The Tale of the Spinning Wheel
Inconsistent hyphenation and spelling in the original document have been preserved. Obvious typographical errors have been corrected.
ELIZABETH CYNTHIA BARNEY BUEL
Regent “Mary Floyd Tallmadge Chapter,” Daughtersof the American Revolution
EMILY NOYES VANDERPOEL
AUTHOR OF “COLOR PROBLEMS” AND “CHRONICLES OF A PIONEER SCHOOL”
Copyright, 1903, by
Elizabeth Cynthia Barney Buel
UNIVERSITY PRESS · JOHN WILSON
AND SON · CAMBRIDGE, U. S. A.
IN GRATEFUL AFFECTION
THE MARY FLOYD TALLMADGE CHAPTER
DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN
WHOSE READY SYMPATHY AND ENTHUSIASM
HAVE NEVER FAILED IN WORK FOR
“HOME AND COUNTRY”
The Tale of the Spinning-Wheel isrevised and enlarged from a paperread before the Litchfield HistoricalSociety, Litchfield, Connecticut; New EnglandSociety in the City of New York,Waldorf-Astoria, New York City; MaryFloyd Tallmadge Chapter, D. A. R., Litchfield;Judea Chapter, D. A. R., Washington,Connecticut; Massachusetts Society of theColonial Dames of America, Boston; KatherineGaylord Chapter, D. A. R., Bristol,Connecticut; Connecticut Society of theColonial Dames of America, New Haven,and also in Hartford; Denver Chapter,D. A. R., Denver, Colorado; Warren andPrescott Chapter, D. A. R., Boston, Massachusetts;viiiOrford Parish Chapter, D. A. R.,South Manchester, Connecticut; NationalArts Club, New York; Esther StanleyChapter, D. A. R., New Britain, Connecticut;Annual Spring Conference, ConnecticutD. A. R., at Middletown; DorothyRipley Chapter, D. A. R., Southport, Connecticut; Wiltwyck Chapter, D. A. R.,Kingston, New York; Litchfield Club,Litchfield, Connecticut, etc., etc.
THE TALE OF
“Queens of Homespun, out of whom we drawour royal lineage.”—Horace Bushnell.3
THE TALE OF
The spinning-wheel—symbol of the dignityof woman’s labor.—What wealthof memory gathers around the homely implement,homely indeed in the good oldsense of the word—because belonging tothe home. Home-made and home-spun arehonorable epithets, replete with significance,for in them we find the epitome of the livesand labors of our foremothers. The ploughand the axe are not more symbolic of thewinning of this country from the wilderness,nor the musket of the winning of itsfreedom, than is the spinning-wheel in woman’shands the symbol of both. So symbolicis it also of woman’s toil, of woman’sdistinctive and universal occupation, nay,of woman herself, that the “distaff sideof the house” has always been expressive ofthe woman’s family, and “spinster” is stillthe legal title of unmarried women in thecommon law of England. Most ancient ofall household implements, it has been used4in one form or another by queen, princess,and serving-maid, by farmer’s wife andnoble’s daughter, until it stands to-day asilent witness to the fundamental democracyof mankind.
“When Adam delved and Eve span,
Where was then the gentleman?”
The mutual dependence of spinning andagriculture, of woman’s work and man’s, isalso strikingly illustrated by a carving on anold sarcophagus in the Church of St. JohnLateran in Rome, depicting the EternalFather giving to Adam an instrument oftillage, and to Eve a distaff and spindle.Thus, coeval with man’s first appearance onthis earth, no written page of history, nomusty parchment or sculptured stone, is soold that we cannot find upon it some tracesof the spindle and distaff with their tale ofjoys and sorrows spun into the thread by thefingers of patient women whose hearts beatas our own to-day, in tune with the commonthrob of humanity. Though we may strainour eyes into the darkness of prehistoricages, when primeval woman used the tree-trunk5of the forest for a distaff, we willstill find there some evidence of the use offlax and hemp for threads and ropes. Evenin the lake-dwellings of Switzerland, belongingto the Stone Age, we see their usein various ways—in the fishing lines andnets, in the cords for carrying heavy vessels,and in the ropes necessary to theerection of these very lake-dwellings themselves.“Rough or unworked flax,” saysKeller, “is found in the lake-dwellingsmade into bundles, or what are technicallycalled heads, and ... it was perfectly cleanand ready for use.”
Stepping across the threshold of history,we learn that sixty-five centuries ago therelived in Egypt a king of the recently discoveredfirst dynasty, who, as his name,Merneit-Ata, signifies, put his trust in thegoddess Neith, the all-sustaining mother of6the universe; and in his tomb to-day hasbeen found a large upright slab, five feethigh, whereon are carved the emblems ofthis goddess—two arrows crossed on anupright distaff. Here, in the dim morningof history, we find the distaff already honoredas the sacred symbol of this feminine divinity,in whose eternal motherhood the Egyptiansvaguely recognized that mysteriousPower from which all things proceed. Thiswas no prehistoric age of barbarism, for inthe University Museum in London are nowto be seen the relics of this long lost firstdynasty, unearthed at Abydos within the lastfour years by Dr. Flinders Petrie—relicsof a civilization already far advanced. Westand face to face with their weapons of warand of the chase, their household implements,their exquisitely carved ivories andgold jewelry and coin, their very clothing offine linen, the work of the spinsters of thosedays, and the brain reels with the thoughtthat even before them there were generationsupon generations of human beings living inorganized societies and practising the artsand engaged in the occupations of a high7order of civilized life. The whole courseof the first dynasty is now laid bare to us,and we find that its beginning in 4700 b.c.is modern history compared with the periodsof development that must have gone before,for there is proof positive that even beforethis dynasty, ten other kings reigned inEgypt, and other hands grew flax on thebanks of the Nile and spun and wove it intoEgypt’s far-famed linen. In ancient Egyptlinen occupied a most important place; itwas worn by all classes, alive or dead, andit was the only material that the priestlyorders were allowed to wear. We haveall seen the beautiful mummy linen foundwrapped around the mummies even of themost remote antiquity; and we know thatonly the best that Egypt could producewould be wound around the sacred bodiesof their dead. This mummy-linen was notspun on a wheel, but on a hand-distaff, calledsometimes a rock, such as the women ofIndia use to this day in spinning the finethread of India muslin, and such as wasalso used by the children of our Americancolonists while tending sheep and cattle in8the field. The spinning-wheel as we knowit is of much later date. It does not appearuntil the fifteenth century,—although thedate of the first wool-wheel is placed by oneauthority in the fourteenthcentury,—beforewhich time all spinningof wool, flax, and cottonwas done on theprimitive distaff tuckedunder the left arm inthe way so familiar tous in pictures of peasantgirls and Greekmaidens spinning as they walk. Woman’sfirst distaff was the trunk of a tree; herspindle a rude stick, on which she woundand twisted the yarn as her fingers laboriouslypulled and shaped it from the flaxwrapped around the trunk. From this distaffof nature it was but a step to the manufactureddistaff of history. This distaffwas a staff about three feet long; the lowerend was held between the left arm and theside; the upper end was wrapped withthe material to be spun. The thread was9passed through, and guided by, the fingersof the left hand, and was drawn and twistedby those of the right, and wound on thesuspended spindle, made so as to be revolvedlike a top, which completed the twist by itsown impetus and weight. The illustrationshows a distaff of the fifteenth century supportedby a rude stand, leaving the left armfree to hold the spindle. In this slow andsimple fashion the clothing of all the worldwas spun before the fifteenth century, andstill is spun to-day in many lands. Thespinning-wheel simply took the distaff asit was, and attached a wheel and treadle torevolve the spindle; andthe vast machines ofmodern industry merelyelaborate and multiplyinto many spindles thissimple device of previousages. The principle remainsabsolutely the same,so much so that we maysay that from tree-trunkto modern factorythe methods of preparing10and spinning flax have changed the least ofall the industries, the sculptures of ancientEgypt depicting processes which are easilyrecognizable as those practised to-day notonly in Egypt, but also by the modern Finn,Lapp, Norwegian, and Belgian flax-grower.The paintings in the grotto of El Kab showthe pulling, stocking, tying, and rippling offlax just as it is done in Egypt now; andour own colonists of a hundred years agofollowed precisely the same methods as theEgyptian, who preceded him in the world’shistory by sixty-five hundred years. Pliny’sdescription of Egyptian flax-culture andpreparation reads like an account of thelabors of our own foremothers; and thewalls of ancient tombs are covered withpictures of the old familiar process. Egyptianflax went to all parts of the world andoccupied a foremost place as an article ofcommerce, for linen was the staple fabric forclothing of all the ancient peoples. Piecesof linen are still found clinging to skeletonsin the tombs of the Chaldeans, and it wasthe national dress of the Babylonians andPersians. All who are familiar with the11Bible know the importance accorded to flaxand the flax-spinner among the Hebrews.Joseph did not need to go to Pharaoh to beclothed “in vestures of fine linen,” if thewomen of his time were as deft at spinningas those women of a later day who broughttheir offerings to the furnishing of the tabernaclein the wilderness. “All the womenthat were wise-hearted did spin with theirhands, and brought that which they hadspun, both of blue and of purple and of scarletand of fine linen. And all the womenwhose heart stirred them up in wisdom spungoat’s hair;” “wise-hearted,” because inthem “the Lord put wisdom and understandingto know how to work all mannerof work for the service of the sanctuary”—guidedin their handiwork by the spirit ofGod, which fills not only poet and prophet,but artist and artisan as well. What a humthere must have been in the Israelitish campas the women set hands to the spindle andtook up the distaff, and the sound of manyfeet went through the tents, as they walkedback and forth, pulling out the long threadsthat were to hang in beautiful fabrics of12embroidered woollen and linen cloth aroundabout the tabernacle! “Thou shalt makethe tabernacle with ten curtains of finetwined linen.... The length of one curtainshall be eight and twenty cubits, andthe breadth of one curtain four cubits; Andthou shalt make curtains of goats’ hair tobe a covering upon the tabernacle: elevencurtains shalt thou make. The length ofone curtain shall be thirty cubits, and thebreadth of one curtain four cubits.” Ahanging for the door was also made of“fine twined linen.” A cubit was aboutone and eight tenths of a foot: the amountof laborious spinning represented by thosecurtains will be better understood whenwe see later on the slowness of the process;and yet so much was sent in thatMoses was obliged to give commandment,saying, “Let neither man nor woman makeany more work for the offering of thesanctuary.” Thus the Hebrew sanctuaryof God, the sacred place of the ark, wasbuilt up, in this fifteenth century beforeChrist, on the foundations of woman’slabor.13
Let us turn for a moment to Greece.Once more we find woman’s handiworkholding an honorable place, for the patrongoddess of spinning, weaving, and needle-workis none other than Pallas Athene, thewarrior goddess of wisdom, founder andprotector of Athens, and herselfa spinner acknowledging no rivalamong gods or men. Who doesnot know how the full fury of hergodhead was let loose upon theluckless Arachne, that mortal womanwho dared challenge her