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Friday, September 30, 2011

A Spinster – Not What You Think!

Exactly, who is a spinster?  I thought I knew but found out today that I really didn’t know the full meaning.  I thought that the term was used in earlier days, perhaps, in those of our grandparents’ time, to label an unmarried lady who was usually a little older in age, one who was past what one would assume was “the marrying age.” 
In my previous blog I mentioned that Nancy Land, the wife of Alexander Balus West, was listed erroneously as a spinster in the 1860 census.  I knew that Nancy was married and had one son; therefore, she just couldn’t be labeled a spinster.
Recently, I have been in contact with a genealogy librarian at the Library of North Carolina in Raleigh.  I enlisted her assistance to help me locate the grave of Alexander Balus West who was killed in action in the Civil War at Winchester, Virginia.  During the course of our e-mail conversations, she learned that I had thought the 1860 census was inaccurate in labeling Nancy as a spinster.  Today, this gracious and most helpful librarian clarified the meaning of the term, spinster.  According to the librarian, “The word, spinster, has a dual meaning.  In the most common usage in the 1900s, it’s to describe an older childless (and often unmarried) woman, but in the 1800s, ‘spinster’ was often used as an occupation for a woman who spins cloth such as wool or cotton.” 
As I read her definition, a bright light came on in my head!  I immediately thought of the coverlet that Nancy Land had made.  According to my 1st cousin 1X removed, CALT, who has the coverlet, Nancy Land had grown the flax, had spun the thread from the flax, and had woven the cloth into the coverlet.  Therefore, not only was Nancy listed accurately in the 1860 census as the spouse of Alexander Balus West, but she was also listed accurately as having the “occupation” of a “spinster”– one who spins cloth.  She evidently wanted to be known for her skill as a spinner and weaver in addition to being a wife and mother.  Even in the 1860s, wasn’t she a liberated woman!
In 2009 CALT placed Nancy Land’s coverlet in the Banner Elk Heritage Days’ quilt display of local Banner Elk quilts at the Banner House Museum in Banner Elk, North Carolina, during the Banner Elk Heritage Days.  I have quoted below the description, which was most likely written by CALT, of the coverlet as the description was printed in a guide for visitors.
This woven coverlet is over 100 years old and was made by Nancy Land West
who grew the flax, spun the thread, and wove it into this coverlet when she
lived in Wilkes County on a farm in the Stony Fork area.  Nancy, who married
Alexander Balus West in 1851, became a widow in 1864 and moved to Banner
Elk by wagon with her only son, Thomas Harvey West.  She died the following
year and is buried in the Banner Elk Cemetery in the West-Lowe plot.[i]

Nancy Land West's Coverlet
 What a privilege it was for me to see, touch, and photograph this coverlet while it was on display!

[i] Exhibit of Local Antique Quilts, Banner House Museum, Banner Elk, North Carolina,  September 2009


  1. Could a widow woman from the 1800 be described in a legal document as a spinster? She would be unmarried at the time so is it possible that the clerk could label her as such?

    1. Good question! According to the genealogy librarian at the State Library of North Carolina In Raleigh, during that period in our history, the term was apparently used to indicate a lady who spun cloth. Of course, it, also, may have been used to denote an unmarried lady. I think we need to research your question. Let's see what we can find out. Thanks for reading my blog and for your question.

  2. Please see my blog, "More about a Spinster: A Spinner of Cloth or an Unmarried Women," posted on Feb. 9, 2012, in which I have cited some research regarding the term, spinster.

  3. Thank you!!! This helps so much! I just came across a census where an ancestor's sister was listed as occupation "spinster." I thought this meant she was unmarried, which didn't fit my information. This makes a HUGE difference. THANKS!!!

    1. Dana, thanks for your comment. I'm happy that the information was helpful to you.


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