This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributorKimberly Alexander, adjunct professor of history at the University of New Hamphire, Durham. Her forthcoming book is Georgian Shoe Stories from Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and she is currently the Andrew Oliver Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society.* Follow her @SilkDamask.
John Leverett’s Buff Coat, ca. 1640
For scholars who are deeply interested in the connections between material culture and social history, textiles can be imagined as significant documents. Contextualizing objects through print culture, and exploring print through materials, allows us to texture the past and to weave “fashion stories” that complicate conventional histories. A favorite site for this work is the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), home not only to one of the country’s most significant collections of letters, manuscripts and decorative arts, but also houses an important collection of textiles, clothing, and shoes, spanning the broad sweep of Massachusetts history. As the Andrew Oliver Research Fellow for 2016-2017, I have had the special opportunity to investigate pre-1750s textiles within the Society’s collection. Here, the lure of seeing objects, many of which had not been viewed for over 40 years, is particularly exciting. Continue reading →
This month in class I’m teaching the Puritans, which means that an idea I’ve had for several years has returned, and I’ve been mulling it for a few days. As most of our readers already know, the Bible was easily the most widely owned and widely read publication in the British North American colonies (in particular in New England). Protestant Christian settlers were deeply versed in the Bible – they could cite and quote regularly from a broad range of prophecies, parables, and psalms. But they also read and understood the Bible in historically specific ways, focusing on certain books of the Bible in their study and reflection, quoting certain passages with higher frequency than others. For those of us who are not religious historians (and/or were raised ourselves in traditions in which textual exegesis was not strongly emphasized), figuring out not only the meaning of Biblical passages but also the ways in which specific historical actors used them would require significant reading.
Guest poster Mark Mulligan is a graduate student in history at the College of William and Mary. His research interests include American religious history, the history of the British Atlantic, and colonial New England history. This post also contains some mild plot spoilers.
It appears that as an early Americanist and a horror fan, I am in good company. News of the push back of a sequel to The Ring franchise from April to October recently devastated me. Admittedly, a Halloween release will fare better at the box office, but Paramount Pictures turned my comps carrot into a prospectus carrot.But the genre offered compensation in the form of a horror film that takes place in seventeenth-century New England, where I intend to locate my dissertation. As such, I am delighted that the Junto invited a conversation on the film The Witch. Continue reading →
Guest posters Richard Calis and Madeline McMahon are graduate students in the History Department at Princeton University. Along with Frederic Clark, Anthony Grafton, and Jennifer Rampling, they are part of a collaborative research project (@WinthropProject) studying how multiple generations of Winthrops read, annotated, and acquired books on both sides of the Atlantic.
John Winthrop (1588-1649) and his son John Winthrop Jr. (1606-1676) are now known primarily as protagonists in the turbulent political history of early America. But in addition to shaping the government and theology of New England as governors of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut (respectively), they and the rest of the Winthrop family also participated in a transatlantic and inter-generational bookish culture. Long before the Arbella sailed to Boston in 1630 to build a “city upon a hill”, generations of Winthrops began to talk about books, ways to read them and, as we will illustrate here, the difficulties and contingencies of collecting them—on both sides of the Atlantic. Continue reading →
Jonathan Edwards is so strongly identified with Connecticut and Massachusetts that it’s easy to overlook where his pastoral ministry began: near the waterfront of New York City. In 1722, Edwards took a temporary position as the minister to a small Presbyterian congregation in Manhattan. He was about nineteen years old.
Edwards’s months in New York shaped him in at least two ways. First, according to his own account, Edwards developed a stronger desire for personal holiness. In New York, he wished increasingly to be “in everything a complete Christian.” Second, he grew in missionary zeal. Holding long religious conversations with his host family (who were immigrants from England) and observing life in the Atlantic port, he came to a more global awareness of the faith. He put it this way:
With Christmas right around the corner, we are re-posting this piece from three years ago. All of us at The Junto would like to wish happy holidays to all our readers.
As an historian of early America, I suspect I am not alone in sighing a little bit to myself when hearing the often heated rhetoric about the “War on Christmas” emanating from right-wing and evangelical media outlets at this time of the year. That, of course, is because the real war on Christmas was not waged by 21st-century godless, liberal secular humanists and the ACLU but by 17th-century New England Puritans, particularly the clergy.
Saturnalia was a pagan Roman festival held annually from December 17-25. Its customary celebrations were both chaotic and violent and, hence, were popular amongst lower-class Romans. In the fourth century, as the Catholic Church sought to bring the pagan masses into the Christian fold, the Church adopted the final day of the festival as Jesus’s birthday, which the New Testament does not indicate and on which, until this time, there had been no widespread consensus. The Church effectively killed two birds with one stone. Throughout the centuries, the most violent aspects of the celebration (which, allegedly, may have included human sacrifices) fell away, but the customs of near-lawless revelry persisted, and indeed defined the celebrations in the early modern period.
At the start of the early modern period, the holiday was not yet the priority it has become, as Easter dominated the Catholic calendar. But the Reformation had a significant impact on the perception of Christmas, both positively and negatively. The holiday celebration customs were continued by the Church of England. The often uninhibited revelry of the holiday (which Puritans derisively referred to as “Foolstide”) appealed to the English lower classes while the gentry celebrated with “eating and drinking, [and] banqueting and feasting.”
In addition there was a distinct class aspect to one of the customs, in which the poorest man in the town was named “The Lord of Misrule” and treated like a gentleman. Another custom, known as “wassailling” involved lower-class persons going to the homes of wealthy individuals and “asking” for food and drink, which they would then use to toast that individual. Due to the penchant for disorder, immodesty, gluttony, and the (temporary) breakdown of the social order, it should come as no surprise that in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English dissenters began to take a very dim view of the holiday. Indeed, the hotter the Protestant, the stronger the aversion to Christmas. But their opposition to Christmas was not just due to the overtly social nature of its celebration. Puritan faith derived wholly from scripture, and, in 1645 and again in 1647, the Long Parliament declared the abolition of all holy days except the Sabbath, which was the only day described as such in the Bible.
In the pure Apostolical times there was no Christ-mass day observed in the Church of God. We ought to keep the primitive Pattern. That Book of Scripture which is called The Acts of Apostles saith nothing of their keeping Christ’s Nativity as an Holy-day.
[. . .]
Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? [. . .] It can never be proved that Christ’s nativity was on 25 of December.
[. . .]
[They] who first of all observed the Feast of Christ’s Nativity in the latter end of December, did it not as thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.
By mid-century, the Puritan “City on a Hill” was already losing its spiritual homogeneity and the combination of new settlers and a new generation less committed to Puritan strictures forced the Massachusetts General Court to take action. On May 11, 1659, the following was entered into the General Court’s records:
For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.
Despite being told to repeal the “penalty for keeping Christmas” as early as May of 1665 for its “being directly against the lawe of England,” the law was not stricken until 1681, followed by renewed pressure from Charles II. But even though the legal war was over, the cultural war on Christmas continued. In 1686, the unpopular royal governor of the new Dominion of New England, Sir Edmund Andros, required an armed escort at a Christmas service he sponsored (somewhat brazenly) in Boston. Indeed, Christmas was not celebrated widely in New England through the eighteenth century, and, when it was, it was done privately. All this is not to imply that Christmas was celebrated broadly outside of New England. Even after the Revolution, the Congress was known to meet on Christmas Day, if they were in session. Throughout the nineteenth century, as well, there are numerous reports from all over the United States attesting to the lack Christmas observance, particularly by various Protestant and German Pietist sects.
A few days ago, Bill O’Reilly claimed that—thanks to him and Fox News—the “War on Christmas” had been won and Christmas had been saved for all the true Americans out there wishing to celebrate the “traditional American Christmas.” However, the history shows that waging a “war on Christmas” is one of the very oldest of all American traditions and is a far more American tradition than the current twentieth-century, commercial capitalist version of Christmas that Bill O’Reilly claims to have saved.
 This tradition had its roots in a Saturnalian custom of Masters exchanging roles with their servants.
 If there could be said to have been a war “over” Christmas, it would have been in the 1640s and 1650s as Oliver Cromwell and Parliament tried to enforce their ban on Christmas by attempting to stop public celebrations by Anglicans (and the few remaining Catholics) and force shop keepers to remain open. In many localities, the result was fighting in the street between the authorities and those intent on celebrating the holiday in its traditional manner. For more on the English context, see Chris Durston, “The Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas, 1642-60” History Today 35, no. 12 (1985).
Family pictures can be the hardest to frame, and Puritans make for appealingly restless subjects. In tackling the early American narrative, scholars must confront the thorny task of portraying the Puritan family with equal parts theological dexterity and sociological skill, a problem that seventeenth-century artists and modern historians alike have sought to refine. Scholars who take on the Puritans must address sin, salvation, and community-building in a way that does not make American democracy feel inevitable; further, they must seize onto the seventeenth-century peculiarities of transatlantic intellectual life in which the Puritans flourished and fell. Wrapped in New England lore and either exalted or disowned by their descendants, the cultural memory of Puritan contributions to the project of nation-building has inspired a broad spectrum of historiographical views. In the early 1940s, then-Harvard doctoral student Edmund S. Morgan and his colleagues would have encountered a popular narrative of Puritanism, one seemingly destined to smother any effort at new work: America’s Puritan “tribe” had briefly inhabited a tau(gh)t sphere, bounded by covenant theology and laden with impossible ethics, peopled by censorious prudes who excelled at capitalist rhetoric and balked at the sinful frivolity of a stray dance. Or… did they? Continue reading →