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Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America

Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America

Susan Reynolds Williams
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 336
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    Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-226-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Hunting for Alice Morse Earle
    (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 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,...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Family Matters
    (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 opportunities unavailable in the dying hill town of Andover. Within fourteen years, Edwin Morse had established himself as a machinist, moved to Worcester, and married his first cousin, Abigail Clary, of Jackson, Maine.¹

    As with many Americans who migrated from country to city during the nineteenth...

  7. Chapter 2 Parlor Culture, Public Culture
    (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 the newly married Mrs. Earle, the move to Brooklyn located her in an urban social environment that must have made Worcester seem placid by contrast. In Brooklyn she conducted an active social life and established herself as a highly regarded clubwoman and noted writer.

    Motherhood arrived...

  8. CHAPTER 3 New England Kismet
    (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 Puritan society suggests a mission that was both personal and progressive. Her club activities instilled in her a strong sense of obligation to improve society at large by improving herself. Through those activities, or perhaps in part because of them, she had come to view history...

  9. CHAPTER 4 The China Hunter
    (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 trend.China Collecting in America,published in 1892, was her first attempt at categorization and contextualization of the artifacts of the past. Subsequently she became highly skilled at enhancing her historical narratives through the social and cultural analysis of artifacts. As reviews and book...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Writing the Past
    (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 Sedgwick, Lydia Maria Child, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Bushnell, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, and Sarah Orne Jewett, writers who concerned themselves with domestic life and the transformation of the Northeast. Her historical studies, however, incorporated a new sense of...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Home Life and History
    (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. Her career coincided with the passing of the age of Francis Parkman and George Bancroft, when the first generation of academically trained historians was transforming historical writing into something more rigorously “scientific.” Within this scholarly context, Earle found the freedom to explore social and cultural subjects—particularly the worlds of women...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Remembering the Garden
    (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,” and thus an important female domain. Moreover, gardens, and especially “old-fashioned” gardens, had the power to connect the present to the past in tangible ways, which made them an important means of transmitting historical values and ensuring social and cultural continuity—even...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Genealogy and the Quest for an Inherited Future
    (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 by unfathomable numbers of strangers. The Earle house in Brooklyn Heights stood on a block of Henry Street amidst almost fifty other houses. That one block was a minuscule section of an enormous grid that spread relentlessly—northwest into Manhattan, pausing briefly at the East River, south to the Atlantic Ocean, and eastward on Long Island....

  14. CHAPTER 9 Toward a New Public History
    (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 accomplished this enormous output in the space of only fourteen years. The body of work she produced created a lasting legacy—a new kind of democratized history of American life. Material culture, as Earle knew well, abounds in symbolic meanings. The corpus of her work served in both public and private settings as a guide for Americans...

    (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 historian and an author. Was she driven by personal motives: the gratification of widespread acclaim, or perhaps the financial rewards of successful literary production, which, once achieved, no longer impelled her to continue? Or can her high rate of production be attributed to more idealistic motives: to a desire to reform her society, to provide a...

  16. NOTES
    (pp. 233-294)
    (pp. 295-300)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 301-315)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 316-318)