Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Priorities

Upon reference by Anne Macdonald, I recently found myself reading through old editions of Godey's Lady Book and Magazine, and had the pleasure of reading the story Heel and Toe, by Virginia de Forrest.

Godey's was a collection of musical pieces, poems, engravings, short stories, patterns, articles, advertisements and gossip.  I think of it as the Cosmo of the 1800s.

I love this story.  Love it.  It is well written, short, and illustrative of both its audience and the greater society which encompassed it.  The value system employed in the mid-1800s treasured industriousness over all.  Young Mary, the protagonist of the story, learns to knit as a child on her grandmother's lap, and has such a passion for knowledge that she knits endlessly in order to earn money to purchase more books.  Mary used knitting to "[date] her growth in knowledge. Shilling after shilling was placed in her little box, kept safe in Granny's drawer; and book after book was added to her stock."

Notice that in 1857, many women still published under pseudonyms.
This piece on the new style of bonnets was written by 'Florence Fashionhunter.'

The concept of remaining industrious, of using every spare moment to produce, to never let a moment go by wasted, is one which can be found in almost every society which included knitting as a source of labor and income.  In fact, the worth of industriousness (and the phrase 'no idle hands') was a paramount value of most societies throughout history.

Recently, an appreciation for constant work and diligence has been removed from the societal norm.  It is rare to see modern-day workers go on break and pick up a piece of needlework (or other portable craft) in order to take advantage of every idle moment.  In modern society, a break is a break.  In the past, a break was a chance to produce.

Whether calling on friends, celebrating or mourning, reading or relaxing, women of the past would always keep their knitting with them, taking advantage of every spare moment to keep busy, keep working, keep producing.  The value of a constant worker was persistently enforced, and the attractiveness of this quality was emphasized through stories like "Heel and Toe."  Frivolous behaviors were far less attractive than industrious ones.

Illustration from the story "Heel and Toe"

This constant work ethic, which even incorporated production into relaxation and socializing, makes me feel guilty after a long day of classes, when all I want to do is watch tv.  According to the Victorians, I am the worst type of bum, wasting precious time left and right!  When I read, I should knit, too, as Mary learned to do- that, indeed, should fetch me a man!  At least I can feel redeemed in my habit of knitting when I am out with friends, an excuse I will employ whenever I am chastised for focusing more on my knitting than on the conversation at hand!

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