Overlooked History-makers

’s off to our pioneering foremothers featured in this issue. Most remain unnamed though not unknown—lauded for their skills at preserving themselves, their families, and even their communities.

And, let us remind our modern selves, they lacked our vast access to knowledge and technology. We also owe a debt to the leaders who encouraged and supported these women, and to the scholars and writers who continue to mine and share their stories.

Take the women of Ipswich, Massachusetts. In the second half of the 18th Century, as their families and community faced economic hardship from the closing of their once-international port and the blockades that stopped the flow of overseas goods, they picked up sewing needles and bobbins to stitch/weave the linen and silk lace that fashion demanded but wealthy Americans could no longer import from Europe.

In the process, the Ipswich lace makers created our first viable domestic manufacturing enterprise. Still, had not the Reverend Joseph Dana calculated their contribution to America’s budding industrialization by sending a year-long report and pages of lace samples to U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1790, their efforts might have been overlooked.

A few decades later, the young, vivacious, and intrepid Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt decided to accompany her husband, ship builder Nicholas Roosevelt, on a steamboat journey down the Ohio River to the Mississippi en route to New Orleans, the name he gave his ship. Lydia made not one but two trips—pregnant both times—and the stories she told their son John Latrobe became the basis of the journeys’ accounts.

Consider that women accomplished these feats clad in layers of heavy clothing and likely uncomfortable shoes, with scant knowledge of or protection against the unknown. And those bred to society, like Lydia Roosevelt, would have done so with painted faces and perfectly coiffed hair!

Whatever American women knew of fashion, make-up, and hairstyles came through Britain and France. Rebecca Rupp examines the elaborate—and expensive—rituals women (and some men) endured to be stylish. Granted that wealthy husbands likely paid the mantua and wig makers and purchased the gilt toilette sets to accomplish this mission, but certainly the wives offered their input.

In a similar manner, socially accomplished wives would have encouraged their aristocratic spouses to purchase fine hard-paste porcelain from China to grace their homes, like the Nanking service on Anna Williams’ dining table in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Surely Catharine van Rensselaer Schuyler, Martha Custis Washington, and Elizabeth Heyward Manigault had some say in the choice of patterns for the garniture on the mantel or the punch bowl on the sideboard ordered by their famous husbands.

Ware Petznick discusses the popularity of Chinese porcelain made for the American market in the 18th and 19th Centuries, with a vocabulary of patterns and tips for collectors.

On a more practical level, our foremothers would have tended a kitchen garden, perhaps taking a chance on an ancient Chinese herbal called rhubarb, learning that its red and green stalks produced a delicious pie to accompany the punch in their Canton or Famille Rose punch bowl.

So when you’re considering an unfamiliar topic in our history, do as Abigail Adams admonished husband John and “Remember the ladies!” They had a lot to contribute.

Jeanmarie Andrews

Executive Editor

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