Usually preceded by a word defining the purpose of the meeting—as in spinning bee, weaving bee, quilting bee, sewing bee, raising bee1, etc.—bee has been used since the late 18th century in the United States to denote a meeting of neighbours to unite their labours for the benefit of one of their number.
1 raising bee: a gathering of neighbours to give assistance in raising the framework of a house or barn
ORIGIN OF BEE IN THIS SENSE
It is traditionally said that this acceptation of bee alludes to the combined labour of the bees of a hive.
However, an alternative theory is that this word is a folk-etymological alteration of been, bean, British dialectal variants of boon used in the following sense—definition from The English Dialect Dictionary (London, 1898), edited by the English philologist Joseph Wright (1855-1930):
Voluntary help, given to a farmer by his neighbours, in time of harvest, haymaking, &c.
In Shared Threads: Quilting Together—Past and Present (Viking Studio Books, 1994), Jacqueline Marx Atkins writes that
an early custom in some parts of England of giving voluntary help to neighbors for particular tasks […] was carried to America, where the word was recorded as “bee,” perhaps by folk etymology from the dialectal English “been.” The word may have been influenced in its transcription by the insect, as bees are known for their ability to work together.
EARLY INSTANCES AND SENSE DEVELOPMENT
The earliest recorded instance of bee in the sense of a meeting for communal work is from The Boston Gazette, and Country Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) of Monday 16th October 1769:
Taunton, 23d Sept. 1769.
Messieurs Edes & Gill2,
Please to insert the following, and you’ll oblige your constant Reader. C. B.
Last Thursday about Twenty young Ladies met at the House of Mr. Nehemiah Liscome, here, on purpose for a Spinning Match; (or what is call’d in the Country a Bee). They met at 6 o’Clock in the Morning, and continued diligently at Work till 6 at Night: They spun in general from 3 to 4 Yards a Piece, and generously gave their Cotton and Linnen [sic] Yarn to Mrs. Liscome. It was a very agreeable Procession to see them all Walk over the Green in the Evening.—
Twice Ten young Blooming Virgins Trod our Green,
With all their Native Beauties of Sixteen;
Beauty when join’d with such superior Charms,
Might draw the Desart3 Hermit to their Arms.
2 Benjamin Edes (1732-1803) and John Gill (1732-85) were the publishers of The Boston Gazette.
3 In the 18th century, desart was the regularly accepted spelling of desert.
I have found another early occurrence of this use of bee in a bizarre story published in the Greenfield Gazette (Greenfield, Massachusetts) of Thursday 8th January 1795:
Extract of a Letter from Col. Samuel Hide, dated Smooth Plains, State of Vermont, December 3, 1794.
“Mr. Joseph Miller, a very polite Farmer, of this town, raised a Pumpkin Vine, which grew up from a seed casually dropt in the water trough in the front eves of his house, which ran over the house down the back side, and from thence in a right line 763 feet 3 inches & ¾, by Gunier. It is probable, as it was a fine season, it would have ran much further if Mr. Miller had not cropt it to save a six years old orchard from being choaked by its exuberance, as another branch of the same vine had already destroyed a fine maple sugar place, from which he used to make 400lbs. of sugar. The vine nevertheless produced 83 pumpkins, (being one for each soul in the town, according to the late census)—the largest of which weighed 497lbs. 30 oz. without the seeds and guts, and when removed home by the neighbours, with levers and handspikes, who made what is called a bee for this purpose, half of it being neatly scooped out, and the hollow turned down, it serves as an excellent stye for a sow of Mr. Miller’s weighing upwards of 20 score with a litter of 13 pigs, of the Chinese breed;—and may be seen any day by the curious in Pumpkins.”
The earliest instance that I have found of a compound is from the following notice published in The Albany Gazette (Albany, New York) of Thursday 4th August 1808:
ON the 25th of July, left home, by the solicitation of her mother, for one day, to go to a quilting bee, an indented apprentice, named HANNAH COLLINS, and has not returned since. SIX CENTS reward will be paid to the person returning said apprentice: and all persons are forbid harboring or employing her at their peril.
Albany, August 3, 1808.
On Thursday 30th January 1812, the Freemen’s Press (Montpelier, Vermont) published a letter that I reproduce in its entirety; it was written in the lead-up to the War of 1812, a conflict (1812-14) between the United States and the United Kingdom, prompted by restrictions on US trade resulting from the British blockade of French and allied ports during the Napoleonic Wars, and by British and Canadian support for Native Americans trying to resist westward expansion:
Plan of prosecuting a war.
I have heard much of plans of war and of peace with England; and of half-way plans between war and peace. I like no half-way measures, let us have war at once, if we have cause for it. Now I understand the cause to be—that our bad neighbor, England (who wishes, by the way, to keep our custom at his store) not only drives us from the highway, but steals our property whenever we are going peaceably to, or coming from, our other neighbors, good, bad, and indifferent, to trade. If this an’t a cause of war, our quarrel about the tea tax4 was a war of our own men against the women; and our men ought to undo the revolution, and give back their independence to England, and let us wear the breeches at least as long as they have worn false liberty-caps. If it is cause of war, (and in my mind it is, if there ever was cause of war between nation and nation, or husband and wife) why then let us go to war in the good old way.
Let the boys take their great guns and their small guns and to their business. Let the girls take their great wheels and their little wheels and to their business. And I believe the business will be done, and well done, much sooner than it was the last war, and with much less blood-shed too.
Now as to blood-shed, I am one of those (and I believe most women are like me) who had rather see a man bleeding than crying and snivelling for fear he sha’nt live to see his mother and sweet heart again, when his country wants him for its defence. In short, I had rather have no sons than to have a coward in my family. And if congress don’t do something like old ’75 times5, I intend to rally the women of our town, and have a spinning-bee, and a weaving-bee, and a quilting-bee, as we call them, and make petticoats, and send them on to Johnny Randolph6, and such womanish men in congress, I think this would suit them much better than our great mammoth cheeses.
4 “our quarrel about the tea tax” is an allusion to the Boston Tea Party (1773), a violent demonstration by American colonists prior to the War of American Independence.
5 “something like old ’75 times” refers to the War of American Independence (1775-83), in which the American colonists won independence from British rule.
6 John Randolph (1773-1833), Congressman from Virginia, opposed the War of 1812.
In extended use, bee designates any social gathering for a specific purpose, in particular for a competition.
The earliest instance that I have found of spelling bee, denoting a spelling competition, is from the Cincinnati Times and Chronicle (Cincinnati, Ohio) of Friday 25th October 1872, which published My First School, in which one M. T. Adkins recounts the beginning of his teaching career; in the conclusion of his story, he writes:
In two weeks more my session will be out. Come over, friends, and hear our “spelling bee.” It is my last school.
Sinisterly, bee also came to be used in hanging bee, later in lynching bee; the earliest occurrence of hanging bee that I have found is from the United States’ Telegraph (Washington, D.C.) of Saturday 22nd September 1827, in an article titled Descent of the Michigan, telling how the Michigan, a ‘condemned’ steamboat, was towed by other steamboats to the top of the Niagara Falls, from where it fell into the precipice—the fact that the author did not explain hanging bee shows that it was already in current use:
“I returned to this village last evening, after having witnessed the passage of the Michigan over the falls. It is very difficult to give any thing like an adequate description of the affair, particularly the prologue, which resembled pretty closely, the near approach of a “hanging bee.” The whole country around was up and in motion early in the morning of the fatal day.”