With Needle and Pen

Oct 29, 2010

How do we know what we know about the daily lives of people in the 18th and 19th centuries? Primarily through their diaries and letters, which make up a large proportion of the research materials at the Connecticut Historical Society.

Women and girls, particularly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, spent a great deal of time either making textiles or sewing textiles to make clothing or utilitarian objects. For example, in May 1784, eighteen year-old Hannah Hadassah Smith wrote in her diary (Ms 1009):

27 Last Tuesday I rose at seven & sew’d on my callicoe petticoat.
28 Last Wednesday I rose at seven and sew’d on my petticoat.
29 Last Thursday I rose at seven and sew’d on my shortgown.
30 Last Fryday I rose at seven and finished my dress of calico.

On days she did not sew, she often spun yarn for several hours at a time; she also wound quills for weaving. At times Hannah also made quilts:

Tuesday March 26 Have pieced one block of a bed quilt.
Wednesday March 27 At home. Made a bedquilt pattern and pieced three blocks.
Saturday March 30 Home piecing my bedquilt. I have made 13 blocks.
Tuesday April 23 Mother and I have been to the Center quilting for Ruth. Aunt Susan was there. We finished one quilt and commenced another.

In a letter to Mrs. Mary Brigham, South Coventry, Connecticut from Eunice R. Nelson in New York City dated August 17, 1836, one woman “outsourced” the making of quilts to her niece. Eunice wrote “I made up my mind to accept your kind offers often made of piecing and quilting some spreads, and would send it along by the first good opportunity. . . . The black gingham dress is to line the chintz cover which I should have had worked had time permitted . . . I have sent sixteen yards of new cotton and you will get whatever else is necessary if not too much trouble. The length is I think bout two yards and 7/8 the breadth nearly two yards and ¾.” (Ms 83879).

Samples of needlework by Connecticut women are currently on view at The Connecticut Historical Society in the exhibition, Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art and Family, 1740-1840.  A fully illustrated catalog and kits for making your own historic needlework may be ordered online at http://store.chs.org/categories/Needlework, or purchased at the CHS shop at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT 06105.