Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Long Held Assumptions

I recently made an error in thinking based on a long-held assumption. Here's the error.

Quilt by Lucinda Ward Honstain at the
  International Quilt Study Center & Museum

I did a couple of blog posts in the fall about Lucinda Ward Honstain who made the wonderful  quilt here. My analysis was that she had family in the dry goods business. Here's what I wrote a few weeks ago:
"Lucinda Ward Honstain's famous pictorial quilt dated 1867 includes a block with a wagon labeled W.B. Dry Goods, which researchers have linked to her brother Thomas's store Ward & Burroughs. Lucinda's father, another Thomas, was also in the drygoods business in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Her husband was a tailor for two decades before the Civil War and her sister was a professional dressmaker."

In looking at all this I did not consider that Lucinda herself might be in the fabric business in some capacity.

Suzanne found Lucinda's record in a list of bank account holders at the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank Records from New York. The name might be spelled Hounstain in this list but it is Lucinda as she is recorded as living on Devoe Street in Williamsburg. I think this page is from 1857 but it might say 1867.

In the column labeled Occupation she is listed as a "Tailoress." I was surprised. Lucinda herself was in the fabric business.

The Emigrant Savings Bank is still in business

Why did I just assume Lucinda had no occupation?

Two census records indicating husband John was a Tailor or in the Clothing business. There is the usual blank after the woman's name.

How many other deep-seated assumptions do we have about women's work that are as difficult to overcome as our default view that the occupational line after the word wife should be blank?

It's like there was some kind of giant conspiracy to make us think women did not work.

Giant conspiracy!

UPDATE on the Giant Conspiracy theory. I just read Jane & William Pease's book
Ladies, Women, & Wenches: Choice and Constraint in Antebellum Charleston & Boston in which they look at censuses from the 1840s. The director of the Boston census directed enumerators to ignore the women's occupation column.

1868 photo of women and men working in a tailor shop
Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection

Lucinda's entry includes a note that says "And of NY", indicating perhaps that she worked in Manhattan and lived in Brooklyn. She was not an Irish immigrant but was born in Westchester, New York

Sketch of Irish immigrants at the Emigrant Savings Bank in the 1870s

Lucinda seems to have been employed and adept at finances.She also had an account at the Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn, to which husband John forged a check when he returned from the Civil War. When her husband returned they owned several houses and were building another. I'd guess she managed the real estate while he was gone.

I wonder if we aren't spelling Lucinda's husband's last name wrong. It may be Houstain as in this 1891 real estate transfer. A handwritten U or N looks pretty much the same. And you know Houston Street in New York. Named after another Houstain---which may tell us how to pronounce it. 
House-Tun---accent on the first syllable.

A statistic on the New York's clothing trade:
"Clothing was the largest industry in New York City by 1855, enveloping nearly 13% of the immigrant population."
Found on this post---another seamstress in New York:

Here's the link to Family in the Dry Goods Business.

And all the posts on Lucinda Ward Honstain:


  1. It's easy to assume something that we have always believed to be commonplace. It seems clear now that working in some form or another would have been essential in order to rid herself of this scoundrel. I also feel that the therapeutic process of creating this masterpiece quilt was vital to her sanity!

  2. Barbara, This is a great find! I had wondered where Lucinda's money came from. She likely earned it! This also makes me wonder if John's tailoring business was legit; i.e. was Lucinda the real tailor and John took public credit as male "head of household?"

  3. JG-I bet she made a good deal of her money in real estate. When he got home in 65 there were four houses in Williamsburg, one in progress.