By God's grace and the needle: The life and labors of Mercy Jane Bancroft Blair
Much of our history is based on public documents dealing with influential political and military figures. But recent scholarship has shown how private sources and previously unexamined material culture can shed new light on the lives of ordinary people. This dissertation centers on one of those unusual finds, a set of nineteenth century diaries, which span a forty-year period. It focuses on the life of their author, Mercy Jane Bancroft Blair, her work, and her contributions to her family and community. Mercy was a traveling dressmaker, quilter, and weaver who kept a daily record of her work and pay, her many visits and visitors, and her devoted religious activities from 1859-1900. Her life is less eventful than some of her better known contemporaries, but no less important in its ability to offer a fuller picture of the lives of rural American women. Mercy's working class existence makes her life all the more valuable for scholars of women's history.
This dissertation provides a narrative of Mercy's life, noting how her independence in terms of her life as a traveling dressmaker as well as her financial autonomy suggests a departure from the typical experiences of unmarried women in the mid-nineteenth century. This research also examines her work as a textile producer at a time when most home production of cloth had disappeared. Mercy's own words shed insights into her place in American domestic and textile history specifically and American culture in general. In short, the life of Mercy Jane Bancroft Blair begs scholars to re-examine the ideas of those "separate and distinct spheres" of female existence, as well as home production of textiles. Her diaries show how one woman challenged those norms and created a place for herself in the larger world around her.
0337: American history
0994: Textile research