Last spring, our exhibit was on domestic arts. Specifically, quilts, gardening, and woodworking. We were part of a larger collaboration, and museums throughout the city were doing various exhibits on quilts. Now I like quilts as much as the next person, but when you have two years of meetings, they can get a little, shall we say, tired. Besides, as some gushed about how wonderful quilts are, I kept thinking of Anne Shirley saying “There’s no scope for imagination in patchwork.” And then I had other irreverent thoughts and had to fight making inappropriate facial expressions during a meeting.
So many of the other exhibits celebrated the artistry and dedication of quilters. But we wanted to talk about that other part of quilting and domestic arts in the 19th century–the fact that sometimes you do things because you have to, not because you want to. Part of our exhibit is a collection of what we call “quote cubes.” One side has a question and the other 5 sides have quotes, sometimes sharing similar views and sometimes differing. I knew that it was going to be hard to find lots of letters or diary entries complaining about sewing. It seems that if things like that are mentioned in those kinds of accounts they’re usually bragging about their latest accomplishment, not whining about it. Then I thought of who is most likely to complain–kids forced to do handwork, because it’s expected. Because it’s what their mothers did. Because their mothers need their help. And where else can you get the voice of a child but in children’s literature?
After combing through several books, I found some wonderful quotes that help fight that stereotype of the 19th century–that all women sewed and that they all liked it. Today, it seems that we are always insisting on our differences; we are not all the same. But when we talk about the people of the past, they’re usually lumped together–huge generalizations and assumptions are made. We have to have other voices in the mix–and these books are certainly one way to make the story richer.
Check out some of these quotes that we used in our exhibit:
“I know I don’t sew nicely–I’ll never, never sew nicely. I wish I was in heaven and you and your everlasting sewing in hell, Aunt Emily!” Lucinda did not intend this to be the damning thing it sounded. She had wanted to place Aunt Emily and herself as far apart as possible. –Ruth Sawyer, Roller Skates (This is one of my very favorites!)
She believed the devil must have invented a needle. From the moment you first learned to thread one, and knot the thread, it had you plagued to death. She hated-hated-hated sewing-this kind of sewing! — Lucinda in Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
‘Golly! I could do that, too!’ said Tom. ‘Girls think they’re so smart with their tiny stitches. Where’s a needle?’
‘Me too!’ said Warren, and before Clara knew what was happening to her precious quilt, the boys had taken possession, and the three erstwhile adventurers were making riotous scrolls and roses all over it. –Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink
There’s no scope for imagination in patchwork. It’s just one little seam after another and you never seem to be getting anywhere. –Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery
“Betsy,” scolded Carney, “you ought to learn to sew.”
“I despise sewing. I’m going to buy my dresses in Paris.”
“But you ought to know how to embroider at least. There’s so much sentiment in a gift you embroider. . . “
“Nobody would be glad to get anything I embroidered.” –Maud Hart Lovelace, Betsy was a Junior
‘How nice my handkerchiefs look, don’t they? Hannah washed and ironed them for me, and I marked them all myself,’ said Beth, looking proudly at the somewhat uneven letters which had cost her such labor. –Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
When some historians don’t like to use oral histories, I know it will be a long time before historians begin to consider these books as another kind of primary source. But at my museum, we certainly do. I know that Maud Hart Lovelace might not have ever had that exact conversation with her friends about sewing, but I have confidence that she certainly felt that way about sewing. And she probably wasn’t the only one either. But these voices addanother layer to quilts–you’re not just looking at the object, but you’re thinking more carefully about the people behind the object. Did they enjoy their work? Was it a burden? Did they teach others? How old were they when they began to sew? Looking for these particular nuggets helped me to realize how rich in details these books are. They’re a wonderful source, ready to be mined.