The hands that rock the cradles of Annisquam have always been busy, none more so than the talented and tenacious group of fundraising women known as the Annisquam Sewing Circle.
Now celebrating its 180th year, the circle's annual holiday fair has been decking Gloucester’s halls with boughs of holly and holiday greens going back to the days when it was the Annisquam Female Benevolent Society, founded in 1837. Its first fair offered — according to its archives — "figures of men made of raisins strung on wires, little tables and chairs of pine and various colored worsted, perforated cardboard book-marks with mottoes. ... Pen-wipers from the wishbones of turkeys or chickens, dressed as Satan (with) cloven feet of black sealing wax, red wax for lips, horn and tail, white beads for eyes..."
That first fair fetched $33 for the church. As the society evolved — in time calling itself a sewing circle— so too did its merchandise and its fundraising savvy. The circle worked to raise money for community causes through the sale of an ever-widening range of creations and events, one of which, its Christmas fair and luncheon, became an awesome annual.
Though it lasts just one singular sensation of a morning — this year, Dec. 2 — the fair is months in the works. And what works. Many hands may make the light work, but not that light.
This week — greens week — leading up to the fair "is back-breaking, but also lots of fun,” says Deb Bird, who with local artist Donna Caselden, is co-president of the circle.
"It's like stepping back in time," she says, when the circle's many gardeners turn their talented green thumbs to winter greens.
Spruce, pines, holly, junipers — much locally foraged under the direction of members Bonnie Angus and Stevie Neal — come gloriously together in a festive frenzy of activity as the village hall fills with hundreds of wreaths strung like so many of Santa's undershirts on clothes lines, surrounded by dozens of sparkling center pieces and boxwood trees — all for sale — to raise funds for community projects.
But all that glitters is not green.
Members are also each required to create two craft items, as well as two items for the bake table, and with 49 members, that adds up.
Some items have made their makers local celebrities. Connie Mason is famous for her red hot pepper jelly, Grace Murray is famous for her wonderful, colorful knitted Peruvian "Chullah" hats. Dollar grabs are hugely popular, gorgeously wrapped and great for stocking stuffers, for pets, kids, dads, etc.
Jams, jellies, condiments, cookies, knits, ornaments, candles, cards, cakes, plants. Pine cones foraged on trips to the forests of California and Maine. Gingerbread houses, gingerbread light houses. Stockings stacked on tables with care. It's all there.
Benevolent past, present
Considered the oldest continuous women's institution on Cape Ann, the Annisquam Sewing Circle had its "benevolent" roots in a time when — as for centuries before — sewing was considered the virtuous domestic benchmark of womanhood. In revolutionary America, it had given women a collective sense of purpose that went beyond hearth and home to the front lines; it was their needles that sewed soldiers' uniforms, that kept them warm on frozen battlefields.
But wars aren’t always fought on frozen battlefields. In early 19th century Gloucester, they were also fought — as today— against poverty, hunger, despair, and through long New England winters aboard dory boats storm-tossed on the freezing waves of the Atlantic.
For the dorymen of Gloucester, staying warm was as essential to winning a livelihood as winning battles had been to colonial revolutionaries, so much of the early work of the Annisquam Female Benevolent Society was knitting for them; mittens to keep their hands warm, thick woolen 'nippers' to protect them from the rope burns that came with arduous line hauling.
By March 1854, that year’s fair raked in $252.29, followed in August by an afternoon “tea party in Mrs. Pierce's grove,” that added $76 and a dance party the same evening that brought in $10.74 more. In January 1855, the society held a "festival" entertainment, that realized $107.10.
Sewing circles were at the time gathering strength in other parts of Massachusetts, too. In Worcester, with the founding of the Worcester Anti-Slavery Sewing Circle, they became explicitly political.The Annisquam Female Benevolent Society was never explicitly political (unless you count as political performing “acts of benevolence”) but come 1861, its members took an active role in the Civil War effort.
This year's proceeds will, as has been the tradition for a good many years now, go to a range of community causes and services.