The Sewing Box

This post was originally published in the 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House's volunteer newsletter, The Volunteer, May 2011. Written by RoxAnn Grabowski Raisner.

''Twill last all my sewing years!” Thomas Hardy quote

1770-1820 sewing box
Many of us have discovered during our adventures as reenactors or interpreters that maintaining our wardrobe is imperative to any good interpretation. Inevitability, clothing will need to be mended at some point in its life—sometimes more then once. When repairing a garment it is convenient to have a small sewing kit as part of our gear (or in my husband’s case—a spouse that is handy with a needle).

Sewing kits dating to the 1820s or earlier came in a wide variety of styles and sizes. Some were small, easy to carry cloth cases that fit neatly into a pocket or reticule while some were sewing tables tucked into a corner of a room. And as we all know, it’s not the size that counts but how we use it that matters.According to The Workwoman’s Guide published in 1838, “A work-box, or basket, should be large enough to hold a moderate supply of work and all it requisites, without being of such a size as to be inconvenient to carry about, or lift with ease.” The author goes on to state, “There should be in it divisions or partitions, as they assist in the keeping it in order; but some persons are apt to run into extreme of over-partitioning their boxes, which defeats its own purpose and become troublesome: this should be carefully avoided.”

c. 1805 sewing table
Over the years, I have amassed several different types of sewing kits and utensils but I tend to use certain tools that fit neatly in an easy to carry box. My traveling kit is a small wooden band box containing a pin cushion, small scissors, thread, needle case, leather thimble, beeswax, bodkin and a stiletto. Everything I need is tightly contained inside this box purchased from Randy and Sharon Duncan’s sutlery, The Blue Goose, several year ago. As with anything, what suits your needs best is what you will use; this it true for our ancestors too.

A small kit known as a ‘housewife’ contained the basic tools needed to mend a garment; needles, thread, and scissors with the possible additions of buttons and thimble. Women and men carried these simple kits for unforeseen clothing emergencies. Documentation shows that soldiers often included them in their haversacks (a soldier's bag for rations, extra clothing, etc). One such ‘housewife’ was owned by George Shannon and traveled on the famous Lewis & Clark expedition. Shannon’s kit was constructed of red leather instead of cloth.

Reproduction 'housewife'.
Work areas at home provided more space to store larger selections of equipment. Here garments were not just mended but made. The production of a complete garment required more tools than a small ‘housewife’ kit provided. The Workwoman’s Guide offers insight into the contents of a well stocked sewing box or table. “A work-box should contain six or eight of the useful sized white reel sewing cottons, black cotton, and silks, white, black and coloured, both round and for darning; a few useful tapes, bobbin, gallon, buttons of all kinds, including thread, pearl, metal and black; also, hooks and eyes. An ample needle book, containing a page of kerseymere for each sized needle, not omitting the darning, glove, stay, and worsted or carpet needles.” Also important were “various kinds of scissors” used to cut out linen, muslin work and lace. Other items suggested are “A pincushion, an emery cushion, a waxen reel for strengthening thread, a stiletto, bodkins, a thimble, a small knife, and a yard measure...”. Obviously, sewing boxes were a personal item. Tools collected were based on the owners preferences or needs. 

Sewing boxes and tables are intriguing items, even today. One of the most noticeable pieces at Stephenson House is the sewing table in the parlor. Just about every tour through the house will ask “What kind of table is that?” Children especially find the strange (and generally unknown) objects contained inside of it to be fascinating.

Many of the standard sewing tools used by our ancestors are no longer used by the general population today, so they have become obsolete and foreign. Using these objects as interpretive props is an excellent way to engage visitors and keep our heritage alive.

My travel sewing box/kit.

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