Earle, Alice Morse

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EARLE, Alice Morse

Born Mary Alice Morse, 27 April 1851, Worcester, Massachusetts; died 16 February 1911, Hempstead, New York

Daughter of Edwin and Abigail Clary Morse; married Henry Earle, 1874 (died); children: four

Alice Morse Earle, antiquarian and social historian, was a descendant of men important in the history of New England and Massachusetts. She was educated at Worcester High School and at Dr. Gannett's boarding school in Boston. After her marriage, Earle moved to Brooklyn Heights and remained there her entire life. Her early life was devoted to her husband and the care of her four children, with little thought to a career in writing or history. After the death of her husband, Earle traveled extensively through Europe with her sister. It was about this time that family members, particularly her father, began urging her to write professionally. True to her heritage, Earle was an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Society of Colonial Dames. She was also a supporter of the woman suffrage movement.

The publication of The Sabbath in Puritan New England (1891) marked the beginning of Earle's writing career, and during the next 12 years, she authored, edited, and contributed to the publication of 17 books and over 30 articles describing various aspects of early American history. All of Earle's works deal with the human, domestic side of American history. Utilizing primary source materials—wills, letters, journals, newspapers, court records—Earle pieced together an accurate picture of what everyday life was like in colonial America.

Earle had a particular interest in the role played by women in early America. All of her books contain a great deal of information on the economic and social activities of women in families and their respective communities. In The Diary of Anna Green Winslow: A Boston School Girl of 1771 (1894) and Margaret Winthrop (1895), Earle views her subjects as representative women of their times and utilizes them as focal points for discussing the everyday lives, duties, and responsibilities of women in the colonial era.

Earle's articles and books were widely read and appreciated by her contemporaries. Celebration of the Revolutionary centennial in 1876 had reawakened popular interest in early American history. This popular interest demanded a new kind of historical literature devoted to the life of American society, and Earle's books and articles found a welcoming audience. She never sacrificed her scholarship and historical integrity to meet the demands of her public, however. Her research was always of the highest quality, and she shared an interest in unearthing historical truths with professionally schooled historians.

As the early New England Puritans' lives were centered around their religion and church attendance, so too is The Sabbath in Puritan New England. A compendium of material on the Puritan sabbath, it ranges from a discussion of the New England meeting house to the duties of the church deacon; from the history of music in Puritan services to a commentary on the seating arrangements of our forefathers. In her discussion of the Puritans, Earle reveals the human side of their lives and of their religion. She utilizes the diaries, letters, sermons, and writings of men like Judge Sewall and Cotton and Increase Mather for material on the customs of New England religion and the daily lives of the Puritans. Humorous anecdotes and tales also fill the book's pages, and we are clearly reminded that our Puritan forefathers were much more than the two-dimensional figures of history textbooks.

Colonial Dames and Good Wives (1895) deals with the roles played by women in America from first settlement to the American Revolution. Primarily devoted to investigation of the women of New England, Earle also makes reference to notable women who lived in the middle and southern colonies. As a general work on the history of women in America, it is a valuable and informative book even today. Earle begins Colonial Dames and Good Wives with a discussion of the importance of women, both economically and socially, in the settlement process. Women were vital both as workers in a labor-scarce economy and as transmitters of English culture and civilization to the North American wilderness. Various devices were used to lure women to the New World: Maryland's proprietors provided women with free lands if they would voyage to their colony, while other entrepreneurs recruited and sometimes kidnapped young women for service in the colonies. Once in America, however, Earle states, these women played elemental roles in the development of the American colonies.

A considerable portion of Colonial Dames and Good Wives is rightfully devoted to recreating the domestic and social lives of colonial women. Beginning with her chapter "Boston Neighbors," Earle attempts to reconstruct the Boston of Governor Winthrop's time as seen through the eyes of his wife, Margaret. Using a variety of diaries and journals written by women of all regions in America, Earle describes the lifestyles of later colonial women. As expressed in their own words, these women come alive for the reader and add a new dimension to our knowledge of the life of women in this period. Colonial Dames and Good Wives is an important work for the student of American women's history. It was written at a time when little scholarly interest was paid to the activities and function of women in American history. Yet the devotion of Earle to her subject and her high standard of scholarship made the book valuable for the people of her age as well as ours.

Margaret Winthrop is, in theory, a biography of the third wife of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts. In reality, the book is a history of the Puritans prior to their departure to America, of their settlement in Massachusetts, and an account of their domestic and religious life in the colony. Relying primarily upon the journal of Governor Winthrop and his correspondence with his wife for information on Margaret Winthrop's life, Earle also utilized diaries, letters, wills, and religious tracts written by other men and women to provide a setting for the book. Margaret Winthrop illustrates the changes Puritan colonists faced as a result of their movement from England to America in search of religious freedom. Earle devotes two chapters to the lives of Puritans in England under the reign of James I. We learn the details of life in the English country manor Margaret inhabited with her husband. Her experiences exemplify the duties and economic responsibilities of country women, as well as the customs and fashions of the age in which she lived. This picture contrasts sharply with life in early Massachusetts. Facing the harsh physical conditions of life on the Massachusetts frontier, it is little wonder many women were hesitant to leave the relative comforts of their English homes to join their husbands in the New World.

The most widely read and referred to book written by Earle, Home Life in Colonial Days (1898) is an informative and entertaining account of daily life in colonial America. It remains "the most detailed and comprehensive account of the life and customs of those times—how the colonists made their homes, raised their families, worked and worshiped—that we have to this day." Beginning with an account of the variety of homes lived in by the early settlers and how they were constructed, Earle devotes chapters to the histories of such subjects as the lighting, food, drink, clothing, and gardens of the first settlers of America. After Earle discusses the evolution of lighting in colonial homes from pine-knots to whale-oil lamps, we can better appreciate the religious dedication of Puritan ministers who wrote hundreds of their sermons by the flickering light of candlewood torches. We can also understand the pride colonial women had in their tallow and bayberry candles when we realize the work that went into their making.

The examples presented in Home Life in Colonial Days make it quite evident why the Puritans considered laziness a sin. In colonial America, survival depended upon industry. In the book, Earle pays particular attention to the domestic tasks of the American settlers. The bulk of the volume encompasses the domestic duties of colonial women.

Earle considered Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620-1820 (2 vols., 1903) her finest work. A classic study of the fashions of America from the settlement of New England to the early years of the American republic, these two volumes are invaluable to students of American history, design, and art history. In the 77 years since its publication, no other work of its accuracy and detail has been published. With her in-depth knowledge of the lifestyles and activities of early Americans, Earle was better able to discuss and convey the significance of the costumes worn by the American colonists with respect to their lives. Her gift of description is at its best here. Readers can truly see the fine ladies and gentlemen "ruffling in Silks, Velvets, Satins, Damaske, Taffetas, Gold, Silver and what not" walking down the muddy streets of colonial Jamestown or Boston.

Earle begins Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620-1820 with a discussion of the apparel of Puritan and Pilgrim men and women. Although these men and women professed purity and simplicity in their religion, their dress was as opulent as their purses and station in life would allow. While changes in style did occur in colonial times, they did not take place with such rapidity as they do today. As Earle notes, clothing was an important part of a man or woman's estate, the more valuable pieces being willed to a succession of generations until they wore out. Thus knowledge of the clothing of early Americans is a key to understanding their way of life and their attitudes about themselves.

Reviewers of Two Centuries of Costume in America, 1620-1820 saw its principal value as a glossary of terms. Earle did an excellent job of researching the names of various obsolete items of clothing and searching out articles of costume for which she had names but had no idea what they were. But perhaps the most helpful aspect of this book is its illustrations. The work contains over 350 illustrations, some presenting details of specific articles and items like lace, gloves, sedan chairs, or gowns. The most outstanding are the portraits that Earle uses to illustrate examples of clothing worn by the colonists and to note gradual changes in styles as the years progressed. It is a very effective use of illustration that broadens the scope of the book to include the history of art and portraiture from 1620 until 1820.

Considered together, all of Earle's works are remarkable for the careful insight they give us of life in colonial America. She was able to take advantage of the many fine collections of documents acquired or unearthed by American historical societies as a result of the revival of interest in the American past during the last decade of the 19th century. Yet, because she was a woman working in the male-dominated field of history, Earle's scholarship did not receive the professional appreciation it deserves.

If there is any flaw in Earle's work in general, it is that perhaps she was too prolific. She published 17 books and over 30 articles in 12 years. The popularity of her books with the reading public was certainly a factor in this amazing rate of productivity. Yet, unfortunately, Earle's works suffer for it. If one reads all of her books, and not just selected volumes, one notes there is often repetition of materials and subject matter.

Perhaps because of her own heritage and her familiarity with the archives of New England libraries and antiquarian societies, Earle tends to emphasize the history of New England and New York in her writings. Though she is too responsible a historian to state that the customs of all the American colonies were the same, the less informed reader might be misled into believing the Cavaliers of Virginia lived like the Puritans of Boston or the Dutch of New York. It is unfortunate Earle did not see fit to devote more time to rigorous investigation of the social development of the southern as well as the northern colonies of America.

Despite this criticism of Earle's works on the customs and everyday life in colonial America, they are, with few exceptions, valuable books. Though first written in the 1890s and early 1900s, they still enjoy a popular readership, which is apparently growing, as public interest in social and women's history increases. Many of Earle's volumes are currently in print. Certainly this is proof enough that as a writer and a historian, Earle contributed greatly to expanding our knowledge of colonial America and colonial Americans.

Other Works:

China Collecting in America (1892). Customs and Fashions of Old New England (1893). Costume of Colonial Times (1894). Colonial Days in Old New York (1896). Curious Punishments of Bygone Days (1896). Historic New York (1897). Chap Book Essays (1897). In Old Narragansett: Romances and Realities (1898). Child Life in Colonial Days (1899). Stage Coach and Tavern Days (1900). Old Time Gardens (1901). Sun Dials and Roses of Yesterday (1902).

The papers of Alice Morse Earle are housed in the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Massachusetts, and in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, Massachusetts.


Reference works:

DAB (1929). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

NYT (18 Feb. 1911). NYHT (18 Feb. 1911). Old Time New England (Jan. 1947). Worcester (Mass.) Telegram (18 Feb. 1911).


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