By Annette Hinkle
In Chaucer’s day, there was a saying — “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” But St. Jerome probably offered the first utterance of the phrase in the 4th century when he said (in Latin) — “Fac et aliquid operis, ut semper te diabolus inveniat occupatum” — which means, basically, “Act, at some work, so that the devil finds you occupied always.” It was also a philosophy embraced by many a religious order, including the celibate Shakers, who kept their own hands very busy by making fabulous furnishings.
The notion of idle hands and their potential to lead one astray is the basis of a new exhibition opening this weekend at the Southampton Historical Musuem. But this exhibit primarily focuses on the hands of the fairer sex in the 19th and early 20th century — and the objects on view are an array of handcrafts created by women in their “down time,” as well as tools of the trade they used to make them.
On view in “Not the Devil’s Workshop: Women’s Hand Work, 1800-1930” (which opens Saturday in the Rogers Mansion) are several examples of handmade lace (as well as a tatting machine used to make it), clothing, quilts, dolls, samplers and a collection of curiosities known as vanity mirrors (which are on loan from former antiques dealer Sheila Guidera).
Emma Ballou, the museum’s curator, explains that vanity mirrors became popular in the decades after the Civil War, and were mirrors upon which women would paint elaborate scenes — often right on the glass itself.
“It was based on the idea that when a lady was looking at herself in the mirror, she didn’t want to appear vain,” notes Ballou. “So by putting elaborate paintings on the mirror itself, she could say she was looking at the painting.”
“The paintings are amazing,” she adds. “Some are seasonal. They often were displayed in a diamond shape and divided into four seasons — the images would be of woodlands, flowers, trees and leaves in the different seasons.”
The high quality of the paintings speak to the importance skill and attention to detail played in the lives of 19th century women, whose primary societal value was seen in the children they bore and the household objects they created.
“Their only ways of expression were these handiworks,” says Ballou. “That’s what they put all their energy and heart into. It was the only way to set themselves apart. You look at fabric today and it’s not the same. The patterns, the craftsmanship was amazing.”
Then, there are those samplers — very personal pieces of embroidery that served as a testament to the needlework skills of young girls. Within their borders are stitched lines of the alphabet and numerals, as well as phrases, important dates and even illustrations. For this exhibit, the museum has several on loan from the collection of Gerri MacWhinnie, including this one which reads in part:
Live to Die
You whose fond wishes do to heaven aspire
Who make those bless abodes your soul desire
If you are wise and hope that bliss to gain
Use well your time live not an hour in vain
Let not the morrow your vain thoughts employ
But think this day the last you shall enjoy
Sarah Broomhead Finished This Work October 1815
“Their messages are powerful. Some are about mortality — how short life is, and a lot are about God and how we’re destined for a better place,” says Ballou. “They’re kind of sad and melancholy. Death was everywhere. I feel that’s often present in women’s work — the fear of death.”
Mortality certainly was a stark reality in the 19th century — particularly among infants and children. This may explain why, despite their ability to endure childbirth, there was a belief that women were fragile creatures who needed to be shielded from the stresses of life. Ballou explains that many handcrafts were created by women during times of stillness and isolation — such as when they were on their menstrual cycles.
“That was the mentality of that time. They believed women were weaker and needed to be occupied,” she says. “They couldn’t do anything to hurt their reproductive system. When they were confined, keeping their hands busy would keep them pure, pious and in touch with God and they would not go to that darker place.”
Having just emerged from our own epic snowstorm that sequestered many of us at home for several days last weekend, one can imagine how easy it would be to “slip into that darker place.” Even after their daily chores were done, women in the 19th century had more time on their hands to fill than we do today — and were expected to maintain a certain ambiance in the home.
“It’s very interesting how women were portrayed by society and expected to create this soothing, calm environment for their husbands to come home to,” says Ballou. “When men came home, things were supposed to be muted, and soft. Everything was so lavish, there was tons of fabric everywhere and on all those long winter nights, women were sitting and working by the fire.”
“It’s really interesting to see what these women could create given the time they had,” says Ballou. “Even women who were not wealthy had a lot of time on their hands.”
But while researching this exhibit, as the handcrafts inched into the 20th century Ballou found the intricacy and attention to detail slipping somewhat. She attributes this to the onset of the Industrial Revolution which resulted in an increase in the availability of manufactured goods and less idle time (something the devil would certainly disapprove of).
In many ways, the Industrial Revolution may have spelled the beginning of the end of the importance of women’s work, as there came on its heels a redefinition of feminine roles in the 20th century: the advent of modern conveniences, more educational opportunities, even women’s suffrage would soon change the social landscape forever.
Yet today, those well-crafted reminders of how women once defined their simple place in society endure and offer an intimate look into women’s lives in the 19th century.
“A lot of things made back then were intricate — and those things were kept,” says Ballou. “I feel it was extremely important and valued work in the women’s realm. It said who you are and where your place was in society.”
“Not the Devil’s Workshop: Women’s Hand Work, 1800-1930” opens Saturday, February 16, 2013 from 2 to 4 p.m. and remains on view through April 27 at the Southampton Historical Museum’s Rogers Mansion (17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton). Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. The exhibit was created to commemorate National Women’s History Month in March. Call 283-2494 for information.