Portrait of a Woman in Silk

Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World

Through the story of a portrait of a woman in a silk dress, historian Zara Anishanslin embarks on a fascinating journey, exploring and refining debates about the cultural history of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. While most scholarship on commodities focuses either on labor and production or on consumption and use, Anishanslin unifies both, examining the worlds of four identifiable people who produced, wore, and represented this object: a London weaver, one of early modern Britain’s few women silk designers, a Philadelphia merchant’s wife, and a New England painter.

Blending macro and micro history with nuanced gender analysis, Anishanslin shows how making, buying, and using goods in the British Atlantic created an object-based community that tied its inhabitants together, while also allowing for different views of the Empire. Investigating a range of subjects including self-fashioning, identity, natural history, politics, and trade, Anishanslin makes major contributions both to the study of material culture and to our ongoing conversation about how to write history.


Inaugural Winner, Library Company of Philadelphia Biennial Book Prize, 2018

Finalist, Best First Book Prize for 2016, Berkshire Conference of Women Historians

“This dazzling book discovers within one small canvas a brilliant array of lives, trades, circuits, and empires. Written with verve and insight, Anishanslin’s Portrait of a Woman in Silk paints a global early America in vivid color. It will astonish.”—Jane Kamensky, author of A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley

“Anishanslin’s capacity to let objects speak about things beyond status and refinement is remarkable. This is hard to do, and she does it brilliantly, and beautifully.”—Lauren Winner, Duke University

“Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Behind this deceptively modest (but alluring) title lies a book of stunning insight and creative achievement. No other work I can think of brings together such a range of viewpoints: the mental with the material, the personal with the global, a raft of technical details with extraordinary conceptual depth. From a single painting Anishanslin opens a vast panorama, reaching to the farthest corners of the eighteenth-century world.”—John Demos, author of The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America

“Extremely intriguing. No one has written such a book, nor made such an argument.”—David Hancock, The University of Michigan

“Anishanslin is a good sleuth… Her scholarly commitment and her enthusiasm are disarming.”—Victoria Glendinning, Literary Review

"Anishanslin's book is not for mere history buffs. It's for aficionados of the past: an up-close and personal chronicle of the material ingredients of life among the movers and shakers of the British Atlantic World in the 18th century, when the cut of a suit could reveal all sorts of things about a person's station in life." - Frank Wilson, Philadelphia Inquirer

“A stimulating text that sheds light on the interconnectedness of the British Atlantic World.”—Choice (Choice)

"Anishanslin reveals how a material culture approach, exhaustive research, and a clear and insightful intellect can bring the past to life."—Pamela Parmal (Panorama)


"A Stitch in Time," Victoria Glendenning, The Literary Review

Helen Berry, Times Higher Education

Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt, The Junto

"Author's Q&A," Michael Blaakman, The Junto

"The Author's Corner," John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home

Mark Cheathem, The Republic, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic  

         Pamela A. Parmal, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art