Zara Anishanslin is Assistant Professor of History and Art History at the University of Delaware. This interview is based on her new book, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Portrait of a Woman in Silk?
ZA: The moral to my author’s story? We historians should visit museums.
Initial inspiration came because—like many of the people, ideas, and things discussed in the book—I crossed the Atlantic. One day in London, flipping through eighteenth-century silk samples at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Study Room, I had the nagging feeling I’d seen these fabrics before. In particular, I thought I’d seen some of the large floral patterns in a portrait at the Winterthur Museum. A quick bit of digging in the V & A’s research library confirmed my hunch. There was indeed a portrait of a woman wearing London made silk at Winterthur. Digging deeper, I soon found that not only was this woman wearing London—or more specifically, Spitalfields—silk, but that we knew who designed the silk, who wove it, who painted the portrait, and who the woman in the portrait was. As I continued to dig into what was known about each of these four people—two women and two men—an intriguing pattern emerged. Each was not only identifiable, but notable in their own time, financially solvent, literate, and almost certainly educated. And yet, each left the smallest of paper trails. Using traditional archival sources only, they all but disappear from history. How, then, to tell their stories? I decided to use the evidence they did leave behind—material and visual things—to resuscitate their lives as part of an unwitting (but no less real) network around the making, buying, and using of this single object. Tracing the full biographies not just of this network of four, but of the object itself across space and time, I ultimately uncovered a whole world of hidden histories of thousands of other people, things, ideas, and events connected to this portrait of a woman in a silk dress. My nagging feeling in a London museum became this book.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Portrait of a Woman in Silk?
ZA: Portrait of a Woman in Silk argues that the production, consumption, and use of commodities in the eighteenth-century British Empire created object-based communities that tied its inhabitants together, while allowing for different views of the Empire. The many histories hidden in this single object lay bare a mental and material world created as much by women’s labor as by men’s, and a transatlantic economy driven by colonial Americans as much as metropolitan producers—Americans who were not just avid consumers but also sophisticated producers, motivated to make and buy things by political, cultural, and personal concerns far more complex than emulative refinement alone.
JF: Why do we need to read Portrait of a Woman in Silk?
ZA: Because it’s filled with really intriguing stories about the long eighteenth-century you haven’t read before! Although its primary focus is the 1720s-1770s, its chronology is the collective lifespan of the network of four who created the portrait of a woman in silk. Conveniently, this ranges roughly from the Glorious Revolution to George Washington’s first presidency (c. 1686/8 to 1791). This timespan allows for discussion of a lot of fascinating people and events, from South Carolinian Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Queen Caroline of England, and from England’s Calico Crisis of 1719 to the American Revolution. In part because I wanted to show how many histories are hidden within things—even things whose function we think we understand, like a portrait—my book deliberately encompasses a wide range of historical fields and topics. In addition to cultural history, it touches upon fields including economic, labor, political, scientific, social, fashion, intellectual, religious, and women’s history. And it discusses subjects as varied as how much silkworms defecate to the politics behind 1760s labor protest.
But history aside, I’ve got a methodological reason to hope you read it. My favorite part of how Yale Press summed up my book was that it contributes to “our ongoing conversation about how to write history.” I hope that’s true. I care deeply about how we historians craft the stories we tell. In part this is because I appreciate good writing. And I think we’ll reach a wider audience outside academia if we write things people want to read. So I hope Yale is right, and that my book adds to our conversation about the historian’s craft. More specifically, I hope it makes other scholars think about how they might use objects to craft history. It’s heartening—and I’m delighted—that so many historians increasingly now embrace material culture as a valid type of evidence. But material culture is not just a type of evidence. It’s also a field of study, with its own theoretical and historiographical foundations. Sometimes it seems as though these underpinnings get lost. So my hope of how I might contribute to our collective conversation of how to write history has two parts to it. First, of course, I wanted to show the many fascinating and otherwise untold histories hidden in things. In addition, I wanted to show the theoretical benefits of material culture as a field of study. What types of histories come to light when—instead of using material culture to answer questions, we make the object itself the question?
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ZA: When I was a little girl in Pennsylvania, my grandmother (one of the people to whom this book’s dedicated) told me tales of our eighteenth-century ancestors, of Moravian missionaries (women and men) and soldiers in the American Revolution. I would visit their graves with her and wonder about their long ago lives. As a teenager, I often went to World War II reunions with her and my granddad, who was a pilot stationed in the Pacific. Hearing the men reminisce fascinated me. But at some point, there always came a time when “women and children” were asked to leave the room. The veterans were about to discuss POWs, and death marches, and bombs, and other things too terrible, in their view, for our ears. I found this frustrating. I wanted to hear all the stories. In college at UNC-Chapel Hill, I indulged my love of the past by majoring in History. I realized that if I studied history, I could dig up the stories buried in those eighteenth-century graveyards, and listen to those veterans’ conversations behind closed doors. American history first sparked my childhood interest in the past. But my college Honors thesis was on the French Revolution, and I’ve always felt it’s important to look beyond our own borders when thinking about American history. Honestly, I’m not sure I would be an Americanist if Atlantic World history weren’t such a vibrant field when I went to grad school. But it was. And lucky me! Since I work on colonial and revolutionary era America, it’s easy to be an Atlanticist and an Americanist both.
JF: What is your next project?
ZA: I’m at work on a few projects on the American revolutionary era, mostly focused on material and visual culture. I’m pretty much done with two articles that I hope find a home soon. These are part of a long-ranging synthetic material history of the period (1763-83) I’m planning. If I do it properly, this is a huge project that will take a fair amount of time even by scholarly standards. So in the meantime, I’m also at work on a new, smaller, overlapping book project I’m very excited about.
It’s the history of an enslaved man who painted portraits in Massachusetts and the London artist (possibly also of partial African descent) he studied with in Britain. It follows their intertwined lives back and forth across the Atlantic. During the Revolution, the enslaved man—enslaved to loyalists who fled to London—enlisted to fight for the patriots, while the London artist moved to Philadelphia to paint the luminaries of the early republic. It’s a history of what it meant to be African and an artist in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic, and a history of slavery and freedom in the revolutionary era told through art and war. I admit I’m writing it from a political as well as a historical imperative. I feel it’s especially critical right now that we pay careful attention to the origin stories we tell about America, and that we’re vocal about including black American contributions in the narratives we tell about the past.
JF: Thanks, Zara!