restricted access Introduction: Hunting for Alice Morse Earle
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: 1 ; Introduction Hunting for Alice Morse Earle • T he 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 books, as well as numerous articles, pamphlets, and speeches about the life, manners, customs, and material culture of colonial New England. These writings coincided with a surge of interest in colonial history, genealogy , and antique collecting. More than a century after the publication of her first book, The Sabbath in Puritan New England (1891), the historical writing of Alice Morse Earle still resonates in the minds and hearts of her readers. Although academic and other professional historians have not always agreed with her assumptions, Earle’s work influenced popular perceptions of the American past for most of the twentieth century and beyond. Given that extraordinary influence, she needs to be better understood today. An Amazon.com reader review of Earle’s Home Life in Colonial Days praised the book as “excellent early social history” and commented, “This hundred-year-old work retains its vitality and usefulness.” Another reader, commenting on Customs and Fashions in Old New England, wrote, “Alice Morse Earle’s work should be considered a national treasure.” A third comment praised that book as “a widely referenced,widely consulted 2 ; Introduction classic.”1 Scholars studying the American past have regarded her as an authority on the material culture of the colonial home and family, if occasionally somewhat dismissively. Early historians of women tended not to address her as a subject of their study, although they clearly used her scholarship to support their arguments and included her books in their bibliographies. In America through Women’s Eyes (1933), for example, Mary Ritter Beard cited Earle’s Colonial Dames and Goodwives as a reference, although she did not discuss Earle’s work directly.2 In 1950, almost forty years after Earle’s death, in his massive Society and Thought in Early America the historian Harvey Wish praised Earle’s Colonial Days in Old New York, as well as her work on childhood, calling it a source of “considerable social history in a simple narrative form.”3 By the 1980s,when women’s history began to gain momentum as a scholarly enterprise , Earle appeared with increasing frequency, both as a resource and as a subject. Elizabeth Stillinger mentioned Earle as an important figure in the world of American collectors and collecting. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich paid tribute to Earle in the preface to Good Wives, a title that,she explained, “consciously echoes Alice Morse Earle’s Colonial Dames and Good Wives . . . , honoring an early generation of women’s historians who skillfully practiced what later scholars dismissed as ‘pots-and-pans history.’” Eight years later, however, Linda Kerber dismissed the work of Earle and her early peers as “descriptive and anecdotal.”4 Only later did Earle’s work come to be treated in critical terms, evidence in itself of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century ideas about history,memory,class,domesticity,and gender.Karal Ann Marling’s George Washington Slept Here (1988) positioned Earle as a prominent figure in the colonial revival movement. Marling cited Home Life in Colonial Days, Earle ’s 1898 “treatise on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American households ,” as having “exerted an enormous influence on what the American home of the next several decades would look like.”In his 1990 study Rudeness and Civility, John Kasson referred to Earle as an authority on prenineteenth -century manners.A year later,Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory traced the rise of the American passion for all things colonial in the 1890s, noting, “The key individual in this entire surge . . . was unquestionably Alice Morse Earle[,] . . . who became the most frequently consulted authority on American antiques.” Kammen offered as further evidence of her impact that several of her books had “passed through : 3 Hunting for Alice Morse Earle countless printings and did much to make the colonial revival a genuinely popular phenomenon during the last years of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries.”5 Among more recent historians to assess Earle’s significance, Joseph Conforti described Earle as “the most popular, productive, and influential interpreter of the ‘old-times,’” as well as “a prolific custodian of regional identity.”He acknowledged her role as a dominant force in the emergence...


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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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