That “Bossy Shield”: Money, Sex, Sentiment, and the Thimble[Notice]

  • Jenny McKenney

…plus d’informations

  • Jenny McKenney
    University of Calgary

Many years ago now, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich suggested that the key to understanding the early modern woman’s labouring and social life was the pocket. The items it contained, she argued, “would shift from day to day and from year to year, but they would of necessity be small, easily lost, yet precious.” More recently, Ariane Fennetaux has discussed women’s pockets as a space in which eighteenth-century women experienced privacy and materially negotiated the complex issues of interiority. Little work, however, has been done on the specific contents of women’s pockets and how these individual items might have reflected the social and labouring life of individuals, or have participated in the construction of the affective world and sense of self. This essay will focus on one of the most common objects women carried in the eighteenth century: the thimble. As a point of departure, let us consider the following casualty notice published in the St. James’s Chronicle in January 1767: Positioned within a miscellaneous column of London news, the account of the dead trio seems designed to elicit the finer emotions of sympathy in newspaper readers. The account of maternal fortitude juxtaposed with pitiable details such as the youth of the victims, the deadly cold, and the paltry contents of the woman’s pocket create a quintessential tableau of poverty for the reader and a “position,” as Lynn Festa might argue, “from which to enjoy the image of the suffering object in comfort.” It would be a mistake, however, to view this report solely as an affective foray into the sentimental. Whether or not we can verify the particulars of the woman and children’s demise, the notice is presented as ‘news’ and the now expansive work on eighteenth-century poverty substantiates the veracity of the woman’s experience in its broadest contours. What interests me, here, is the extent to which the perceived sentimentality of this passage is constructed and, specifically, how it turns on that rusty thimble which so evocatively ends the casualty notice. As this paper will demonstrate, the thimble was a ubiquitous object in the eighteenth century and one, like the pocket itself, which women owned across all ranks. Certainly, it was an object implicated daily in women’s work and finances and there is compelling evidence that thimbles figured in women’s accounting of personal property. The thimble was also associated with the construction of gender identity, social relationships, and memory. In this essay, I aim to recover the forgotten associations of the thimble with the lives of everyday eighteenth-century women and to recover the physical and sentimental attachments that women forged with these small objects. This paper seeks to restore the material and emotional shorthand of the common thimble as it was embodied in the quotidian practices of the period and in their literary representations. In its methods and focus, this essay builds on the work of Mary Beaudry, whose recent writing on the thimble provides a model for recuperating a history of the object through combined documentary and material evidence. For my understanding of the affective ties between people and objects, particularly in the increasingly commercial world of the eighteenth century, the scholarship of Amanda Vickery, Maxine Berg, and Lorna Weatherill has served as a foundation. In thinking about how these bonds were articulated in period literature, the work of Deidre Lynch and Lynn Festa has also been crucial, especially with regard to how the circulation of objects and sentiment was often intimately entangled in the imaginative domain. The thimble itself has a small, but devoted following among collectors and needlework historians. However, the focus of their interest has largely …

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