Sunday, September 30, 2007

Women and Their Dedication to Beauty in 19th Century America

Quilt from Pennsylvania, 1865

The American Quilt Story: The How-to and Heritage of a Craft Tradition, which was given to me by a kind friend, has a discussion of the importance of quilts and quilting in early America and in the frontier. The religious Great Awakening of the 1790s, according to the book, "was important in the story of quilting because it transferred the responsibility for moral and religious education directly from clergymen to women in the home.... The family came to be seen as the moral repository of the nation and home life to be associted with virtue." After the American War of Independence, "women's education was taken more seriously, prompted in part by the new domestic thinking whereby women assumed the mantle of the moral guardianship of the family."

In this cultural ambience, needlework and quilting gained in prestige as an essential part of a young woman's repertoire of skills. Quilting often involved the whole family. According to quilt historian Patsy Orlofsky (cited in the The American Quilt Story),
"Everyone seemed to participate in the making of quilt, whole families were involved. Husbands and fiances drew complex patterns on a quilt top or cut out templates from which patterns were cut. Grandmothers and children threaded needles and cut out patches while mothers sewed pieces together and quilted the top. A quilt in some instances represented the creative efforts of an entire family."
The Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer (also cited) wrote in a letter home in 1849:
"I have been a at a 'Bee.' And if you would know what this creature is in society here, then behold! If a family is reduced to poverty by fire or sickness, and the children are in want of clothes or anything else, a number of ladies of the neighborhood who are in good circumstances immediately get together at some place and sew for them. Such an assembly is called a bee."

Ladies having a tea in front of a log home.

In the mid-19th century, as more and more people headed west, according to the American Quilt Story, women worked extremely hard, even harder than men, historians say, to build a homestead and create a home from it. "It was considered a woman's duty not only to maintain the stabiity of the family unit in the new environment but also to provide a measure of refinement and domestic comfort to their crude homes. Rather than leave behind aspects of life that they regarded as civilized, women tried to recreate them on the prairie. They would often add rag rugs, wallpaper the sod walls with newsprint, crochet dainty covers for slop jars, and hang curtains fashioned from newspapers, old sheets or petticoats.... Women spent hours stitching the curtains, table linens, and quilts which would add a touch of domestic and psychological comfort to the home--which might be a log cabin or sod hut. ..."

Mariner's Compass pattern square from an 1840 quilt

I am reminded of the movie, Rachel and the Stranger, where the widower laments that his wife fought so hard to make their isolated cabin a home and bring beauty to it by insisting on planting flowers in the front yard, bringing her spinet to the West and playing it every evening, buying a metronome for her playing, educating their son in the home and insisting that he show good manners. (The contribution of women on the frontier is, of course, rarely a subject of interest in the modern-day Westerns.)

Quilt from Illinois, 1860.

The women and their quilting also played a major role in socializing the frontier: "The average distance of half a mile between farms meant isolation and loneliness for many women, and in order to adjust to their new lives, pioneer women worked to establish their own schools and churches and created a network of associations which would provide female companionship," The American Quilt Story says. "Both get-togethers to make a quilt and the quilt itself served important social functions and provided women with a material means to soften the harsh reality of the frontier. The popularity of the Album and Friendship Quilts during this period testifies to the importance of personal bonds, both within families and among women."
Later in the 19th century, the sewing machine came to be a prize possession on the frontier, as the picture below indicates.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Is It True that Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History?

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, professor of history at Harvard University, has written a new book entitled Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. In his review of the book in the Washington Post, Michael Dirida referred to her first major work, Virtuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735, which he says, begins as follows: "Cotton Mather called them 'the hidden ones.' They never preached or sat in a deacon's bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question or God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed Hoping for an eternal crows, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven't been. Well-behaved women seldom make history." Thus, as Dirida points out, was born a key slogan of the feminist movement. Her book, he opines, is a "well-written short work of synthesis and consolidation" of pioneering feminists and the modern-day feminist movement.

It may very well be the case that well-behaved women seldom make history. They are busy making something else: people. I have been mulling over women's silent contribution to history for a long time. But recently I came across a paragraph in an enjoyable novel by the British author Elizabeth Goudge, whom I heard of through reading Isabella of the 21st Century's blog (now sadly deleted). The book, The Herb of Grace, was written in 1948 and, most interestingly, has many reflections by the characters on the war and how it changed their lives and how it changed England. In the short passage that I am going to quote here, I have found the best summation of why well-behaved women do make history in a profound way, although feminists may not read about it or dismiss it. The passage concerns the thoughts of Lucilla, the matriarch of a large family, during a gathering of her grandchildren, sons, daughter, and daughter-in-law, Nadine:

But they were talking about the deplorable state of the world, about that terrible bomb, about famine and inflation and chaos and death, and her mind shied away from their talk like a terrified horse. She couldn't do anything about it now, at 86, except pray, and in between her prayers, now that the war was over, she wished they would let her forget sometimes that things had not turned out as well as one had hoped the enjoyed the things that were left: the spring sunshine slanting into the quiet room, lighting up the flowers and the lovely ripe corn colour of Pooh-Bah's coat, the hot tea, the log fire burning on the hearth, whispering and fragrant, the feel of the dear old Bastard's chin [dog] resting on her shoe, the sound of the sea coming in the pauses of their talk.
"Don't!" she cried to them suddently. "It's this that matters--this!"
What, Mother?" asked Margaret...
"Beauty is truth?" asked Hilary, coming a little nearer.
But Nadine, without words, stretched out a hand and gently touched her mother-in-law's. They had both been married and borne children. Lucilla knew always, and Nadine in her more domesticated moments, that it was homemaking that mattered. Every home was a brick in the great wall of decent living that men erected over and over again as a bulwark against the perpetual flooding in of evil. But women made the bricks, and the durableness of each civilization depended upon their quality; and it was no good weakening oneself for the brickmaking by thinking too much about the flood."

Mrs. Miniver deals brilliantly with a German pilot breaking into her house, in the movie that celebrated the heroism of homefront England.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Zora Neale Hurston--A Great Lady

See Columba for an article on the courageous Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, writer, and folklorist, who worked all her life to celebrate African Americans' unique culture and bring it to the American table.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

A Tea Tradition Now

This is the third year that I have hosted an afternoon tea for the women faculty and high school girls at my daughter's school right at the beginning of the school year. Usually this means a gathering of about 40 women and girls. I started doing this because I was seeking an excuse to make a trifle and also because I was so impressed when I was a young teenager by the teas that I went to with my family for some special occasion. I loved the delicate little sandwiches and sweets. A tea was an out-of-the-ordinary event. We had to dress up and wear white gloves and be very polite.

So I studied teas and went all out and had the first tea. Except for one fabulous cake baked by a friend (her prize-winning hershey chocolate cheesecake), I did everything else (with this friend's additional help on the day of the tea): applesauce cake, a blueberry trifle, and a German chocolate cake; tea sandwiches with various fillings--strawberries and cream cheese, cucumber, shrimp paste, watercress, spinach humus; finger foods, such as deviled eggs, gerkins, celery sticks; and scones with clotted cream and jams. This first tea was a great success, and I planned it like D-Day, filling page after page with shopping lists, timelines, menus, etc. The girls were hungry after school and ate a lot and talked a lot. I used real china plates and tea cups (many of which I looted from a very kind friend's kitchen) and had cloth napkins. I consider china and cloth napkins crucial to making the tea special in the minds of the girls. I thought it also essential that the tea be in a home and not in a public place or be catered. The second year, I did essentially the same but it was planned for a bad day for the school and there was a smaller turnout. All the savory part of the tea was eaten though, and if there had been a real turnout, we would have run out of food.

This year, the tea had to be at 1 pm after the first half-day of school, and so it had to be a luncheon. Very behind schedule, I asked for and received a lot of help from the school's social committee. Mothers very kindly made and delivered to my home the deviled eggs, a huge amount of very tasty chicken salad, and most of the cakes. I did not make a trifle but made one of the cakes and early on the morning of the tea, made all the scones as usual (I mix all the dry ingredients the night before). The tea was a great success, and I am very happy to say that this is now a School Tradition, which will be carried on by the social committee in the future (my daughter graduates this year).

The whole idea (aside from making the trifle) was to hopefully inspire some of the girls to hold a tea in their own homes when they get older and to carry on this elegant, ladylike, and genteel tradition. I will probably never know if I succeeded in that endeavor, but it seems that each year those that came enjoyed themselves and appreciated the degree of elegance (not perfect by any means) that I was able to muster. While the first tea required large amounts of planning, the first and second did not--it was all in my head and I only had to implement. This is by way of saying that holding a tea for about 40 people--the girls of a church youth group, a Scout troop, a reading group, or neighborhood friends--is not that difficult, especially if you get help with preparing the food, and it is fun to do. The pictures are from the second and third teas, the third with my little phone camera so they are a bit fuzzy.

This beautiful painting of dahlias by Cezanne appeared on the invitation the second year.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Deconstruction of Women's Clothing

See Homeliving Helper for an interesting article on the topic of women's clothing. This picture, worth at least 1,000 words, accompanies the article.