doctrines of Puritan religion, she felt that Puritan attitudes toward home, family, duty, and industry were worthy of emulation. Earle hoped that by introducing her readers to the material world of colonial America, they could recreate something like the environment in which those values had originally flourished.

Earle preferred to use photographs to illustrate her books whenever possible,
believing they were more accurate than drawings. This one is from Stagecoach and Tavern Days, 1900.

As Williams notes, Earle felt some ambivalence about her role as both wife and mother and professional writer. She took her mothering duties very seriously but also felt constrained by middle-class gender norms at times; she felt that women had a duty to improve themselves and their communities but never publicly aligned herself with any of the groups advocating for radical social change (we don’t even know if she supported women’s suffrage). Similarly, while her books celebrated women’s traditional domestic role in the colonial era, they also made it quite clear that women’s work was absolutely central to the social and economic fabric of pre-industrial America.

Earle hoped that this book cover, designed using the
blue-and-buff color scheme of the Colonial Dames of
America, would appeal to members of that organization.
Earle's writing blended conservative and progressive ideology, suggesting that it was possible to embrace the benefits of progress while striving to improve the present by looking to the past. Like many of her contemporaries in the Progressive movement, she believed firmly in the ability of furnishings, houses, and gardens to influence behavior. Earle did not question the power of white, middle-class, native-born Americans to set cultural standards, and she assumed that her primary audience would be people like herself. But she also believed that these standards could be met by anyone willing embrace them, regardless of class or ethnic background. Not everyone had an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, but anyone could own (or at least appreciate) a Staffordshire plate, a Queen Anne chest, or a pewter porringer.

All of Alice Morse Earle's books are in the public domain, and can be found in digital libraries such as Google Books and the Internet Archive.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, Ellen. I hope I can meet you in Chazy and see the Alice sometime in the Fall.