Lydia Sigourney’s Rags and Ribbons

Written by Stephanie R. Scherer

Processing as wide-ranging and extensive of a collection as Caroline F. Schimmel’s, I have come across many surprises—from striking illustrated covers, miniature formats, and ornately decorated bindings to eye-catching titles, like You Bet Your Boots I Can, which peppily echoes the title of the Kislak Center’s 2018 exhibition built from selections from the collection, Ok, I’ll Do It Myself: Narratives of Intrepid Women in the American Wilderness.1 The surprise that is the subject of this post, however, was tucked between the leaves of one of the books in the Schimmel collection. And it was not me, but one of my students who discovered it. Like the warp and weft of the textiles that inform the background and focus of this particular material text discovery, there are many strands to my own history of consulting and interacting with the Schimmel collection; strands that could be organized in many different ways to achieve different patterns of causality or coincidence.

As a PhD student in English who studies nineteenth-century American literature and material culture, I was immediately curious about the Ok I’ll Do It Myself exhibition and corresponding conference, Women’s Voices from American Frontiers. But there was no way to predict, sitting in to learn from the brilliant panelists on that Friday in September 2018, that I would be getting deeply, hands-on acquainted with the Schimmel collection a year and a half later, when I began working as an assistant in Special Collections End Processing in December 2019. In a corner of Van Pelt 501, partially hemmed in by carts and shelves of (mostly) books, a beloved-if-finnicky typewriter, and stacks of paper flags and sticker labels, I was acquainting myself with the endless capacity for surprise that the Schimmel collection has to offer, not to mention the breadth of resources for scholarly research. I was also preparing for and teaching my Junior Research Seminar in English on “Fancy Things and Ordinary Objects: The Stuff of Early American Literature.” And it was in this capacity as an instructor, with John Pollack’s assistance in organizing a visit to the Charles Lea Library for these intrepid young scholars to engage with some of the physical editions of texts we were reading for class, that I got to experience a new and wholly unexpected kind of surprise that had been preserved in our stacks by Schimmel’s careful collecting.

Like I said, this wasn’t my discovery. But I did have a nineteenth-century collection of poetry by Lydia Sigourney, Pocahontas, and Other Poems (1855), paged for our class visit.2 And this edition of Sigourney’s poems was gifted to the library as part of the Schimmel collection. Here, the shuttle makes another pass on the loom; this one driving closer toward a pattern of coincidence, or serendipity, if you’d like.

I’m hovering; observing as one of my students touches and looks at a yellow-paper-wrappered edition of Le Mouchoir: An Autobiographical Romance by James Fenimore Cooper, issued by the Brother Jonathan Press in 1843—a text we read digitally as a transcription from the novella’s original serial publication in Graham’s Magazine with the title Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief.3 It is quiet, outside of the occasional question or remark, half-whispered.

I don’t remember what the exclamation was. And it wasn’t even loud enough to count as an exclamation; as can happen in archival reading rooms, a deep intake of breath or utterance that breaches the decibel-level of breathless whisper is what drew my attention. “Oh whoa, look at that,” is close to what I think might have been said by my student.

But we all, at least most of us, pause, and stare, come closer: there’s a multicolored silk ribbon fragment inserted in the middle of this copy of Sigourney’s 1855 poetry collection. The delight of this surprise inspired this post.

Lydia Sigourney was one of the most popular and prolific female writers of the nineteenth century. She is most often associated with moralistic writing and religious occasional poetry, such as the elegy, “Death of a Father,” in the middle of which the ribbon-bookmark was placed. However, this (mis)characterization of Sigourney as primarily or “merely” a composer of sentimental poetic obituaries fueled a long tradition of harsh criticism and general dismissal of her contributions to the American literary canon. Her reviewers could be so extreme in their condemnation of her work as to verge on the cruelly comical, such as Timothy Dwight, who opens his review of her Letters of Life, with the assertion that certain of the more modest residents of Connecticut “live[d] in perpetual fear that [Sigourney] might survive them, and, thus, having them at a great disadvantage, might send out their names into all the earth.”4 However, scholars over the last decades have sought to recover Sigourney’s work and have turned critical attention to her central significance in the “new” canon of nineteenth-century American literature.5 The many essays collected in Lydia Sigourney: Critical Essays and Cultural Views, edited by Mary Louise Kete and Elizabeth Petrino and published in 2018, reveal important facets to Sigourney’s highly successful literary career and personal life, not least of which being her commitment to addressing pressing issues of social inequality—writing against slavery and the violent mistreatment of Native Americans, among other causes.

These components of Sigourney’s writing are what led me to include Sigourney’s Pocahontas in our seminar reading, as well to page Schimmel’s copy of the collection for our Special Collections visit. This edition of Sigourney’s Pocahontas was of particular interest because it contains one of Lydia Sigourney’s three “rag” poems–“To a Shred of Linen,” “To a Fragment of Silk,” and “To a Fragment of Cotton.” Reading Sigourney’s rag poems alongside other texts, like selections from The Lowell Offering: A Repository of Original Articles on Various Subjects, Written by Factory Operatives, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poem “Free Labor,” and Lucy Larcom’s “Weaving,” our seminar was exploring the material and symbolic connections between textiles and texts in an era of uneven but radical technological and industrial development.6 Sigourney’s poems, in particular, illuminate the material connection between scraps of fabric and rag paper. As Jonathan Senchyne traces in The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature, “During this period [roughly between 1690 and 1867], paper was made from shredded and pulped linen, hempen, and cotton rags, many of which were collected from homes and recycled into paper” (3).7 Writing specifically about Sigourney’s poetry, Senchyne understands her focus on the “rag content of paper” as a means to “mount a feminist argument about [women’s] gendered exclusion from the literary print public sphere.” Her address to shreds of fabric “draw[s] a direct link from domestic work with rags and cloth to artistic and writerly work on paper, noting how the latter is dependent on the former” (30).8 Our physical engagement with the Schimmel copy of Sigourney’s Pocahontas, then, was responding to both Sigourney’s and Senchyne’s calls to give attention to the “most mundane material elements of our reading surfaces” (2).9

In class, we spent a lot of time parsing Sigourney’s “To a Fragment of Cotton,” which is the rag poem that appears in the collection we looked at during our class visit in February. Sigourney was a shrewd navigator of the literary marketplace. She frequently marketed works to various periodicals and collected, edited, and revised those same works for inclusion in her more formal publications, such as Pocahontas.  “To a Fragment of Cotton” was no exception.

Sigourney published the first iteration of this poem in the Boston Recorder in 1833, which was subsequently reprinted in the Ohio Observer, and both attributed simply with her initials “L.H.S.”10

While both of the earlier versions of the poem begin with the address to the cotton fragment, “Methinks thou art immortal—,” in the version of the poem published in the collection, Sigourney revises the opening to read, “Methinks thou art indestructible—.” In class, we were particularly interested in the characterization of the material object as “indestructible,” especially in contrast to the seemingly ephemeral nature of the fabric “scrap.” This indestructibility, however, is revealed throughout the course of the poem to relate to the “history” of transformations—what the poet names as “transmigrations”—by which the raw material of cotton is made into fabric for a “spruce cravat,” rendered into a fragment by being torn up by both baby and dog, and ultimately imagined to be collected as a rag to be pulped into paper.  It is this material relationship between fabric and paper that Senchyne explores in detail, as mentioned above. However, considering this 1855 version of the poem with its earlier iterations reveals the extent to which Sigourney also offers a meditation on the labor conditions that subtend the harvesting of the raw material for cotton fabrics—namely plantation slavery in the American south.

As the poem appears in the Ohio Observer and Boston Recorder, the cotton fragment is directly linked to plantation slavery. However, when the poem appears in the 1855 collection, this linkage is rendered more oblique.  In the earlier versions, the poet invites the fragment to speak of its “history” and goes on to imagine in the form of a rhetorical question:

Speak’st thou of ebon hands, that wrought con

strained,

And burning tears that on thy bosom fell

From Afric’s laboring sons?—I would not hear of Slavery, that deep and dark reproach

Of my lov’d land.

These lines tie plantation labor to racial chattel slavery through the references to “ebon hands” and “Afric’s laboring sons.” Going on to figuratively shoo the rag away, “To that transforming mill, whose magic power/ Rendereth a smooth sheet for the writer’s quill/ From an unsightly shred,” the poet invites the once-again transformed piece of cotton to return in the form “Of a Liberia Herald,” the first newspaper to be published in the colony of Liberia in 1826. Invoking Liberia at once reveals Sigourney’s abolitionist position, but one which, like many of her New England contemporaries was conservative—a position that acknowledged the immorality of slavery, while advocating for colonizationism rather than total emancipation.11 As mentioned above, these more direct linkages to slave-produced cotton in the earlier versions were revised heavily by Sigourney for the resulting poem that appears in book, rather than periodical, form. Instead, the poem we looked at in the Schimmel copy only glancingly refers to the “sunny zone[s]/ Of both hemispheres” in which cotton is sown and, further, to the well-pleased “planter’s hand” that cultivates the plant, which “Commerce…loves well.”  However, reading through Sigourney’s revisions helps to illuminate precisely the kind of circuits, both material and figurative, that connect not only textiles to texts, but also the historical reality of slave-produced cotton fabric in the composition of (at least some) nineteenth-century rag paper.

For these reasons, our seminar looked to Sigourney’s rag poems, and in particular “To a Fragment of Cotton,” in order to resituate antebellum print and written texts—including and beyond the forms of the book and newspaper—into the historical and social contexts not only of local labor relations and transatlantic commerce, but also of an American racializing imaginary.12 Linking cotton to paper not only reveals a proximity of text to textiles, it also complicates the abstractability of text from its material “supports,” whose production was imbricated in intra-national and global systems of exchange and exploitation that drove and was driven by the circulation of slave-produced staples. Sigourney’s address to the cotton fragment begs a number of questions, not least of which being a call to reconsider how cotton rag paper manufacture in this period, reliant on both imported and domestic rag supplies, might fit into or reconfigure economic and print cultural histories that consider slave-produced cotton, textiles for clothing and other purposes, and finally, paper for writing and printing on together.

But Sigourney’s opening line also points to the tension between the ephemerality versus “indestructibility” of fabric scraps (a characterization that could, perhaps, just as easily apply to certain types of loose leaves of paper), and that returns us to the frayed fragment of ribbon we found preserved, though “imperfectly,” in this collection of poems. This ribbon “marks” not only the more symbolic resonance between domestic textile work and/or commodity consumption and books, but also the material traces of the book having been read. When we gathered around the ribbon—its color and texture so starkly disrupting our attention to the “black and white”  surface of the page—one of my students mused: what if the reader who placed the ribbon here—perhaps the “Miss Martha Park” who inscribed her name in the front of the book—was overcome by personal grief in response to the sentimental elegy, unable to finish the poem, but still drawn to mark the poem to possibly return to?

The Schimmel copy does show signs of wear and use that my students contrasted to some of the other more pristine and luxuriously decorated books laid out for us to hold and touch and read that day in the Lea Library. And though this copy of Sigourney’s 1855 Pocahontas’s cloth covers are ornately embellished, the decorative features of the book itself pale in comparison to some of Sigourney’s more elaborately ornamented and expensive collections of poems such as the 1849 Illustrated Poems; Kelly describes the various binding options for that volume as “priced at $3 dollars bound in ‘half morocco’ (a hand-processed cover made of goat-skin), $3.50 in full cloth ‘elegantly gilt,’ and $5 in Turkey morocco (advertisement, Christian Recorder, Philadelphia, 19 January 1861)—about half a week’s wages for a skilled male worker, twice to four times that for a female worker” (30).13 The curious ribbon fragment stuck between the leaves of Sigourney’s 1855 collection of poems offers so many echoes to both the content of Sigourney’s rag poems, as well as to what and how material text/iles get preserved or “transmigrated.” Ultimately, this “bookmark,” a fairly mundane object, perhaps even an afterthought-artifact, preserved by happenstance, unlike the more industrially produced and elaborately constructed bookmarks like the popular woven “Stevensgraph” bookmarks that gained popularity from the mid-nineteenth century onward, is more suggestive than it is revealing.14

The frayed ribbon is less a mystery to be solved, than an opportunity, as I hope it was for my students, to continue critical inquiries not only into the material and symbolic relationships between texts and textiles in this period, but also into how, to borrow Leah Price’s formulation, we do or have done things with books.


[1] Jessie Hosford, You Bet Your Boots I Can, Longman Young Books, 1973. (Schimmel Fiction 2310)

[2] Lydia Sigourney, Pocahontas, or Other Poems, Harper and Brothers, 1855. (Schimmel Fiction 4210)

[3] Folio PS1405 .A8 1843

[4] Timothy Dwight, “Review of Mrs. L. H. Sigourney, Letters of Life.” New Englander, vol. 25, no. 2 (1866), pg. 330-58. Dwight, like his grandfather a century before him, would go on to assume the presidency of Yale University in 1886. And it was Yale University Press that published the first biography of Sigourney, written by Gordon S. Haight, in 1930, in which Haight, though not in as overt or acrimonious a manner, essentially pans Sigourney’s poetic efforts.

[5] One of the earliest identifiers of the need to return to Sigourney’s work was, of course, Nina Baym in her 1990 essay “Reinventing Lydia Sigourney,” American Literature, vol. 62, no. 3 (Sept. 1990), pg. 385-404.

[6] The idea that these developments progressed “unevenly,” nods to the important work of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who, in The Age of Homespun, reminds us that there is not a clear or teleological delineation between the “age of homespun” and the “era” of industrialization and mass-production.

[7] Jonathan Senchyne, The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature, University of Massachusetts Press, 2020.

[8] Senchyne, 30.

[9] Senchyne, 2. See also Joan R Wry, “”A Sense of the Material Object: Sigourney’s Fabric Poems,” in Lydia Sigourney: Critical Essays and Cultural Views, ed. by Mary Louise Kete and Elizabeth Petrino, University of Massachusetts Press, 2018, who notes slant references to plantation slavery in “To a Fragment of Cotton,” but does not, however, consider these potential allusions in comparison with the earlier iterations of the poem.

[10] The attribution is significant to note, considering the pressure Sigourney faced from her husband early in her publishing career to write anonymously.

[11] As Gary Kelly writes in the introduction to the Broadview edition of Sigourney’s selected poems, “Boston-based abolitionists encountered difficulty campaigning and recruiting in Hartford, and most prominent Hartford people advocated assisted emigration of freed slaves to Africa rather than outright abolition. Sigourney supported the Hartford Female African Society, which promoted this option” (30). Gary Kelly, editor, Lydia Sigourney Selected Poetry and Prose, Broadview Press, 2008.

[12] Jonathon Senchyne’s work on the racial form of paper has been instructive here; see his essay in Early African American Print Culture, “Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print.” The editors of that collection, Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, issue a number of pressing challenges to traditional print cultural approaches in their introduction, including the call for both literary critics and book historians “to recognize print’s role in the process of racialization” (6).

[13] Kelly, 30.

[14] Frank Hamel, The History and Development of the Bookmarker, Philadelphia: s.n., 1907; The Encyclopedia of EphemeraA Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian, edited by Maurice Rickards, Psychology Press, 2000.

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