Tag Archives: colonial history

Currently Reading – Portrait of a Woman in Silk

I think I’ve mentioned here that my first history obsession was with the American colonial period.  Since my college days I’ve gone on to other interests, but I’ve recently rediscovered  early American history after reading a biography of Abigail Adams, and then I discovered my latest podcast love, Ben Franklin’s World. It was through Ben Franklin’s World that I found the book that is today’s topic.  The author, Zara Anishanslin, was the featured guest on the podcast, and she made her book sound so interesting that I had to read it.

And I’m so glad that I did.  I love biographies, and you might say the book is a biography of the portrait, which weaves together the stories of four people who had a hand in the creation of it – the woman who designed the pattern of the silk, the man who wove the silk, the woman who wore the dress, and the man who painted the portrait.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of “material culture” (otherwise known as stuff) and what we can learn from from objects from the past.  And while I usually explore the not so distant past, it was so interesting to see a historian travel back 250 years to see what evidence can be found in portraits, bits of silk, drawings, not to mention the usual historical sources of written records.  The challenge of this study was that there were few written records.  None of the four people involved left written accounts of their lives. Other written evidence was sketchy, such as mentions in guild records or other people’s letters.

So Anishanslan turned to what was plentiful – the objects themselves, especially the portrait and others painted by the artist, Robert Feke.  It’s helpful to know how to “read” a portrait, and Anishanslin provides plenty of instruction in the symbolism and clues found in a colonial portrait.  I had no idea you could learn so much about a person just by the careful examination of her portrait.

The woman in the portrait is Anne Shippen Willing, and it now hangs at Winterthur in Delaware.  It was Anishanslin’s recall of the portrait as she was examining designs for Spitalfields silk fabrics housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum that led to her research.  Seeing the similarities between the dress in the portrait and the designs in the museum, she was then able to find the original drawing for that particular piece of silk, which was drawn by Anna Maria Garthwaite.  From there she discovered that the weaver of the cloth was Spitalfields weaver Simon Julins.

One important person that could have added to this story that was not uncovered by Anishanlin was the dressmaker who constructed the dress.  It’s a shame that her (the dressmaker’s) work was not somehow recorded.  But then, she was just a seamstress, out of a multitude of sewers working in a city like Philadelphia, where Willing lived.  If only Willing had kept a diary!

It’s rather amazing that one portrait could inspire an entire book, but Anishanlin left no stone unturned in her pursuit of her subjects. The book is full of tangents and detours, and it is all the richer for them.  This book is not just about the portrait, or the fabric, or the people directly involved in the creation of the two.  There’s a rich study of the importance of botany in the eighteenth century, a close look at New England trade and the merchants who got rich off from trans-Atlantic trade, and the role of slavery in both Philadelphia and New England.

Portrait of a Woman in Silk

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Currently Reading – The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Today’s book review features a book that, quite honestly, will not be to everyone’s taste.  In fact I almost did not buy it after spotting it at an estate sale months ago.  I wasn’t sure it would fit in with my current interests, and I already had a huge stack of books waiting to be read.  It was written by a Harvard professor and had hundreds of footnotes, and my fear was it would be a bit too academic (meaning dry…)

But the subject matter drew me in.  A quick look through The Age of Homespun revealed that this was a book about colonial textiles and the stories behind the objects.  I’d not done any real reading of American colonial history since my college days, but it was my first historical love and my university degree.  So I thought this book might be a nice change of pace.

Ulrich examines twelve homemade objects, all from New England and all having to do with textiles.   There is a chapter for each object and the stories the objects reveal.  Each one was so engrossing that I have only read a chapter a day to give myself time to properly digest all the information.

What could have been a dry examination of physical objects was instead a carefully woven account of how objects reflect the history of the time of their manufacture, how people related to these objects, and how these stories can be revealed to us today.  Ulrich used many sources to gather the information for the book, but what really struck me was just how much information still exists from hundreds of years ago.  Those New Englanders were real record keepers.

I was also impressed at how many diaries from the period were kept and handed down through generations of a family.  I don’t even have my own teenage diary, so to see that many diaries were kept and treasured is interesting.  Even better, Ulrich actually had access to diaries from some of the families who made the objects she featured in the book.  The diaries along with family histories and public records helped to paint a vivid picture of these people’s lives through the objects that survive.

Quite a bit of the book is concerned with the production of cloth.  For many families, producing yarn and fabric was a way to obtain other necessities and small luxuries.  The system of trade was complicated, but it worked for a society in which money was scarce.

To best enjoy and appreciate this book, one does need to have at least some knowledge of the history of New England.  A lot happened in that region between the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and the Shot Heard Round the World at Lexington in 1775.  Ulrich pulls from this extensive history in interpreting the objects.

I learned from 28 years of teaching history to pre-adolescents that the best way to study and learn it was not through the memorization of facts and dates.  The best history students were the ones who looked at the past and could draw conclusions about cause and effect and overlapping influences and see that historical events did not happen in isolation.  This book is a masterful example of that kind of history.

All this go me to thinking about weaving and how treasured a textile would be if one had to either grow or trade for the raw materials, then process the fiber into yarn, and then do the weaving in order just to have the cloth.

In the midst of all this textile pondering, I happened upon a little tabletop loom at an antique store.  I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to leave the store without the loom.  But I was not quite out of the woods.

Now this little flea market find was more my speed!  At least it didn’t take up six square feet of table space.

So yes, I am now trying my hand a some very simple weaving.  I figured that anything suitable for a ten-year-old couldn’t be too complicated.  And it makes a nifty bit of fabric.

Okay, it is a bit loose, but this is my first try.  Do you think all my family members should get handwoven belts for Christmas?

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