Katie Hargrave ’22 and Ellery Foutch (Winter 2021)
The culmination of this term’s curriculum allowed us to gain greater understanding of hair and hairwork and its place in society throughout history. If we aim to understand the complex nature of an individual in the past, then studying hairwork can give us incredible insight.
I focused my research on Anna Sargent Butterfield’s Bookmark, which was donated by Mrs. Nellie Stowe Britell, according to a typed label that accompanies the artifact: “TIED HAIR BOOK MARK MADE BY MRS. ANNA SARGENT BUTTERFIELD BORN LINCOLN VT. MARRIED ORRIL HANKS AND HAD 18 CHILDREN. PRESENTED BY MRS. NELLIE STOWE BRITELL.”
The hair is mounted on ivory moire fabric or ribbon with fringed ends. Reddish-coral grosgrain ribbon seems to fix the woven hair to the ivory fabric on each end. The technique and style differ from most examples of hairwork we studied this term. While Britell describes it as “tied hair,” it is similar to geometric patterns of weaving. The left side of the hair design is not symmetrical with the right, which leads us to believe that it could have been unfinished or damaged in subsequent years. If we extrapolate from the intact parts of the design, we can imagine four angular diamonds of woven hair following the length of the fabric, united by concentric circles of unworked hair, whose center marks the point at which the diamonds meet. This central pattern is bordered by scalloped double braids.
Unlike many hairwork techniques, this hair is carefully woven in a self-contained design, not utilizing wire. Unlike most table-worked pieces, its design is quite flat, a feature that might have helped Nellie Stowe Britell decide to use it as a bookmark. This technique is evident on a few additional objects in the Sheldon Museum collection, possibly also created by Anna Sargent Butterfield, but no note accompanies these two examples, which have been separated from their provenance information.
This hair seems slightly lighter and more auburn than that of the bookmark, whose hair is a dark brown interspersed with a few strands of gray. Still, the same technique has clearly been used; the lower example features an almost identical pattern of interlocking diamonds and circles, united with a dark brown ribbon on either end. The diamonds seem to be composed of strands of hair that are looped almost as in the formation of a pretzel. The upper object appears more like a single unified chain of interwoven hair. While most objects of hairwork jewelry include clasps or other metal ornaments, these items are entirely hair, with added textile elements.
Finding information about Anna Sargent Butterfield (1831-1908) and when she might have created the bookmark was challenging, but we were able to investigate the family tree and some local Vermont newspapers in order to gather more information about her and her family. As the typed label indicated (and research confirmed), Anna Sargent Butterfield was born in Lincoln, Vermont on February 9, 1831, the youngest of seven children. She married Orral Hanks in 1848, when she was only 17 years old; he was ten years her senior. While the note accompanying the bookmark indicates that the two had 18 children, only 13 children appear on a genealogy website (link).
As is often the case for nineteenth-century women, it is extremely difficult to find any written or published records that might help us understand Anna’s early life; the keyword search results of newspaper records don’t match up with the chronology or dates of her life. Finding records related to her husband (or under her married name) is also challenging, especially given the common changes in the spelling of his name; variations include Orrill, Orrel and Orval, in addition to the “Orral” on his tombstone. The 1860 census listed him as a farmer living in Lincoln, Vermont with Anna and six children, from ages one to eleven: Ida, James, Eva, Charles, Emma, and Adeline. In the 1870 census, Anna’s occupation was listed as “Keeping House,” with seven children in the home. Charles, the eldest (17), was listed as a “Farm Laborer,” while siblings Ida (11) and Daniel (9) were at school; also in the household were Jacob (7), Lydia (5), Myron (3), and Olive (1).
Orral Hanks died in 1876 at the age of 54, leaving Anna as a young widow with several young children. The 1880 census found her still living in Lincoln, listed as a “housekeeper” with five children: Daniel, a “farm laborer” now 19, with Lydia (15), Myron (13), Olive (11), and Ursula (9) “at school.”
The following year, about five years after Orral’s death, Anna decided to remarry, wedding Oscar Sherman Roscoe of Starksboro in August of 1881. Like Orral, he too was a farmer, as indicated in their wedding records; like Anna, he was widowed (1880 census). Yet unlike the relative anonymity of Anna and Orral’s early years, Roscoe appears somewhat frequently in Vermont newspapers; journalistic ethics of the era meant that what must have been difficult and painful times for the family were still widely reported. A little over a year after Anna and Oscar married, multiple newspapers reported that Oscar Roscoe had attempted suicide, citing “temporary insanity” (The Enterprise and Vermonter, 15 Sept. 1882, p. 2; News and Citizen, 21 Sept. 1882). Oscar recovered, and little is known of their life together in the following years. Almost 25 years later, however, Oscar Roscoe was in the papers again; at the age of 85, newspapers explained, he had again attempted suicide, cutting his throat with a jack knife at the home of his son, Wallace Roscoe, in East Monkton (Vermont Phoenix, 5 May 1905; Barre Daily Times 2 May 1905).
It is frustrating to have only these small, sensationalist glimpses into Anna Butterfield’s life, ones that only let us imagine or empathize with what she might have experienced. We might try to think more carefully, too, about Oscar Roscoe’s life, which was undoubtedly more complex and rich than these quick references to mental illness. The newspaper accounts, like the Barre Daily Times clipping above, emphasized Roscoe’s “disordered mind,” a description that is in striking contrast to the painstakingly-woven hairwork that Anna Butterfield created, with its carefully repeating loops and intricate handling. We don’t know much about her daily life outside the few events documented by journalists or state and government officials. At the time of the 1900 census, Anna S. Roscoe was living in Weybridge with two of her daughters: eldest daughter Adeline had married Lavius Thompson, and their household included two children, Adeline’s sister Lydia, and Anna S. Roscoe, listed as “mother-in-law.” Oscar Roscoe died in November of 1907, and Anna S. Butterfield Roscoe died only about six months later, in May of 1908, succumbing to a cerebral hemorrhage after an illness of about a month. She was buried next to her first husband, Orral Hanks, in Lincoln’s Lee Cemetery.
The lives of women can be so challenging to trace in the archive– and it isn’t fair to remember Anna Butterfield only through the legacy of her second husband’s difficult life. Luckily, the woven bookmark gives us some sense of her artistry and care, insights into her personality and life. Thanks to Nellie Stowe Britell’s gift to the Henry Sheldon Museum and her carefully typed label, we are able to make this connection to the past.
Nellie Stow Grant Britell was the donor of the bookmark. Further research is needed to uncover her exact connection to Anna Butterfield, though both women were living in Weybridge, Vermont, in the 1900s (according census records). Thirty years younger than Anna Butterfield, Nellie was born November 18, 1865. Nellie Stow Grant married Claudius Ray Britell on the December 5, 1911, the year after her father Azro’s death. Nellie Stow and C.R. Britell had both been elected officers of the Methodist Episcopal choir, as noted in the Middlebury Register, with Nellie serving as organist, suggesting her musical talents; C.R. Britell also played the cornet. Their love of music (and relative means) were evident when a local newspaper announced they had purchased a phonograph in the spring of 1920 (“Weybridge,” Orwell Citizen, 20 May 1920)! In the 1930s, she donated several objects to the Sheldon Museum, including a set of paper dolls she had made as a child… and the bookmark made by Anna Sargent Butterfield.
Cite this essay: Katie Hargrave and Ellery Foutch, “Anna Sargent Butterfield’s Bookmark” in Perspectives on Hairwork: Historic Vermont, ed. Ellery Foutch (Winter 2021): https://elleryfoutch.middcreate.net/hairwork/anna-sargent-butterfield-1831-1908/ [date accessed]
- “Anna Butterfield.” FamilySearch. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.familysearch.org/tree/person/details/LC8Z-4T6.
- FamilySearch gathered information from primary sources “Vermont Vital Records 1760-1954” and “USA Census”
- “With a Jack Knife,” The Barre Daily Times, May 2, 1905.
- “Nellie Grant Stow Britell (1865-1952).” Find a Grave. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/138105645/nellie-grant-britell