Tag Archives: Bidwell House

Gender Difference in Early America

Professor of History Emeritus John Demos is also a Bidwell House Board Member. He is Winner of the Bancroft Prize and the Francis Parkman Prize.

Yale Emeritus Professor of History John Demos explored gender relations in colonial America at a Bidwell House lecture June 20, 2015.  He discussed how male-female difference was understood at the time and what that meant for everyday life.

A video of the talk is available on You Tube — Lenox History.

Throughout the talk John emphasized.  that the Colonial period covered more than 150 years and that roles evolved over time.

In the Colonial era women were largely defined by what they lacked – powers of reason and moral discipline (fear of witches in its most primitive form).  Only about 30% of women were literate vs. 60-70% of men and it was women’s role to receive guidance from men — even as to child rearing.

Tyringham Union Church - Location of Bidwell House Lecture June 20, 2015
Tyringham Union Church – Location of Bidwell House Lecture June 20, 2015

However, somewhat in contradiction, women were also though of as “help mate.”  Their role was to be self sacrificing and to help others – but not necessarily passive.  Women would have been quite active in household management and for many of the home industries on which the local Colonial economy depended.  These responsibilities included production of textiles, candle making, basket making, care of domestic animals tending the family garden, care of young children and for home medical care.  When the husband was absent, the wife would be expected to act in his stead as a “deputy husband.”

The male-female dependency of Colonial household in early New England is demonstrated by the high marriage rate – there were almost no single person households in that era.  There were fewer females than males but the imbalance was less than it had been in the south.  As a frontier society, there would have been more need for everyone to pitch in to survive and it is likely New England females enjoyed more status than their counterparts in the mother country.

By the 19th century women had become more the rearers of children and had become more instrumental in administration of the church.  Literacy among women probably had improved by this time and many women were involved in home education.  Increasingly men were out of the home for work and women ran the household.  Men and women started to have more distinct and separate spheres of influence.


History Detective at Bidwell House

Yes the Bidwell House is in Monterey, but like many historic homes in Lenox it requires intelligent intervention to remain standing and to be true to its historic heritage.    Not an easy task as we learned  at a June 13, 2015 presentation at Bidwell House on how its preservation plan was developed.

Bidwell House Background

Bidwell House, 1762 (?), Monterey, MA
Bidwell House, 1750 (?), Monterey, MA

Bidwell House had the good fortune to be left relatively undisturbed as a farm house until 1911 and then, in the 1960’s to have been meticulously restored by James Hargis and David Brush (who donated the property for its current use as a museum). The result is that 90% of the house is thought to be original.

Bidwell House Executive Director Barbara Palmer
Bidwell House Executive Director Barbara Palmer

Nonetheless, it needed a new roof this year and the Bidwell House Museum Association used this opportunity to get an extensive historic survey and preservation plan done through a Mass Preservation Plan grant.

Difficult Restoration Choices

The Birthing Room, Bidwell House - Original Fireplace and Paneling
The Birthing Room, Bidwell House – Original Fireplace and Paneling

The dilemma in stabilizing and fixing a 250+ year old house is to identify what the original design, colors and materials were.

To make the right choices, the Great Barrington architect Steve McCallister brought in historic preservation expert Bill Rose of Rose and French–really a history detective.

Preservationist Bill Rose Showing One of the Places Where He Obtained a Color Sample
Preservationist Bill Rose Showing One of the Places Where He Obtained a Color Sample

The materials available for this detective work included photos from the early 20th century when the Carrington family sold the house, some photos from the 1920’s era as a summer art school and from the 1950’s when the house was a summer home for a Minnesota family and a recorded interview with the late Jack Hargis who had done the 1960’s restoration.

Much as in “CSI” and “Bones”, samples of wood planing are compared against the output of saws and planers from different eras.  Also nail technology has changed over the years and can give a good indication of age.  Sometimes Bill Rose was using indentations of former nail holes to make a determination.  Dendrochronology, tree ring dating, has not been very helpful in this area because comparative data is limited.

Again similar to modern forensics, a pinpoint drill of wall is taken and sliced so the paint can be viewed under a microscope.

Deduction and comparison are also tools of the history detective.  Bill was able to the date of the El addition based on the weathering of the shingles where the addition overlapped the original house.  Deductions can also be made based on the appearance of new styles and technology in other houses.  Much as we see today, kitchens tended to be renovated every 20 or 30 years as new ways to heat food were developed.