Women's Handicraft in the 19th Century

About this collection

    This digital collection contains a selection of items from the Hagley Library documenting 19th century American women's participation in household handicrafts. It was commonly expected that these women would take up such crafts as part of their domestic duties, particularly needlework, a skill set most of them would begin training in as young girls.
    Some contemporary feminist critics considered this work to be a frivolous use of women's time and a waste of their intellectual capacity. In Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the author argued that needlework limited the potential of young girls by stifling their minds and instilling an obsession with ornament over matters of import.
    For other women, however, such work provided rare opportunities. Household handiwork could offer outlets for artistic self-expression, a chance to socialize outside the home, and a way to commemorate valued emotional bonds. Viewers of the patterns created by the women of the Du Pont family will note a number of designs devoted to family names and monograms.
    Women's handiwork also offered economic opportunity through the creation of personal property with real monetary value. Additionally, it opened spaces for entrepreneurial women. Many of the items shown here bear the names of women who leveraged gendered expectations about household handicrafts into occupations as pattern designers, authors, and shop owners.
    Image: Briggs & Co., Briggs & Co.'s Patent Transferring Papers, Patented for the United States of America. New York: Briggs & Company, ca. 1880. Click to view.

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