Published by EH.NET (May 2007)

Marla R. Miller, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006. xiv + 302 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 1-55849-545-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gloria L. Main, Department of History, University of Colorado, Boulder.

The title, The Needle’s Eye, may make some readers think of camels and rich men, but the book concerns women who worked as tailors and dressmakers in rural New England in the years before mass production. Labor historians have showered attention on urban craftsmen in early America, celebrating their autonomy and patriotism in the Revolutionary and Constitutional eras, but whose skills and independence were gradually eclipsed by factories and machines. The replacement of skilled artisans by unskilled wage workers has been a major declensionist theme in labor history, but that narrative is too simple and omits significant segments of the population. Artisans who farmed were one such group, female tailors and dressmakers made up another. These highly-skilled specialists served a surprisingly broad range of early American households. Their stories form the particular focus of The Needle’s Eye.

Female tailors? Yes. One of the major discoveries in historical research of the past dozen years is the permeability of borders separating the occupations of men and women. As early as the sixteenth century, European women began moving into trades that had traditionally been dominated by men; meanwhile, men moved into certain women’s crafts, such as brewing and dairying. Weaving was traditionally reserved for men in England, and that continued to be the case in the British colonies in North America, but women in New England began to take it up early in the eighteenth century. Teaching is another calling that started out dominated by men but in New England opened increasingly to women as towns were increasingly compelled to offer elementary schooling to all. This secular re-ordering of the division of labor between the sexes is particularly striking in the production of textiles and clothing. The mechanization of cotton spinning in late eighteenth-century England and early nineteenth-century New England not only sped up the supply of yarn to female weavers in the putting-out system but made cotton the most important domestically grown and manufactured fiber in the United States. It quickly vanquished linen and gradually relegated commercial woolen manufacture chiefly to flannels and carpets. Americans continued to buy higher-quality textiles from Britain and to copy British clothing fashions. Turning bolts of expensive cloth into individually-fitted gowns and suits for a status-conscious clientele was the task of tailors and gown/mantua makers and continued to be so for decades to come.

Marla Miller, associate professor of history and director of the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, uses the rich collections of diaries, letters, and account books in Connecticut Valley repositories to reconstruct a particular community of customers and clothing makers in Hadley, Massachusetts and environs. At the center of this economic and social network of neighbors stood Elizabeth Putnam Phelps, daughter of local gentry. It is through her diary and correspondence that we first meet Rebecca Dickenson, a single woman ten years her senior, who supported herself and her mother by making, fitting, and mending women’s clothes. Elizabeth’s sister-in-law, Catherine Phelps Parsons was a tailor and the daughter of a gown maker. A neighbor of Elizabeth’s, Easter Newton, was a tailoress who became an innkeeper after her husband died. (In this region, tailors could be either male or female. Both possessed more skills than a “tailoress.”) Easter’s daughter, Tryphena contributed to her parents’ income by taking in sewing for multiple households, including Elizabeth’s. Tabitha Smith was another gown maker in Elizabeth’s network. Carrying the story forward in time from Elizabeth’s circle, Miller describes how Polly L’Hommedieu Lathrop, a gown maker, switched from private custom work in 1800 to making seamen’s shirts in a putting-out system that rewarded speed over quality. Polly found she could earn more that way because the merchant’s agent took all she could make. Meanwhile, other young women artisans began setting up shops in Hartford and New Haven, competing with each other and with male rivals through advertisements placed in local newspapers.

Miller’s great accomplishment is to place these individual stories in the larger context of New England’s social and economic development. She is able to compare and contrast their experiences as artisans with those of their male cohorts and do so in ways which expand our understanding of both. The female apprentice to a tailor or gown maker, for instance, signed up in her mid-to-late teens for a year or eighteen months. In exchange for a fee and her service, she expected to acquire a specific set of skills, such as learning how to take useful bodily measurements, how to cut the pieces from the cloth without wasting any, and fitting those pieces to the body.

The Needle’s Eye has twin goals: to put skilled female craft workers into the story of American artisans in a changing economy; and secondly, to unravel the structures and hierarchies of working women and their customers. Although Miller’s primary focus is on gown-makers and tailors, for whom the period 1760-1830 was a kind of golden age of economic opportunity, she does not overlook the less-specialized, less-skilled, and lower-paid seamstresses, many of whom welcomed the chance for steady work offered by the putting-out system. The female economy, alas, was itself not free of class divisions and exploitation.

It is an axiom among reviewers that no book, no matter how good, can be perfect. Marla Miller’s The Needle’s Eye, however, comes remarkably close. She writes fluently and well, digesting a vast and varied literature to make sense of a rich set of sources. The result is an engaging prosopography of female needle-workers in the Connecticut Valley in an era of great innovation and change. The book is introduced by a masterful survey of the literature and concludes with a superb essay on the diverging paths of men’s and women’s clothing production. The expansion of textile production at first created opportunities for female entrepreneurs, but continuing technological development eventually closed them down again as the sewing machine, paper patterns, and Sears’ catalogs brought good cheap clothing within reach of all.

The Needle’s Eye is a major contribution to both labor history and women’s history. It neatly melds the two in its depiction of a group of women as self-employed, highly-skilled artisans coping with shifting tastes and technology in a rapidly changing world.

Gloria Main is recently retired from the Department of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is currently at work on a study of child labor in New England, 1750-1830.