As a mother to a kindergartener, I have gotten quite adept over the past few years mending a variety of things. I have sewn patches on torn pants, stitched together a jacket mysteriously sliced open on a slide, taped ripped pages in favorite books, and even once tried to figure out how to put a peel back on a banana when my son got offended that it was ‘naked’. Which is to say that caregivers get creative.
I am also a historian and a curator, working with the remarkable collections at the William L. Clements Library, and as my appreciation for all the ways that I, as a woman, step into the work of cobbling things back together and extending the usefulness of all the small but necessary objects for my family, I began to see evidence of those efforts made by others before me. I began to wonder what roles other women might have had holding things together for one more use or for future generations.
I now take the time to admire 12th-century stitches on the smooth parchment that was stretched too thin while being crafted.
I thank the unnamed figures who stitched these well-loved pages from 19th-century children’s books.
The Affecting History of the Children in the Wood (Newport: H. & O. Farnsworth, 1799).
And I celebrate the care families took to save the letters they weren’t ready to throw out just yet, sewing the page together to keep it a little longer.
Samuel Mather letter to “Dear Sister,” April 3, 1845. Lyman Trumbull Family Papers.
Woodburn Shrewsbury letter to Will, October 19, 1865. Woodburn Shrewsbury Letters.
In these instances, we rarely have any way of knowing precisely what happened to cause the initial damage, who decided to invest themselves in the repair, or who opted to save the stitched-together remnant. But the speculative moment is a precious one, because it allows a pause to think about all the people whose stories the archive doesn’t readily capture — the mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and caregivers whose acts of mundane preservation are otherwise lost to history.
For generations, women have played an outsized role in family care as well as all the stitching and repairing their loved ones and livelihoods demanded. These quiet stitches, then, call to mind a woman’s hands and labors, even if we can’t be certain women made them. Noticing the stitches and holding the possibility that they were sewn with love (or exasperation) by a woman can serve as an act of celebrating the small, unattributed ways women have worked to preserve the historical record. None of these scars are signed, so it falls to us to wonder about who took the time to quite literally hold this history together. Some stories aren’t written with words, so let’s look closer at the other evidence that can show us how anonymous women have joined us in caring for these materials that we rely on to understand the past.