Author: Brian Schools
“Someone listening for a carol only hears her say, merry songs and merry stitches used to wing the day. Mate or master of my singing all the best was heard, in my cottage nest a busy, Little Sewing Bird!”
This excerpt from a poem by Lucy Larcom in 1858 could be interpreted as affection, or perhaps contempt for the ornate little metal bird that sat affixed to the edge of her sewing table. Lucy Larcom grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts where she began working in the textile mills at age eleven. Her writing often reflected shifting views of gender, labor, and class in the early industrial towns of New England like Lowell. Perhaps some of the girls at Dorchester Industrial School, while toiling over their sewing tasks, held the same mixed feelings for the sewing bird as Lucy.
The protagonist of Lucy’s poem was first patented in 1853 by a man named Charles Waterman of Meridan Connecticut, who designed the sewing bird to be an extra set of hands for a young seamstress. Once clamped to the table, fabric could be held tightly in the bird’s mouth by giving the tail a pinch. A sewing bird much like Lucy’s was found in a privy deposit that dates from around 1860 to 1890, during the archaeological excavations at Dorchester Industrial School for Girls.
A precursor to the sewing machine, the sewing bird replaced simple clamps that had been used previously to hold fabric in place while sewing. They could vary greatly in ornamentation and decoration, with more lavish birds perhaps indicating a wealthy owner’s attempt to show status in the domestic sphere. Ornate sewing birds were sometimes given as engagement gifts to a bride to be — a representation of affection that may have also served to solidify gender roles and the place of women within the home. A simpler example, like the copper-alloy one recovered from the privy deposit, was likely used as a teaching tool at the Dorchester Industrial School.
Girls admitted to the School often came from families unable to support them financially, or found it difficult to deal with their behavior. The missions of industrial and reform schools for girls often embraced preparing them for a life within the home or industry, and sewing skills held high value in both realms. This training was seen as a way for the girls to support themselves financially; girls who developed these skills were often placed in middle and upper-class homes to serve as domestic servants around the age of sixteen. In addition to the need for domestic servants, which was the occupation of about half of all female workers listed in the 1870 census, industrial towns in New England like Lowell had doubled in size by 1860, providing employment for women and girls within the textile industry.
Both the archaeological and documentary records reveal that sewing had a prominent presence at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls. Over 900 sewing related artifacts were recovered from the same privy deposit layer in which the sewing bird was found. The single sewing bird was excavated in four separate pieces that mended together, along with needle fragments made of bone, iron, and copper. Tatting shuttles, crochet hooks, six copper alloy thimbles, and hundreds of copper alloy pins and pin fragments are just some of the other items recovered that indicate heavy sewing activity at the school during the 1860s to 1890s.
The School’s written monthly reports recorded from 1861 to 1871 mention sewing activities on multiple occasions each year. In February 1861, the managers considered hiring Miss Mead as a teacher, but instead decided to have her help with the spring sewing. By April 1862 a sewing department was in place at the school. In September 1863, the managers expressed their satisfaction with Miss Webster as a teacher, especially in the sewing and mending department.
There is also evidence to suggest that some of the children’s sewing tasks provided the School with a source of income, rather than simply opportunities to teach skills. That same September one of the managers had requested the reduction of the students’ mending tasks. Two years later in June 1865, the managers decided that the students could take in sewing work and be paid for it. The girls had wished to contribute some of their earnings towards the purchase of a melodeon, a small accordion style instrument.
Sewing also played a very functional role at the school–clothing the students. In November 1869, the managers brought in dressmakers to sew dresses for the girls, who were allowed to assist them in doing so. They produced eleven dresses in just over a week. Perhaps a sewing machine could have been used by the girls and dressmakers at this time. In 1865 a sewing machine is mentioned by the managers as being at the school, but was not functioning properly and had been “shelved”.
While it is hard to determine just who may have owned this little sewing bird, we do know that it was thrown into the privy by someone at the school. Was it a symbol of wealth or love that was stolen out of jealousy to be later discarded to conceal the evidence? The monthly reports make several mentions of girls stealing objects. Or was it broken intentionally by a student who resented being overworked during training by Miss Webster in 1863? Could it have quite simply belonged to someone hired to help with the spring sewing and it fell apart, to take one final flight down into the privy? It is an object full of mystery, but still a useful indicator of issues of reform, gender, class, and labor as reflected in daily life at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls.