“Women Professing Godliness with Good Works”: Quaker Women's Art Before Ackworth and Westtown, circa 1650-1800

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Early Quaker women are commonly thought to have been plain in all parts of their lives, but their handiwork tells a different story. This thesis examines the unexpectedly extravagant art made by these Quaker women, focusing on needlework, waxwork, and shellwork crafted in London and Philadelphia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This opulent art is surprising, considering that plainness was a tenet central to Quakerism from its earliest days in the 1650s. The thesis investigates the contradiction between Quaker dogma and extant artworks to argue that Quaker women were highly engaged with the world beyond their religious community. Secondary arguments, that being a good Quaker and a good woman were compatible identities and that Quaker women’s artmaking was rarely policed by Friends concerned with plainness, emerge.

This thesis grapples with the disagreement between extant objects and archival information. Surviving artworks, which are numerous, tell a story contemporary writings do not. It uses an object-based material culture approach, assessing the materials, compositions, narratives, and texts present in embroidered, waxworked, and shellworked objects in museums and private collections across Britain and the United States. Object study is accompanied by an examination of the period’s rare examples of relevant diaries, account books, newspaper advertisements, and religious records. The brightly coloured Quaker embroideries and meticulously assembled Quaker wax and shellwork shadow boxes at the heart of this thesis are almost entirely absent from Quakerism’s written record.

This thesis bridges the gap between Quaker scholarship and material culture scholarship by marrying little-studied objects with an analysis of the religious and socioeconomic world in which the Quaker girls and women who made them lived. This approach delivers a deeper, more complex understanding of seventeenth- and eighteenth- century Quaker objects and a profound rethinking of commonly held conceptions about early Quaker women.
Date of Award1 Oct 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEvelyn Welch (Supervisor) & Laura Gowing (Supervisor)

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