Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 50, no. 1 (Winter 2001), p. 10-13
"If we will but an effort make": The Sewing Circles of Nantucket's Congregational, Methodist, and Unitarian Churches
by Aimee E. Newell
EVER SINCE MARY STARBUCK BROUGHT Quakerism to Nantucket in 1702, island women have combined religious fervor with a social conscience in order to improve their lives and those of their neighbors. Although the Nantucket Society of Friends was torn apart by disagreements over doctrine during the early nineteenth century, its progressive ideals were carried forward by generations of Nantucket women, many of whom had been educated as equals with their brothers. Nantucket's involvement in the American whale fishery meant that most island boys and men were away from home for years at a time, leaving their wives, mothers, and sisters to look after domestic and financial affairs.
When the Great Fire of 1846 wreaked havoc in Nantucket Town, causing millions of dollars of damage and spelling the beginning of the end of Nantucket whaling, island women banded together to rebuild their community, forming sewing circles at their respective churches to assist with church debts and to strengthen the bonds of friendship on the island. The First Congregational Church Ladies Union Circle, the Methodist Episcopal Church Ladies Wesleyan Society, and the Unitarian Sewing Society were all formed during the late 1840s and early 1850s with a similar purpose — to raise money for their respective churches and to aid the needy, both at home and abroad.
That they all took the form of "sewing circles" is significant. The act of sewing kept idle hands busy and provided a means of earning money for the organizations. Frequent meetings enabled the women to engage in social discourse — trading news and gossip and strengthening their sense of community during an economically difficult period of Nantucket's history. Sewing and benevolent works were accepted, even expected, outlets for women of the 1850s, since they were natural extensions of the roles of wife and mother. But once they started raising money, the women gained confidence, leading to a sense of empowerment in their community as they effected positive social change in the guises of church upkeep and assisting those deemed "in need" of aid.
The women of the First Congregational Church were the first of the three groups to organize (and 155 years later are still going strong), in January 1846. An "old debt" was "hanging over" the church in 1845, so the women held a fair, with the proceeds going toward the "liquidation of said debt." The fair was held on January 1, 1846, and raised $700. Pleased with their success, the women "decided to form themselves into a Sewing Circle." They elected officers and set out their mission: "the object of this Society shall be to aid the church, and to do any benevolent work approved by its members, and to interest as many as possible in such work." Membership dues provided seed money with "married ladies paying 50 cents, and unmarried ladies twenty-five cents." Surprisingly, the women of the First Congregational Church allowed men to be members as well, although their bylaws did not assess a specific membership fee for the men.
Initially, the Ladies Union Circle focused on sewing items to sell at another fair, with the proceeds to be used to pay the debt due on the church's organ. This was a religious group, however, and the organizational documents demanded that "the Circle shall commence its meetings by the reading of a portion of Scripture. ..." The constitution of the Ladies Union Circle both provides insight into the philosophy of the church and underscores the important function it served in terms of facilitating a sense of community for Circle members: "Believeing [sic] (as we are constituted to enjoy the relations of life socially) that whatever tends to preserate [sic] and strengthen those relations is conducive to the general happiness of Society; and as charity, sympathy, and Love, may be greatly enhanced by unity of feeling and action, we, the subscribers, do unitedly pledge ourselves to labour for such objects of benevolence as shall be deemed worthy of assistance...."
The social aspect of the group was quickly established. At the second meeting, in 1846, the ladies voted to serve ice cream for a small charge at the close of the meetings, which would "facilitate the payment of the debt." Membership requirements were also altered at early meetings, with dues increased to one dollar annually and the attendance of gentlemen limited to admission at 8:30 P.M. (the meetings started at 7 P.M.) — no doubt to raise more money by selling ice cream to them as well.
By the sixth meeting, in August 1846, the women had paid off the organ debt and voted to continue their efforts and "endeavor to have a sufficiency of money on hand in case of contingency." A committee was formed for "fire relief," and the first action taken was approval of a motion "that such fancy articles as were in the Circle should be given to the members who had been deprived of theirs." A "sale" was planned for Christmas Eve 1846. Many "useful and ornamental articles" were available and "met with a ready sale." The evening ended with social time and ice cream.
Despite the initial success of the Ladies Union Circle, in July 1847 the group voted to stop holding fairs and by late fall the minutes record that interest was "manifestly declining." To compensate for dwindling numbers, the remaining ladies redoubled their efforts, focusing on increasing membership and preparing a box for the "Missions." The minutes for 1849 indicate the group's feverish activity over the summer to quilt comforters for the box.
As the island's economy began its downward spiral, the Ladies Union Circle found its niche, sewing for missionary boxes and needy community members, reading appropriate religious materials aloud, and assisting their members and neighbors with paying pew taxes. Records kept by the group throughout the late nineteenth century document their benevolent activities, which included making clothing for Civil War volunteers in 1861 and 1862; working for "the sick, suffering, and destitute Negroes among the 15,000 liberated by General Sherman" in 1865, and sending two barrels of clothing to those suffering in Nebraska and at the Five Points Mission in New York in 1895. The ladies were equally attentive to the needs of their own parish, raising money to refit the minister's pew, repair the church clock, fresco the walls, even pay part of the minister's salary in 1872.
At the other end of Centre Street, the women of the Methodist Church organized the Ladies Wesleyan Society in April 1850. Formed "to promote the pecuniary interests of said church, and to assist as possible and practicable the poor and needy members of that church," all members of the church were invited to join the Ladies Wesleyan Society by paying an annual membership fee of twenty-five cents. The women of the Methodist Church did not rely on sewing as their primary means of raising funds. Instead, each member was required "to endeavor to increase the members and funds of the Society, obtain knowledge of necessities cases and report the same to the Society."
Like their Congregational neighbors, the Ladies Wesleyan Society opened its meetings with a Scripture reading and prayer. They also took up a collection at each meeting, to increase their treasury. The balance of this treasury was used to support the church and its activities, with a focus on music for the weekly services. Handwritten entries in the Secretary's Book during the 1880s and 1890s record numerous expenditures for singing, insurance for the organ, and church maintenance. On May 7, 1891, the group voted to give fifty cents every three months for the organist. This was in addition to a previously approved outlay of one dollar per month for singing.
On February 7, 1889, the women agreed to pay for insuring the organ, but instead of dipping into their savings, they voted to have Lizzie M. Pinkham call on each member "to get the money" to insure the organ. By February 15, Pinkham was successful, collecting $5.25 for organ insurance, which provided three years of coverage. Other entries record votes supporting funding for a church janitor, contributions for "church expenses," carpet for the parsonage and vestry, wood and coal, and charity for community members in need. In 1891 alone, the Ladies Wesleyan Society gave $23 to the poor.
Not to be outdone by their neighbors, the women of the Unitarian Church formed the Unitarian Sewing Society around 1850 "to promote social intercourse in the Parish; and to assist in sustaining a liberal church in this community." The bylaws required a collection be taken at each meeting and established committees for "the Clothing, Fancy and other departments"; the "Annual Sale"; and "to see that the Vestry is kept in order." The group's major activities consisted of the annual meeting each September, the "Annual Sale" in August, and the "Parish Tea Party" held on New Year's Day. An anonymous poem, "The Sewing Circle, its design, deeds, and prospects," written in January 1850 described the benefit of these meetings: "It is for social intercourse we meet / And each with kindly sympathies to greet. / Discordant feelings all to lay aside / For suffer might our unity divide ... The longest life; at best, but one short span, / Then for each other, let's do what we can."
Like their Methodist and Congregational sisters, the Unitarian ladies focused on raising money to support the upkeep of their church and to aid the needy in their community. By 1850, according to the anonymous poem, they had already tackled a remarkable number of projects:
When first we met, I think it was agreed
That some be used for what the Church should need
And some also of our means we'd use
To promulgate the Unitarian views
We've sent the Sunday School an ample share ...
We once the gallery with books supplied
Nor has assistance ever been denied
To those whose wants before the circle laid ...
Sometimes we've paid some poor lone widow's rent
And to the Tract Society often sent
Have purchased curtains, pulpit cushions, chairs ...
We've bought a Bible, made some presents too ...
We've done whate'er we've found to do.
During the 1880s, the women appropriated money to repair the floor and the furnace, obtain additional lights for the church, and donated "children's aprons" to the Children's Aid Society. They also fully supported their own activities, using money from the treasury to buy supplies for "fancy articles" to be sold at their annual sale, and voting to paint the "Ladies parlor" in 1884. The satisfaction that these activities provided is evident in the records. As early as 1850, the Unitarian women understood that "if we will but an effort make / we can do something and a fund create." A report on the society's 1880 "social tea party" explained that "all seemed to feel the interest of the Church was increased by such gatherings." In August 1886, the annual sale was successful: "Excellent sales were noted and Committees very faithful and efficient."
Emboldened by their success, the Unitarian Sewing Society plunged forward with their most ambitious project, "to build or buy some place which could be fitted up for a "Parish house" where could be held all [their] church sales, feasts, and entertainments." According to a report on this project, written by Susan E. Brock many years later, the group had tired of the difficulties of mounting their tea parties in the Vestry, which "had no modern conveniences whatever."
The ladies first approached the church trustees who, according to Brock, "thought that what was good enough for our fathers should be good enough for us, and thus consistently opposed all our progressive ideas." So, the ladies took matters into their own hands and began raising money for a new building by holding an annual fair and sponsoring numerous concerts and "entertainments." But the fund-raising activity that put them over the top was an unusual idea that underscores the influence and confidence the women earned through their organization.
Each member had to earn at least one dollar for the treasury. As Brock explained, "it was not a common thing for 'young ladies' to enter business in any way except teaching and the majority of those involved in this scheme had never earned a cent in their lives." Several women made candy, cake, or ice cream to sell. One woman borrowed her father's wagon and drove "old ladies to and from the parties at ten cents a head," at least until a local carriage driver threatened her with the law for carrying passengers without a license! Yet another earned five cents at a time by running errands. By 1894, the ladies had raised $4,000 and the search for a suitable building began. In 1900 they purchased the current parsonage (behind the church at 10 Fair Street), which became a home for Reverend Day and subsequent ministers.
The women of Nantucket's church sewing circles were reacting both to local hardship and national trends, as well as to changes in American gender roles and growing support for women's suffrage. The sewing circles of the Congregational, Methodist, and Unitarian churches provided a social outlet for island women who watched their beloved Nantucket turn into a ghost town, as friends and relations departed for mainland shores and greater opportunities. But the groups also provided their members with a sense of control and power over their community and their lives. Working together to raise money allowed these women to exercise direct influence over how the money was used and how their respective churches operated, while also giving them the authority to define concepts like social welfare and to shape community life. As one Nantucket sewing circle member explained, "Although it little from our large debt takes / Tis many a little many a nickle makes / In woman's name, then, I upon you call / For by her influence we stand, or fall."
Aimee E. Newell is the NHA's curator of collections and a frequent contributor to Historic Nantucket. Her article, "'A genuine relic of old Nantucket': Eliza Ann McCleave's Museum," appeared in the Fall 2000 issue.