They began their existence as everyday objects, but in the hands of award-winning historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, fourteen domestic items from preindustrial America–ranging from a linen tablecloth to an unfinished sock–relinquish their stories and offer profound insights into our history.
In an age when even meals are rarely made from scratch, homespun easily acquires the glow of nostalgia. The objects Ulrich investigates unravel those simplified illusions, revealing important clues to the culture and people who made them. Ulrich uses an Indian basket to explore the uneasy coexistence of native and colonial Americans. A piece of silk embroidery reveals racial and class distinctions, and two old spinning wheels illuminate the connections between colonial cloth-making and war. Pulling these divergent threads together, Ulrich demonstrates how early Americans made, used, sold, and saved textiles in order to assert their identities, shape relationships, and create history.
In 1851, when theologian Horace Bushnell stood on the village green in Litchfield, Conn., and looked back lovingly on the "Age of Homespun," he was expressing a perennial American nostalgia for the "good old days," when clothing and other necessities were mostly made at home by family labor. Historian Ulrich (author of the Pulitzer Prize winning A Midwife's Tale) has not set out to deflate the sentimentality that accompanies Bushnell's vision, but rather to trace its genesis and understand how it has weathered the test of time. In her previous works, Ulrich studied the lives of ordinary people, examining their diaries and what they left for probate when they died in order to understand their place in history. Here, under the tutelage of various museum curators, Ulrich shifts toward a material culture study studying objects to understand the people who used them. From 14 artifacts of early American life (baskets, spinning wheels, needlework, etc.), Ulrich uncovers details about their makers and users and the communities they built. Eighteenth-century New England was a battleground of Indian, colonist, slave and European cultures, and each left its mark on the design of these "surviving objects." A quote from Bushnell and an illustration of an object open each chapter. What follows is anything from a rambling digression on a particular cabinet's provenance to a detailed discussion of how dyes were made or flax prepared. As fascinating as the book can be, though, general readers may give up halfway through, finding it frustratingly diffuse and too much of a patchwork. But early Americanists, historical sleuths and "textilians" will delight. 165 illus.