By Zoë Greblunas
Rutgers University Intern

Visitors to Historic Cold Spring Village in Cape May, NJ have the opportunity to witness all kinds of trades that advanced the economic, political, and cultural position of the United States from the 17th to 19th centuries. From hunting whales in Coxe Hall Cottage to forging metals in the J. Finely Blacksmith Shop, the living history museum showcases how the people of Colonial and Early American South Jersey lived and worked.

One home in particular highlights the group of people behind the scenes, the ones who rarely get credit for all they do: women. At the Corson-Hand House, presentations on spinning and weaving show how important fiber arts was to the foundation of the nation. Built in 1837 in Tuckahoe, NJ, the Corson-Hand House resembles other styles of homes popular in South Jersey at the time. The main structure is symmetrical with a center door and windows on either side, but the addition of a lean-to on the left side gives it an interesting shape. Today, that lean-to is home to a massive loom which gives perspective on how technical the skill became. Through presentations at the Corson-Hand House, the importance of women and the cloth they wove becomes clear.

Textile production was one of England’s most profitable industries. British manufacturers used the Colonies to supply cheap, raw materials. To maintain their monopoly over the textile industry, the English went so far as to establish the Wool Act of 1699 which prohibited the Colonies from exporting wool and wool-based products to anyone outside of the British Empire. The ban was set following an increased number of colonists producing and selling their own finished goods instead of buying English fabric at exorbitant prices.

As a reaction to the Act, the “Homespun” Movement swept across the Colonies. As women were responsible for obtaining household supplies, creating their own clothing lessened the reliance on imported goods and became a powerful tool for rebellion. The Daughters of Liberty, an organization founded in 1766 for women assisting in independence efforts, established mass “Spinning Bees” where they would spin wool instead of buying English products. Around the Colonies, wearing American-made fabric became a point of pride. The spinning wheel itself eventually became a symbol of American resistance.

Women’s work is often overlooked in history, but their valuable contributions extend even to the clothes on our backs. While the Corson-Hand House was not yet built during the American Revolution, it tells the story of how women were able to bring independence to the United States despite not having independence themselves. Spinning and weaving provided women who were restricted to the domestic sphere their first step into the public one. This story is just one of many that visitors will learn at the Corson-Hand House. By exploring the history of the fiber arts, the role of women in early American society becomes clear.