Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Needle's Eye

The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution

Marla R. Miller
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 320
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Needle's Eye
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-135-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Early American Artisanry Why Gender Matters
    (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 as a women’s historian studying early America I was drawn to her in both amazement and amusement. Dressed in red, white, and blue, her costume the familiar mantua, petticoat, and mob cap, she would more accurately have been named...

  6. Part I

    • Chapter 1 Clothing and Consumers in Rural New England, 1760–1810
      (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 1760s and 1770s, only a handful of women had had white aprons to wear when they went out visiting; the rest wore the blue and white checked aprons ubiquitous in the Connecticut Valley. Sixty years removed, she was still able to list the families along South Street whose daughters wore white aprons.¹

      Recollections like Graves’s remind us of the...

    • Chapter 2 Needle Trades in New England, 1760–1810
      (pp. 56-86)

      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 Welch, a tailor who measured him and cut the pieces for the new overcoat, charging two shillings for his work. Wardner then carried the several pieces to Catherine Deane, a tailoress who...

  7. Part II

    • Chapter 3 Needlework of the Rural Gentry The World of Elizabeth Porter Phelps
      (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 the quilt. Doubtless tea and cakes were enjoyed, and pleasant conversation shared; meanwhile, the petticoat was completed. On Friday, Porter rode home, and on Sunday she recorded the gathering in the pages of her journal:...

    • Chapter 4 Family, Community, and Informal Work in the Needle Trades The Worlds of Easter Fairchild Newton and Tryphena Newton Cooke
      (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 Newton, learned to manage the rowdy behavior of the raftsmen. According to family tradition in Hadley, tired of one man’s coarse and constant overtures, she finally took a swing at her tormenter, knocking him down. Startled, he rose...

    • Chapter 5 Family, Artisanry, and Craft Tradition The Worlds of Tabitha Clark Smith and Rebecca Dickinson
      (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—helpt quilt upon a brown coat for Molly Dickinson all Thursday night. Fryday I helped Miss rebeckah Dickingson make a gown for me. Spent the Eve at Mr Hop, returned home. Satturday this day one and twenty years of age.”¹ Like most women during most weeks, on...

    • Color Plates
      (pp. None)
    • Chapter 6 Gender, Artisanry, and Craft Tradition The World of Catherine Phelps Parsons
      (pp. 163-182)

      In the 30 January 1769 issue of theConnecticut 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 fit.” The disgruntled craftsman would have been no happier upriver; in 1769, “nearly all the men’s clothing” in Northampton, Massachusetts, “was made up by women,” including Catherine Phelps Parsons, who, for more...

  8. Part III

    • Chapter 7 Women’s Artisanal Work in the Changing New England Marketplace
      (pp. 185-210)

      In 1776, while a gathering of planters and businessmen in Philadelphia declared one revolution, Adam Smith launched another. HisInquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nationswould 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 now-familiar exposition of efficiencies of labor, laid out in book 1, chapter 1 of his treatise, explicated the “trade of the pin-maker.”¹ While a man working singly might produce fewer than twenty pins a day, Smith wrote, by dividing their labor into separate tasks, pin makers...

  9. Conclusion The Romance of Old Clothes
    (pp. 211-232)

    “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 publicationTwo 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 comforting model of social and cultural change, grounding an unsettling present in a virtuous past.²

    Earle titled her concluding essay “The Romance of Old Clothes,” and so...

  10. Abbreviations
    (pp. 233-234)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 235-288)
  12. Index
    (pp. 289-302)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-304)