During the spring of 2021, I was a women’s history research intern at Historic New England (HNE), an organization committed to sharing New England’s home life and history with national audiences by preserving houses and their landscapes alongside archival items and stories. Working under the direction of Dr. Alissa Butler, manager of the HNE Study Center, I was responsible for two main projects. At Casey Farm, a rural historic site in Saunderstown, RI, I researched women who had lived in the family home. At Otis House, a brick historic house in Boston, MA, I researched the experiences of women in the nineteenth-century Boston medical community.
Due to the remote nature of this internship, I researched Emma Weir Casey using Historic New England’s vast digital collection. Unfortunately, the Casey Family Papers has few of Emma’s first-hand accounts; however, it has dozens of her son’s letters. I read Thomas Lincoln Casey Jr.’s letters from 1877 to 1896 to find information about Emma’s life, hobbies, and personality. By sifting through her son’s perspective, I was able to learn about Emma’s frequent travels to New York, her ability to provide for her sons, her interest in music, and more. I ultimately wrote a subject guide about Emma for Casey Farm staff to incorporate her story in interpretation of the house and farm.
For Otis House, I read secondary source literature on the Boston medical community to contextualize Elizabeth Mott, an alternative medicine practitioner who lived in the house in the early to mid-nineteenth century. With little information available on Elizabeth, Otis House staff hoped to learn more about the world she would have been living and working in. I wrote subject guides on numerous topics that docents could use to illuminate Elizabeth’s role in alternative medicine including women and medical education, medical societies, feminism, and more.
As years went by, more experimentation in bicycle design took place. Gearing systems and chains were introduced, better braking systems were implemented, and springs were installed to cut down on vibration issues. The wheels of the bicycle, rather than having one huge wheel and one small, became more equal in size. Finally, the tire on the bicycle went from a solid rubber tire to one filled with air, which solved multiple issues, including vibration and traction. The safety bicycle had finally come to be, evolving over the course of about eighteen years (the very late 1870s-the early to mid-1890s) to become the bicycle we are more or less familiar with today.
With the safety bicycle being lower to the ground and much easier to ride, it became accessible to many more people, including women. Advertisers latched on to women as a target audience for the bicycle right away, taking advantage of the stylish aspects of it, the fact that it was popular among the upper classes, and using artwork to suggest not only that the bicycles were aesthetically pleasing, but women who rode on bicycles would be decorous as well. While there were detractors and many people who disapproved of women riding bicycles, once women started to ride, nothing seemed to discourage them.
One source of disapproval of women riding was the medical field. Many doctors claimed women were not physically able to ride a bicycle safely. Much of this stemmed from the fact that women had to straddle the bicycle in order to ride. Doctors claimed it was too stimulating for women, that it would affect her childbearing by disfiguring her reproductive organs, and that any sign of slouching in the seat of the bicycle was a sign that a woman was giving in to her devious sexual nature. This is one reason images of the time depicted women sitting straight and tall on their bicycles while their male counterparts are bent closer to the handlebars for better aerodynamics.
On November 13–14, 2021, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Public History Program will co-host the Industrial Craft Research Network (ICRN)’s inaugural virtual symposium Exhibiting Skill: Understanding, Documenting, and Communicating Skilled Practices of Historical Industrial Environments. Bringing together an interdisciplinary group of academics, museum professionals, designers and practitioners from around the globe, the symposium aims to develop conversation and community around the nature of industrial skill, methodologies for accessing and preserving it, and the feasibility of exhibiting it in cultural heritage sites that interpret industrial history.
Over two days, international presenters and attendees will come together to share ideas and build community, tackling a variety of themes ranging from the latest in knowledge capture methodologies, research strategies for accessing industrial skills when no living practitioners survive, the role of living history museums in preserving skill sets, and shared experiences of multiple museums who grapple with exhibiting industrial skill for the general public.
These queries are both timely and urgent. In the wake of deindustrialization for many communities where industrial heritage sites reside, connecting the experiences of industrial workers and their embodied knowledge and skillsets with present-day concerns about capitalism, labor, and vocational training has never been more necessary.
For many specific historic industries, from frame knitting to precision machining, certain skill sets are practiced and preserved by a shrinking number of practitioners, many of whom are also museum professionals. Can we reconstruct embodied knowledge when no skilled practitioners survive using sources in archives, visual and material culture? What combination of methodologies can most accurately document and express skilled practices? Do theories of cognition help us to understand skilled practice? Is it possible to interpret industrial skill in museum settings, where the scale and pace of labor is impossible to replicate? How do we build exhibits that communicate such working knowledges?
Regular readers of Past@Present know that public historians in New England regularly grapple with pressing concerns associated with the industrial history that is ever-present on our landscape. And so we are delighted that several museums and historic sites from Massachusetts will be present in this international conversation, from Springfield Armory National Historic Site, Old Sturbridge Village, and Lowell National Historic Park to our neighbors at the Hatfield Historical Society (the latter thanks to a welcome contribution UMass history alum Robert Forrant, ’94PhD. The rich industrial history present in these sites will gain transatlantic context in conversation with UK-based cultural institutions like the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the Framework Knitters Museum in Ruddington, and the National Railway Museum in York. Cathy Stanton’s prize-winning UMass Press title The Lowell Experiment, often required reading for many in this field, is an apt reminder that public historian’s work remains at the heart of post-industrial futures for sites grappling with exhibition of their industrial pasts, and we look forward to their critical voices in the ICRN’s symposium.
Interested in joining the discussion? If so, register here. To sign up for the ICRN’s mailing list, please click here. To follow the conference on Twitter, follow the hashtags #ICRN2021and #ExhibitingSkill.
This free two-day symposium features 24 presenters from a variety of professional backgrounds, academic programs, cultural institutions, and industries from around the world. A schedule of presenters is available below or available for download here with bios and abstracts of presenters. All symposium times listed in US-based EST time.
In an 1896 interview for the New York Sunday World, the infamous woman reporter Nelly Bly asked famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony what she thought about bicycling, particularly the fact that women were now taking up a hobby once dominated by men. Anthony responded:
“I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world…It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
The image of women riding freely on their bicycles, in defiance of social standards that came before, escaping from a life of being stuck at home or under the guard of chaperones does seem refreshing, and indeed, the image is an accurate one. Bicycles did allow women more freedom in the 1890s than they had in the past.
Which women, however, did it free, and were these women oppressed to begin with? If not bicycles, would they have just latched on to something else to “liberate” them? In truth, the bicycle was a symbol of both fashion and freedom that crossed class lines, that went beyond consumerism and frivolity to become an emblem of escape not only from patriarchy, but from the struggles of the lower class as well.
Throughout history, people have desired to propel themselves in ways above and beyond their own two feet. Perhaps the most notable ancient example of this is the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, who built wings so they could fly under the power of their own arms. Though the technology of the wheel and wheeled vehicles came about long ago, with some evidence pointing to the use of such things in ancient Mesopotamia in 3500 BCE, it wasn’t until the very late 18th century that even a rudimentary vehicle propelled by a man himself was made viable.
This contraption, called a velocipede or hobby horse, consisted of a board between two wheels with a seat in the middle. The wheels were shod with metal, more like wagon wheels of the time than the rubber tires we’re used to today. A person would push off the ground with his feet, alternating between them, and propel himself forward, almost like running. There were no brakes, and there was no steering mechanism. The driver could only lean side to side to change direction. Many men enjoyed using them in England and France, even using them in races, though their popularity was limited by people hurting themselves trying to lift the heavy machines, even to the point of rupturing their groins. These vehicles were dangerous to ride, as well, and accidents happened regularly.
Historical literature makes little mention of women riding these velocipedes, and the only place a woman can be seen in artwork of the time is riding on the back of a three-wheeled version, where a man is powering the front of the machine and she is sitting in a chair perched over the back two wheels. Various other modifications were made to these vehicles, but none that made them safe, easy, or a pleasure to ride. They fell out of style relatively quickly.
On August 18, President Joe Biden nominated Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III to serve as National Park Service Director. The appointment is important for two reasons in particular: first, Sams III could be the first Native American to lead the National Park Service; second, Sams III could be the first person since the Obama administration to hold the position in an official capacity. Both are contingent on the Senate confirmation process, which is a relatively new prerequisite for the top parks job.
On the surface it seems arbitrary that Congress would decide one day in 1996 to throw out the old way of doing things and instead require the president to choose a director with consent of the Senate. Understanding how this came to be is important for understanding the current state of our national parks system and our most treasured landscapes and resources.
US national parks are supremely popular among the American people, and the National Park Service is one of the most favorably viewed of all government agencies. This might lead some to believe that the parks system sits above the political fray. However, America’s parks system has on more than one occasion served as an arena for political posturing and power dynamics, and continues to at present.
Virtually all of the national parks established by Congress prior to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 were headed up by political appointees at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior. A notable exception was Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 as the world’s first national park, which was overseen for more than two decades by the US Army.
In the case of Yellowstone, park mismanagement and unsatisfactory protection of the environment by its first superintendents in the Department of the Interior convinced Congress in 1883 to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to call upon the Secretary of War for assistance if needed. This meant using the strength of the military to preserve the land, conserve wildlife and resources, and exclude, often violently, Native Americans from entering park boundaries. In 1886 the interior department called upon the war department. The Army would occupy and run Yellowstone until 1918.
President Woodrow Wilson enacted the law creating the National Park Service in 1916, granting the interior secretary power to appoint park service directors and assistant directors. Interior secretaries would enjoy this prerogative until the mid-1990s, an 80-year span.
The shape and administration of the park service has evolved since its creation in the early 20th century. It grew in size and scope, added and recategorized sites of national historic significance, and reached into dense urban centers. But the mid-1990s brought on a more divisive brand of politics.
The Springfield Museums recently purchased Theodor Geisel’s, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, childhood home. Known as the “Seuss House,” it is surprisingly not on Mulberry Street. Their intention is to turn the house into a historic house museum (HHM) that explores Springfield and the Geisels’ lives in the early 20th century. At the Seuss house, nothing will be off limits to visitors. Embracing interactivity and inclusivity, visitors will be able to touch things, sit on the furniture, and engage with the house and its content in unique ways.
Issues of inclusion, particularly accessibility, are contentious at HHMs, which are notoriously exempt from many Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Questions of access in HHMs will become more pressing as museums realize the ways they have failed to be inclusive spaces. HHMs must consider inclusion in terms of physical accessibility for all abilities, as well as various learning preferences and who is represented in the museum.
During my internship at the Seuss House, I try to consider all aspects of inclusivity and accessibility as I develop an exhibit proposal about Anna Lindner, the Geisels’ live-in housekeeper for 18 years. Including the histories of domestic workers and the “servant’s tours” in HHMs allows us to shift focus from the wealthier homeowners to underrepresented groups and individuals. The challenge with building the history of domestic workers is that the evidence that documents these lives is not always found in archives and the usual historical repositories. This was certainly the case with Anna Lindner.
I was fortunate on this project because some preliminary research had already been done. In earlier partnerships with the museum, Marla Miller’s “History and its Publics” Fall 2018 undergraduate class and UMass Public History graduate Katherine Fecteau had researched the neighborhood and developed maps and demographic information for the street. The students enrolled in “History and its Publics” initially recommended featuring Anna in the museum.
But Anna Lindner was not in any of the other Geisel records that I had access to. She does not appear in any photographs that Ted Owens, Ted Geisel’s grand nephew, has and she is mentioned in passing only twice in the Ted Geisel memoir/biography. Dutifully noting each instance, I started my research with a basic search of census documents. Anna is listed in the 1910 and 1920 census records in Springfield, but in 1910 her name was misspelled. Further research found her in ship manifests for her initial voyage to the U.S. in 1903 as well as a four-month trip back to Germany in 1913. The Springfield Republican also listed her name along with the other Springfield residents who sailed over to Germany in 1913.
And that was it. Scraps of information and her name listed as one of many. The question became how to put these scraps together. I decided to contextualize the aspects of her life that I knew, focusing on her labor as a domestic worker, life as a Springfield resident, and experience as an immigrant.
I used what I learned about domestic work from Jennifer Pustz’s book, Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servant’s Lives in Historic House Museums, and other articles about domestic workers to examine Good Housekeeping magazines from the early 1900s. A critical reading revealed the duties and social status of domestic workers, racial portrayals of domestic workers, and their living and working conditions.
Maggie, Cliff, and Zoe over at the Springfield History Library and Archives were unbelievably knowledgeable and helpful in finding information about Springfield.
Douglas Baynton’s Defectives in the Land was one of many informative books on immigration, particularly for interpreting ship manifests. Anna’s ship manifests are fascinating to examine as they reflect the changing requirements for entry into the country and reasons for exclusion from the country. We will provide these documents for visitors to inspect and pose questions about why certain information is collected. Because we have manifests from both 1903 and 1913, visitors will be able to compare the changes as well.
To engage the different ways people create meaning, visitors will be able to pick up and touch all objects and parts of the exhibit. There will be maps, photographs and documents, objects and appliances, panels, and a brief video. Visitors who wish to explore a topic further can scan a QR code to connect to further resources. The exhibit will be fully bilingual in Spanish and English with video captioning and the museum is exploring additional translations. Any digital content will be compatible with the most commonly used assistive technologies, and we will invite feedback for improvement.
I also want to open up the process of “doing history” and offer a way for visitors to participate in that process if they choose. A wall panel highlights the challenges of researching the history of Anna Lindner and the many gaps in evidence that we have about her life. Another panel invites visitors to think about who or what else may have been “lost” to history. This panel will have a place where people can write or draw something about their own history that they want included in the public’s memory. This effort will also include a social media aspect where people can share stories, photos, or documents and the museums can help people develop and record their histories.
Working on this project has been very rewarding because Anna Lindner is important. Anna Lindner offers us the opportunity to expand the historical narrative and include diverse perspectives and experiences. Through Anna’s story we can examine issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity, and more, that wouldn’t be possible if we only discussed the Geisels. Inclusive museums need to represent these stories and need to be presented in ways that allow access to all abilities and learning styles. I have tried to make room within the exhibit for all abilities and learning preferences as best as I could, though I look forward to feedback from my supervisor and the diversity and inclusivity team, as well as ongoing feedback from visitors.
Baynton, Douglas C. Defectives in the Land: Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Pustz, Jennifer. Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010.
Catherine White is an M.A. student in History at UMass Amherst who is also pursuing the Public History Graduate Certificate. Her 2021 internship is supported by the Charles K. Hyde Intern Fellowship.
I must admit, my spark for public history was not ignited by childhood vacations to historic places. My initial thought on the phrase “public history” was that it focused on the houses and spaces of famous old white people in the West and in the North. Why would that interest me, a young Black woman in the South? Little did I know then that I would eventually discover that spark.
My introduction to the field was an internship at the Abraham Lincoln Home in Springfield, Illinois, during my undergraduate years at a Historically Black College and University, based on a program designed to enhance diversity. After that experience and speaking with former NPS Director Robert Stanton, I changed my perception and decided to pursue further education in the field. Once I arrived at UMass Amherst, I began considering my options for the program’s internship requirement. I learned about the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and decided that was going to be a potential internship project.
The first time I visited the site, it was the last weekend of tours for Felicia Jamison, a fellow doctoral student and docent at the time and now Assistant Professor of History at Drake University. Later, her knowledge and professionalism served as my example and unofficial training.
Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1979, the site is significant because Du Bois is considered “one of the most incisive thinkers and profound scholars of all time… [who] influenced much of the twentieth century black protest.” I agree with the nominators and that spirit remains on the site through interpretation. UMass Amherst owns and manages the site, named its library after him and holds the largest collection of his papers. The university and its stewardship ensures that some of the legacy of Du Bois remains in the state.
Walking onto the land, it felt as if I was entering a special space. It is a feeling that visitors often remark upon once they step onto the site. The entrance, a nature path lined by overarching trees, creates a cathedral-like feel, setting the scene for visitors to immerse themselves in the experience of guided tours. The site continues as a half-mile wooded trail with interpretive signage, telling the story of Du Bois. Although the site lacks a physical structure and tangible artifacts, the design allows visitors to linger and learn about Du Bois and his ancestors, who walked this space more than one century ago. During my tours, we examine blueprints, discuss Du Bois’ writings about the space and approach a platform where the home once stood. I encourage visitors to imagine their home and hometown. This prompts visitors to connect to the ideas of nature and home at the site, including the feelings it evokes and intangible values it instilled.
Since the summer of 2016, I have served as the tour guide at the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite Although the tour season lasts only ten weeks, hundreds of individuals interact and engage with his legacy. As the tour guide, I take visitors through various parts of his life, from his genesis in Great Barrington to his death and burial in Ghana. On these tours, visitors learn that some of his ideas and views were founded in the interactions with the local community. He took these hometown ideas and interactions to places all over the world.
As a historian, I am accustomed to asking questions. However, I became accustomed to answering a variety of questions via calls, emails and on the tours. Questions range from demographics to the location of his descendants to his affiliation with Communism. Some are answered immediately, and others with a little research and a delayed reply. We discuss gender, race, family, community and conflict in this short half-mile, half-hour tour. Yet, one of the most intriguing questions was from a young visitor about whether Du Bois had a dog as a kid. Genuine inquiries like these shaped the tours, giving them uniqueness and unpredictability.
The reasons and ways that visitors engage with Du Bois always interest me. Some visit because they’ve read works of Du Bois, some come as part of their summer experience in the Berkshires. Others simply stop by accidentally due to the sign and small parking lot. Each audience had a different experience and I was privileged to facilitate them.
As a member of the NAACP, my perspective could have some bias. Yet, when I met one of the former editors of NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, which Du Bois was the first editor, it simply reminded me that I was being prepared for these types of moments of engaging with one of the influential figures in US and African American history. Of course, my presence at this site was significant and important. As a Black woman from the South, my perspective allowed opportunities for dialogue. Representation in public history spaces matters.
During my tenure at the Homesite, I’ve discussed Du Bois in a variety of ways. I’ve scheduled tours, provided public programming, given podcast interviews, shared informal chats and created social media videos. Each of these engagements allow me to do this thing called public history. I have the opportunity to present history to the public in palatable formats. The joy comes when someone comes away with new knowledge about Du Bois. Although he was an extraordinary man, there were moments that made him human. I try to convey these images and ideas at various presentations.
These experiences are supported by various groups and individuals vested in the desire of Du Bois to keep this place that he cherished. Local organizations such as the Upper Housatonic Valley Heritage Area provide logistical daily operations support. Local residents like Wray Gunn and the late Reverend Esther Dozier gave the foundation and continual support of this work. The Friends of Du Bois Group expands the reach of the site to broader and larger audiences. The University of Massachusetts Amherst history, Public History and Anthropology Departments, Du Bois Library Special Collections and University Archives, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Center ensures that I am capable of providing accurate information for visitors. However, when I accidentally met Dr. Edmond Gordon, one of the originators of this site, our conversation reminded me that people and organizations can come together in acts of preservation, whether large or small. Dr. Edmond Gordon, a friend of Du Bois and Walter Wilson, a realtor, raised funds, resulting in the purchase of the land, creating the site in October 1969.
Walking the woods while discussing Du Bois is an indelible experience. It continually shapes my work in the field of public history.
Camesha Scruggs is a doctoral candidate in history at UMass Amherst in addition to pursuing a public history certificate in the program. As a native Texan, she recalls oral histories from community elders and wanted to tell their stories as she got older. Her public history work reflects that ambition, through projects with the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Humanities Action Lab, W E B Du Bois Boyhood Homesite and The Center for Design and Engagement. In her work and scholarship, she desires to present unknown stories to larger audiences while making public history palatable to all that partake.
In Spring 2021, the Hatfield Historical Society received funding from Mass Humanities for an innovative project to explore how best to recruit and support digital volunteers; the work will unfold over summer and winter 2021-22 and conclude in early 2022. Like many small local history organizations, the society grapples with issues of accessibility that have been exacerbated by the global pandemic. Digital engagement seems like a possible solution, but how might the HHS (and groups like it) engage and train mostly senior volunteers in a way that will fulfill existing needs for the Society, and incorporate the skills, interests and social needs of the volunteers? To explore those questions, the HHS has received grant funding to consider how best to build a vibrant and sustainable volunteer program. To contribute to the process, the HHS project will tap the experience and insight of two members of the UMass Amherst History community: alumnus Robert Forrant and Public History Program director Marla Miller. In the interview below, Kathie Gow, curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum, Forrant and Miller discuss the project’s aims and potential, work that will surely be of interest to organizations across Massachusetts.
MRM: Kathie, can you kick us off by sharing a little bit about how you came to develop this project? What activities will the grant funds support?
KG: When Meguey Baker (Hatfield Historical Museum Collections Assistant) and I sat down in January to discuss the coming year’s priorities — based on more general priorities set by the Hatfield Historical Society (HHS) board, which funds our two positions — we knew we wanted to do projects that would hit a lot of our goals. Those goals included engaging our community in Hatfield history, expanding our reach beyond those who already knew us, discovering and connecting stories about artifacts in the collection, and building a volunteer corps. (Oh yeah, and then add some reality in–like, we’re challenged to keep on top of collections management and project work as it is, with funds the Society has been able to raise from its generous supporters, AND, we’re in a pandemic, and no volunteers have been allowed into the museum since mid-March 2020).
So Mass Humanities’ Digital Capacity grants couldn’t have come at a better time!
The grant will support staff time to work with a half-dozen volunteers over the coming year, plus our two Humanities scholars (you and Bob), all of whom bring great skills and experiences to the project. It will also pay for the first year of an upgrade to the Pro version of our free website builder (Weebly), which gives us capabilities we’ll need for the project, and help fund our upgrade to the paid version of Zoom, which will be our primary platform for engaging with volunteers.
This was one of the last times volunteers and visitors were allowed into the Hatfield Historical Museum in February 2020, just before Covid shut the museum down. Volunteer Wunderley Stauder is writing up artifact intake sheets with Megue Baker.
MRM: Bob, how did you come to get involved? What priorities will you bring to this initiative?
RF: During Covid Times I have been continuing to do research and have spent time in the Lawrence Public Library and the Lawrence History Center. I also exchanged frequent emails with archivists at the Massachusetts State Archives. Through the efforts of these institutions I was able to get quite a bit of work done and it made me realize how difficult the last fifteen months have been for dedicated people who care about, collect, archive, and make available the historical record for us. I had also spent a great few months working on a research project in Hatfield with boxes and boxes of materials lovingly organized by the folks at the Hatfield Historical Society.
When I was asked about whether I would want to be involved in a project in Hatfield again, it was an easy decision. For people like me who engage in public history projects and want to utilize local history in their classroom efforts, it is incumbent that we do everything we can to support local history organizations. As a researcher and board member of the Lawrence History Center, I can add my knowledge of how institutions like this work to the project. At the same time, by being involved with a local history organization, I can learn lots about best practices for working in such organizations. It may also help me to identify how I want to volunteer when ever I decide to retire from UMass Lowell!
MRM: How has HHS been coping with the effects of the pandemic, especially around Hatfield’s anniversary year?
KG: Like for most museums and historical societies, especially small ones, it has been a challenging year, made all the more frustrating and sad because 2020 was our town’s 350th anniversary year. It was also the Hatfield Historical Society’s 50th anniversary, which should have been a great opportunity for us to promote the work HHS has been doing. It meant that most of 2020’s scheduled events got cancelled, and our opportunities to engage in person with the public disappeared.
But we did not sit idle! We shifted gears, and of course with growing pains (we are still figuring things out), we embraced the digital platform. We were delighted to be asked last fall by Bill Hosely (of Terra Firma Northeast) to participate in the Mass Historical Society Zoom program, “A Treasury of Massachusetts House Museums and Local History Orgs: Part III: Hidden Gems” (you can watch the program HERE) to introduce our organization and the collections we manage for the Town of Hatfield to their audience.
Stephen Girard—the wealthiest man in the Early Republic—had a secret hidden inside his shoes. From his knees to his ankles, his legs were clad in fine silk stockings imported from France, with delicate silk embroidery, known as clocking, on display when wearing breeches. But below the ankle, his stocking feet were thick with mended areas, known as darns, made to repair holes in the fabric (fig. 1). Twenty pairs of Stephen Girard’s stockings are housed in Girard College’s collection and are rare survivals of extensively repaired early American textiles. If the wealthiest man in the Early Republic had his stockings mended, then one can only imagine the sheer scale of textile repair work in early America as both a domestic task and a professional occupation. But why is textile repair worthy of notice, and what can its visibility tell us about the lives of early Americans?
Fig. 1 – A pair of frame-knit silk stockings made in France and owned by Stephen Girard in the early nineteenth century show extensive darning in the feet. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.
Mending is having a moment. The New York Times informed me and the rest of its readership in an article last March, as stay-at-home orders began to go into effect throughout the U.S., that “now is when we all learn to darn our socks again.”1 The article featured an in-depth look at the visible mending movement, a craft practice-turned-social commentary on fast fashion and twenty-first-century throwaway clothing culture that mends damaged clothing in bright thread colors and distinctive sewing techniques (fig.2). I don’t think that article could have predicted how accurate its title would soon become; for many, extended time at home due to the pandemic would generate a mass return to textile mending and a renewed sense of relationship with clothing through the act of repair. Mending is certainly experiencing a resurgence, but only time will tell if its popularity continues once COVID-19 dictates less of our daily routines.
Fig. 2 – Visibly-mended cashmere socks by Flora Collingwood-Norris, knitwear designer and visible mender. Her work can be found at @visible_creative_mending on Instagram or her website https://www.collingwoodnorrisdesign.com/visible-mending. Courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris.
While eye-catching color and embroidery in visible mending wants viewers to notice repair work, in early America those executing textile repair work—the overwhelming majority of whom were women—were much more concerned with their mends escaping notice. With needles and thread, damaged textiles could be repaired to extend the life of garments without drawing any additional attention. Threads could be selected to match fabric colors, and even woven or knit patterns could be mimicked. Function was also important; mended textiles would need to sustain additional wear, as necessity often justified the time and labor spent repairing garments. But need was not the only motivating factor for mending. Like many of us today, repair in early America could also be motivated by sentimentality, as objects that are meaningful then, as now, felt worth the additional care and attention of repair work.
Girard’s stockings attract special notice because they were repaired multiple times with different techniques, all designed to extend their period of wear for as long as possible. The most common form of mending, executed in white cotton thread, mimics woven fabric structure to mend a hole. Swiss darning, executed in the tan silk thread, mimics knit fabric structure and could be used to mend a hole or strengthen weak areas of knit fabric. Girard’s stockings also sport “run heels,” a technique that layers thread onto stocking heels which were likely to wear through first, for additional strength and padding (fig. 3-4).
Fig. 3 – A close-up image of the mended areas of Girard’s stocking. White darning thread mimics woven fabric structure, while the light grey Swiss darns mimic the original knit structure of the fabric and are meant to escape notice. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.
Fig. 4 – The reverse of Girard’s stocking heel, which reveals the complex rows of couched thread that make a “run heel.” This technique provides additional cushion and padding to delay the emergence of holes in the fabric. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.
Each of these techniques were part of many early American women’s plain sewing education, although the skill and frequency in which they were executed depended on each particular woman’s socio-economic status and individual talent for needlework. A homework sampler housed in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia offers multiple examples of repair techniques, including a basic darn and a run heel technique (fig. 5). Made by Emily Bell in 1830 while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, this sampler offers an example of more common needlework. A 1790-1830 sampler by Anna Hofmann, part of the Winterthur Museum’s collection, showcases more elaborate darning techniques, including mending that mimics multi-colored woven patterns in fabric and mends that recreate knit stitches (fig. 6). In lieu of written sources, these early American women are documented by the needlework of textile repair.
Fig. 5 – Eleven samplers, mounted on board in the form of a book, made by Emily Bell while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 1830. Courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia. https://www.librarycompany.org/
Fig. 6 – Darning sampler, Anna Hofmann, possibly England or North America, 1790-1830, Plain-woven linen and cotton thread, 1964.1702, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.
Within museum collections, early American textile repair work is difficult to spot, assuming that mended textiles even make it into museums in the first place. Collecting, whether on a personal or institutional level, has often privileged objects that seem perfect, authentic, and without flaws. Some museum objects may have damage, often due to age and prior storage conditions, but it is much rarer to find damaged objects that were also repaired in the same time period in which they were made and used.
Several reasons, some practical and others less so, explain this absence. Repairs can be difficult to date. Antique dealers or other collectors in possession of objects before they arrive in museums may try to repair broken objects before their purchase and acquisition, and while some collections with regular access to conservators receive professional repair, objects that have received conservation work before entering a collection might make it difficult for museums to determine when a repair was made. Repairs can also escape notice in object records within collection databases, whether due to the assumption that information about an object’s repair is less important than an object’s creation or use or because textile mending is still, many years later, performing its original function and staying hidden. But early American repaired textiles do exist in collections despite this host of reasons, and closer analysis can access diverse histories of labor, sentimentality, and economic necessity. The first step, however, is finding them.
Repairing our fashion industry, our rates of consumption, and our relationships with the objects that surround us requires both modern-day commitment and historical context. My dissertation research is interested in the latter, and I am seeking early American repaired textiles (broadly defined and geographically conceived) as well as other objects in collections that tell the history of mending through material evidence and additional documentation. Darned socks are just the beginning.
Do you know of any repaired early American textiles in a museum or private collection? Let the author know!
I began my internship at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) in January 2021. My work at the Commission consists of a number of roles, responsibilities, and tasks; I am an Intake Specialist in the Employment Division. The tasks I am undertaking cover a number of different areas. First, I conduct intakeinterviews over the phone with people who wish to file a discrimination claim. This entails asking the right questions while remaining neutral and drafting the complaint. After several additional steps (i.e. sending the complaint to the Attorney Advisor, requesting signatures, etc.), I enter the complaint into the Case Management System. Second, I read case documents (i.e. a Complaint, Position Statement, Rebuttal, and Evidence) and outline the case in order to investigate and analyze it — to determine whether or not a PFC or “prima facie case” has been established and if there is probable cause for discrimination. I also help the assigned investigator determine what else is needed to move forward, which is known as an RFI or “request for information.” Lastly, I read mail-in complaints which include the same documents aforementioned. I outline each one with a checklist of pertinent information and enter the complaint into the Case Management System.
The intake interviews I conduct over the phone are informed by my training in Public History for a number of reasons. I am working with the public and engaging with the individual stories of people across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, essentially recording a piece of their history and preserving it. This aspect of my internship work lends itself to an oral history framework due to the interview process of the intake as well as the documentation. Although I am not recording the Complainant’s story with a device, I am writing it down and filing it. The complaint of discrimination serves as the individual’s oral history.
I acquired these oral history skills in Introduction to Public History, a course I took during the Fall 2018 semester with Dr. David Glassberg. We covered a wide range of Public History topics, theories, and practices, dedicating a week to the subject of oral history. One of the requirements for the course was to lead two discussions, and I signed up to lead the week covering oral history because it has always been a topic that interests me. In order to prepare for the discussion, I read the section of Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World that examines the practice of oral history, and we discussed the reading as a class. We engaged in a dialogue about the uses of oral history as well as its implications, methods, and procedures. These readings and conversations provided the necessary foundation for my field service project.
I selected an oral history based topic for my field service project, which served as the main component for Introduction to Public History. This project, titled “UMass Black Pioneers”, focuses on the stories of African American students who attended UMass Amherst during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. My two colleagues and I were each assigned one Black Pioneer to interview, and I was tasked with recording the story of Dr. Leslie McLemore. With the help of Dr. Glassberg, my colleagues and I created a list of interview questions and sent each interviewee an oral history release form, which provided their consent to be interviewed as well as archive their story. I interviewed Dr. McLemore at the UMass Digital Media Lab to ensure I had the proper technology to conduct and record the interview. At the end of the 60-minute interview, I downloaded both the audio and visual recording. The final step was the transcription process, which took me approximately 12 hours to complete. I utilize all of these skills to conduct the intake interviews for my internship with the Commission.