By Jill M. Hall

Then, as he opened the door, he beheld the form of the maiden
Seated beside her wheel, and the carded wool like a snow-drift
Piled at her knee, her white hands feeding the ravenous spindle,
While with her foot on the treadle she guided the wheel in its motion.

The Courtship of Miles Standish, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Priscilla Mullins spinning (from the 1876 edition of Longfellow's 'The Courtship of Miles Standish'.)

When Longfellow imagined the John Alden-Priscilla Mullins-Miles Standish love triangle, he depicted Priscilla spinning as Alden arrived to offer Standish’s marriage proposal. The image of a spinning maiden is an old one, and both in the time of the Pilgrims (early 1600s) and in Longfellow’s day (mid-1800s) this image was shorthand for female industry and piety as well as domestic tranquility. Longfellow was undoubtedly invoking that symbolism when he chose spinning as Priscilla’s activity, but do the historical facts support that choice?

When Priscilla and the rest of the Mayflower Pilgrims sailed in 1620, spinning was a common daily activity for many women and children both in England, the Pilgrims’ homeland, and Holland, the land of their religious exile. It was poorly paid work, but provided the extra income many working class families needed in order to make ends meet through the lean times of year. Dutch portraits from the 1500s and early 1600s often show women spinning, usually in a well-appointed interior on a wheel, demonstrating that spinning was common enough to be immediately understood by the viewer not only for what it was but for what it meant – that the subject of the portrait was a well-to-do paragon of domestic virtue. Genre paintings from the same period show poor women spinning, often in a doorway or courtyard with an unsupported spindle, demonstrating that the activity was ubiquitous and necessary.

The reality the Mayflower’s passengers found upon arrival at Plymouth in December, however, was completely alien to them. To their eyes, they were in a wilderness, and everything had to be done and made from scratch. They saw no houses, no tilled fields, no grist mill, not to mention no neighboring village with a helpful weekly market day.

In order to secure start-up funding for the colony, the colonists agreed to work six days per week for seven years to procure goods to send back to England (lumber, salted fish, furs) and to produce their own food. All other necessities would be supplied by the financial backers (hopefully out of the colony’s profits). This is the classic colonial economic system we all learned in grade school: the colony supplies the raw materials for the established industries back home and also becomes a market for the Mother Country’s finished goods.

Records from the early years of Plymouth Colony show that the necessities sent from England included cloth, ready-made clothing, and shoes as well as sugar, oil, and tools. Knitted stockings, a small article we might reasonably expect housewives to make at home, also show up among the imported goods. The fact was that by the 1620s knitted stockings were so cheap and readily available that it was more economical to import wool hose ready-made than to ship over the yarn to knit them. The colonists’ heavy responsibilities to their financial backers plus the ability to import clothing and textiles even if, as was often the case, in insufficient quantities, are two counts against the likelihood of spinning or any other fiber processing activity in these early years.

Priscilla winding a ball of yarn by hand (from the 1876 edition of Longfellow's 'The Courtship of Miles Standish'.)Another strike against spinning is the lack of sheep in the colony. The primary source records frequently mention cows, goats, pigs and chickens in Plymouth, but no sheep. The first reference to sheep is found in a court record from January, 1628 (1627 in the original, or Old Style calendar, when the New Year began on March 25). Miles Standish buys Abraham Pierce’s two shares in a cow and pays him in ewe lambs, one to be delivered presently, the next the following spring. A man who can promise a ewe lamb must have more than one ewe expecting, plus of course the ram. Standish in 1627 likely had at least two, possibly three or more ewes of lambing age. These sheep do not appear in the list of colony-owned cattle which was made up in 1627, and Standish was independently disposing of their offspring, so they must have belonged solely to him. No record survives to show when these sheep were brought over, although Standish had traveled to England on the colony’s business in 1625 and may have acquired them then. More to our point, a small privately owned flock was not supplying the colony with large quantities of wool to be processed.

The persistent picture of the self-sufficient colonial housewife who provided food and clothing for her family through her own skill and effort does have some basis in fact. But as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich showed in The Age of Homespun and The Midwife’s Tale, it was not universally true in all places throughout the almost 300 years of colonial history. The evidence thus far adds up to a complete lack of spinning, fiber processing or cloth production in the first years of Plymouth. But in the New England the colonists were trying to make, how long was it before spindles, wheels and looms began to appear?

The best resource we have for answering that question is the probate inventories. These lists of possessions, assets and debts were made after the death usually of a man, sometimes of a woman, and entered into the colony’s records. The earliest probate inventories that survive from Plymouth Colony are dated 1632/3, when a sickness swept the town. None of these inventories list any fiber processing tools or raw fiber. A spindle could possibly be just a stick, or a stick and a weight; a niddy-noddy isn’t much more. These might not be valuable enough to be included in an inventory, especially if only the husband died and those tools went with the wife. In one case both a husband and wife died, leaving two underage daughters and a son; this sad event leaves us with the rare and valuable inventory of a family’s entire goods. No fiber tools, no raw fiber.

Fiber tools, including small and great wheels, cards, “loom furniture,” and raw fiber (hemp, flax and wool) begin to appear in the probate inventories of the late 1630s, sparsely at first, and then more and more frequently. In the late 1620s the colony discharged the original debt, freeing the majority of the colonists from the burden of working for the financiers. Families received their payoff of acreage and moved away from the original little village to begin fashioning the better life they had envisioned. In the 1630s more and more colonists flooded what is now New England. New colonies were established along the coast north and south of Plymouth, beyond what is now Boston and throughout Cape Cod.

The proliferation of new colonists meant new markets, especially for the relatively established residents of Plymouth, who were now able to take advantage of their head start by selling livestock to the newcomers. Soon enough the colonists began to compensate for the high-priced and irregular imports from the Old Country (political and social unrest in England disrupted trade for decades) by supplying their own needs, textile and otherwise. By the 1640s, spinning was back in the lives of the colonists, and the New England textile industry was born.

Priscilla may well have been pious, diligent, virtuous and docile, as Longfellow (a descendant of John and Priscilla) suggested by his imagery. She and John Alden were certainly married (c.1622/3), for over 50 years, producing at least 10 children. She may even have been a skilled spinner. But whether John Alden visited Priscilla Mullins to plead Standish’s case or his own, he couldn’t possibly have found her spinning.

For Further Reading

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1994.
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation 1620 - 1647. Ed. Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Longfellow Henry Wadsworth, The Courtship of Miles Standish. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1903.
Plymouth Colony Wills & Inventories. Transcriptions in the collection of Plimoth Plantation, Inc., Plymouth, MA.
Thirsk, Joan. “The fantastical folly of fashion: the English stocking knitting industry, 1500-1700.” Textile history and economic history: essays in honour of Miss Julia de Lacy Mann, eds. N.B. Harte, N.B.; K.G. Ponting. Manchester: 1973. 50-73.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Midwife’s Tale. New York: Vintage, 1991.

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Editor’s Note: Jill M. Hall was the recipient of the Pennsylvania Mayflower Society’s national 13th Annual Katharine F. Little Distinguished Mayflower Scholarship Award in 2011. Mrs. Hall is the former manager of the Plimoth Plantation Colonial Wardrobe Department.