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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 8-12

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Provincial Women in Transition

Erica R. Armstrong

Catherine E. Kelly. In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women's Lives in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. 258 pp. Notes and index. $39.95.

Catherine Kelly's book, In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women's Lives in the Nineteenth Century, contributes to the broadening definitions of American women's history. Meticulously researched, Kelly focuses upon the lived experiences of "provincial women" during the early nineteenth century. Referencing a wide variety of diaries, published writings, and letters, Kelly has re-drawn the boundaries of nineteenth-century notions of family, womanhood, friendship, and respectability for New England women who lived outside of the urban landscape. As New Englanders struggled to make sense of an ever-changing world, provincial women searched for ways to accept and reject social and economic transition brought about by the capitalist transformation of the countryside. What becomes evident through Kelly's work is that nineteenth-century rural women negotiated new relationships and life styles based upon the transition from a disappearing household economy to a market-oriented society. It is this transition according to Kelly, that creates a "provincial middle class" distinct from its urban counterpart. As women in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont remained committed to the virtue of early republican simplicity, they created and upheld an altered set of values appropriate for a capitalist market society, which eventually developed into a provincial bourgeoisie.

Kelly begins her exploration into the changing lives of nineteenth-century provincial women by examining the affects of a market economy upon women's work. Acknowledging the dependency accompanied by the narrowing of separate spheres, rural women of New England found themselves confined to domestic and or piece work within the home. Rural women realized that their future wealth depended not upon themselves, but as Kelly argues: "the productive yeoman's wife found that her fortunes depended on those of her male kin in general and her husband in particular" (p. 46). In addition to women's dependency, their domestic work was also affected by a shift to a market economy. Kelly uses the task of sewing as a symbol for [End Page 8] change among rural women. As textile manufacturing moved away from the household and as fashion became more elaborate, both urban and rural women spent an enormous amount of time sewing and mending as opposed to working the spinning wheel and the loom. Sewing, in addition to other domestic chores, became central to the idea of women's sphere and the life of "the middle-class lady." However Kelly clearly demonstrates the ways in which sewing proved to be multifaceted for provincial women, for not only did sewing serve as a "labor of love," giving shape to the rural woman's identity as wife, mother, and sister, it also served as a valuable contribution to the household economy (p. 50). The domestic chore of sewing often provided surplus income to provincial women, allowing for the purchase of nonessentials and store bought goods. However the strength of Kelly's argument lies in her examination of sewing and exchange as an indicator of nineteenth-century provincial kinship networks.

According to Kelly, "female kin played a pivotal role in shaping provincial women's identities" (p. 53). Historians such as Christopher Clark have examined the ways in which rural New Englanders traded goods, labor, and other services distinctive to the household economy, and they have also demonstrated how the exchanges between rural men collapsed within a market society by the 1830s. Kelly's work demonstrates the ways in which provincial women remain committed to the ethic of local and obligatory exchange. Women continued to lend "their mothers, daughters, sisters, and cousins dress patterns, cloth, foodstuffs, and when it was both necessary and possible, cash" (p. 54). In addition to the exchange of goods, rural women often contributed their labor, such as sewing and other chores, to support provincial families. As female reciprocity marked a sign of mutual obligation, rural women's kinship networks maintained close knit...


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