Friday, January 8, 2016

The Age of Homespun

New-England Kitchen at the Brooklyn Sanitary
Commission Fair, 1864
If you read a lot about the Colonial Revival, you start to notice certain recurring symbols and themes. Perhaps the most persistent, and most interesting, is the spinning wheel, which for many Americans in the 19th and early 20th century was the quintessential symbol of the bygone era that came to be known as the “age of homespun.” Beginning in the mid-19th century, spinning wheels started to appear everywhere—the New England Kitchens of the Civil War-era sanitary fairs; early historical exhibits like those at the Essex Institute in Salem and the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association in Deerfield; the photographs of Wallace Nutting. The spinning wheel was both an obvious and immediately recognizable relic of the past, as well as a powerful emblem of virtues like thrift, piety, and industry.

Platt Ryder, Woman at Spinning Wheel,
ca. 1860
Minister and theologian Horace Bushnell coined the phrase “age of homespun” in 1851, in a speech he gave at the celebration of the centennial of Litchfield County, Connecticut. Bushnell encouraged his audience to look to the everyday lives of anonymous people as the source of the nation’s greatness: “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.” But by the time Bushnell gave his speech, the age of mechanized textile production was well under way. Those women who still spun or wove did so by machine in the factories of Lowell, Lawrence, and other New England mill towns. “This transition from mother-and-daughter power to water-and-steam power,” said Bushnell, “brought with it a complete revolution of domestic life.”

Demonstration of spinning flax,
Alice T. Miner Museum, 1926
The spinning wheel and all that was associated with it, then, became a way for Americans to make sense of the dramatic changes that industrialization had brought about. To understand the significance of wheels, looms, and other paraphernalia of domestic textile production to collectors like Alice Miner, we must (to use an obvious metaphor) unravel various skeins. First, what did textile production in the 17th and 18th centuries actually look like? Then, how did 19th and 20th century antiquarians and collectors interpret the tools and products (particularly woven coverlets) of colonial women, and what do their choices about collection and display tell us? And finally, why did some Americans in the early 20th century feel that it was important to preserve or revive the arts of textile production?

These are some of the questions that I will try to answer over the coming months. Along the way, we will see some familiar faces, like Frank Gunsaulus, William Morris, and Jane Addams, and we will meet some new ones, like Martha Ballard, Anna Ernberg, and Eliza Calvert Hall. Who knows, I may even try to do some spinning myself!


Christopher Monkhouse, “The Spinning Wheel as Artifact, Symbol, and Source of Design,” in Kenneth L. Ames, ed., Victorian Furniture (Victorian Society of America, 1982), 155-159.

Beverly Gordon, “Spinning Wheels, Samplers, and the Modern Priscilla: The Images and Paradoxes of Colonial Revival Needlework,” Winterthur Portfolio 33 (July 1998), 163-194.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (Knopf, 2001).

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