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The Important Role Played by Household Crafts in the Lives of Nineteenth-Century Women in Britain and America

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Wright State University CORE Scholar Master of Humanities Program Student Publications Master of Humanities Program The Important Role Played by Household Crafts in the Lives of Nineteenth-Century
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Wright State University CORE Scholar Master of Humanities Program Student Publications Master of Humanities Program The Important Role Played by Household Crafts in the Lives of Nineteenth-Century Women in Britain and America Cynthia Bornhorst-Winslow Wright State University - Main Campus Follow this and additional works at: Part of the Visual Studies Commons Repository Citation Bornhorst-Winslow, C. (2012). The Important Role Played by Household Crafts in the Lives of Nineteenth-Century Women in Britain and America (Master s thesis). Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. This Thesis is brought to you for free and open access by the Master of Humanities Program at CORE Scholar. It has been accepted for inclusion in Master of Humanities Program Student Publications by an authorized administrator of CORE Scholar. For more information, please contact Bornhorst-Winslow 1 Cynthia Bornhorst-Winslow The Important Role Played by Household Crafts in the Lives of Nineteenth-Century Women In Britain and America Household crafts were created in the domestic sphere by a wide range of women in the nineteenth century in both Britain and America. Although sometimes neglected by historians and viewed as frivolous and oppressive by some feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More, household crafts played a very important role in many British and American women s personal lives, and also played an important social role. This essay examines the three primary ways in which household crafts played this important personal and social role: they provided women with a form of self-expression, gave women more opportunities for social activities outside the home, and increased women s social influence as educators in morality and science, and as contributors to the arts. As a form of expression, household crafts provided an important vehicle for women to express and promote their religious beliefs within their families and the general public, and helped them and their families cope with loss during the mourning process. As a means of increased opportunities, household crafts entertained women, enabled them to learn new skills, and allowed them to create their own personal property. Through gatherings like quilting bees, crafts empowered women to create a female support system and a personal social life separate from their families. As a form of social influence, crafts helped women gain a greater presence within their religion and provided them a means of supporting charitable causes. Women also increased their social influence through the creation of nature-based crafts, which enabled them to gain a foothold in the world of science as they collected specimens for their work. By Bornhorst-Winslow 2 exhibiting their work to the public in household parlors, local fairs, and women s exhibitions, these women shared their personal artistic expression and achieved a greater presence outside the domestic sphere, which in turn allowed them to become more socially influential. As more women took advantage of the opportunities which household crafts created, household crafts became an important means of increasing women s social influence and self-esteem. Although society s promotion of female crafts created in the domestic sphere could be viewed as a form of oppression of women, they can also be seen as an important influence on women s history which helped expedite the expansion of women s influence and power from the private sphere into the public sphere. More historians today, such as Ariane Fennetaux and Maureen Daly Goggin, are researching the value of women s household crafts in terms of their artistic influence and their importance as a historic record. Fennetaux believes this fancywork, as it was often called, has frequently been overlooked by both historians and art historians (91). This situation has begun to change as more contemporary historians, like C. Kurt Dewhurst and Betty MacDowell, and artists, like Judy Chicago, become aware of the work produced by women of the nineteenth-century. Many Victorian men, such as English author Charles Kingsley in his 1855 poem titled The Husband s Lament, found household crafts to be inconsequential and believed they took women away from their wifely duties, while some Victorian women, such as novelist Dinah Mulock Craik and writer Mary Lamb, found crafts to be a burden dictated to them by society and intellectually dulling (Parker 149, 172). Some modern-day historians, however, like Fennetaux and Beverly Gordon, have argued that female crafts were important and did provide women with increased opportunities and influence. This essay looks at evidence based on written records and work created, and research presented by modern scholars, in order to determine the importance of Bornhorst-Winslow 3 women s household crafts in women s personal lives, their society, and as a historic and artistic record for contemporary society. When looking at the works themselves, it is important to note that we only possess a limited amount of knowledge about the makers since many are not signed, and others may supply only initials, a name or date completed, or sometimes a location. Any other information such as wealth, social status, or personal details is usually not available. We can infer, however, that because of the extensive promotion of household crafts by women s publications for middle-class women, it is likely that a large number of the crafts created during the nineteenth-century in Britain and America were made by this social class. This essay begins by examining the three primary ways that household crafts were a means of expression. These three ways are: crafts as expressions of morality and religion, as a means of coping with hardship, and as a way of sharing women s personal thoughts and experiences. Next the four important opportunities presented for women through household crafts are examined, and these include: entertainment, a more active social life, an opportunity to learn new skills, and a way of creating personal property. Lastly three important ways in which household crafts provided women with increased social influence are discussed, and these include: social influence through religious funding and charitable giving, social influence through the popularizing of natural science, and finally influence through creating and exhibiting. In conclusion some of the works by women are also looked at in regards to their possible status as art. For this section the theories of three prominent philosophers of aesthetics, R.G. Collingwood, Immanuel Kant, and George Dickie, are examined and considered. Women s household crafts, particularly needlework, were avidly produced throughout the nineteenth-century in both Britain and America especially during the years of Women employed a wide range of materials in their crafts; these were usually either relatively Bornhorst-Winslow 4 inexpensive, like thread or fabric scraps left-over from making clothing, or were free like feathers, shells, and human hair. From the mid-nineteenth-century forward, the types of crafts women created for their homes expanded to include areas previously dominated by men, such as furniture-making, taxidermy, and nature crafts, which required gaining some knowledge of the natural sciences. During the Victorian era, British women from all classes created household crafts to various degrees, although the most avid creators were middle-class women living in both town and country. Upper-class women often had greater opportunities for travel and study and so had less time for fancywork. Lower-class women were more likely to be employed in some manner in order to help feed their families, and did not have hired help with household duties and child care, so free time was limited. While British upper-middle-class women usually had multiple servants to look after their children and help with much of the household work, most middleclass women had only one domestic and did most of the child-rearing themselves, often with the help of their older daughters (Gorham 10,17). However, industrialization in Britain created more time-saving devices and higher family incomes, which gave even the middle-class the ability to have some domestic hired help in addition to housekeeping assistance from older children or other extended family members, and this in turn may have allowed more women time to pursue pastimes such as household crafts (Bell 27). Joan Perkin believes, though, that the number of women who were decorative and idle was very small since few had enough wealth to employ a large number of servants (87). Deborah Gorham finds that middle-class women were especially charged with using their time to create an appropriate domestic environment, which included tasteful home decoration and the pursuit of feminine pastimes. Gorham also believes this duty Bornhorst-Winslow 5 made middle-class women responsible for assuring that the private sphere acted as an effective indicator of status in the public sphere (8). In nineteenth-century America, middle-class women in towns and cities were also particularly avid creators of household crafts, and they also experienced the benefits of more free time because of industrialization. Through letters written home, and beautiful dated quilts and rugs, we also find that rural lower and middle-class women settling new territory somehow still managed to find time from their domestic chores to create beautiful items for their primitive homes. Their lives could be very difficult, and pioneer Anna Howard Shaw recalls, in her account of her family s early life in the Michigan wilderness, that when her mother saw the forlorn and desolate home prepared for the family by her husband, her mother s face never lost the deep lines those first hours of her pioneer life had cut upon it (Dewhurst ). Women s creations no doubt served to help focus their attention from far-away loved ones, and brighten their simple, and often times rustic dwellings in order to create a new sense of home. The exhibition and book titled, Artists in Aprons: Folk Art by American Women (1977), serves as evidence that American women from all regions of the country engaged in household crafts. This traveling exhibition and book, which chronicles nineteenth-century women s folk art, was written and organized in Michigan, although it includes work and research involving many states. While the bulk of the work included is concentrated in the more populated states of the northeast region, work is also included from a variety of states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia and West Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, California, Nebraska, Idaho, and Minnesota. Exhibitions of women s folk art similar to Artists in Aprons also opened during the 1970 s in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York (Dewhurst, xi). Bornhorst-Winslow 6 Though many women found expression and opportunity through household crafts, opinions of the value of crafts during the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries varied, and some women, like British eighteenth-century feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, believed that crafts often limited women intellectually and made them dull. She wrote in 1792, I have already inveighed against the custom of confining girls to their needle, and shutting them out from all political and civil employments; for by thus narrowing their minds they are rendered unfit to fulfill the peculiar duties which nature has assigned them (169). Wollstonecraft believed in the importance of mothering and believed that active minds made women more attentive to their duties and therefore, better mothers (169). The evangelical Anglican writer Hannah More agreed with Wollstonecraft about the importance of being a good mother, and she also believed that embroidery had associations with aristocratic decadence and the cardinal sin of vanity. More states in her book, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), that young women should always embroider for others, and that habituating young ladies to exercise their taste and devote their leisure, not to the decoration of their own persons, but to the service of those to whom they are bound by every tender tie of love and duty, enabled them to avoid committing the cardinal sin of vanity (330). While their arguments have some validity, participating in household crafts also can be viewed as an example of how women adapted to very limiting situations and created opportunity from adversity. This essay examines the ways they used the socially acceptable activity of female crafts to quietly expand their influence both inside and outside the domestic sphere to become more influential members of Victorian society. Handmade items created for the decoration of the Victorian home often had religiousundertones, and were synonymous with the pure and moral domestic sphere where women served as the moral guardians. In his 1865 essay, Of Queens Gardens, John Ruskin articulates Bornhorst-Winslow 7 the mainstream view that women were ideally suited for this home decoration since their intellect was for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision (67). Women s motivations to create sentimental handmade crafts for their homes were varied, and included wanting to display their good taste, civilized nature, and morality. The Victorian woman s primary duties took place within the home, and contact with the outer world was often seen as impinging on their ability to perform those duties (Gorham 6). Perkin, however, believes there were two very different middle-class ideals of true womanhood, since one was held by men and one by women. She asserts that while many women pretended to be as men wished them to be, they were simultaneously developing their own identities. Perkin also believes there were few real angels in the house who were decoratively idle, sexually passive, self-sacrificing, and dependent. Rather, she finds women were more accurately portrayed by women authors whose characters had strong passions and were independent minded, in addition to being the successful organizers of their households (86-7). The devout attention many women gave to a wellmanaged, well-decorated private sphere also benefited her family by increasing their socialstanding. This was because one s home, its decoration, and the cleanliness and condition it was kept in was seen an indicator of status. 1. Household Crafts as a Means of Expression 1.1 Expressions of Morality and Religion Female crafts in the nineteenth-century were important as a means of expression in three primary ways: they were a way for women to promote their religious beliefs, a means of coping with loss and hardship, and a vehicle for illustrating their personal thoughts and experiences. Household crafts intrinsically possessed some religious significance since a woman s virtue, work ethic, and selfless love for her family were tangibly represented through their production. Bornhorst-Winslow 8 Some of the crafts women created were an even more direct means of religious expression, and promoted religious beliefs within the sanctuary of the family home. Pieces that were a direct religious expression included needlework pictures depicting scenes or quotations from the Bible, and embroidered mottos promoting good moral conduct. A woman could also actively participate in promoting Christianity and changing society for the better by creating a morallyuplifting environment for her husband and children. Ruskin believed this morality was the true nature of home: It is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division (67). Creating a beautiful, well-decorated home was viewed by Victorian society as a religious undertaking, and if the woman was successful, her home was believed to have an elevating influence on those who dwell in it, as stated by designer Christopher Dresser in his book Studies in Design (1879) (9). Historian Colleen McDannell explains that Victorians linked morality and religion with the purchase and maintenance of a Christian home. It was acceptable to acquire and display domestic goods, since you were not building a shelter, but a sanctuary (50). In The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal, Gorham concludes that the British emphasis on the importance of domesticity helped alleviate the conflict taking place between Christianity s moral values of love and charity, and capitalism s emphasis on competition and survival of the fittest (4). While the male public sphere was dominated by business, politics, and professional life, the female private sphere served as a safe haven for love, emotion, domesticity, and religious values and provided a place of renewal for men away from their competitive and sometimes morally questionable activities (Gorham 4). Nineteenth-century British society believed women s crafts contributed not only to the favorable moral development the woman, but to that of her family and society as a whole. Part of British women s religious and moral mission included providing early religious instruction for Bornhorst-Winslow 9 their children. Girls, like boys, were taught the moral qualities of self-discipline, order, regularity, and self-control, but mothers often used women s pastimes such as needlework and painting to teach these virtues to their daughters. Appropriate home decoration was also viewed by Victorian society as a way to educate children, and so was promoted in The Lady s Every- Day Book (1873) written by Robert Philp, which stated that pictures on the wall, such as classical scenes displaying admirable virtues and young girls in domestic settings, were subjects that would awaken our admiration, reverence of love and at times prevent our going astray by their silent monitions (6). In Treasures of Needlework (1855), Mrs. Warren and Mrs. Pullen wrote that needlework brings daily blessings to every home, unnoticed, perhaps, because of its hourly silent application; for in a household each stitch is one for comfort to some person or other; and without its ever-watchful care home would be a scene of discomfort indeed (Introduction xi). Creating and displaying household crafts not only had the potential to create moral improvement in the members of the household, but in the maker themselves. Historian Ariane Fennetaux finds that many of these crafts were intrinsically disciplining, since they could be very tedious and time-consuming, sometimes taking several years to complete, thereby teaching women self-discipline and patience. Fennetaux also believes that the production of home-made goods was important for middle-class women as a socially acceptable, morally endorsed expression of their materialism. Nineteenth-century British society applauded women for beautifying their households with decorating and embroidery, and viewed this activity as virtuous (94, 96). Producing scripture coverlets was also a means of women s religious expression, and a morally acceptable activity popular in Britain throughout the nineteenth-century. Organizations and institutions endorsed the production of these coverlets as a means of offering people Bornhorst-Winslow 10 spiritual comfort and guidance during times of duress. Churches, Sunday schools, Bible classes, temperance groups, ladies sewing circles, hospital wards, and asylums all praised the benefits of recording Christian scripture in embroidery, which included coverlets intended for the maker s personal use, and those made to sell at church fairs (Prichard 250). Rozsika Parker believes that women often bore the entire responsibility for their family s moral and domestic comfort, and British women s needlework skills were viewed as a means of contributing to both religion and family (157). However, she also points out the presence of class conflict, because when upper and middle-class women embroidered it was the woman s taste which shed a moral and spi

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