Five Generations of Women – One Collection
Edited from the original paper, The Fabric of Life – Meaning and Usage in the Material Culture in an East Tennessee Family, presented at The Appalachian Studies Conference, Unicoi, Georgia, March 1996.
The needlework skills used to embellish clothing and household textiles are a cultural universal. Clothing is one of the most powerful forms of self-expression for human beings worldwide and dress is a fundamental way to indicate prestige. Fabric quality, quantity, availability, and workmanship skills are all symbols of power and position. Materials with the softest textures and greatest sheen have long symbolized the highest social position. Dress and fabric adornment in the home are influenced by personal attitudes toward social status, providing us with an abundance of information about the culture in which they have evolved.
Textile handwork accomplished by women in the southern Appalachian region has been traditionally held in low esteem outside the family. Nevertheless, the necessity to clothe the family and warm the sleeping body assured that the development of fashion for both dress and home decorating paralleled the development of an Appalachian culture that included textiles. For scholars and laypersons, a large collection of textiles that remain intact for five generations is an opportunity to determine ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of one family leading to a better understanding the complex social culture of nineteenth-century Appalachia.
The work of one particular nineteenth-century east Tennessee family and their slaves produced handwork of an astounding variety and artistic merit. Philip Bushong (1807-1859) and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Dryden (1810-1883), both came from educated, affluent families. For five generations, Mary and her descendents were skilled in various forms of needlework and highly valued the handcrafted textiles that passed from mother to daughter. As a collection, the fabrics never left the family of origin but were carefully preserved and often labeled to indicate a specific event.
For decades women were marginalized in the study of Appalachian history. They were stereotyped as illiterate creatures, barely subsisting on poor farm land where they toiled endlessly spinning and weaving the basic necessities for their family’s survival. Mountain women were depicted as married to their closest kin, pregnant, barefoot, and dressed in homespun sacking, lacking ambition or cleanliness.
Juxtaposing that belief about Appalachian women is the romantic notion that a simple mountain life in the nineteenth century was a better life and that propaganda has been used to promote regional tourism, develop pioneer museums, support mountain music festivals, and sell handcrafts. (See Articles: Fabric and Fiction: Clinch Valley Blanket Mills, 1890-1950) In truth, some Appalachian women were poor and hungry but that is not the whole story. There has always been a more affluent segment of society of women who had access to Godey’s and Peterson’s fashion magazines, traveled to large cities to buy furniture, imported dress fabrics, and embellished cotton and linen fabric with delicate crochet and cutwork embroidery. These decorative domestic household artifacts indicate a style and elegance not normally associated with early Appalachian settlers.
Mary Elizabeth Dryden Bushong was the first generation in her family where attitudes and events were associated with specific fabrics. A tall, slender woman, Mary felt that white clothes indicated her position, and she wore white clothing almost exclusively until the death of her husband, Philip. As well as her clothing, the majority of hand woven and hand-stitched household linens she used were white. Her daughter and granddaughter shared her passion for surrounding herself in white cloth. To these women, the color white may have symbolized innocence, cleanliness, and purity, but certainly signified the wearer’s social status. Keeping white clothes clean was a huge task in the nineteenth century. Wearing white clothing pointed to the fact that Mary did not work so hard that she soiled her clothes quickly, or if they were soiled she had slaves to do the washing and ironing.
Bushong women impressed on their daughters an attitude of self-importance. The idea that the Bushong and Dryden lineage was more esteemed than the average, and this fact must not be forgotten, followed the maternal line though the decades. The same attitude was still voiced by Mary’s great, granddaughters in 1990. In general, nineteenth century Appalachian women have been depicted as self-effacing women with no sense of their own importance, acquiescing to the men folk, and believing that their own lives were not significant enough to be remembered outside the family nucleus. Nonetheless, Appalachian women, rich or poor, meek or determined became the custodians of scraps of fabrics woven, knitted, crocheted, stitched and tatted by their foremothers. It never occurred to them that the fabrics would validate the events in their lives, ordinary and extraordinary, and interpret a lifestyle consequential to material culturists and Appalachian historians alike.
Philip and Mary Elizabeth Bushong built a large two-story log home, called Stoney Point, on the spur of a hill above Sinking Creek. Their Sullivan County land, referred to as a plantation, was a mixture of hardwoods, scrub pines, cedar trees, limestone outcroppings, and cleared pastures covering a rolling terrain. Mary was a refined and educated lady whose family owned the land adjoining the Bushong plantation. She was a strong-willed woman, proud of her heritage, social position, and handwork abilities. She expected the farm slaves to do daily domestic work so she could pursue more pleasurable tasks.
Mary Elizabeth was a lover of the fine and beautiful textile goods that money could buy and skilled hands could sew. She taught her only child, a daughter named Martha, to value the prized family textiles, insisting that articles of clothing and household linens be carefully stored and never discarded. Notations were made on scraps of paper, attached to the items, reminding future generations of important dates and events when they were used. Consecutive generations of Bushong women continued the tradition of textile preservation.
The Bushong women had money to purchase beautiful imported lace and fine fabrics to make into every day and evening clothes, nightclothes, trousseau garments, children’s clothes, bed covers and table linens. Meticulous seamstresses, they were also skilled in the art of crocheting, knitting, knot-tying and weaving fringe, intricate and luxurious.
In general, textiles wear out, disintegrate, or are dispersed among many people as a family tree branches with each consecutive generation so a large collection of textiles made and worn by members of one family for five generations is unusual, providing historians additional insightful for studying the lifestyle of women in Sullivan County, Tennessee during the nineteenth century.
There are as many fanciful ideas and misconceptions about needlework skills, weavers, spinning, and homespun cloth, as there are about the stereotypical nineteenth century Appalachian women. However, examples of needlework crafted by Europeans in the earliest years of regional settlement offer important insights toward a comprehensive social and economic history of Southern Appalachian women. Historians have begun to accept such artifacts as a meaningful source of history.
While perhaps not wholly persuaded by archeologist James Deetz’s statement, “Read what we have written; look at what we have done,” historians today admit to the validity of material culture studies. To the uninitiated, however, the artifact yields only limited information. Its code is often more opaque than that of the written document. Its message to the present is: this is what we made, what we did with our hands, what we created to beautify our lives. This is who we were and how we lived.
1. White cotton counterpanes woven by John Laughlin (1736-1825), known as crippled Jack, the weaver. The great uncle of Mary Elizabeth, Jack wove counterpanes in a variety of intricate patterns for his niece, Elizabeth Jane Laughlin Dryden and inherited by Mary.
2. Slave woven fabric used for clothing, quilts, table runners and pillow covers. Mary Elizabeth and Philip Bushong had a number of slaves working on their plantation, Stoney Point. The slave known as old John lived in a cabin behind the main house. After he was freed, John went to live with other freed black families in Mud Hollow. The three known female slaves lived in an attic room of the big house. Little is known of Rosey who died June 15, 1864, at approximately sixteen years old. Martha, born July 1, 1832, and Sarah performed domestic chores. Both women processed homegrown flax into linen yarn and used the fleece from plantation-raised sheep to spin yarn for weaving bolts of cloth.
3. Civil War Linen Bed Sheet. The Bushongs brought a number of utilitarian handwoven sheets to Tennessee when they came from Pennsylvania, circa 1795. During the Civil War, the Nickels House Hotel in Bristol, Tennessee was used as a Confederate hospital; desperate for bed linens, local citizens were asked to contribute to the hospital. Mrs. Joseph R. Anderson, wife of Bristol’s founder, traveled with her slave, Nehemiah Strange, around the countryside collecting bedding. Mary Bushong donated a hundred-year old linen sheet after she was assured it would be returned at the war’s end. The rough-textured handwoven sheet still carries the hospital identification stamp.
4. White Wedding Vest worn by Philip Bushong when he married Mary Elizabeth Dryden on November 24, 1835. Philip was acquainted with an expert tailor, Andrew Johnson, from Greenville, Tennessee, whom he commissioned to fashion this special white vest. When Andrew Johnson became president of the United States after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1866, he visited the widowed Mary Elizabeth Bushong at her home, Stoney Point. A crowd gathered at the spring on the front lawn and the President gave a short speech before continuing his journey.
A second vest made for Philip by Johnson was worn threadbare and mended. Even in poor condition Mary Elizabeth instructed that it be saved and its maker be noted.
5. Other textiles include a wedding tablecloth used by three generations of Bushong women; a nightshirt made by Mary Elizabeth and worn by Philip when he died of typhoid fever, April 30, 1859; black wool challis funeral pall with hand-pulled fringe used for generations of family funerals starting with Philip Bushong; Civil War Sewing kit called a traveling wife carried to war by Jacob Carmack (1829-1904), Mary Elizabeth’s son-in-law; trousseau nightgown hand stitched by Martha Ellen Carmack, granddaughter of Mary Elizabeth before her marriage to David Hart, December 7, 1898; and a variety of plain and patterned white mantel scarves embellished with ornate trims.