History Lessons

From July of 2013 to August of 2015, I worked in a history library as an intern for a remarkable scholar who has become one of my dearest friends. Her name is Jenny, and she is fighting leukemia again.

I don’t want to focus on her illness, however. I want to focus on her influence on me. I often joked with my husband that my internship (meant to fulfill some research requirements for my Ph.D.), was my second master’s degree. I learned so much about history, especially women’s history within a religious context, and I have Jenny to thank for that. She introduced me to the wonderful women of the past and also to the amazing contemporary women who are working on recovering those voices and making their lives visible. We meet every few months to discuss women and history. I’ve found a few conferences through this group to present at and attend. I’ve also found many dear friends.

As part of all of this, I asked Jenny which history books I should read in order to make sure that I had a good foundational education on what we were researching and writing about. She gave me a wonderful list, and today I will highlight the two I have read so far.

The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America (1994) by Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz started slowly for me. I had trouble keeping the people straight and immersing myself in the nineteenth century world. However, once I found my way into this strange-but-true story, I could not put it down. It is about a self-styled prophet who names himself Matthias and begins a small but gripping religion (cult?) during a time when the Second Great Awakening was occurring within the United States. He gains several followers, who all live with him, and he even steals the wife of one man. There is a lot of strange sexual swapping among this group, and Matthias’s estranged wife even finds her own teenage daughter lost in the fray. Matthias employs a servant throughout his years of running this group, and she is an interesting woman. At the end of the novel, we learn that once the group breaks up, she moves, changes her name, and becomes an important figure in African American and women’s history. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth. What?!?!

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I also read another of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s books, titled The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (2001). Ulrich is the Pultizer Prize–winning author of A Midwife’s Tale, which I raved about here. The Age of Homespun is very different from A Midwife’s Tale (which is about Martha Ballard based on her diary), as it covers the objects surrounding women’s work, especially creative work, from the 1600s to the 1700s in the United States. She highlights the provenances of an Indian basket, spinning wheels, a decorated cupboard, a chimneypiece, a rug, embroidery, a pocketbook, a tablecloth, and other “homespun” items. Many of these items have stories attached ot them, passed down by family members. Ulrich interrogates these stories and attempts to understand the reasons why these items were important and why they have been preserved. It is a wonderful study of U.S. history through material objects.

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After I read Ulrich’s book, I realized that my friend Jenny’s dissertation was likely modeled after this book. Jenny has researched and written about objects of importance to historical LDS women, and one of the objects she highlights are hair wreaths. I had never heard of these before I read Jenny’s dissertation, which will be published soon. Hair wreaths are like decorative embroidery that are made of human hair. It is hard to imagine, so here are two pictures.

hair wreaths

HairWreath_CloseUp

Strange, huh? I will continue my history lessons as I have time and the energy to read for pleasure. I’ll keep you updated on the other books Jenny suggested to me.

Also, Jenny is a fighter. She will beat leukemia.

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12 thoughts on “History Lessons

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  1. Emily, first and foremost, best wishes to Jenny and her loved ones and friends helping her fight the fight. Thanks for sharing these history suggestions. Main stream history is written by the victorious and too often about power acquisition, so a lot of history is missed and misunderstood. Thanks, my friend, Keith

  2. Thanks to both you and Jenny I have 2 more books added to my list (The Kingdom of Matthias and The Midwife’s Tale). Both sound riveting.
    Best wishes to Jenny. She is fortunate to have you as a friend. 🙂

  3. I wonder who came up with the idea of making hair wreaths…. strange indeed! Victorians attached a lot of symbolism to hair and hair-related imagery often appears in Victorian literature and paintings. Perhaps hair wreaths are linked to that historical trend.

    1. I definitely think it was part of the Victorian influence. The women who made them in this context were in the nineteenth century and many of them were immigrants from the UK.

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