J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

“The Ruffles So Shockingly Hemmed”

In 1786, Isaiah Thomas’s printing shop in Worcester produced a little book called The Brother’s Gift: Or, the Naughty Girl Reform’d. The text was pirated from a book published by Francis Newbery in London several years before. It tells the gripping story of how Miss Kitty Bland returned from boarding school with a whole bunch of bad habits, and how her brother lectured her until she improved. Here’s one of the culminating episodes:

It happened that her Brother has desired her to make him a dozen shirts; and as soon as the first of them was done, Mrs, Cary the house-keeper presented it to him: But the wristbands were so carelessly stitched and the ruffles so shockingly hemmed, that he found great fault with it.

Mrs. Cary indeed told him that she was sure Miss could do better if she would; wherefore he took her on one side, and spoke to her to the following effect.

“My dear Kitty, said he, I am astonished you should be so careless in your needle-work; since there is no female accomplishment more useful than this. How greatly does it contribute to render our persons more decent, more agreeable, and more beautiful! I do not mean that you should apply so much to your needle as to hurt your eyes or constitution; all I mean is, that you should not despise this qualification as mean, and beneath the character of a gentlewoman, for I will venture to say, there never was an accomplished lady without a competent skill in this art.”

This conversation had the desired effect; for no milliner in London could have finished a shirt better than the remainder were done; for which reason, as a mark of approbation, her Brother made her a present of a fine new pair of stays. And here they are.
We just don’t see this type of story in children’s publishing anymore. Not even a modern equivalent—brother berates sister for serving him poorly, sister does better, and brother gives sister a brassiere. And then the publisher would show young readers a picture of the brassiere.

At least the illustration is easily explained. Thomas’s shop had little difficulty resetting the type of the English book, but the original woodcuts were back in London. The American market was starting to expect children’s books to contain pictures, so Thomas had to come up with something. This ornament was probably on hand in case a staymaker wanted to advertise in the Massachusetts Spy, as in the 18th Century Stays blog’s example of an ad from a Pennsylvania newspaper. So the printers just popped it into The Brother’s Gift.

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