The Unfinished Stocking in Space

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s The Age of Homespun launches straight into its explanation to examine under-discovered groups in nineteenth-century American history through objects by stating on page 25, “…objects…can help us do that by calling attention to the unseen technologies, interconnections, and contradictions that lie beneath audible events.” Focusing on Ulrich’s last chapter on the unfinished stocking, I read about this object as a representation of Ulrich’s larger theme regarding women—that a woman is “reproductive and productive, fitting to her sphere yet visible beyond it,” (35).  Jane Przybysz recognized this pressure on females in “Quilts, Old Kitchens, and the Social Geography of Gender at Nineteenth Century Sanitary Fairs,” too, stating on page 417, “Survival as a real woman entailed both academic and domestic training, both marriage and motherhood being understood as the destiny of most women.”   Przybysz goes on to discuss this at length through an examination of the Brooklyn Aid Society’s play regarding the female role in the home, specifically in the kitchen.  After examining the many topics of conversation a woman would discuss at a quilting party depicted by Harriet Beecher Stowe, she states, “Stowe imagines women not only relishing the company of other women but positioning themselves at the center of the social, intellectual, and political life of their communities,” (422).

This is sort of what Ulrich sets as the stage for the unfinished stocking, for while she states on page 375, the stocking “represents continuity in women’s work in New England,” it specifically permits the journey from home to mill, ventures in sericulture (silk), business based in the home and out of it with the assistance of children or without—with machines or against them, through community ties or unified strikes.  The duality between female power and plight in New England is depicted in all ‘knitting’ situations.  What also seems to be clear is that the use of manufacturing was supposed to shed a light of hope for women, and while it did permit some mobility of the “DAUGHTERS OF REPUBLICAN AMERICA,” it did not liberate women from their feminized role.

How fascinating and disturbing it was to read Robert Weyeneth’s “The Archictecture of Racial Segregation.”  It blows my mind to think that prejudice and racism so intrinsically infected the brains of white Americans—so much so that blueprints determined the amount of “white beds” in a hospital wing.

Weyeneth’s explanation of shopping rules in many Southern towns and the effect these distinctions had on the African American shopping experience was revealing of social experience in public space.  His argument that many African Americans chose to avoid this exasperating experience with prepping at home hints that segregation actually made public space more vacant.  What is there to this in regard to the structure of African American households during the Jim Crow era?  Do material culture studies of African American homes during Jim Crow demonstrate a celebration of and power in home life as opposed to public life?

Dell Upton was certainly considering the social experience of space in “White and Black Landscapes.”  Upton argues on page 362 that plantations were not dwelling places or working farms in a vacuum, but rather that “the plantation was a village.”  To Upton, understanding the plantation in terms of social space and what an onlooker would find makes all the difference.  How would this change our examination of space during the Jim Crow Era?

This reminded me that I liked the suggestion by Levi during last week’s class discussion that the Drexel Historic Costume Collection exhibit has potential to explore space.  Each object has a strong relevance and statement about social power within particular spaces of Philadelphia.  How can I think about social space in this way regarding the dolman?  I think my highest point of interest regarding that relationship is at the Academy of Music.  For starters, I need to think about Miss Hassler and her place there the evening of the opera and in Philadelphia in general as a woman (keeping Ulrich’s approach to object discovery in mind here).  I think I also need to understand the space of the Academy.  Who sat where and why?  What does it look like?  From where did she enter?  Did all people enter there?  I could ask these questions almost relentlessly… so I reserved a space on a tour of the Academy in late October.

Resources

Przybysz, Jane. “Quilts, Old Kitchens, and the Social Geography of Gender,” in K. Martinez and K. Ames, eds., The Material Culture of Gender, The Gender of Material Culture (Winterthur, Delaware: The Winterthur Museum, 1997).

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun. (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2002).

Upton, Dell. “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” in Robert Blair St. George, ed., Material Life in America, 1600-1860 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988).

Weyeneth,Robert. “The Architecture of Racial Segregation: The Challenges of Preserving the Problematical Past,” The Public Historian 27 (Fall 2005): 11-44.

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