Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Posadas, Barbara Mercedes, 1945-

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of History


Needlework--United States--History; Needlework in literature; Women--United States--Social conditions


“Unravelling a Pastime: Needlework and Needlework Literature, 1870–1910” examines women who, either for diversion or as part of routine unpaid household labor, performed needlework. Specifically, it explains how late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women who lived in Illinois, Iowa, or Wisconsin interpreted their needlework vis-à-vis their housework. In a social context, where women's household labor was romanticized, and increasingly reduced to shopping, needlework afforded middle-class women an opportunity to reformulate the meaning of their work. This dissertation also shows how related literature—namely needlework patterns, articles, and advertisements for needlework-related products that appeared in women's magazines—could reinforce those views. Women's diaries and account books provide a picture of women's views. The Ladies' Home Journal, The Delineator, Harpers' Bazar, Peterson's Magazine, and Pictorial Review furnish information on needlework content in magazines. Needleworkers believed their needlework was a valuable form of productive labor. Women distinguished between different types of needlework. Obvious differences existed between mending or clothes-making and executing fancy designs in embroidery. Despite these distinctions, women considered all manifestations of their needlework to be work—even the fancy needlework that they performed as time allowed. Women also used needlework as a way to discount or minimize the growing importance of shopping in their work routines. A preoccupation with future finished products typically dwarfed the act of shopping for necessary supplies. Various means enabled women to assess the value of their needlework. However, women did not take available market indices as authoritative determinants of the value of their work. They recognized that subjective and emotional kinds of value were more meaningful than artificially determined cash prices. Women's magazines contained numerous and even contradictory messages about needlework. Women could easily find text that either implicitly or explicitly reinforced their own views and experience. Advertisements contained similar messages. In conveying information about products, advertising copy often presented needlework as work, emphasized what needleworkers could produce, and associated women's needlework with various sorts of value. Thus women knew from experience, and could corroborate by reading, that needlework was a productive and valuable form of work.


Includes bibliographical references (pages [311]-348).


348 pages




Northern Illinois University

Rights Statement

In Copyright

Rights Statement 2

NIU theses are protected by copyright. They may be viewed from Huskie Commons for any purpose, but reproduction or distribution in any format is prohibited without the written permission of the authors.

Media Type