Best of the Blogs: Museums of Minnesota

It can often be challenging to identify and access archival collections and artifacts related to rural women and men.  All too often, materials related to rural people have been lost because later generations failed to recognize their value.  Yet many valuable collections remain undiscovered by researchers because they are held by county or local museums whose small staff and budget limit their ability to publicize and provide access to their holdings.  We are excited to share Museums of Minnesota, a new blog initiative hosted by H-Midwest, which is part of the H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

At Museums of Minnesota, a variety of local historical institutions have posted entries highlighting particularly exciting archival collections and artifacts from their collections, many of which relate to rural people.  For example, check out the image reproduced below in which two young men in a rural setting pose in fancy women’s hats.  We encourage our readers to read these blogs and visit the websites and collections of these local Minnesota archives and museums.  We hope you’ll tell us about your own favorite collections related to rural women!

Minnesota Museums photo
Two young men seated outdoors, each wearing a fancy woman’s hat with women’s gloves draped over their knees. Taken in the St. Francis, Minnesota area, c. 1910s. Anoka County Historical Society Object ID# 2016.1689.173

Empires, Nations, and Native Women

Empires, Nations, and Native Women

Cynthia Prescott, University of North Dakota


5113rg2fssl-_sy344_bo1204203200_I finally carved out time to read Anne F. Hyde’s masterful Empires, Nations and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860.  Once I  picked up Hyde’s 650-page volume, I had trouble putting it down.[1]  Winner of the prestigious 2012 Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, Hyde’s 2011 book is part of a University of Nebraska Press series that reassesses the field of United States Western history.  Hyde brings together the latest scholarship in ethnohistory, colonialism and settler colonialism into a wide-ranging yet highly engaging narrative of the trans-Mississippi West.  By tracing the networks built by prominent interethnic families engaged in the fur trade, Hyde makes sense out of the seeming disorder of global economies and geopolitics.  She guides her reader through the complex and often messy world of hunters, merchants, and politicians from St. Louis to San Francisco, from Fort Vancouver to Santa Fe, and from the Great Lakes to the Arkansas Valley.

By focusing on a few prominent families, such as the Chouteaus in Missouri, McLoughlins in Oregon, Vallejos in California, and others – such as Stephen Austin and Kit Carson who seemed to be everywhere at once, Anne Hyde brings to life the complexities and contingencies of fur trade and frontier life.  Hyde’s narrative provides a culturally complex picture because she focuses on the interethnic family networks that these “great men” built in places that became known as the American West.  She painstakingly reconstructs these Euro-American men’s marriages and informal unions with French, Anglo-American, and Native women from many different Indigenous nations, and their resulting children and broader kinship networks.  Perhaps even more clearly than the rich scholarship of the fur trade, Hyde demonstrates the centrality of these interethnic family relationships to the history and culture of the region.  Native women provided needed labor and cultural knowledge, and offered entrée into Native cultures.  White traders survived and even thrived largely because of their relationships with Native women.  And, as Hyde makes equally clear, many of them struggled to maintain or abandoned those familial ties in the 1850s and 1860s as American racial understandings hardened around fixed categories.  In memory, a Catholic Canadian of Scottish and French descent could become the white American “Father of Oregon,” but his Cree and French Canadian wife could not become the “Mother of Oregon” (and John McLoughlin’s Ojibwe first wife gets forgotten altogether).

Yet as Hyde admits in her introduction, “[m]uch of what I describe is really an updated version of ‘great man’ history” (Ecco 2012 ed., p. 21).  Rich collections of correspondence among Euro-American businessmen reveal their thoughts and actions and, in some cases, their ethnically mixed sons.  While their Native and mixed race wives and daughters contributed greatly to the overall success of their undertakings, these women’s experiences and perspectives remain frustratingly unclear if not completely invisible.  Hyde does an admirable job of attempting to recreate these women’s experiences, but too much of what we would like to know about them is simply not in the written records.  The lives and thoughts of these fur trade women – like those of Native men and women throughout the region who did not marry prominent white traders – receive little attention in the available written sources.

Uncovering the history of rural women is extremely challenging due to their dual invisibility as both rural people and as women.  Studying them is challenging because rural people and women often failed to leave much written record.  Moreover, these groups were long disregarded by scholars, archivists, and even their own descendants, so what records they did create have been lost to us.  All of these challenges are exaggerated in regard to women of color, who were even less likely to be literate and their experiences less likely to have been recorded and preserved.  And while many Indigenous cultures valued women’s contributions and granted women authority in ways that white society did not in the early nineteenth century, those traditions tended to be oral rather than written, and had very different conceptions of time than did the Euro-American culture out of which the historical profession developed.

Important work has been done uncovering the contributions of Native and mixed-heritage women in the fur trade, particularly in the Great Lakes region and eastern Canada.  Those scholars’ innovative methods could be applied to other regions and cultural contexts.  Much more research is needed to uncover nineteenth-century Native women’s lives.  At the same time, much more work should also be done to preserve contemporary Indigenous women’s voices throughout the American West and around the world.

Anne Hyde gives us a sweeping yet intimate narrative of the worlds that Euro-American traders and Native peoples built in the early-nineteenth-century West.  It should also serve as a call to arms to delve deeper into researching, documenting and preserving Native women’s voices both past and present.


[1] Hyde summarized her detailed study in this C-SPAN video:


“Dear Miss Cushman”: The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

“Dear Miss Cushman”:

The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

Sara Lampert, University of South Dakota


As an early republic historian working on the gender history of commercial entertainment, I am always on the lookout for Carrie Meebers, or women and girls who can open up the longstanding trope of the country girl seduced by the city. Carrie Meeber is the heroine of Theodore Dreiser’s turn-of-the-century novel Sister Carrie. This is a quintessentially urban tale: Carrie is awakened to the seductions and possibilities of mass culture and urban life by her explorations of the city. Her rural girlhood and the dreams that brought her from Waukesha to Chicago are dispensed with in the first page as the rural landscape of her Wisconsin childhood rushes by on her train bound for Chicago. These gestures deploy familiar tropes, rural girlhood as ennui. Carrie releases a faint sigh for “the flour mill where her father worked by the day” and the “familiar green environs of the village,” but as then train picks up speed, “the threads which bound her so lightly to her girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.”[1]



Dreiser does not give us a chance to spend more time with Carrie in Waukesha, to read her letters with sister Minnie in Chicago, survey the sheet music on her parlor piano or open the chest in which Carrie might have kept press clippings and women’s periodicals and catalogs. How might her rural girlhood have shaped her expectations about the world she would exit into at other end of the train line?


Charlotte Cushman.  Half plate daguerreotype, ca. 1855.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZC4-13410.


In Washington D.C. while researching 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman, I briefly stumbled into the world of Eva McCoy, a girl from rural Illinois who penned a piece of fan mail to her idol in 1874.[2] The letter survives today taped into a red bound volume in the Charlotte Cushman Papers in the Library of Congress. It is likely that the letter was received and read by Cushman’s life partner Emma Stebbins, and later saved by Stebbins, who took on the weighty task of managing Cushman’s legacy after the actress’ death from breast cancer in February 1876. The letter was preserved and later mounted, along with miscellaneous fan mail, much of it from the 1870s and much of it from other women.

In 1874, when McCoy wrote to Cushman, she was living in Thomson, Illinois, a town on the Mississippi River that by 1880 counted a population of only 390 people. McCoy painted a portrait of financial depravation matched by frustrated ambition. At only twenty-three, she was “‘alone in the world’ having my own resources to depend upon for existence.” Like Cushman’s other correspondents, McCoy balanced appeals to necessity with testimonial to her passion for the stage. She explained, “Since I was a very little girl, I have been desirous of becoming an actress; however, I have never had an opportunity of becoming educated for the Stage.”

Here was the reason for her letter. McCoy wanted instruction, but not from the “gentlemen…managers of the Stage.” Though she readily admitted to an “adventurous and courageous nature,” McCoy feared for her virtue: “strange men may be ‘hideous monsters’.” Instead, she fantasized about coming to live and study with Cushman. She promised, “I will love you as a darling sister, or a mother,” “be obedient,” and “become your own.” Whether as a “servant or companion,” McCoy only hoped to “sustain a relation” to Cushman in “whatever capacity it may please you to place me.” She enclosed a photo.

McCoy’s desperate and passionate appeal was not unusual. Other women and girls who wrote to Cushman struggled to frame professional desires and naked worship of their celebrity object in a more socially acceptable narrative of economic necessity, often describing poverty and family need. Like McCoy they collapsed the fantasy of student in the role of devoted servant to their desired object. As Cushman’s biographer Lisa Merrill has demonstrated, throughout Cushman’s life and career, women were drawn to her, whether because of her performances and the inspiration and lessons that they read from her life and career. Cushman’s determination to be breadwinner for her widowed mother and siblings was an established feature of her biography, which also shaped her reputation as a true woman who was both virtuous and charitable. Merrill points out, however, that some women may well have read the “code” of female erotic desire in Cushman’s relationship with Stebbins or her performances of male roles like Romeo.[3]

Correspondents like McCoy dreamed that Cushman would be moved to aid them. McCoy’s letter in particular reminds us that Cushman’s publics included girls and women who had never seen her perform, would never see her perform, but for whom Cushman’s celebrity held significance and inspiration.

But was Eva McCoy exactly as she appeared? Was her careful appeal actually a careful manipulation of sympathy or did it conceal an even sadder truth?

McCoy had lived in rural Illinois her entire life. Her parents John Vallette and Clarinda (Walker) Vallette came to DuPage, Illinois from the Northeast in 1839 during a period of rampant land speculation in the Big Woods.[4] Their daughter Evaline was born a decade later, the eldest of three. In 1860, her father was earning a living as a “homeopathic physician” with only $100 to his name owning real estate worth $1000.[5] After serving briefly as a hospital steward with an Illinois regiment toward the end of the war, he seized the opportunity of new settlement made possible by postwar railroad construction.[6]

In 1866, he went into partnership in the dry goods business with the widow of a local physician and druggist. Their new home would be a small village laid out by the Western Union Railroad in a valley on the banks of the Mississippi River at the western edge of the state.[7] The new partnership and move to Thomson was a boon to the family fortunes. In 1870, Vallette boasted a personal estate worth $5000 and $3000 in real estate. The former “homeopathic physician” now titled himself “medical doctor” on the federal census. His son clerked in the family business and his daughter was married to a young lawyer, Daniel McCoy.[8]

The couple had married in November 15, 1865. He was twenty-two, she eighteen.[9] By 1870, Daniel possessed a respectable personal estate of $1000. After 1870, he disappears as does Eva McCoy, though we know that in 1874 she was writing Charlotte Cushman hoping for…something.

Where was Daniel McCoy in 1874? Born in Ohio, he was one of the many Daniel McCoys who served in Illinois regiments in the Civil War. Was he the Daniel McCoy who had served with the 45th Illinois Infantry and died March 18, 1873, laid to rest in Peoria, Illinois?[10] Perhaps he had been mustered out for the very injury that would cause his death eight years later. Perhaps Eva’s loneliness was not that of a widow but of a deserted wife. Most likely he died and she hauled stakes. Though its unlikely she received a reply from Cushman, perhaps writing the letter gave her the courage to leave the comfortable estate her father had built for himself in Thomson and try her luck in Chicago, travelling by the Western Union Railroad, a little bit older and perhaps with a bit more saavy, though less ultimate success, than Sister Carrie Meeber.


[1] Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (Penguin Books, 1994), 3.

[2] Eva McCoy to Charlotte Cushman, November 15, 1874, Charlotte Cushman Papers, Library of Congress.

[3] Lisa Merrill, When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).

[4] The History of Carroll County, Illinois (Chicago: H. F. Kett & Co., 1878), 425.

[5] 1860 U.S. census, Wheaton, Du Page, Illinois, page no. 195, dwelling 1451, family 1494, John O. Vallette, digital image, (

[6] Rufus Blanchard, History of Du Page County, Illinois (Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co. Historical Publishers, 1882), 121.

[7] History of Carroll County, 365.

[8] 1870 U.S. census, York Township, Carroll, Illinois, page no. 36, dwelling 278, family 278,  John O. Vallette, digital image, (; 1870 U.S. census, York Township, Carroll, Illinois, page no. 34, dwelling 257, family 257, Daniel McCoy, digital image, (

[9] Illinois State Marriage Records, Illinois Marriage Index 1860-1920 [database online], ( based on Illinois State Marriage Records.

[10] Daniel McCoy, Pvt. Co. C, Regt. 47, Illinois Infantry, date of death March 18, 1873, digital image, Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, 1879-1903 [database online], ( based on Card Records of Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, ca. 1879-ca. 1903.

Home and Happenstance: How Chance Encounters in the Archive Can Become Sources of Invention

Home and Happenstance: How Chance Encounters in the Archive Can Become Sources of Invention

Katie L. Irwin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


In Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, editors Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo interject among the chapters that offer specific archival research strategies stories of “serendipity in the archives.” In these short narratives, scholars reflect on their unexpected archival moments and how “the role of chance” can shape one’s research.[1] Following their example, this post shares my own serendipitous journey of stumbling onto my dissertation topic – and my family – in an archive.

In the Spring 2012 semester, I was taking an Art History graduate seminar and was researching illustrations of farm women that appeared on the cover of The Farmer’s Wife magazine during the early 1930s. Thanks to my university’s library, which made available the full run of the magazine through its Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection, I had an enormous corpus to sort through. I was drawn to the 1930s in particular because the cover art didn’t match, or even slightly mimic, the photographic evidence that visually defined what American life was like for millions of people during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.

To understand this discrepancy, I needed to develop a sense of how women had been photographed during this time. I thought of Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph of migrant farmer Florence Thompson and her three children from their time at a California pea picker’s camp in 1936. Knowing that Thompson worked for the Farm Security Administration, I headed to the Library of Congress’s digital collection of FSA/Office of War Information files. I was curious to see if any photos from my hometown were included, so I narrowed my search and navigated to the Charles County catalogue within the Maryland record. While reading through the names of image files, I saw a name that I knew well: Hardesty, which is my grandmother’s maiden name. Sure enough, my next click opened a photo that made me gasp because the woman pictured looked just like my mother:

John Collier, photographer. County supervisor talking over home plan with the Hardesty family resting on removed well top. Charles County, Maryland. July, 1941. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed August 22, 2016.)

The woman in this photograph is Esther Hardesty, my great-grandmother. Her husband, John, is beside her, and two of their four children join them at their removed well top while a county supervisor explains the new water system for their tobacco farm. Once the initial shock had settled, I started poring over the other 27 photos contained in the “Hardesty Well Project” collection. Their captions revealed that FSA photographer John Collier visited the Hardesty farm in July 1941 to document a new well installation; as he photographed this project, Collier also took a few photographs of my then-eight year old grandmother, Joyce, and her three young brothers. I had only seen one of these photographs before, and I didn’t know the others existed, let alone were available through the Library of Congress. Yet the photograph that I could not turn away from was one that pictured my great-grandmother sitting on her porch with her husband, a health officer, the supervisor of home economics, and a county supervisor surrounding her from all sides.

John Collier, photographer. Health officer, county supervisor and supervisor of home economics discuss home plan with the Hardesty family. Charles County, Maryland. July, 1941. Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed August 22, 2016.)

At first, it was the symmetry that grabbed me – how the four figures visually echoed one another in both posture and gaze as they turned to the sitting Hardesty. Their framing appeared almost too perfect, which Nan Johnson noted when she mentioned that the photo looked like a tableau during my talk at the 2015 Feminisms and Rhetorics conference. As I lingered with the photo, its composition raised questions specific to the scene: What was my great-grandmother thinking as these people surrounded her? How did she view the agents’ arrival at the family farm and their instruction about water management? Did she have a conversation with them or perhaps question what they advised, or did she accept the knowledge they brought into her world?

My training in visual communication led me to other interpretations. When I teach Visual Politics, an upper-level Communication course that explores the role of the image in shaping public life, my students and I spend the semester reading photographs and other modes of visuality (like public memorials and embodied performances). We situate those visuals in their unique historical, social, political, and ideological contexts to understand their effects, both in the short-term and across time and space. Just as I challenge my students to interpret in multiple ways the subjects of our consideration, my critical sensibilities invited me to read Collier’s image with the same spirit. On the one hand, it looked like everyone was turning to Hardesty for her acceptance or approval. Read this way, the photo communicates the notion that she was, at least in this instance, the decision-maker; she had power. Yet I also saw the opposite: everyone was telling her what to do. Read this way, it seemed like Hardesty was denied the opportunity to make judgments about issues significant to her and her family’s wellbeing.

Of course, rural women’s lives and labor are never as black-and-white as these photographs. As I recently learned, the agents were turning to my great-grandmother because she could read the information, whereas her husband could not.[2] Her literacy, I’ve realized, signified a claim to power within the complicated matrix of gender in rural culture. Her labors of literacy included keeping the family’s records, managing account books, and submitting recipes to local papers for prize money to supplement the family income. In 1987, Hardesty spoke with John Wearmouth as part of the Southern Maryland Studies Center’s Oral History Collection project. During their conversation, Wearmouth was noticeably fascinated at my great-grandmother’s account books. “Lots of people did these things,” he said about the innovative practices that earned extra money. “The difference is you kept track of it.” Hardesty, who had earlier noted that she always enjoyed math in school, replied: “I just made up my mind I was going to do it.”[3]

I didn’t know it then, but my research trajectory changed that day in 2012 when I happened upon Collier’s photos of my family. I read histories of rural life and rural change. I became fascinated with President Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission and its task of visiting rural people and learning about their problems so that it could recommend how to improve rural life. I found inspiration in Charlotte Perkins Gilman when, in a January 1909 Good Housekeeping article, she questioned of Roosevelt’s all-male assemblage: “Why are there no women on this commission?”[4] I came to see my great-grandparents’ well demonstration project as an echo of the Smith-Lever Act and earlier agricultural extension and home demonstration programs.

I’m now writing my Ph.D. dissertation about U.S. rural women from the 1920s and how their words and practices sustained, challenged, complicated, and redefined popular perceptions of rural womanhood and rural life during an era of change. I’m analyzing a broad range of materials including farm women’s letters, magazine articles, photographs, advertisements, conference proceedings, speeches and other public statements, home demonstration reports, and rural women’s club materials. My goal is to understand how these materials constituted various forms of agency within rural women’s lived experiences. Now, I see that Collier’s photo of my great-grandmother sitting on her farm porch with the agents around her organizes the research questions I’m asking in my project: Whose knowledges, experiences, and worldviews matter when rural culture is viewed as requiring assistance? How did home and field technologies influence how rural women talked about power and choice in their everyday experiences? In what ways did women’s interactions with authorities shape women’s possibilities for public expression? What types of appeals did white and African American women make as they negotiated raced, classed, and gendered perceptions of rural womanhood?

While visiting my family in Maryland this July, I had the opportunity to sit down with my grandmother to talk about her memories from Collier’s visit, the well project, and her life on the farm more generally.

Katie Irwin, photographer. Joyce Cooksey, daughter of Esther Hardesty, discusses Collier’s visit to the Hardesty farm. July 26, 2016. La Plata, Maryland.

As we pored through her mother’s materials that she has collected and preserved over the years, I realized the wonderful irony that has settled over my research. My archival trips have taken me to the Iowa Women’s Archives, the Minnesota Historical Society, and soon, to North Carolina State University’s Special Collections. I’m also incorporating primary sources from the University of Illinois Archives, the University of Iowa Special Collections, and Cornell University’s Rare and Manuscript Collections.[5] Yet despite all of these travels and amazing resources, I never would have imagined that the archive I would come to find most enriching is the one in my grandmother’s house.


Katie L. Irwin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is the Nina Baym Dissertation Completion Fellow for 2016-17. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Rhetoric Society of America. You can reach her at, and you can find her on Twitter at @katieirwin.

[1] See Lori Ostergaard, “Open to the Possibilities: Seven Tales of Serendipity in the Archives,” in Working in the Archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, ed. Alexis E. Ramsey, Wendy B. Sharer, Barbara L’Eplattenier, and Lisa S. Mastrangelo (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), 40-41.

[2] Joyce Cooksey, interview with the author, July 26, 2016.

[3] Esther L. Hardesty, interview by John Wearmouth, February 18, 1987, La Plata, Maryland. Courtesy, Southern Maryland Studies Center, College of Southern Maryland, SMSC Oral History Collection.

[4] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “That Rural Home Inquiry,” Good Housekeeping, January 1909, 120.

[5] A special thank you to Chris Skurka for helping with the Cornell materials.

Young Women’s Diaries as Primary Sources for Rural Women’s History

Young Women’s Diaries as Primary Sources for Rural Women’s History

Rachel Kleinschmidt

My name is Rachel Kleinschmidt and I have been a member of the Rural Women’s Studies Association (RWSA) since 2009. My work has focused on unmarried women in Midwestern agriculture throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For this blog, I want to share about my work on post-adolescent women on family farms, and talk a bit about using diaries as source material for research projects.

For women of the Midwest in the late nineteenth century, the teenage and young adult years provided opportunities for women to explore options for work, education, socializing, and marriage, but within the strictly controlled boundaries of the lifestyle of farm daughter and helper. The prevalence of teaching jobs in rural schools, as well as opportunities for socialization, such as church, temperance societies, and other community activities, provided a range of activities acceptable for young women to partake. Social prescriptions and parental guidance influenced the expectations of how a young woman should act, yet these women worked within and without of these boundaries to forge a lifestyle of their own.

Prescriptive literature, including etiquette advice manuals and articles in newspapers and farm journals, pushed young women in many different directions related to their lifestyle and attitude. Advice authors expected girls to conform to an urban, middle-class definition of womanhood, which defined women as caretakers of the home and family. This definition could not encompass the realities of life on the farm, where women and girls were productive members of the farming household. Rural advice attempted to take this position into account, but these writers worried more about the potential for farm girls to leave the farm. None of the prescriptive literature could accurately assess the position of rural daughters, as the unique aspects of farm life, and the differences between farm families’ material circumstances, made generalizations about girls difficult.

Girls on the farm had serious responsibilities within their families, but still acted as young, single women. The tension between roles as productive members of the farming household and roles as job seekers, socialites, and potential marriage partners provided a space where single women in rural families both provided for the family and community and found ways to maintain social lives that may not have fit within the social prescriptions. The diaries of four young women in rural Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin from the years 1865 to 1894 provide contrasting examples of how young, unmarried rural women negotiated the societal prescriptions for women’s behavior in the context of the farm home.

Using diaries as the main source material for this project proved to be both rewarding and challenging. The diaries provided a personal insight into the lives of these young women unmatched by any other type of source I used. The girls poured their thoughts and emotions into these books in ways that could not have been captured any other way. For example, Rhoda Emery, a young teacher from Minnesota in the late nineteenth century, used her diary as a way to express her frustrations with her family and her students, writing quite personally about her perceived failings as a teacher and various quarrels with her mother and sister.

In contrast, however, Carrie Markle from central Illinois used her diary mainly as a way to record her daily comings and goings. With such little detail, it was difficult to draw conclusions about Carrie’s life, but her entries still open a window to the daily rhythms of farm life from the perspective of a young teacher and hired girl.

I am working this project, my Ph.D. dissertation, into a book on rural girls, and I would have no hesitation to use diaries again as source material. Along with forming the basis for my historical arguments, the diaries were fun to read. I would encourage any rural women’s historians to seek out diaries and get a first-person look into what it was like to be a farm woman in the past.


Rural Women and their Things: Thoughts on the 2015 Artifacts in Agraria Symposium

Rural Women and their Things: Thoughts on the 2015 Artifacts in Agraria Symposium

 By Jodey Nurse-Gupta


Artifacts in Agraria - PosterOn October 17th and 18th, 2015, Artifacts in Agraria Symposium participants gathered to hear scholars share their research on various artifacts related to rural history. Each presenter began with an artifact and analyzed how it reflected cultural beliefs, symbolized identity, affirmed values, told stories, and changed meaning over time. Well known Canadian historians like Jack Little, Royden Loewen, Douglas McCalla, Ruth Sandwell, and Catharine Wilson joined other specialists in agricultural history, rural sociology, archaeology, and material culture who came from across Canada and as far away as Atlanta and Oklahoma. A horse blanket, oxen yoke, kerosene lamp, steel wheel, de-horning shears, gourd rattle, milking machine, fiddle and quilt were just some of the artifacts explored, and each presenter conveyed the broader historical significance of their object, as well as its particular importance to rural people in the past.


This symposium emphasized how an artifact can be another important tool for historical analysis. For scholars studying rural women, artifacts can be especially important because finding documentary sources on rural women’s lives can be difficult, so any historical evidence that allows us to consider how they thought, worked, and lived is significant. I have previously written about how objects have benefited my own research on rural women, and the papers presented at the Artifacts in Agraria Symposium further solidified my belief that material cultural studies are necessary when telling the story of rural women’s lives.


Artifacts in Agraria - Photo 1

Many scholars presenting at the symposium focused on artifacts made or used by women. Andrea Gal showed how canning sealers allowed farm women in the first half of the twentieth century to work alongside their male kin to produce homemade foodstuffs for their family and friends. Meredith Quaile studied nineteenth-century milking machines to show how, despite the desire for an invention that would transform milking from a feminine to a masculine chore, the flawed technology resulted in women’s continued dairy work. In Aileen Friesen’s paper on Mennonite women in Siberia, she explained that milking was very much women’s work. Images of full milk pails were used by Soviets officials to highlight Mennonite women’s success within the Soviet structure. Yet, for the women themselves, full milk pails were ultimately a symbol of their commitment to serving God through their work, not the Soviet Union. Other objects like the sidesaddle signified the social expectations placed on women. Equine etiquette was used to place limits on female behaviour, but, as Tracey Hanshew showed in her paper, the women settling the American West often refused the use of the sidesaddle, preferring instead to ride astride and in doing so challenging a whole set of social mores. Susie Fisher’s analysis of a porcelain teapot, brought to rural Manitoba by a Mennonite woman who emigrated from Russia at the turn of the twentieth century revealed how Mennonite immigrants found comfort in material things that provided tangible connections to their ancestral pasts, while also informing their understanding of self. Rebecca Beausaert’s paper on autograph quilts constructed during the First World War conveyed the idea that women’s domestic skills were valued ones, put to use to raise money for the war effort. My own paper about quilts made from agricultural fair prize ribbons illustrated how rural women often created items that showcased their skill, as well as represented broader familial and community achievements. Linda Ambrose’s investigation of the silver spoons awarded to 4-H girls in Ontario who completed homemaking clubs in the 1970s revealed a complex association between rural culture and gendered experiences at that time. Finally, Catharine Wilson’s paper used the diary of Lucy Middagh to illustrate how farm diaries were sentimental objects employed to memorialize lives and record cherished recollections of family and community, but they were also a record of individual habits and beliefs, and through the task of keeping them they worked to define the users’ character.

Artifacts in Agraria - Photo 2

The objects analyzed in these papers allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the women to whom they belonged, and the societies in which they lived. Historians and other scholars seeking confirmation of old ideas about rural women, and the revelation of new ones, should consider the use of artifacts as important historical sources that can expand their knowledge and allow for the discovery of new information about rural women’s lives.



The Artifacts in Agraria Symposium was coordinated by Jodey Nurse-Gupta and Catharine Wilson and generously supported by the Francis and Ruth Redelmeier Professorship in Rural History. Thanks are also extended to student volunteers and organizing committee members Lisa Cox, Erin Schuurs, and Jacqui McIsaac.


Quilting for a Cause: Rural Women’s Voluntarism in the First World War

Quilting for a Cause: Rural Women’s Voluntarism in the First World War

Rebecca Beausaert, Woodstock Museum National Historic Site


Here in Canada, the 100th anniversary of the First World War has sparked a renewed interest in this devastating conflict, especially the civilian experience on the home front. In the largely rural and agrarian county of Oxford in southwestern Ontario, a group of museum professionals has made “the local” the focus of a five-year long commemoration project called “Oxford Remembers: Oxford’s Own.” Of the 100 “Oxford Remembers” events scheduled, five are travelling museum exhibits, each one making a temporary stop in one of the county’s participating institutions. The most recent exhibit, “Reaction and Recruitment: Oxford Goes to War,” honoured local women’s voluntary efforts, recognising the significant time and effort spent rolling bandages, knitting socks, canning preserves, and constructing care packages to send overseas to Oxford County soldiers and displaced civilians.

The artifacts chosen to demonstrate local women’s voluntary efforts were two wartime autograph quilts―the Braemar Women’s Institute Autograph Quilt and the Wolverton Red Cross Quilt. When it came to fundraising, the autograph quilt was the most popular style adopted by women’s auxiliaries. Because most of these groups were allied with the Red Cross, surviving quilts often bear the same distinctive markings―white cotton, red stitching, and red crosses. In communities across Canada, women solicited for donations to these quilts with donors contributing a small sum (often ten or fifteen cents) to have their “signature” sewn on to a quilt. The completed quilt would then be auctioned off, with monies directed toward a wartime cause.

In many late-nineteenth century households, quilting had become a pastime of a bygone era. In rural areas, however, women continued to do hand quilting, as evidenced by the ongoing popularity of the quilting bee, which had long served as an integral part of community life. Quilting was a form of domestic work that rural women not only took great pride in, but also prompted sociability among friends and neighbours. Thus, the quilting bee continued to be a mainstay in many Canadian communities during the First World War. The gatherings allowed quilters to put their skills to use for the national war effort, and also offered a brief respite from the tension and anxiety of wartime.

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Figure 1 – Braemar Women’s Institute Autograph Quilt, Woodstock Museum National Historic Site, 2005.22.01

The Braemar quilt was sewn by its local Women’s Institute, a popular organization throughout rural and small-town Ontario in the early years of the twentieth century. Though details surrounding its sale are scant, we do know the quilt was constructed in 1918 and the monies earned were directed towards the Canadian Red Cross.

The Braemar quilt contains a pattern of overlapping circles, on top of which are thirty diamonds stitched in red thread. In between each diamond is a block containing clusters of hand-sewn “autographs,” representing the hundreds of local donors who gave money to have their name appear.  The centrepiece of the quilt is a maple leaf, containing the signatures of the quilt’s creators and the year.

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Figure 2 – Braemar Women’s Institute Autograph Quilt, Woodstock Museum National Historic Site, 2005.22.01

The quilt’s vivid red stitching, painstakingly completed by many hands, tells the story of Braemar’s wartime experience and changing social dynamics in this rural community. The hundreds of signatures, particularly their placement and size in relation to others, offer a map of where citizens stood in relation to one another socially, economically, politically, and patriotically. For instance, the central maple leaf contains the names of Braemar’s Women’s Institute’s executive, while the non-ranking members, who were likely responsible for most of the quilt’s construction, are noted in separate blocks on the periphery. Here, we see clear evidence of how much the Women’s Institutes were hierarchically-organized. Typically on autograph quilts, a centrally-located, or larger signature, indicated wealth and status.

Blocks of signatures are also devoted to local churches and schools, enlisted soldiers and their wives, and even the Braemar girls’ baseball team. Most, however, contain the names of individual citizens from across Oxford County, the many Scottish surnames indicative of the early settlement period. Interspersed among the signatures are patriotic sentiments like ‘God Save Our King’ and ‘The Maple Leaf Forever.’

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Figure 3 – Wolverton Red Cross Quilt, Woodstock Museum National Historic Site, X1982.01.561

The Wolverton Red Cross Quilt was commissioned by the Wolverton Public School, and donated under that name, though we know little about the identities of the quilter-makers. Likely, it was a group of mothers whose students attended the school, or a local women’s auxiliary. This quilt also contains a pattern of overlapping stitched circles, over top of which are 187 blocks. A single name is sewn onto alternating blocks, totalling eighty-nine names. The centrally-located red cross tells us this piece was also commissioned for Red Cross fundraising purposes. Surrounding the red cross is the signature of “Wolverton Public School” and the date, November 1917.

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Figure 4- Wolverton Red Cross Quilt, Woodstock Museum National Historic Site, X1982.01.561

The Wolverton School was a one-room schoolhouse, located in the village of Wolverton in Blenheim Township in East Oxford County. The Wolverton family, for whom the village was named, was well-known for their industriousness, establishing a very profitable milling enterprise in the community. At least one branch of Wolverton descendants was still living in the community during the First World War, as evidenced by the Wolverton family signatures on the quilt.

During the war donating to, or helping construct an autograph quilt, served as a way for citizens who were not necessarily comfortable attending public activities or did not have the resources to devote to wartime causes, an opportunity to still express patriotic feelings. Purchasing a quilt, or having an autograph stitched onto one, was public acknowledgment of one’s loyalty, sacrifice, and commitment. For the quilt-makers, there was also therapeutic value in the needle, as quilting offered a temporary reprieve from the uncertainties of wartime.

These two autograph quilts offer a rich and unique perspective on Oxford County’s wartime experience from the oft-ignored viewpoint of women. They offer a tactile history of the communities in which they were made, show local social and class dynamics, demonstrate locals’ interest in, and knowledge of, the war’s events, and highlight the important role of rural women’s voluntarism. That these quilts were constructed in the first place, and still survive today, is an important reminder that rural women’s domestic skills and unpaid labour were highly-regarded and very much a part of the war effort on the Canadian home front.