This Was Then: Mittens and pies

The good old days, before female hands were beguiled by the Piano.

West Tisbury sheep, perhaps 1930s or 1940s. Courtesy Augustus Merry of Vineyard Haven.

“An Old Sailor,” corresponding with the Boston Globe in 1894, recalled visiting Holmes Hole as a young man in the 1840s: “I have a pleasant recollection of the place as a great emporium for mutton pies, excellent mittens and stockings, and as the home of a kind-hearted people.”

Sheep significantly outnumbered humans on Martha’s Vineyard for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. There were more than four sheep for every human Vineyarder for much of that time. Mutton was the principal Island dish in autumn, when sheep were traditionally slaughtered.

Sheep were brought to the Island by the first European settlers, and are mentioned in written records as early as the 1650s, together with cattle, hogs, horses, and dogs (although the latter were Island natives, having been befriended, employed, and occasionally eaten by our native residents for millennia).

Our isolated sheep stock evolved into a uniquely well-adapted “native” breed, a small and scrappy line of sheep. “The farmers of the Vineyard allow their sheep to run in the pastures all winter, occasionally feeding them at their barns, but not enclosing them,” reported a visiting agriculturist in 1860; “they say the sheep are fond of the kelp which is thrown upon the beach.” One animal survived being buried without food under deep snow for an entire month after a violent snowstorm in 1716-17. A state agent noted in 1871, “The sheep of the island … are able to shift for themselves through the entire year. When the land is covered in snow and ice, they are able to subsist on the seaweed which is washed ashore by the cold, rough waves of the Atlantic … The treatment of this breed is such as none of our improved breeds will endure, and therefore attempts to introduce them have not resulted satisfactorily.”

In September 1778, more than 10,500 sheep were driven from all parts of the Island to Holmes Hole, where they were surrendered to British General Charles Grey in the infamous “Grey’s Raid.” Although legal compensation for the raid was pursued, mostly unsuccessfully, for decades, the sheep were quickly replaced.

Our Island’s principal manufacturing industry, at the turn of the 19th century, was wool. (Salt was second.) In 1807, nearly 12,000 pounds of wool were exported annually, increasing to more than 19,000 pounds by 1860.

Historian Charles Banks wrote, “Before the days of the great manufactories of cloth, the limited production of hand looms from wool was an occupation of the women in their spare hours.” 15,000 pairs of stockings, selling for 50 cents each, were knitted annually, together with 3,000 mittens and 600 “wigs for seamen,” according to visiting author James Freeman in 1807.

Samuel Adams Devens wrote about Edgartown in his 1838 “Sketches of Martha’s Vineyard”: “Knitting was a very general occupation some 30 years since. … It is far from being so now. The good old times rise in judgment against the sad degeneracy of the present, and condemn them. It used to be said that when you reached Cape Poge Light you could hear the knitting needles in Edgartown. It is not so now, and many an ancient and discreet personage is found to lament that the fingers of the fair are bewitched to thrum the keys of that modern notion and arrant time-killer — the Piano.”

Machines had arrived. By 1807, 12,000 pounds of wool were manufactured locally each year into stockings, mittens, flannels, and blankets. Mills in Chilmark and West Tisbury “dressed” more than 4,000 yards of cloth annually.

The old mill in West Tisbury, repurposed with carding machines and looms, produced thousands of yards of Satinet and Kersey cloth each year from 1808 until the 1870s. (The mill is today occupied by the Martha’s Vineyard Garden Club.) Willis Gifford recalled what he knew of the old Satinet Mill in a 1983 conversation with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum: “I’ve seen that Satinet cloth, and it was something terrible, just stiff like a board, and you might get into it and go through a long ride and no air would get through it, but you might as well be in a casket as far as movability was concerned. It was very rigid. A quarter of an inch thick and very hard. Uncomfortable.”

The sheep population began declining steadily Island-wide (indeed, across most of the Eastern U.S.) by the mid-1800s, as inexpensive wool arrived from the West and abroad. Some, however, blamed the decline on the introduction and crossbreeding of new breeds, such as the merino (the first one rescued from a wrecked vessel off New London and brought to the Vineyard by Capt. Leander Daggett) and Cotswold. Chilmark was a holdout; even by the early 20th century, the sheep-to-human ratio still exceeded 7 to 1.

Another newspaper report, in 1837, also referenced the Island’s notoriety for meat pies and woolen goods, but with a curious difference: “A paper has lately been started at Holmes’ Hole, Martha’s Vineyard,” reported the New Orleans Times-Picayune, ”a place known by all the sailors from Bangor, Me., to Savannah, Ga., as the greatest manufactory of woollen stockings and mince pies made of puppies on the coast … The editor advertises that he will take woollen stocking and puppy pies in payment for subscriptions.” Our Island’s reputation for woolen stockings is a certainty; this newspaper’s other claim awaits verification.


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, will be released June 1.