Join the Hopedale Women’s History Research Project

Linda Hixon
Issue Date: 
August, 2018
Article Body: 

In early 1848, a group of men and women from the Community of Hopedale, Massachusetts, a Socialist religious experiment founded six years earlier, formed a sewing circle. Officially calling themselves “The Hopedale Sewing Circle, and Tract Society,” this group of nineteen men and nineteen women created an organization that went beyond mending and sharing. Instead, they mixed industry and religion with caring and progressive views, in order to raise money, spread the word, and help in their community.
For the women recording their meetings-and only women recorded the meetings-religion was the center of their lives, but not their writings. These were “Practical Christian” women, and they simply did what was expected of this new religious movement. Two simple entries in the society’s record at the end of 1849 speak to their quiet beliefs. “The Society met at the ‘Old House’ and worked for Mrs. Provan’s family,” the entry on December 19 reads. “Met at the house of Mrs. Bancroft and sewed for Mrs. Provan’s children,” says the second, dated the day after Christmas.1
The problem with these basic statements was that Mrs. Provan-Jeanet Provan-was dead. She had died on December 9. “Mrs. Jeanet came across he Atlantic already in consumption, and d[ied] here,” minister Adin Ballou wrote in a genealogical register in his History of Milford, giving no more detail of this Scottish immigrant who had come with her husband and four children to Massachusetts in May of 1849.2 But the women of the Sewing Circle were doing what they pledged to do as Practical Christians: they were working for people around them-people who were in need. Even though Jeanet Provan had survived in the community only for a few months, she had left an imprint-and children and a husband who needed care. That was what the women of the Sewing Circle gathered to do. They were simply living their beliefs.
These Practical Christians, led by Adin Ballou and a group of ministers, had come to the area nearly a decade earlier to “build a new civilization radically higher than the old” on the banks of the Mill River, a tributary of the Blackstone.3 The Ballous’ Standard of Practical Christianity called for its followers not to be “indifferent to the sufferings of a distressed humanity,” nor to “desert our brethren in their adversity.”4 Jeanet Provan was not a Practical Christian, nor was she a member of the Sewing Circle, but even in death she was in need.
Few historians have looked at the Sewing Circle record, and those who have gave it little notice. Edward K. Spann’s comprehensive history of Hopedale from its Practical Christian founding to its takeover by the Draper brothers in 1856 does mention some of the town’s higher-profile women and the community’s progressive views toward its female residents. But Spann noted the Sewing Circle only once, honing in on a passage from what he called the “Beneficent Society” record when the women discussed having a female physician in town.5 The women changed the name of the group several times, and they did have a “conversation with regard to having a female Physician located here,” on April 24, 1851. “It was universally thought advisable,” they wrote, but didn’t mention that the proposed physician, Emily Gay, was a Sewing Circle member and occasional recorder for the group.6 Neither did Spann.
The Sewing Circle was also given small context in a journal article on women in the community by Deidre Corcoran Stam. Stam analyzed the roles of women in Hopedale as Practical Christians, comparing their lives to the beliefs of Fourierism, a communal living idea conceived by Frenchman Charles Fourier that the community studied but did not espouse.7 However, Stam only categorized the circle’s 15-year record as “’bees’ to provide needed labor to the community.”8 The circle worked on numerous projects for many community members over the years, including clothing, bedding, quilts, carpets, and even straw braiding. …
The women of Hopedale left a gift to the town – a 150 year history of their group. Started as the Hopedale Sewing Circle, their handwritten record begins before the Civil War and spans the founding of the Draper Corporation, including two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Hippie era, and the end of the Draper dynasty.
If you like history, research, or genealogy, or if you are simply a fan of Hopedale or women’s history, join the Hopedale Women’s History Research Project.  Together, these women forged a strong bond and left an overwhelming record of their deeds, accomplishments, and the happenings in and around their hometown. The record of these women and their importance in the town’s history is held in over 40 handwritten books, and it’s going to take a community to tell their story to the world.
Join us for our next meeting as we discuss how to transcribe and research this important record and what you can do to help. The Hopedale Women’s History Research Project will meet on Monday evening, August 20th, at 6:30 p.m. in the program room of the Bancroft Memorial Library, 50 Hopedale Street.
Contact Linda at [email protected] for more information.