February 17, 2010
By Elisabeth Grant
Former AHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s presidential address, An American Album, 1857, is now available online in the February 2010 issue of The American Historical Review. For full access to the presidential address and to the rest of the contents of the February issue of the AHR, members should login here first.
Ulrich presented her address on Friday, January 8, 2010 during the General Meeting of the 124th Annual Meeting. Here is a summary of the address by Pillarisetti Sudhir, first posted on the blog shortly after the Annual Meeting concluded.
A Stitch in Time: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich Turns a Quilt into a Rich Tapestry of History
She found it useful sometimes to address large questions by focusing on a single object, said President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, delivering her presidential address entitled "An American Album." The object in question was a simple quilt, made in the Utah territory in 1857. But she unfolded it to lucidly tell a complex historical tale of patriarchal politics, ideologies, and religious beliefs. Originally made in the same epochal year as the Dred Scott decision and the mutiny in India, the quilt was sundered into two when it was passed on 60 odd years later as a legacy to the next generation. Only after another hundred years had passed by was it made whole again by a descendant who not only joined the two halves, but also gathered details about the women who had contributed to the making of the quilt. Work of such amateur historians and genealogists was valuable and should be acknowledged, said Ulrich, who then went on to stitch those details into her own reading of the quilt. Taking a close look at some of the quilt’s many and variegated squares, Ulrich delighted the audience with insightful and perceptive revisionings of what the quiltmakers inscribed into the fabric, situating the new, seemingly simple, but elaborate narratives into histories of interpersonal relations, of the Mormon Church, and of public reactions to polygamy and the politics of gender. The address was another captivating example of Laurel Thatcher’s remarkable ability of taking a simple object and transforming it into an artifact of compelling historical interest and narrative power.
Ulrich is perhaps most well known for her work, A Midwife’s Tale, which explored the life of midwife Martha Ballard through her diary entries from 1785 through 1812. She is also the author of a number of other books, including Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (2008), The Age of Homespun (2002), and Good Wives (1991).