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Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Marta Cotterell Raffel, The Laces of Ipswich: The Art and Economics of an Early American Industry, 1750-1840. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003. xii + 156 pp. $24.95 (paperback), ISBN: 1-58465-163-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Marla R. Miller, Department of History, University of Massachusetts — Amherst.

From the 1750s to the 1840s, women throughout the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts were heavily engaged in creating and sustaining the only successful commercial production of handmade bobbin lace in the United States, an enterprise that thrived for almost a century before the advent of machine-made lace undermined their efforts. The New England lace makers described in Marta Cotterel Raffel’s The Laces of Ipswich: The Art and Economics of an Early American Industry, 1750-1840 certainly have not garnered sufficient attention among historians of early American labor, craft and women. Raffel, an independent scholar and lace-maker herself, seeks to remedy this oversight by providing the first-ever study of this important chapter in the braided histories of women and work, craft production, and industrialization.

In the eighteenth century, most North American consumers purchased French, Flemish, Brussels or English lace imported by local merchants. A constellation of factors, however, combined to create a thriving network of lace makers in Ipswich, as environmental, economic and political change conspired to reconfigure the local economy. Though once a port town rivaling Salem, in the 1740s shifting sands gradually reduced the opening of the Ipswich River, closing the harbor to larger ships; at the same time, a general mid-century economic depression was exacerbated by events associated with the mounting imperial crisis. Lace-making, Raffel argues, enabled Ipswich women to cushion these blows. By 1776, she asserts, enough women were engaged in the craft that, “unlike other areas, the residents were poised to meet the demand for domestic lace” brought about by the Revolution and its aftermath (p. 20). By the turn of the nineteenth century, some 600 women — more than 1 in 4 of the adult female population — across as many households were engaged in lace production, creating a uniquely identifiable domestic alternative to imported lace, and a major commercial enterprise for Ipswich families.

The subtitle aside, this is really a book about art; economics is discussed in only the most general sense, in ways that specialists will find largely unsatisfying. But as a study of the art and craft of lace-making, this slim volume is effective and informative. In many ways a model of material culture study, Raffel’s well-illustrated book demonstrates clearly the value of cultivating an intimate understanding of the processes and tools associated with early American crafts. As a lace-maker, she is able to extract extraordinary insight from the surviving bobbins, pillows (the platform on which the lace is created), and parchments (the paper patterns), from portraits showing lace on garments, and of course from extant examples of the lace itself. Close study of the bobbins and kits, for example, suggests that these tools were supplied by a single source, hinting at the presence of commission merchants. Patterns of pricking in surviving parchments can reveal whether the lace produced from them was intended for personal or commercial use. Careful examination of a lace-trimmed cape revealed that the garment’s maker was not necessarily familiar with the lace itself, since the embellishment was applied with the wrong side facing out, giving a fascinating little glimpse into the limits of one consumer’s fashion knowledge. Insights like these throughout the book provide readers with an intimate view of the lace-maker’s craft from the perspective of a practitioner.

Unfortunately, Raffel’s core question — how it came to be that, in a town of some 4500 residents, more than a quarter of the women embraced lace-making for commercial markets, producing collectively more than 40,000 yards per year — remains unanswered. Though certainly the convergence of several commercial crises would have given Ipswich women every reason to look for alternate sources of income, the same was of course true for women in communities across New England. How these Ipswich residents came to lace making, why it thrived as it did, and why nothing similar was attempted by neighboring communities, remains unexplained. Though the author posits, for example, that “most of the women who made lace in Ipswich had emigrated from the lace-making centers of England” (p. 52), no evidence is offered to support that assertion, while elsewhere in the volume, brief biographical sketches of known lace-makers include only women born in Ipswich. Moreover, close consideration of the lace itself reveals that most Ipswich lace was made in the European style (with the footside, or sewing edge, to the left of the lace) as opposed to the English style (with the footside to the right), suggesting perhaps that it was not English immigrants at all who proved influential, but rather unidentified artisans from the Continent (p. 70; on p. 68, the author also suggests that perhaps Ipswich lace reflects an “amalgamation” of the two influences). There is surely a fascinating story behind the emergence of lace-making in Ipswich, but important elements of that phenomenon are not yet understood.

Similarly, there is more complex and substantive analysis yet to be done on the gender and market relations that shaped this effort. For example, Raffel posits that the appearance of commission merchants (as evidence by the distribution of uniform bobbins and kits) corresponds with the entrance of men into what had been a primary female sphere of activity; however, later in the study she documents the efforts of lace merchant Mary Sutton, who centralized the collection of Ipswich lace for Boston and Portsmouth markets, and who seems (at least from the evidence presented) at least as likely a candidate for organizing the lace workforce and their tools as any yet-unknown male figure(s). In addition, women were “involved,” she asserts, in lace-making’s movement into factories, but how and to what extent is not described. Raffel does not attempt to ground her project in the sizeable scholarly literature of women, work, artisanry and industrialization, and so the study does not engage in any sustained way with the larger questions scholars in those fields have been wrangling with in recent years.

Though specialists in the history of clothing and textiles will find much of value here, professional historians with broader interests will find much to quibble with in this book. Still, Raffel has made a significant contribution to the study of women and work in early America simply by recovering, with great sensitivity and insight, the work of the lace-makers themselves. The story of this early and isolated foray into domestic lace production is fascinating, and this volume provides a real service in its informed analysis of the material remains of lace making as it emerged in coastal Massachusetts.

Marla R. Miller directs the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts –Amherst. Her research and writing explores women and work in the early Republic. Her book on women’s work in rural New England’s clothing trades, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution, is scheduled to appear in Spring 2005 from the University of Massachusetts Press.