Meaning of ‘spinster’ woven from tradition

Published 9:27am Thursday, July 10, 2014

The spinning wheel was once a common thread among early American households, providing the materials to clothe generations.
Along the way, the rise and fall of the spinning wheel also spun a new meaning for an old word: the use of the term “spinster” to describe an unmarried woman.
Jan Turner, member of the Liberty Spinners, explained how this term first came to be used – and how it gained a new meaning over the years.
Turner said nearly every family would have a spinning wheel in the home to be used to spin fibers to make thread and yarn for clothing and other home needs.
A family’s first-born daughter would be the first to take over spinning duties from the mother, and in turn would be expected to share that knowledge with her younger sisters.
“When she got old enough, usually around 3 years old, the first born daughter would start work the wool,” Turner said. “She was called the spinster because she was the one that would pass down that knowledge to her siblings.”
It was over the next generation that the term gained a new meaning to signify an unmarried woman.
Turner said in the 1800s fewer younger families had spinning wheels. As the older female family members lost their husbands and had to move in with their children or other family members, they would likely bring their spinning wheels with them.
“These women would likely continue to spin,” Turner said.
She said when censuses were taken and these women were asked their profession, they listed “spinster.” It was through this that the title came to be attached to single women, especially the older single women in a family.
“Over time, single women were known as spinsters because of that,” she said.
For years, “spinster” was the title given to women who were deemed to be past the marrying age and were unlikely to marry or women who never married.
Turner now questions if people are still familiar with the title since fewer people are pressured to get married at such young ages.
“I wonder if young people still know what a spinster is,” Turner pondered. “It is not something that is used that much anymore.”

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