Home » Uncategorized » “Ply Your Needle for the Slave”: Crafts, Charity Bazaars and Sentimentalism

“Ply Your Needle for the Slave”: Crafts, Charity Bazaars and Sentimentalism

[This is a conference paper given at the Nineteenth Century Interdisciplinary Studies Association Conference, March 2013 and forms the basis of the article in progress.]

“When an old woman has patched a quilt, she longs to tell some of the thoughts which occupied her mind during the progress of the work.”[1]

Nineteenth-century women participated in various reform efforts not only as writers and speakers for their causes, but also as fundraisers and consumers of household goods bought and sold at charitable bazaars held to raise money for their cause. Particularly in Boston, New York and other larger northern cities and towns, bazaars were the major fundraising and social function of the anti-slavery year. Women made needlepoint samplers, wove shawls, knitted clothing and accessories, put up preserves, painted and drew touching scenes, as well as wrote poetry and prose for sale at these charity bazaars. Many of these middle-class women were accomplished artists and their enjoyment of their work is palpable in the letters they wrote accompanying these items for sale. The anti-slavery bazaars and other fundraisers of the early nineteenth century had tables overflowing with samplers, knitted goods, paintings, pottery and other handcrafted items that expressed reform sentiments and also displayed the artistic ability of middle class women who supported the cause. However, women who made goods for sale felt compelled to justify their use of their time to create the works of art they sold at the bazaars by couching the language and content of these crafts in the reform terminology of the nineteenth century. Knitting, needlepoint and other crafts were considered frivolous, unfashionable wastes of time for adult women in the early nineteenth century, unless one was making socks or other useful items for the family.[2]  Donating their “ladies’ fancy work,” as one disparaging anti-slavery advocate in England called it, to charity bazaars were one way women justified practicing their crafts as adults (young, unmarried women were expected to practice arts and crafts as part of their education).

The bazaar has a long and full historiography. Beginning with F. K. Prochaska’s work in the 1970s, the charity bazaar has been examined as a locus of conflicting gender roles, women and economics, and even the word bazaar evokes the unusual, the problematic and the enticing.[3] Historians’ work on the bazaar has focused on women’s negotiation with separate spheres by claiming access to the marketplace through reform efforts and documents their success in raising money for a variety of causes in the nineteenth century. All of these historians remarked on the variety of goods women gathered and made to fill their bazaars and the poetry and short stories they filled the volumes of the Liberty Bell and other charity books with. Few historians have looked at the goods women donated as more than an example of the effort women put towards their causes, or even, as Beverly Gordon argues, as undermining their serious work of organizing and engaging in political work.[4] More recent work, including articles by Peter Gurney and Lawrence Glickman, have focused on the bazaars as part of the rise of consumer culture that came out of the reform efforts of the early nineteenth century, seeing them as the rise of consciousness that followed in the wake of industrialization.[5] All of these works position the bazaar within larger themes of rising commercialization, the negotiation of gender roles, and the reforming sentiments of the antebellum middle class, but they do not look at the ways in which those women who created the objects to be sold thought of their work and used reform efforts as an excuse to practice their craft.

Anti-slavery women had long tied their cause to the handicrafts they produced. Around 1825, the Ladies’ Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves in England sold work bags for women to carry their embroidery or knitting, emblazoned with an anti-slavery message. The card inside the work bag explained that they could carry the bag to help enlighten others on the issue of slavery. The bags were sold as a fundraiser for the Ladies’ Society, allowing them to print more anti-slavery tracts and fund schools for slaves in the West Indies.[6] These work bags were sold alongside anti-slavery tea sets from Wedgewood, and other household items emblazoned with anti-slavery logos which appealed to women in their own homes.

Perhaps the largest charity bazaar in the mid-nineteenth century was the Boston-based American Anti-slavery Society fair held every winter before Christmas at Faneuil Hall. Organized by Maria Weston Chapman and her sisters, the Boston Anti-slavery Bazaar raised funds to support anti-slavery speakers and publications as well as lawyers and lobbyists. The bazaar sold handmade goods, a magazine, The Liberty Bell, as well as items like sugar grown without slavery. The bazaar was a social event as well as a fundraiser, and the crowds were entertained by choirs singing hymns and anti-slavery songs and they snacked on baked goods and drank beverages purchased from food stands run by the American Anti-slavery Society ladies. The shoppers browsed tables filled with hand made goods in the two days leading up to Christmas Eve. These items had been stitched by anti-slavery women on both sides of the Atlantic, and the tables overflowed with embroidered samplers stitched by the daughters of prominent anti-slavery speakers, clothing, aprons, stockings, work bags, lace cuffs, shawls, reticules and purses, preserves, pies, cakes, ceramics and pottery, jewelry, and anything else that could be embellished with an anti-slavery logo or design, or made from free grown cotton or foodstuffs. The organizers called for donations in The Liberator and other major anti-slavery newspapers, asking women to “use needles in the cause of bleeding humanity.”[7] The majority of the sources for this article come from the advertisements, solicitation letters, annual reports and thank you notes sent by the organizers of and contributors to the bazaars.

The annual reports of the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar reveal the breadth of craft women (and a few men) produced in the nineteenth century. The vast majority of items sold at the bazaar (besides books) were handmade, and the lists of items that appear in the annual reports range from the expected handmade clothing and house wares like dresses, shawls, quilts and cushions to taxidermy animals, collections of seaweed and other scientific specimens, hand woven cloth, embroidered samplers, lace doilies, antimassacars (to keep hair grease and powder from one’s upholstery), aprons, afghans, hand carved trays and small pieces of furniture, toys and hand tatted lace modesty panels.[8] The variety of objects they received was astounding, and many represented traditional handcrafts from the region they were produced (woven plaids from Scotland, lacework from the Scottish isles, wool cushions from the English lowlands).   The scientific collections sold were also collected by women, including a large collection of algae and seaweed collected by British women and solicited from prisoners in New Zealand and Australia.[9] When men contributed hand made goods, they tended to be woodworking or even taxidermy, hobbies or crafts that were traditionally male.[10]

Perhaps one of the most famous contributors to the bazaars was Harriet Martineau, the British travel writer and sociologist. Martineau had a troubled relationship to craft, her family was not well off, at times they were in danger of losing their home, and Martineau and her mother began working as seamstresses in order to help support their family without violating the norms of middle-class respectability, which forbid women from working outside the home for pay.   Harriet became well known for the detailed embroidery she added to the pieces she sewed, and once she began making enough to live off her writing; she began embroidering antimacassars and other household items and donating them for fairs. As slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire before she was able to sew for pleasure, Martineau donated most of her items to American bazaars, and due to her popularity as an author, they were in great demand. By the late 1850s, she had sent dozens of items to bazaar organizers and worried her goods were going out of style.

After some hesitation I have sent off a parcel by Mrs Steinthal’s box for your Phila fair. The reason of my hesitation is that so much of my woolwork has gone to your country (3 pieces, altogether) & the work itself is getting so old-fashioned, I am told, among fashionable people, that the gift may not be so welcome as something newer. But I am equal to this sort of work & not to anything requiring more sight & more attention. I did intend this particular piece for my own divan, & to have worked another pattern for others’ use; but this pattern turns out (to our eyes) so exceedingly pretty that I am ashamed to keep it for myself: & so I send it to you. If it brings you any dollars, well & good. If not, & you will kindly accept a rejected bit of work, do keep it, my dear friend, in memory of me.[11]


Martineau worried that her embroidery was becoming dated by the middle of the century, but her pieces continued to draw significant sale prices and raised hundreds of dollars at antislavery bazaars. Self-depreciation was a common theme in the letters that accompanied donated handmade items. Women were concerned that their items were not good enough, fashionable enough, or not the right size.[12] For Martineau, her woolwork was a symbol of her commitment to the cause, she had once supported herself by sewing and fancy embroidery and once her writing brought in enough money to support her, she rarely sewed except for donations to charity events.[13] Clearly some of the items were a problem, as the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar began asking women not to donate certain items in their annual reports, most notably sofa cushions and children’s dresses, which they noted in the mid-1850s that they could not sell as many as were donated because everyone had bought them in previous years and they were so well made, those bought previously had not yet worn out and that it was too hard to find children the right size to fit the dresses.[14]

The annual reports also listed items that were in great demand or widely admired. Infighting amongst the various anti-slavery factions led to several letters circulating in Great Britain which claimed that money raised by the National Anti-slavery Bazaar was going to support William Lloyd Garrison and his paper The Liberator. Many more conservative anti-slavery advocates disavowed Garrison because he supported women’s rights, religious schism and disunion, and refused to support any group which supported him. The National Anti-slavery Bazaar funds did not go to Garrison directly, although they did support activities put on by the American Anti-slavery Association, of which Garrison was a director. Several women’s groups in Britain continued to support the National Bazaar, and the organizers went out of their way to thank those groups for their participation in the annual reports.

May we take the liberty of inserting here, that a handsome Highland Shawl, in which the colors are simply blue and white, would, at the next Bazaar, find a ready purchaser? Such an one has been inquired for with praiseworthy perseverance for several years, and we would gladly, by-and-by, be able to supply the demand.[15]


It becomes clear that the organizers of the bazaar appreciated the craftsmanship and beauty of the items women sent for sale, but that they also had a firm grasp on what their shoppers were looking for and what would bring in the largest donations to the organization. Items from Europe were always in demand, as they thought the crafters in Europe would always be more in fashion that those in the US. Shoppers were looking to purchase items they might not be able to find elsewhere, or to buy items they would buy anyway in a venue that would support their cause. By asking for a specific item, the organizers were not only passing on the wishes of their consuming public, but also impacting the trends in crafting, and revealing the fashion trends among American reforming women: the move towards simple dress in plain colors which distinguished middle-class women from the working class. Vibrant colors, flamboyant embroidery and busy patterns were by the middle of the nineteenth century, styles which indicated one was a member of the lower classes, where middle-class women wore simple and well-made dresses and accessories.[16]

As the bazaar organizers tried to manage the number and type of items donated, women also wrote in with and after sending their donations to discuss what the items meant to them as objects of their dedication to the cause. Letters fill the records of the bazaar organizers detailing the work that went into the items and the symbolism in them. The annual report of the Boston anti-slavery festival contains the following touching letter from Margaret Bracken of Halifax:

Whilst sitting at my work, I thought there must be as many stitches in my quilt as you have slaves in America, and … it was a simple question in multiplication, the simple result of which is, that there are about twenty times as many slaves in America as there are stitches in my quilt; and when I thought of the helpless misery endured by every individual slave through a life-time of unprotected bondage, and though of the omniscient eye of a just and holy and righteous and merciful God, who looks down alike on the oppressor and the oppressed, I cannot express the appalling sensation which comes over me.[17]


Bracken’s letter expresses doubt over the worthiness of her donations, her concern over her tardiness in thanking Chapman for the copy of the Liberty Bell she sent and then expresses the extraordinary connection she made between her own craft and the slaves she sought to help. Bracken’s quilt clearly meant more to her than a simple charity donation intended to raise money; the actual act of stitching the quilt helped her feel connected to the slaves and gave her a sense of perspective. The numerous stitches in the quilt and the careful labor she put into each one represented her emotional connection to the plight of the slaves (and also her distance from them, as they are more numerous than her stitches, they are also faceless and nameless). The items women donated to these bazaars were not simply items crafted for profit, but also a way for women to engage emotionally with the cause they supported and their work embodied their commitment as well as their pride in their efforts.

Donating items for sale to charity bazaars took on a more important meaning to women in Britain in the 1850s. As the anti-slavery movement in Britain fractured after 1840, both due to divisions in the American movement and due to lack of interest after slavery was abolished in the empire in 1833, women still committed to the cause struggled to find ways to help. As the male leadership of the largest anti-slavery organization, the British & Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, argued over whether to continue to help the more active and radical Garrisonians in America, the women were left without direction for their efforts. Many anti-slavery women’s societies in Britain wrote to the British & Foreign Anti-slavery Society asking which American associations were holding bazaars and where they should send the boxes of donated items, and heard only silence in return. Eventually, the Bristol and Clifton Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, one of the most active in Britain, wrote directly to the Massachusetts’ Ladies Anti-slavery Society to discover if they supported radical ideas like woman’s suffrage, and discovered that they officially did not (although many members did individually). The Bristol and Clifton ladies began donating to the National Bazaar again. When anti-slavery women in Bristol, England, discovered in 1851 that some of their members had left and formed a new anti-slavery society, they realized that, “the cause of separation from us is that we aid the Boston bazaar,—that the Boston Society has connected with it some parties who hold and publish sentiments which they esteem unorthodox.”[18]

Anti-slavery bazaars served as important spaces for women to exercise their skills as salespeople, as fundraisers and to display their commitment to their cause. The items women made and donated to these fairs were more than just the products of their free time and spare change. The embroidery and clothing, art and needlework carried not only the effort of the women who opposed slavery, but also served as reminders to them of the suffering of others. As they plied their needles, they thought of those who would benefit from the money raised by the sale of the item and justified making items for sale rather than for their families or even justified spending their time on craft rather than housework or other, more direct reform efforts by connecting their efforts to alleviating the suffering of others. However, these works were not presented without agonizing over their fitness for sale, their value, changing fashions and how they stacked up against other items donated. The charity bazaar became often the only way British women were involved in anti-slavery work, besides reading and distributing anti-slavery pamphlets. Making and donating items to the bazaar did not challenge gendered roles in society in the way that writing or public speaking did, and it allowed women to take pride in their handiwork.


[1] Margaret Bracken as quoted in the Report of the twenty-fourth National Anti-Slavery Festival (Boston, 1858),17.

[2] Needlework became a sign of fashionable leisure and domesticity by the 1850s, industrialization made it unnecessary for urban middle-class women to make all of their family’s clothing by the 1830s. Making goods for oneself or one’s home as an adult became déclassé (a sign of financial instability) until becoming fashionable as a hobby in the 1850s. See Marianne van Remoortel, “Threads of Life: Matilda Marian Pullan (1819-1862), Needlework Instruction, and the Periodical Press,” Victorian Periodicals Review 45:3 (Fall 2012): 253-69 for the creation of needlework as a middle-class hobby and its design as a modish employment for an unusual historical figure; Rachel P. Maines, Hedonizing Technologies: Paths to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) examines the connection between growing industrialization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the growth of women’s leisure activities; Maria R. Miller, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006) describes the shift of needlework as every woman’s task to the job of skilled working women in the early Republic; Steven Gelber, Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) explains the shift of needlework from women’s work to women’s hobby in the early nineteenth century as middle-class women purchased most textiles and had servants to complete many household tasks and his own tone reflects the mid-nineteenth century sentiment that women’s handicrafts were frivolous but better than being idle; and Anne McDonald, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988) documents the shifting trends and necessity of knitting socks, mittens and sweaters from the colonial era to the twentieth century. Each of these works examines the shifting meaning of leisure and craft, but none of them grapple with how women reacted to their hobbies being demeaned as frivolous and how they tried to connect the artistic hobbies they enjoyed to what society considered meaningful and appropriate work for a middle-class woman: reform.

[3] F. K. Prochaska “Charity Bazaars in Nineteenth-Century England,” The Journal of British Studies 16:2 (Spring, 1977): 62-84 is one of the earliest modern historians to examine the charity bazaar in the context of the Anglo-Atlantic reform efforts, although he sees it as a middle class appropriation of what had been a legitimate way for working-class families to supplement their income. He also sees the bazaar as problematic for middle-class women who were transgressing the lines that divided women’s appropriate sphere from the commercial world.

[4] Historians of anti-slavery women, most notably Julie Roy Jeffrey, Sandra Petrulionis, Debra Gold Hansen and Beth Salerno have examined the bazaar as an opportunity for anti-slavery women to contribute to the effort without transgressing the boundaries that public speaking required and did not require the skill as a writer that not all women possessed. Beverly Gordon, in her article, “Playing at Being Powerless: New England Ladies Fairs, 1830-1930,” The Massachusetts Review 27:1 (Spring, 1986): 144-60, argues that the frivolous nature of the items being sold undermine the real economic and political work women organizers were doing.

[5] Lawrence Glickman “’Buy for the Sake of the Slave’: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism,” American Quarterly 56:4 (Dec., 2004): 889-912 and Peter Gurney “’The Sublime of the Bazaar’: A Moment in the Making of a Consumer Culture in Mid-Nineteenth Century England,” Journal of Social History 40:2 (Winter, 2006): 385-405.

[6] “Card explanatory of the contents of the Society’s Work Bags” Mic 903, Friends’ Library, London.

[7] The Liberator 4:50 (Nov. 23, 1834): 187.

[8] The annual reports of the 20th through 24th National Anti-Slavery Bazaar (1854-57) contain descriptions of some of the items they received for sale, focusing particularly on the items received from Britain and Scotland as the more conservative anti-slavery organizations in Great Britain were waging a campaign against Garrison and his friends, among whom they numbered the Weston sisters, who organized the National Anti-Slavery Bazaar and wrote and published the Liberty Bell.

[9] Annual Report of the 24th National Anti-Slavery Bazaar (Boston: 1857).

[10] Women were often discouraged from engaging in hobbies that were messy or required the use of sharp tools like knives, so men were more likely to carve, make furniture or turn wood. Gelber, Hobbies, 169-70.

[11] Harriet Martineau to Lucretia Mott, October 9, 1858 in Deborah Anna Logan, ed., The Collected Letters of Harriet Martineau (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007) 4: 124.

[12] See in addition to Martineau’s letters, SMW to Deborah Weston, 31 October 1855, Rare Books Collection, Boston Public Library, Ms.A.9.2 v.5 n.41 for a concern over too small stockings for Maggie (the letter, written from Staten Island, is probably from one of the Weston sisters or nieces who was living with Maria Weston Chapman)

[13] See Deborah Anna Logan, The Hour and the Woman (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002).

[14] Report of the twentieth National Anti-Slavery Bazaar (Boston, 1854), 11 and Report of the twenty-first National Anti-Slavery Bazaar (Boston, 1855), 8. Samuel May Anti-Slavery Collection, Cornell University Library, Ithaca, NY.

[15] Report of the twentieth National Anti-slavery Bazaar (Boston, Mass 1854), 10-11. Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, Cornell University Libraries.

[16] See Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Mary Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Maria R. Miller, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006); and for Britain, Leonora Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987) for discussions of middle-class dress and propriety. Many anti-slavery women were Quakers, which meant that anti-slavery women’s groups were particularly somber in their dress, particularly in the mid-Atlantic.

[17] Report of the twenty-fourth National Anti-Slavery Festival (Boston, 1858), 16-17.

[18] Statements respecting the American Abolitionists; by their opponents and their Friends indicating the present struggle between Slavery and Freedom in the United States of America (Dublin: 1852), 15.


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