Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Clara Staads Tillotson and Aunt Martha/Colonial Patterns

Booklet from Aunt Martha/Colonial Patterns

Colonial Patterns in the River Market area of Kansas City
340 West 5th Street

I've written quite a bit about Kansas City's Aunt Martha pattern source over the years. In 1980 I interviewed company founders the Tillotson family and designer Marguerite Harrison Weaver for a paper "Midwestern Pattern Sources" at the American Quilt Study Group. 

Embroidery transfers remain the business's main product
but quilt kits and patterns have been important since they
began in 1930.

Aunt Martha is the company's public face,
a combination of colonial cachet and wise needleworking relative
but the woman who created the pattern empire
was 36-year old Anna Clara Staads Tillotson...
perhaps represented in this figure in the 1933 booklet cover.

The Staads Sanitarium about 1910

Clara Staads was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1894 where her father German immigrant Soeren W. Staads ran the Hillside Sanitarium. 

Dr. Staads was successful enough to send Clara to the University of  Nebraska where she graduated in 1916. She married John E. Tillotson in 1922 and had two children Mary Elizabeth (Betty), born in 1922 and John E. II (Jack). Clara's husband was an advertising manager but in 1930 as the Great Depression deepened the Tillotsons needed money. They told me that Clara's first idea was to sell hand made quilts but she soon realized that was not practical.

Stamped pieces from a  later Aunt Martha quilt kit

She thought quilters might want kits of pre-cut fabric and the Colonial Ready Cut Quilt Block Company was born but in tough times a $3 kit was a luxury.

The 1933 booklet advertised kits for the 
French Bouquet (Hexagons), The Double Wedding Ring and the
 Lone Star for $3.25. A pattern for each was also available for 15 cents.

Her next idea was selling quilt patterns for a dime or 15 cents, a business model that proved quite effective. As I recall, she recommended this business model to me and I have followed it ever since.

The Tillotsons were not the only people selling quilt patterns during the depression but they were among the most successful. The company has been the longest lasting. Wilene Smith has done some research into company history and found that John and Clara Tillotson had a third partner. Ralph H. Patt is listed with Mrs. C.S. Tillotson as first proprietor of the Colonial Company in the 1935 Kansas City city directory.

The three of them came up with some innovative marketing ideas, working with newspapers to feature quilt pattern display ads like this one in the Hoosier Farmer from the Quilt Index. You could buy the pattern for 15 cents or the precut pieces for $3.98. You could also get a booklet with full-size  patterns for 15 cents. Orders went to the newspaper to be forwarded to the company.

Wilene found this clipping with the name Tillotson,
which may be the one that Jack Tillotson remembered.

The name Aunt Martha came about because, according to the Tillotsons, a newspaper editor attached the name Martha Tillotson to one of the ads. Clara didn't want her last name used so came up with Aunt Martha.

Feature as ad (or ad as feature) in Modern Woodman
a fraternal organization's periodical:
"My Favorite Quilt Pattern" by Aunt Martha.

Today's Aunt Martha

Their patterns appeared under other names: Aunt Matilda, Aunt Ellen and Betsy Ross.

During the early-20th-century fashion for 
Colonial Revival culture
Martha was, of course, a name with an
early American pedigree.

I'll point out the irony here in first-generation American Anna Clara Staads's adoption of a Colonial persona. But Clara was good at marketing. Stories about Germans in Iowa were not going to sell quilt designs in the 1930s. 
She and designer Marguerite Weaver were also good at designing and drafting quilt patterns, which contributed much to their success.

Marguerite Weaver (1917-2011) told me they worried about copyright in using traditional patterns so she modified old patterns like this Dresden Plate variation or designed her own.

They were aware of what the public wanted at the time and
provided many popular designs.

Quilt patterns and kits were only a small part
of the business.

The Tillotsons sold the pattern arm of the business in 1949 and it continues under a third owner. See their site here:

Clara Tillotson lived to be 97 years old, dying in 1991.
She inspired many quilts.

Palm Leaf

And still is.

The Tillotsons lived at 5716 Cherry in the 
Brookside neighborhood in 1935

See an early booklet from 1933 at Q is for Quilter

See Wilene Smith's post on Aunt Martha/Colonial Quilts here:

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Professional Quilters in Colonial Annapolis

"Quilting work of all kinds performed at the subscriber's house in Annapolis, in the best and newest Manner, as cheap as in London; by a Person from England brought up in the said Business."
Ad from Symon Duff,  May 24, 1745, Maryland Gazette

Quilted silk petticoat
Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Advertizes at this time that he has a person at his house who can do quilting."

Simon himself was a house builder, but he advertised that someone in his home was a quilter, who
performed one step in the process of making a bedquilt, the quilting. In Duff's day it was likely that the professional quilter did fancywork for petticoats and underskirts, vests and waistcoats and for furnishings like bed hangings and valences.

Toile valence or pelmet

Quilted items are recorded in earlier Maryland inventories. Henrietta Maria Lloyd of Talbot County died in 1697. Her inventory itemized one "mourning [morning] gown and quilted petticoat" and in her lodging room "1 bed and its furniture and vallences and a large quilt."

In the 1930s Melita Hoffman painted this watercolor of a gown
and quilted petticoat in the Metropolitan Museum's collection.

Quilted clothing and bedquilts were so fashionable in Annapolis in the 1740s that several professionals advertised their services. 
"Quilting, Plain or Figur'd, coarse or fine, perform'd by the Subscriber...Anne Griffith." December 27, 1749.

"Quilting of all Kinds, whether fine or coarse, such as Bed-Quilts, Gowns, Petticoats, &c. performed in the best and neatest Manner, by the Subscriber, at her House in Annapolis, as well as in England, and much cheaper."
Sarah Monro, July 26, 1745. Maryland Gazette.
Sarah seems to have had the services of an English quilter who had been sent to Maryland as a convict, an indentured servant. Said servant was apparently unhappy with that situation for in April, 1746 Sarah placed an advertisement for a runaway: 

"English convict Servant Woman named Elizabeth Crowder, by Trade a Quilter." 

Elizabeth was tall, if round shouldered, about 40 with gray hair. She seems to have recently cut her hair and might be wearing "a Tower," possibly artificial hair. She absconded in a "blue quilted Coat, "perhaps of her own making. 

Detail of a painting about 1750 by 
The New Song by Jan Jozef Horemans II
in the Netherlands

About 18 months later Elizabeth was working for herself and advertising quilting services under her own name.
"Elizabeth Crowder, Quilter (Who lately liv'd with Mrs. Carter)....performs all sorts of Quilting in the best Manner, and at the most reasonable Rates: Good Petticoats for Eight and Ten Shillings a Piece, and coarse Petticoats for Six Shillings."

I found much of this information in the MESDA (Museum of Southern Decorative Arts) Craftsman Database, searching for words like quilting and quilter.

A coarse petticoat?

They have digitized an index card file on early American craftspeople.

Detail of a bedquilt in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Fancy Store in New York City


I've been looking for Fancy Repositories or Fancy Emporiums in the U.S--- needlework shops. I realize that I was too old fashioned in starting with Philadelphia where I didn't find much. Old fashioned because Philadelphia, once the largest city in the U.S., was by 1850 down to fourth in size. New York boasted 500,000 people, four times Philadelphia's population (and that was before they annexed Brooklyn). See a post of Philadelphia fancy shops here:

Woman outside a hardware store in New York about 1870

With so many resident customers New York might be able to support some mid-19th-century specialty stores. The city was the center of retail and wholesale buying so out-of-town shoppers came to Manhattan too.

I read the papers.

In 1846 Henry Lawrence advertised his new
Fancy Needle-Work Emporium.
"Importers of zephyr wool, canvass, patterns, beads....selected by himself in Europe."
He was located on John Street near Broadway.

Berlin work chair seat embroidered over canvas 
with zephyr wool (light wool yarns)
Berlin work was a mid-century needlework fad.

Three years later Henry was with Lawrence Brothers at the same
location with the same stock:
"Zephyr and Fancy Wools, Perforated Boards..."

The Lawrences specialized in Berlin work supplies or needlepoint wools and cards. 
The customer base seems to have been wholesale buyers from rest of the country.

Berlin Work book cover partially embroidered on blue perforated cardboard

The Lawrences had some competition around the corner on Broadway from
Madame Alixe Doubet and her fancystore.

Broadway was the center of retail in Madame's day.
When fashion moved to Fifth Avenue, the shop moved too.

Alixe Pauline Jacquot Doubet Lauzin (?-1874) was probably a French immigrant. I found records of Madame Doubet's and later Madame Lauzin's shop from 1851 to 1886. She must have remarried after first husband Francois Doubet died between 1865 and 1872. He is listed in the shop but also as a glass cutter.

After Madame died in 1874 the shop continued under Miss A.E. McCarthy.

A receipt from the 1880s.
"Miss A.E. McCarthy successor to Mme Lauzin"

This customer Ms. Kimball was from out of town, Salem, Massachusetts. Among the items on her  bill: Ribbon, fringe and tinsel cloth & a cloth hamper (some kind of container to keep fabric?) for $9.
The shop also made up a pin cushion (for $5.50) and made up a red cushion (for $7) for her.

Beaded pincushion

We presume Ms Kimball did the embroidery and they finished the projects---a service needlework shops still offer.
Diggs's Lace Bonnet Store in Boston 1852. 
It looks just like Sarah's Fabrics in downtown Lawrence on a game day.

There are several things that fascinate me about these fancy shops.
 One---that they are so similar to our needlework shops today.

By 1860 Alixe and Francois were no longer living above their store
and she listed her business as French fancygoods

Two---I keep running into French immigrants. We forget how French this country was before the Civil War. We offered refuge to many fleeing for their lives. They tended to be the upper class (France did not have much of a middle class) and they were broke. They had to work. Even the future King Louise Phillipe who lived in the U.S. for four years worked as a teacher at one point in his exile. Their skills were minimal---just class, French connections, manners and good taste. Alixe Doubet parlayed that into a career in the needlework business.

Miss A.E. McCarthy's trade card. She offered
"All kinds of Embroideries, Monograms and Crests made to order.
Patterns and designs made to order."

Hand-painted Berlin work pattern of a Newfoundland dog, 
imported from a German state.
Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt.

Three---They drew patterns. "Patterns and designs made to order." Did they offer patchwork patterns too?