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Article

Abstract

From the garments that they made to the ways that they spoke, Quakers grappled with the outward trappings of piety. Unofficial Quaker guidance enumerated some vague criteria for plain garments around the turn of the eighteenth century, but aside from this, pious members largely decided for themselves what was or was not plain. This paper utilizes a close study of the diaries and possessions of women including Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, Grace Peel Dowell Parr, Hannah Callender Sansom, and their contemporaries to argue that, rather than represent lapses of faith, their material worlds represented individual interpretations of plainness within rigid social boundaries that were both necessary for and aligned with a faith that did not separate the religious from the secular. Social engagements, commissioning portraits, and making useful things for family and friends were acceptable, plain activities because they encompassed women’s exercise of piety through the assessment and creation of things within the context of the Quaker community. Scholars of design history analyze plainness as a rhetorical stance through furniture and Quaker clothing, but they neglect the application of this concept to eighteenth-century Quaker women. Historians, conversely, focus on the stages of each woman’s life, how she thought about revolutionary ideas, and her literary networks, rather than the intersections of her religious beliefs and material worlds. This paper contributes to this body of scholarship by centering the exchange of things to understand how Philadelphia Quaker women interacted with the theology of plainness.

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