Recently, while listening to a podcast of the CBC’s Spark, a radio program that explores the intersection of technology and popular culture I was introduced to the work of Jeremy Stolow. Stolow is a media historian in the Communication Studies Department at Concordia University. His principal interest is in religion and media and his research investigates the “sometimes counter-intuitive and often paradoxical ways (ancient, modern, and contemporary) religions relate to processes, practices and technologies of mediated communication.” Most recently, Stolow has edited the book Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology and The Things In Between. This volume seeks to challenge the idea that “religion and technology exist as two ontologically distinct arenas of experience, knowledge and action”.(1) In other words, religion and technology have often been seen as binaries that oppose each other — think of the dual categories of faith and reason or magic and science. This book seeks to find god in the machine and explores the technological materialities of religion. In the CBC interview, Jeremy Stolow affirms that religion is inherently technological as it depends on instruments, tools and materials in order for it to happen in the world, including the turning of raw materials into finished goods as well as the ways that religious actors perform their work. Stolow describes the relationship between ritual and technology:
... We need architecture [which] is at the heart of churches and temples and mosques and places of worship. We need ritual tools that are constructed and manufactured and made use of. Religious knowledge depends on writing systems and storage methods. The history of the printed book is quite central to the history of the communication of religious knowledge. Even … the most immaterial forms of religious activities such as prayer or meditation … they involve remarkable histories of disciplining of the body through gesture and through concerted attention that we might think of … turn our own bodies and our own human activities into kinds of technologies.(2)
All of this got me thinking about the intersection of gender, material religion and technology particularly within the realm of ritual performance and temple building. Traditional histories that generally only focus on male artisans as temple builders might describe Mormon temples as structures of stone and wood. However, I would argue that they are also made of textiles. A more gender inclusive definition of temple building recognizes the role of women in creating altar cloths, ritual clothing, carpets, curtains and veils. Once textiles are moved into the realm of temple-building, we can think of sewing machines as a ritual tool which had a significant impact on temple building and the performance of Mormon rituals.
Audrey Godfrey notes that a few sewing machines came with pioneer companies across the plains however widespread use of the sewing machine did not occur in Utah until after the arrival of the railroad in 1869. Notably, one of the first sewing machines brought to Utah by rail was purchased in 1870 by Katherine Irvine who used it to sew burial clothing for a local undertaker. (3) Tracing the history of the sewing machine in Utah provides a fascinating window into the transformation of women’s work, communal perceptions of seamstresses as well as economic and social changes that occur within a religious community. In 1867, Brigham Young expressed concern about the move away from hand sewing and the impact that buying sewing machines might have on the Mormon economy as well as social cohesion and unity among the Saints. (4) He was still concerned in 1875 declaring the use of sewing machine to be a waste of time. However, it seems that Mormon women purchased sewing machines in growing numbers during the last quarter of the 19th century.
The creation of ritual textiles would have been a primarily handmade enterprise from Kirtland to the Endowment House. However, by 1877 when the St. George Temple was dedicated (and certainly for temples after that) the sewing machine could have been used as a religious technology. By broadening the definition of what constitutes temple building or ritual participation and by including the technologies that were used by women in these endeavours, historians can develop a richer concept of how believers mediated their relationship between technology and ritual. In my own work on gender and material religion, Stolow’s insights prove useful and point to some interesting direction for future study. What other religious technologies might be worthy of study for Mormon historians?
(1) Stolow, Jeremy, ed. Deus In Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013, 2.
(3) Godfrey, Audrey M. “The Queen of Inventions”: The Sewing Machine Comes to Utah”, Journal of Mormon History, Volume 32, No. 3, 2006, 82-103.
(4) Brigham Young, April 6, 1867, Journal of Discourses, 11:350-351. Also see Brigham Young, August 31, 1875, Journal of Discourses, 18:75. Apparently, sewing machines not only caused societal but also domestic conflict for Brigham Young. According to Ann ElizaYoung in her 1876 biography Wife No. 19, he bought a sewing machine for his “favourite” wife, Amelia Folsom Young. In this historically accurate(?) account Ann Eliza Young states: “On one occasion he sent her a sewing-machine, thinking to please her; it did not happen to be the kind of a one which she wanted; so she kicked it down stairs, saying, “What did you get this old thing for? You knew I wanted a ‘Singer’”. She had a Singer at once.”
Young, Ann Eliza, Wife No. 19, or the story of a life in bondage. Being a complete expose of Mormonism, and revealing the sorrows, sacrifices and sufferings of women in polygamy. Hartford, Ct: Dustin, Gilmanand Co., 1876.p. 499