Glimpses of Textiles in Old Novels, Part Two
Eben Holden, A Tale of the North Country is a coming-of-age story set in the Lake Champlain area in the 1800s. The story starts when the narrator, Willy, is 6 years old and recently orphaned. Rather than let him be turned over to a “dissolute uncle,” the loyal hired man, Eben Holden, takes off with him and heads west.
The first five chapters are filled with their adventures on the road as they evade robbers, panthers, and the authorities. Eventually they end up in a beautiful valley, and are taken in by the hard-working Brower family.
Here Willy writes his recollection of his foster mother, Elizabeth Brower:
I can see this slender, blue-eyed woman as I write. She is walking up and down beside her spinning-wheel. I can hear the dreary buz-z-z-z of the spindle as she feeds it with the fleecy ropes. That loud crescendo echoes in the still house of memory. I can hear her singing as she steps forward and slows the wheel and swings the cradle with her foot:
‘On the other side of Jordan,
In the sweet fields of Eden,
Where the tree of Life is blooming,
There is rest for you.’
She lays her hand to the spokes again and the roar of the spindle drowns her voice.
All day, from the breakfast hour to supper time, I have heard the dismal sound of the spinning as she walked the floor, content to sing of rest but never taking it.
from Eben Holden, a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 13
So, as in the post on The Wide, Wide World, the spinning wheel being described here is a great wheel. I will repeat the photo I used in that post.
The exact year of this scene is not given, but from later events in the book, I would estimate it is supposed to show about the year 1850. The author, Irving Bacheller, was born in 1859, but his character Willy is about 20 at the onset of the American Civil War in 1861, making Willy’s childhood memories earlier than Bacheller’s own.
Eben Holden was published in 1900, and was the fourth best selling novel that year, and the fifth in 1901. Bacheller wrote in the preface:
Early in the last century the hardy woodchoppers began to come west, out of Vermont. They founded their homes in the Adirondack wildernesses and cleared their rough acres with the axe and the charcoal pit. After years of toil in a rigorous climate they left their sons little besides a stumpy farm and a coon-skin overcoat. Far from the centers of life their amusements, their humours, their religion, their folk lore, their views of things had in them the flavour of the timber lands, the simplicity of childhood. Every son was nurtured in the love of honour and of industry, and the hope of being president….
The characters were mostly men and women I have known and who left with me a love of my kind that even a wide experience with knavery and misfortune has never dissipated.
So his image of Elizabeth Brower spinning fits right in with his purpose in celebrating the pioneer spirit. “Fleecy ropes” gives the impression she was spinning wool. I think it is important to note, however, that alongside hand-spinning by any such sturdy and self-sufficient pioneers, industry was taking off. Already by 1820, New York State was producing 1.4 million pounds of cotton on 33,000 mechanized spindles; and by 1850 there were over 1000 cotton mills in the US, processing almost 3 million pounds of cotton annually.* Here is an excellent summary of the changes in the US textile industry during the 1800s.
Getting back to the book itself, my favorite parts were those that explained how things were done, for example, finding one’s way by capturing bees and then releasing them to watch their flight path, and surviving a blizzard when caught out with a horse and buggy. But most of the book is just Uncle Eben relating colorful tales about fish, skunks, and practical jokes. And his speeches are written in dialect that gets old quick. Here’s one example:
‘Young man, the boy thet’s ‘fraid o’women’ll never hev whiskers… Be scairt t’ death, fore they’ve had time t’start.’
As with The Wide, Wide World, I skimmed a lot.
There is not much else textile-related in the book, but I do love this image:
From the top of a high hill we could see above the far forest, the red rim of the setting sun, big with winding from the skein of the day, that was now flying off the tree-tops in the west.
from Chapter 16
*This information comes from the US Census, and it is reported in a wonderful book, A Centennial History of Fall River, Mass: Comprising a Record of Corporate Progress from 1656 to 1876, by Henry A. Earl.
Lovely description of spinning. Thanks again for an interesting read.
And thank you for commenting! It is always nice to have you drop by.
Hmmm . . . how come you know about this book and I don’t?! I’ll go take a look soon, now that you’ve introduced me–I’d probably like it simply because I’d recognize the places they talk about. That last quote you included is especially evocative–I need to think more about the “skein of the day.”
I don’t know if he is specific about locations, other than saying “Look, there’s Lake Champlain.” But there might be local stories and sayings that made it into the book.
And I know about this book from my hero, Mrs. Herbert B. Linscott and her book Bright Ideas for Entertaining. She gives a lot of literary quizzes in there so I decided to read some of the books she is always referring to. After I read and report on more of them, one of those quizzes may appear here!
Dialect is the downfall of many a work of fiction. Think “Huckleberry Finn.”
Yay! I never liked Huckleberry Finn either — good to find out I’m not alone in that!
Yes, I did love the descriptions in that book. They were evocative and not too lengthy. I could have done with a lot less of the folksy stories though! 🙂
I was lucky enough to own a great wheel for a while and never came to terms with it, even using it for a hobby. Also known as the walking wheel, they are just hard work! Poor poor souls, driven to spend their days working at the walking wheel.
I used one as part of my job when I worked in a historical park. Of course we never had to achieve very good yarn, so maybe that accounts for my opinion, but I loved it! I can spin a little on a flax wheel but I feel more comfortable with a walking wheel. Maybe it depends on which one you learn first?
That’s fascinating – you may well be right that it depends what on you learn first 🙂
Thanks for the link for fabric production stats. I do love that kind of thing. 🙂
I love that stuff too. I could happily sit and read it and then do a Reader’s Digest-type condensed version, to keep all those statistics circulating. If librarians everywhere knew how happy they make me by scanning that stuff and making it available online, they would feel their efforts had been deeply appreciated. 🙂
haha, surprised I didn’t write a comment……….you sent me down some rabbit holes. One of my uncle’s ancestors on the census, Cohoes, NY, he was listed as a weaver in a cotton mill.
Interesting stuff! Thank you.
Well you have sent me down plenty of rabbit holes yourself, so I am happy to return the favor! 🙂 I have no ancestors whatever that were weavers, I don’t know where my interest comes from. I do love researching about those mills as well as about handweaving though!
Always wanted to own one of those wheels and know how to use it; unfortunately I was introduced to the sewing machine “wheel” and that took my breath away. Interesting information on the mills.