Women's domestic skills were, and are, incredibly important for a functioning society. In the modern era, gender divisions of labor are often contested, yet it wasn't all that long ago that men and women had very distinct roles both in the home and in society. This month's blog posts cover just that - traditional gender skills of women.
Let's dissect these papers starting with the obvious: sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century, an unknown woman scribbled a knitting pattern on a blank insurance paper. At the top she wrote the tools needed: knitting needles (standard A J K quality), 9 inches, 18 size. She also (incorrectly) wrote the name of a Baltimore department store, Hochild & Kohn (the actual store is called Hochschild Kohn's, and it opened in 1897)
Placing women in the greater narrative is often difficult precisely because women were kept in the background, and often did business of many sorts under their husband's or father's name. We don't know who this woman was, but we can already surmise her understanding of the world around her. Perhaps she frequented Hochschild Kohn's herself. Did she see ads for the store in the newspaper? In Ladies Magazines? Whatever the answer, she knew their goods enough to make a specific note of their business.
Reading down the page we find information on what the pattern should make: a knitted bedspread. Knitting was a great way for women to show off their domestic skills. Not only is knitting a highly technical craft, but it takes time and effort to learn it. One must sit still and focus, and not make mistakes. Displaying completed projects prominently was an excellent way to make a subtle statement about the woman of the house. Bedspreads have historically played this role - either knitted, woven, or quilted, when displayed on a guest bed the message was clear.
Further down we see a breakdown of the stitches used: Knit, Purl, STS (number of stitches, for counting purposes). These are basic knitting stitches that the woman would have an intimate knowledge of.
The pattern then follows, and is displayed on the two images here.
It is unknown whether or not this is the entire pattern, although it is suspected not. Reading over the two pages, you get the sense that this was hastily written. Maybe she didn't have other paper to use. Maybe she was working quickly. Maybe she was taking a pattern from something already knit (which is a testament to her skill, indeed). Perhaps the pattern is unfinished, or it is simply of a motif meant to be repeated over and over again until the knitter reaches the desired length.
There are so many questions we could ask about this simple document, so many rabbit holes to go down, but suffice it to say this document is an excellent example of women's gender roles and their connection to the greater commercial world. She would need to buy needles and yarn, and she would need to know where to purchase them. If the bedspread is intended to impress, she must have visitors. Perhaps those visitors are coming in from out of town, or perhaps they are business connections. If she is buying supplies, she must have money (or her husband does). She had consumer power, and that power manifested itself in an old dusty document, buried somewhere in an archive.
Melanie is the current archivist for the Clarke County Historical Association, in Berryville, Virginia. She is a graduate from Shepherd University, where she earned a degree in History.