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The Needle's Eye

Women and Work in the Age of Revolution

Marla R. Miller

Publication Year: 2006

Among the enduring stereotypes of early American history has been the colonial Goodwife, perpetually spinning, sewing, darning, and quilting, answering all of her family’s textile needs. But the Goodwife of popular historical imagination obscures as much as she reveals; the icon appears to explain early American women’s labor history while at the same time allowing it to go unexplained. Tensions of class and gender recede, and the largest artisanal trade open to early American women is obscured in the guise of domesticity. In this book, Marla R. Miller illuminates the significance of women’s work in the clothing trades of the early Republic. Drawing on diaries, letters, reminiscences, ledgers, and material culture, she explores the contours of working women’s lives in rural New England, offering a nuanced view of their varied ranks and roles—skilled and unskilled, black and white, artisanal and laboring—as producers and consumers, clients and craftswomen, employers and employees. By plumbing hierarchies of power and skill, Miller explains how needlework shaped and reflected the circumstances of real women’s lives, at once drawing them together and setting them apart. The heart of the book brings into focus the entwined experiences of six women who lived in and around Hadley, Massachusetts, a thriving agricultural village nestled in a bend in the Connecticut River about halfway between the Connecticut and Vermont borders. Miller’s examination of their distinct yet overlapping worlds reveals the myriad ways that the circumstances of everyday lives positioned women in relationship to one another, enlarging and limiting opportunities and shaping the trajectories of days, years, and lifetimes in ways both large and small. The Needle’s Eye reveals not only how these women thought about their work, but how they thought about their world.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv-iv


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pp. v-v

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-vii

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pp. ix-xiv

THIS PROJECT has been something like fifteen years in the making start to finish, and so these acknowledgments are unabashedly long. It seems as though I've been telling friends and family for at least a third of that time that the book is "practically done," and so it is with sincere pleasure that I at long last record my gratitude to the many people who have helped me, in ways...

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Introduction: Early American Artisanry: Why Gender Matters

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pp. 1-22

SELDOM DOES a historian find her scholarly interests reflected in the aisles of Toys-R-Us, even more rarely so those of us who study the eighteenth century. But the advent of Colonial Barbie provided me that rare instance. When I first spotted her, the historically garbed figure seemed out of place amid rows of Holiday Barbies, Dance-n-Twirl Barbies, and Gymnast Barbies. But...


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Chapter 1: Clothing and Consumers in Rural New England, 1760–1810

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pp. 25-55

WHITE APRONS. When Catherine Graves was asked to recall her eighteenth-century Northampton girlhood, what she remembered most vividly were white aprons. Interviewed by the local historian Sylvester Judd in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Graves noted that, in the 17605 and 17705,only a handful of women had had white aprons to wear when they went out...

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Chapter 2: Needle Trades in New England, 1760–1810

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pp. 56-85

IN FALL 1800, Frederick Wardner left the Windsor, Vermont, shop of Isaac Green with two and a quarter yards of coating for a surtout, having paid thirteen shillings six pence. Along with the cloth, Wardner had bought a dozen and half coat buttons, three skeins of thread, linen to line the sleeves and pocket, and a yard of flannel for the interlining. He took the cloth to Thomas...


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Chapter 3: Needlework of the Rural Gentry: The World of Elizabeth Porter Phelps

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pp. 89-113

IN THE LATE summer of 1769, the young Hadley gentlewoman Elizabeth Porter rode from Forty Acres, her farm north of the village center, into town,to the home of her cousin Sarah Porter Hopkins. She came to assist in the quilting of Sarah's new black calimanco petticoat. During the three days that she stayed with the Hopkins family, other young women came to help with...

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Chapter 4: Family, Community, and Informal Work in the Needle Trades: The Worlds of Easter Fairchild Newton and Tryphena Newton Cooke

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pp. 114-133

THE INN at the south end of the Hadley common catered to polite travelers,men and women traveling to and from Boston by carriage or coach. The inn at the north end of the Hadley common tended to serve a rougher crowd,mainly ferrymen who worked on the river. Among other skills, Tryphena Newton Cooke, daughter of the innkeeper Elizabeth "Easter" Fairchild...

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Chapter 5: Family, Artisanry, and Craft Tradition: The Worlds of Tabitha Clark Smith and Rebecca Dickinson

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pp. 134-162

THE ENTRY in Elizabeth Porter's memorandum book for 20 November 1768 reads: "tarried at home because of a heavy snow storm—sacrament day.Monday near night went into town and brought one Tabithy Clark to taylor for us—Wednesday night carried her home and went to Mr Porters tarried there til Friday night—help quilt upon a brown coat for Molly Dickinson...

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Chapter 6: Gender, Artisanry, and Craft Tradition: The World of Catherine Phelps Parsons

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pp. 188-207

IN THE 30 January 1769 issue of the Connecticut Courant, Robert Robinson,a tailor in Hartford, gently mocks the gentlemen of the town for allowing their "cloathes" to be made by women. Asking readers to "count up the cost /and see how many pounds you've lost" by allowing women to cut their clothes, Robinson notes that any man of "wit. . . loves to see his coat cut...


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Chapter 7: Women's Artisanal Work in the Changing New England Marketplace

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pp. 185-210

IN 1776, WHILE a gathering of planters and businessmen in Philadelphia declared one revolution, Adam Smith launched another. His Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations would revolutionize economic thought and economic organization throughout the Atlantic world. At the outset of Smith's revolution lay a small, simple tool: pins. Smith's...

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Conclusion: The Romance of Old Clothes

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pp. 211-231

"OLD LETTERS and old garments bring us in close touch with the past; there is in them a lingering presence, a very essence of life." These words introduce the final chapter of Alice Morse Earle's 1903 publication Two Centuries of Costume in America, a survey of American clothing from 1620 to 1820.1 To Earle's readers—middle-class Victorians unnerved by their rapidly changing world—her vision of early American hearths and homes offered a...


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pp. 233-233


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pp. 235-288


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pp. 289-302

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761359
E-ISBN-10: 161376135X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558495449
Print-ISBN-10: 1558495444

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 608867251
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Needle's Eye

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Social classes -- Massachusetts -- Hadley (Town) -- History.
  • Clothing trade -- Massachusetts -- Hadley (Town) -- History.
  • Women artisans -- Massachusetts -- Hadley (Town) -- Case studies.
  • Women -- Employment -- Massachusetts -- Hadley (Town) -- History.
  • Needleworkers -- Massachusetts -- Hadley (Town) -- Case studies.
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