Long before the events of April 19, 1775, Massachusetts was already fighting the British government. As taxation soared following the end of the French and Indian War, early Patriots organized boycotts and protests against the Crown. Not everyone had an equal opportunity for voicing their concerns, however. While elite men could involve themselves in government, and men and women of the lower classes could take to the streets in protest, middle and upper-class women were forced by society to think of their reputations and remain silent. Apparently, women who set fire to the stamp-collector’s house just weren’t considered prime marriage material! However, this doesn’t mean that these women were not actively involved in politics in their own way.
At Buckman Tavern, I am often struck by the way gendered spaces in the building are arranged – we believe that the small parlor next to the kitchen at the back of the house was used as a ladies’ parlor, and it sits directly behind the West Room, a frequent spot for clandestine Patriot meetings. There is no closeable door between these two rooms, allowing the inhabitants of the back parlor to eavesdrop on conversations in the front. I like to think that that the women of Lexington hatched most of their patriotic plans in this room, including the Lexington Spinning Bee, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year.
Fashion in the 18th century was serious business for both men and women. Your status in society was displayed by your clothing: how in style it was, and what materials it was made of. Fashion also benefited the British economy, as dressmaking fabric was made in England and then imported. Therefore, a fabric boycott was an obvious choice for the Patriot cause, and women, long stereotyped as textile producers, were able to step up to organize and implement these boycotts.
In urban towns like Lexington, most women had only a basic knowledge of textile production. Many were taught to spin, but most houses were producing only coarse, basic linen fabric that could be used around the house for utilitarian purposes. This all changed during boycott years. Sales for spinning wheels skyrocketed as women rushed to be seen creating homespun fabric for the Patriot cause. Ads in newspapers and protest songs proclaimed that local women were refusing marriage proposals from anyone not following the boycott, and tying up their hair with twine instead of silk ribbon.
This culminated in Lexington on August 31, 1769, when forty-five women congregated with their spinning wheels at the home of Daniel Harrington, facing the town common (the house, torn down after the Bicentennial, is now the empty lot on Harrington Street). Over the course of the day, from sunup to sundown, they spun 602 “knots” of 40 yards each of linen and 546 knots of cotton, almost enough thread to cover a marathon route. The thread produced at these spinning matches was often lumpy and unusable, but, as it was ceremoniously presented to Anna Harrington at the end of the day, the crowd would have been proud that they had not only created something that could further the Patriot cause, but that they had been able to hold a public protest nearly fifty people strong under the guise of “genteel women’s work”. Anyone from that point forward seen wearing homespun would automatically be recognized as a true Patriot.
250 years to the day, the Historical Society is recreating this event in its original location. Both historical reenactors and modern spinners alike will be gathering at the Harrington property to demonstrate their craft and talk about the politics of the original protest. Visitors will be able to get a sense of the whole process of creating clothing from start to finish in the 18th century, from combing freshly shorn wool and flax, to spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing.
We will also be kicking off this event earlier in the month with a special lecture, “I Am An Honest Woman: Female Revolutionary Resistance” by Dr. Emily Murphy of the National Park Service. Join us on August 8th at 7:00 PM at the Depot to find out just how revolutionary these protests were before you see it live for yourself. Space is limited for lectures and reservations are required; email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your seat. Be sure to keep an eye on our events page over the summer for more information!
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.