March 21, 1851

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SPRING, from Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, April, 1851

1851

March 21 Friday  Have heat the oven twice to day

baked 15 mince pies, 2 loaves bread & 

two sheets cup cake & ginger snaps  got the 

last oven full in about twelve.

This afternoon have been looking over my

accounts and mending stockings A[u]gustus dined

here.  Helen came to night in the stage

Pleasant weather but sloppy.

Vernal Equinox, at last.  The first day of spring was mild, with the earth tilting in the right direction. If the ground hadn’t been “sloppy” and she hadn’t been tied to the oven, Evelina might have gone outside to inspect her flower beds to see if any bulbs were peeking up through the disappearing snow.

Evelina, and probably Sarah Witherell, too, baked today.  Evelina made her patented host of mince meat pies to be served over the next week or two. Brown bread, cake and ginger snaps also had a turn in the capacious brick oven, no doubt filling the house with some wonderful aromas.  Pleasant day outside, pleasant day inside.

Nephew Augustus Gilmore, still bookkeeping next door, continued to dine with the family at midday, perhaps walking back from the office or counting house at noon with Oakes.  Niece Helen Ames arrived home via stagecoach from her boarding school in New Bedford for a weekend visit, although “weekend” was not a term most people in town would have used.  The shovel shop ran six days a week, after all, so Saturday had no special connotation for most citizens of North Easton.

March 20, 1851

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Shirt bosoms

/51

March 20 This morning at 1/2 past seven commenced 

a fine bleach shirt for one of my sons

and finished it about ten Oclock this evening

Made the whole but stiching the bosom

Mrs Witherell brought the 8th bosom that

she has stiched for me this forenoon and 

sat with me two hours  William left this 

morning.  Clothes dried and ironed.  Cloudy & snowy

A[u]gustus here to dine

Today Old Oliver wrote in his daily journal:

“it is a snowing moderately this morning  William left here this morni[n]g for New Jersey.  It did not snow long but it was cloudy all day wind north west but it thawed some.”

William went back to the family-financed foundry in New Jersey for a final time before making the momentous change of striking west.  He wanted to put distance between himself and the shovel operations in Easton.  With his older brothers Oakes and Oliver Jr. managing the family business, his only chance at success was to find his own niche somewhere beyond their reach. At age 38, he was about to begin a very different life.

As William rode off, Evelina, naturally, was wielding needle and thread.  After so many days of sewing shirts, she was adept enough to sew one entirely in a single day, beginning just after breakfast and finishing up right before bed.  Having her kind sister-in-law Sarah Witherell to sew with for part of the day was a pleasant diversion.  That Sarah contributed so many “bosoms” (detachable shirt fronts also known as dickies, false-fronts, and, in the 20th century, tux fronts) suggests that some of the shirts might have been destined for the men in her care, her father Old Oliver and her son, George Oliver Witherell.

March 19, 1851

Slaves

1851

March 19 Wednesday  This morning commenced another

shirt that was cut out last fall & the

sleeves finished & the body nearly ready for the

bosom. Made the bosom & collar and finished

it all off this evening. Mr Ames went to

Boston this morning The snow is not deep but

much banked Augustus here to breakfast & dinner

Orinthia finished the shirt that she worked on yesterday

The last days of winter in Easton appeared calm, with the final snowfall (they hoped) on the ground, nephew Augustus still pulling up a chair to the Ames dinner table, and Evelina and Orinthia sitting near the windows, sewing more men’s shirts. But all wasn’t well in the nation. Since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act the previous fall, discord over the issue of slavery had increased.  In Boston, where Oakes Ames went today, passions ran high among abolitionists.

What did Oakes and Evelina think of the debate? The Ames men admired Daniel Webster, but the famous Whig senator had helped engineer the political compromise that led to the slave act and been roundly denounced for what many in Massachusetts saw as a sell-out. In the interest of preserving national unity, Webster urged his constituents to obey the federal law. If the story that historian William Chaffin tells is true, Oakes Ames disobeyed it. Writes Chaffin:

“Rev L. B. Bates was once here as Methodist minister.  He says that one night not long after the passage of the infamous Fugitive Slave Law a poor slave called him up at midnight for food and help. Rev. Bates fed him and then took him to Oakes Ames who gave him money and sent him on his way rejoicing.”

Lewis Bates was certainly a respected minister in North Easton, but he wasn’t appointed until 1859, so the timing in his recollection of Oakes Ames assisting a runaway slave close on the heels of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act doesn’t jibe. Either Bates got it wrong in the telling or, because he was writing the story many decades later, Chaffin got it wrong in the remembering. The whole tale may be apocryphal, but two ministers believed it to be true. Helping a slave would have been in keeping with Oakes’s generous spirit.

March 18, 1851

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1851

March 18th Tuesday  A very bad north East snow

and Orinthia did not keep school and we both

sit down to sewing quite early.  She to work

on a coarse shirt for Oakes Angier and I have

made a collar and finished the shirt that

I commenced yesterday  Wm Called for the 

first time since he came here.  A[u]gustus dined 

& spent the night

More snow, enough to call off school and prevent nephew Augustus Gilmore from departing to his lodgings at Mr. Wrightman’s.  Did it fall on any little crocuses in Evelina’s flower beds? Wasn’t it getting to be springtime?

Augustus, a man with a robust figure and evident appetite, continued to spend time with the Ames family, often joining them at dinner. Did he pay for his board, or did Evelina and Oakes give him free meals?  Evelina began to track his meals by underlining those occasions in her diary.  Why? Did she begrudge her nephew’s presence in the dining room, or did her tracking of his meals have some other purpose?

William Leonard Ames, youngest living son of Old Oliver, had been visiting in North Easton for ten days, yet today was the first time he called on Evelina and Oakes.  His avoidance of their parlor spoke loudly of the animosity between William and Oakes.  His pronounced delay in paying a call on his oldest brother might well have been his only way to retaliate for the financial distress that Oakes had caused him in the closing of the family ironworks in New Jersey, an operation that had been in William’s care.  For a deeply researched account of the particulars of the rift between the two brothers, in which the blame seems to lie more with Oakes, see Greg Galer’s thesis, Forging Ahead.  

March 17, 1851

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March 17  Monday  A very cloudy windy morning  Jane could

not put her clothes out.  Orinthia washed the dishes

& I made the beds &c. Commenced working on a

fine unbleached shirt that was cut out

last Nov & partly finished.  It is all done but

[…] putting in the sleeves & making Collar and 

binding  Cut out some receipts for my scrap 

book from the Ploughman  A[u]gustus here to dine

The Massachusetts Ploughman was an agricultural newspaper published in Boston that provided reading material for a number of Ameses.  It was probably subscribed to by Old Oliver, who maintained an interest in farming that he couldn’t seem to pass on to any of his children. Although the Ames shovel business had helped turn once-rural North Easton into a productive, if small, industrial village, agriculture still ruled the show as the “largest single sector of the economy even in the highly commercial states of Massachusetts and Connecticut.”** Most people still farmed, raised livestock, worried about bringing in the hay, and looked for guidance from experts such as those behind the Ploughman masthead.  Evelina turned to the paper for recipes.

It may have been St. Patrick’s Day, but no celebrating would have gone on in the Ames compound.  At the factory, however, things might have been different. Thirteen years from this date, in the middle of the Civil War and less than a year after Old Oliver’s death, Oliver Jr. would note in his diary that on “St Patricks day did not run Engines in Shop.”  Was that also true in 1851, or did Old Oliver’s animosity toward the Irish preclude such an indulgence?

* A late-19th century copy of the Massachusetts Ploughman after it merged with the New England Journal of Agriculture.

** Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840, 

March 16, 1851

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March 16th Sunday.  Went to meeting all day.  Oakes Angier

did not go. There were but a very few present

as it was very windy & cloudy commenced raining about

noon. Spent the intermission at Mr. Whitwells.

I liked both sermons, particularly in the afternoon.

Orinthia staid at home in the afternoon having

a bad cold This Evening wrote a letter to Louisa

J Mower & read the papers

Most of the Ames family attended church today. The crummy weather couldn’t keep them at at home, although it affected the travel of others in the congregation. Evelina continued to admire Reverend Whitwell and listened carefully to his sermons. She enjoyed the company of his wife Eliza, with whom she spent today’s intermission between services. Orinthia Foss, meanwhile, went back to the house at noon with a cold. Did she catch it yesterday when the ladies were out making calls?

After church on Sunday was usually a quiet time. The Ameses followed the old Puritan practice of not working on the Sabbath. Sewing was included in that stricture, meaning that Sunday was the one day Evelina gave her thimble a rest. She usually filled what we would call “down time” by writing letters or reading. On this afternoon, she wrote a letter to Louisa Mower in Maine, perhaps bringing Louisa up to date on Orinthia’s stay in Easton and her new teaching responsibilities.

As for reading, Evelina and Oakes either subscribed to or bought directly (in Boston) various periodicals and newspapers.  One of her favorites was Godey’s Ladys Magazine, a popular women’s monthly published in Philadelphia. If Evelina looked through the March issue today, in the section entitled “Editors Book Table,” she may have read notices for two books just published by George Putnam in New York. The first was The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell (pen name for Susan Warner), a Christian-themed novel that would be a big bestseller and a mainstay of 19th century fiction for decades. The short review described the book as “carefully and naturally written, manifesting in every page the anxiety of the author […] to inculcate profitable lessons in real life.” Both Evelina and her daughter would read it.

James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder was next in the list of new books and promised more adventure than The Wide, Wide World. Evelina never mentioned reading any of Cooper’s books but perhaps her sons, who also loved to read, enjoyed the Leather Stocking Tales.

March 15, 1851

Rein

1851

March 15th Saturday  This morning Orinthia & myself gave the sitting

room &c a thourough cleaning & afterwards sat down to 

sewing.  Mended a number of articles  Orinthia put some

new sleeves into an old shirt of Franks that were small

This afternoon Orinthia Susan & I went down to Mothers with Charley,

called at Mr Guilds & Howards to see about her school and at Major Sebas & Mrs R

Howards.  Mr Ames brought from Boston Velvet chalk.  Pleasant

Charley was a horse, one of several that the Ames family owned.  Today Charley was put to work pulling Evelina, her daughter Susan and the new teacher, Orinthia Foss, in a carriage along the rough road from North Easton to the Gilmore farm near the Raynham town line. This, after Evelina’s mentioning only the day before the “bad traveling” on the local roads. They must have had a bumpy ride.  The weather was nice, though, so on they went.

Coming back from the Gilmore farm, they made several calls, the first two at Mr. Guild’s and at Elijah and Nancy Howard’s on school matters.  Evelina continued to act with or for Orinthia Foss “about her school.”  The ladies were on a roll with their visiting and stopped in at Seba and Eleuthera Howard’s farm.  Their last stop was a visit to Mrs. Roland Howard, a widow who was also a member of the Sewing Circle.

Evelina, Orinthia and Susan weren’t the only travelers out this day.  Oakes Ames made his usual Saturday trip into Boston on shovel business and brought back some “Velvet chalk” for dressmaking.

March 14, 1851

Hose

March 14 Friday  Quite early this morning sat down to 

mending the stockings.  Jane had mended them for two

or three weeks & they were very much out of order.  At

ten Oclock comenced working on the new pattern shirt

& finished it before eight the bosom was ready to put in.

made the button holes & helped Orinthia finish a

a coarse shirt of Oakes Angier.  Very pleasant

but bad traveling

Jane McHanna, the Irish servant who did the laundry and cooking for Evelina and Oakes Ames, was not much of a seamstress.  She had recently been assigned the task of mending everyone’s stockings, or hose as they were also known, but evidently, Jane’s mending did not pass muster. Evelina had to see to the work herself.  This explains why we’ve never heard of Jane sewing any of the shirts that Evelina had been working on for weeks.

Orinthia Foss was around to rely on, however.  When not teaching her little classroom, she seemed to help Evelina in various ways, sewing and choring.  Evelina must have been grateful not just for the assistance, but also for the company of another adult female in a home usually filled with the sounds and sights of four grown men and one little schoolgirl.

“Bad traveling” meant that the roads were in transition from winter to spring.  Roads weren’t paved, of course, so by this time of the year they were rutted, rough and still patchy with snow or wet with puddles. Sleighs no longer worked, so wagons, carriages and carts had to bump and rock along the byways.  Hard to say who had tougher going, the animals pulling or the passengers riding.

March 13, 1851

mens_fashion_1856

1851  March 13  Thursday  This forenoon worked on an old pair of 

pants for Oliver  They needed a great deal of 

repairing and I worked on them untill two Oclock

This afternoon & evening spent at Alsons with Oliver 

& wife, Wm Reed & wife, Mrs Whitwell, A[u]gustus & J. Pool

& wife passed a very pleasant afternoon.  I knit on

Susans Angola yarn stocking.  It has stormed

quite hard all the afternoon, got there about five Oclock

Did the Ames men dress like the gentlemen in this 1850’s illustration?  Oakes Ames, as we know from stories his appalled friends told, did not dress so well. But his sons might have aspired to be fashionable. Certainly Oliver (3), whose old pants Evelina mended today, might have wished for such an outfit, one that befitted a man with his eye on college.

It’s doubtful that the pants Evelina sewed today came out looking like those in the fashion plate.  As accomplished a seamstress as she was, the men’s pants she was most familiar with were working pants, the ones her sons wore to the shovel shop everyday. It took her several hours to repair this pair. Then, not willing to let her hands be idle, she carried a knitting project to her brother Alson’s, perhaps traveling there with her brother-in-law, Oliver Jr. and his wife Sarah Lothrop Ames. The Gilmores were having a little gathering.

Alson and Henrietta Gilmore seemed to be socializing a great deal this month.  Last week they held a dance that the Ames sons attended, this week they had friends in for tea, and sometime before that they had sent their nineteen-year-old daughter, Lavinia, into town to stay with the Ames family for a week. What was going on? Did this increased social activity stem from cabin fever or was it mere coincidence? Were the Gilmores working to find a husband for Lavinia?

The Angola yarn that Evelina knitted into a stocking for little Susie is something of a mystery ingredient. Does any reader know about this yarn?

March 12, 1851

Abbott H. Thayer, Angel, 1887, oil Smithsonian American Art Museum Gift of John Gellatly

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March 12th  Wednesday.  This morning commenced the new pattern shirt

but got but very little time to work on it.  Miss Eaton

died about eight Oclock  Mrs Witherell & Mrs S Ames laid

her out & this evening I went with Mrs Witherell to 

help her put on the robe which she made this afternoon

Mrs S Ames & myself went to the sewing circle at

Daniel Reeds  There were about twenty of us.

worked on striped shirts.  Very pleasant

A[u]gustus here to dine

This must have been an emotional day for Evelina.  Miss Eaton, a neighbor, died after a lingering illness. Sarah Ames and Sarah Witherell prepared Miss Eaton’s body, and Evelina helped put a shroud, or robe, on the corpse.  For months now, the three sisters-in-law and others had been looking after Miss Eaton. Everyone had anticipated her demise, but still, it must have been hard when she finally passed away.

After the Ames women had prepared Miss Eaton’s corpse for burial, two of them, Sarah Ames and Evelina, rode out to a meeting of the Sewing Circle.  This was the first meeting since Evelina’s own ill-attended meeting back in February.  The gathering was held at the home of Daniel and Mary Reed and about twenty women attended.  If Evelina felt awkward, she didn’t say so in her diary.  Perhaps there were women there she had been hurt by, perhaps not. Perhaps people apologized for not having shown up at Evelina’s, perhaps not. Whatever exchanges or pleasantries took place as the ladies worked on striped shirts, the mood of the afternoon must have been tinged with the sorrow of the morning and the loss of Miss Eaton. Death in the neighborhood put things in perspective.

Abbot H. Thayer, Angel, 1887, oil, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Gift of John Gellatly