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Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America

Susan Reynolds Williams

Publication Year: 2013

Author, collector, and historian Alice Morse Earle (1851–1911) was among the most important and prolific writers of her day. Between 1890 and 1904, she produced seventeen books as well as numerous articles, pamphlets, and speeches about the life, manners, customs, and material culture of colonial New England. Earle’s work coincided with a surge of interest in early American history, genealogy, and antique collecting, and more than a century after the publication of her first book, her contributions still resonate with readers interested in the nation’s colonial past. An intensely private woman, Earle lived in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and four children and conducted much of her research either by mail or at the newly established Long Island Historical Society. She began writing on the eve of her fortieth birthday, and the impressive body of scholarship she generated over the next fifteen years stimulated new interest in early American social customs, domestic routines, foodways, clothing, and childrearing patterns. Written in a style calculated to appeal to a wide readership, Earle’s richly illustrated books recorded the intimate details of what she described as colonial “home life.” These works reflected her belief that women had played a key historical role, helping to nurture communities by constructing households that both served and shaped their families. It was a vision that spoke eloquently to her contemporaries, who were busily creating exhibitions of early American life in museums, staging historical pageants and other forms of patriotic celebration, and furnishing their own domestic interiors.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Public History in Historical Perspective


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pp. C-C

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Despite her large readership and widespread popularity, little is actually known about Alice Morse Earle. As a young ceramics curator at a large history museum, I first encountered Earle through her book China Collecting in America, which I found to be reliable but dated, and rich in anecdotal material. I came to appreciate her ...


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pp. xiii-xviii

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Introduction: Hunting for Alice Morse Earle

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pp. 1-15

The author, collector, and historian Alice Morse Earle (1851–1911) was among the most influential writers of her day, but for contemporary readers she is surprisingly elusive. She operated within the context of a dramatic growth in popular history at the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1891 and 1904 Earle generated seventeen...

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1. Family Matters

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pp. 16-32

In 1834 Alice Morse Earle’s father, Edwin Morse, left his family home in rural Vermont at the age of nineteen. He headed for New England Village, a textile-manufacturing center near Grafton, Massachusetts. New England Village, with its proximity to Worcester—one of the fastest-growing cities in the state—could offer an ambitious young man...

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2. Parlor Culture, Public Culture

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pp. 33-62

On the eve of her twenty-third birthday, Alice Morse (fig. 4) married Henry Earle, a New York City stockbroker with distinguished roots and access to many useful business connections, but little money. The couple settled in Brooklyn Heights, where Henry was already living, and there they remained for the rest of their lives. For...

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3. New England Kismet

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pp. 63-85

With her decision to enter the world of professional writing, Earle chose to disrupt the comfortable sanctuary of her home for a career that intruded on her social obligations, sometimes put her at odds with her family, and even jeopardized her health. Earle’s early focus on her own ancestors and the instructive value of ...

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4. The China Hunter

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pp. 86-111

The success of Alice Morse Earle’s first book, which sold more than ten thousand copies during its first year in print, and her growing popularity as a magazine writer led to the publication of a rapid succession of books and articles. Increasingly Earle’s writings began to focus on the material culture of early America—an emerging ...

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5. Writing the Past

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pp. 112-136

In choosing to write about the history of domestic life, Alice Morse Earle was, in numerous ways, part of a broader literary tradition. Since the 1820s and 1830s, many writers had focused on the American domestic environment as an avenue to understanding the national character.1 Earle built on the work of Washington Irving, Catharine Maria ...

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6. Home Life and History

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pp. 137-156

Writing history, for Alice Morse Earle, involved more than assembling carefully researched facts into an appealing narrative. Her emphasis on domestic life and its material culture, both as historical evidence about the past and as agency for shaping the future, placed Earle at the cutting edge of historical scholarship....

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7. Remembering the Garden

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pp. 157-177

From the time she married and moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1874, where she soon established a garden of her own, Alice Morse Earle repeatedly used the metaphor of the garden as a means both of affirming her gender identity and of reconciling her ambivalence about urban life. A garden, Earle believed, was an essential component of “home,” ...

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8. Genealogy and the Quest for an Inherited Future

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pp. 178-204

Despite her continued allegiance to the rural traditions of New England, New York City was the backdrop against which Earle operated for most of her life. For at least nine months of every year, she and her family lived in an urban neighborhood, surrounded...

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9. Toward a New Public History

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pp. 205-225

Alice Morse Earle’s final book, Two Centuries of Costume in America, rounded out an illustrious career as a writer. She had written seventeen books—all of which had been well received by the public—as well as some forty-two articles, Moreover, she had accom...

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pp. 226-232

After a prolific writing career that lasted fourteen years, Earle stopped writing in 1904. Though she lived until 1911, there is no sign that she felt any urgency to produce more books. The abruptness of this conclusion raises questions about Earle’s motives as a...


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pp. 233-294

Chronological Bibliography of Alice Morse Earle’s Works

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pp. 295-300


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pp. 301-315

About the Author

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pp. 316-BC

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762264
E-ISBN-10: 1613762267
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499881
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499881

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Public History in Historical Perspective
Series Editor Byline: Marla Miller See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 859686629
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America

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Subject Headings

  • Earle, Alice Morse, 1851-1911.
  • Historians -- United States -- Biography.
  • Women historians -- United States -- Biography.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- To 1775 -- Historiography.
  • New England -- Social life and customs -- To 1775 -- Historiography.
  • Material culture -- United States -- Historiography.
  • Home economics -- United States -- Historiography.
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