Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Mrs. Trapp the Sample Woman

"The Dry Goods Clerk"
seems to have been a comic stock figure

It was a difficult way to make a living,
or so they often told us.

Several wrote memoirs and there were also many comic fictions about
the job and the customers.

His natural adversary was the sample collector...
As told in an 1844 tale:
Shinning It: a Tale of a Tape-cutter; Or, The Mechanic Turned Merchant by M.Y. Beach

The narrator was new at his job.
An experienced friend observed the scam.

The charming customer persuaded him to give her many large samples (3 or 4 inches each)  to show her country nieces---both French prints and calicoes--- and walked out with a bundle of chintz and calico pieces.

The friend informed the clerk that he'd been fleeced. The woman, Mrs. Trapp, would not return to buy any fabric. She had quite a reputation.

So there's a little window into professional quiltmaking in the 1840s.

Read Shinning It: a Tale of a Tape-cutter; Or, The Mechanic Turned Merchant by M.Y. Beach,

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Quilting Customs from a WPA Interview

The Florida project found a quilt attributed to Newberry, South Carolina
about the time Mayme Reese lived there

In 1938 Mayme Reese was interviewed in her New York City apartment in Harlem by Dorothy West looking for information on "Beliefs & Customs-Folklife" for the federal WPA project.

Mayme was born about 1880 in Charleston, South Carolina and lived in Newberry, Newberry County, northwest of Columbia, SC. She moved to New York as a young woman. Her memories of quilting customs were of an African-American community in the rural south at the turn of the 20th century.

Could not find a photo of Mayme but another WPA project
photographed a Green County, Georgia event where men tied
quilts (very untraditional event!)

Mayme talked of the social networks of working together, how she'd won two prizes at the local fair and how the quilters would stitch quilts for "rich white women."
"Sometimes rich white women would hear that such and such a person had won the prize for pretty quilts and they'd come and ask that person to make them a quilt. Sometimes they'd make it and sometimes they wouldn't ... If they did make it, they'd get around five dollars ... Sometimes they'd furnish the scraps and sometimes they wouldn't. Most of the time, though, they'd buy pieces of goods and give it to the person who was making the quilt to cut up. They'd get different colors and they'd say what pattern they wanted."
Those ellipses are in the Library of Congress documents; too bad we can't hear everything Mayme said about that part of women's work. And they did not discuss patchwork patterns.

Green County, Georgia in the late 1930s

Mayme talked a little of the quilting designs and I assume she was talking about what we'd call fan quilting here:
If you were going to have a curving stitch, you'd sew one way. If you were going to quilt block fashion, you'd sew that way. (Make the stitches in the pattern of a square of a size decided upon.)

The basket quilt is quilted with a curving stitch.
We'd call it fan quilting.

Here's the transcript of the interview:

"We used to have quilting parties at least twice a year. One time we would meet at one house and one time at another; you'd keep on that way until the quilt was finished.... Well, say there'd be three or four ladies who were good friends. If I was making the quilt, I'd set up the frame (quilting frame) in my house and the other two or three ladies would come to my house and spend the day quilting. I'd have it all ready for the quilting to start ... Maybe I'd have been sewing scraps together for a year until I got the cover all made. Then when my friends would come, the cover would be all ready and there wouldn't be anything to do but start working on the padding. If there were four ladies, each would take an end. (Gestures) I'd take this end, the other two would take the ends over there. You'd decide before how you were going to make the stitches. If you were going to have a curving stitch, you'd sew one way. If you were going to quilt block fashion, you'd sew that way. (Make the stitches in the pattern of a square of a size decided upon.)

Depending upon how many quilts you needed a year or just wanted to make, there'd be that many quilting parties for ladies who were intimates. If none of my friends were going to make quilts in a year, then they'd keep coming to my house maybe twice a week until we got it finished. If you worked right along and didn't stop to talk — 'course most of the time we stopped to gossip a little - you could finish a quilt in a day or two. All that depended on the pattern, too. If somebody else was making a quilt, we'd go to their house and exchange labor 'till they got their quilt done.

In the fall when they had the county fairs, sometimes we'd take our quilts out to fair-grounds for exhibition. Each lady picked out her best quilt - the prettiest color, the prettiest pattern and the best stitches - and took it to the fair to try to win the prize ... No, it didn't make any difference if your prettiest quilt had been quilted by three or four other people. You see you already had the pattern and you'd already put the pieces together so that much was your own idea. And that counted more than the help you got - and the results you got - when you were putting it on the frame. Sometimes a church club would make quilt and enter it in the name of the church. Even if they put it in the club's name, the club would give the money to the church if they won... Once I won the
prize for my own quilt and once I was one of a group that won. The prize most often five dollars. Sometimes it was ten.

Sometimes rich white women would hear that such and such a person had won the prize for pretty quilts and they'd come and ask that person to make them a quilt. Sometimes they'd make it and sometimes they wouldn't ... If they did make it, they'd get around five dollars ... Sometimes they'd furnish the scraps and sometimes they wouldn't. Most of the time, though, they'd buy pieces of goods and give it to the person who was making the quilt to cut up. They'd get different colors and they'd say what pattern they wanted."

Jorena Pettway of Gees Bend, Alabama, and her daughter Jennie (other daughter unnamed)
were photographed several times by Arthur Rothstein in 1937 in a WPA project.

Jorena loved doing handwork and crocheted, embroidered and made quilts
that decorated their home. What is going on here is hard to fathom but it involves
a finished top. Photographers have had a hard time depicting the process of quiltmaking.
They ask you to be sewing on it but they want a view of the finished piece.
She's putting in the last stitch.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Seamstresses' Quilt

Slothower Family Quilt
Baltimore Maryland
National Museum of American History

The Smithsonian has a new book Smithsonian American Women: Remarkable Objects and Stories of Strength, Ingenuity, and Vision from the National Collection, which features this quilt. Curators Madeline Shaw and Nancy Bercaw wrote the caption telling us the quilt came from the Baltimore family of George Slothower (1802-1877), donated by Doris Eccles Slothower who included family history that the quilt was made by German-born servants and seamstresses. It has been called The Seamstresses' Quilt.

We might guess the quilt was from Maryland with its basket center
arranged in a square placed on point and the dogtooth appliqued borders.

The 1860 census found George and wife Emma Myers Slothower living with relatives John and Adeline Slothower and three servants: one an African-American teenager named John Johnson and two young German women. Dora Frank and Christena Little may have been the seamstresses associated with the quilt.

1856 ad. 

The Slothowers were in the fabric business; George in the mid-19th century was a wholesale dry goods merchant with Slothower, Matthews & Company at 273 West Baltimore. The family lived at 315 Lexington near the corner of Eutaw Street. George, George E., William & John Slothower also were in the cotton milling business with factories called Powhattan and Pocohontas Mills producing cotton duck or osnaburg, a coarse cotton fabric.

Baltimore Street in the 1870s
Maryland Historical Society

We can find a lot out about George Slothower (father & son?), one of whom were in the Maryland House of Delegates and developers of residential houses still standing on Callender and Lombard Streets, but the women---

Lexington/Eutaw neighborhood today

See a preview of the book:
Smithsonian American Women: Remarkable Objects and Stories of Strength, Ingenuity, and Vision from the National Collection

Monday, December 9, 2019

Mary Galt's Chintz Quilt

Center of a medallion/frame quilt in the collection of
Colonial Williamsburg
"The center of the quilt is filled with an embroidered cornucopia and flowers appliqued with buttonhole stitches."

Circa 1790
Attributed to Mary Inglish Galt (1742-1778) or
Mary W. Taylor Galt, (ca. 1761-1813)

The central focus with squares inside other squares
is surrounded by a field of patchwork cut from chintzes.

(I color corrected the photo that was a little pink.)

The border ends with a rope-like stripe entwined with flowers cut so the rope provides a strong frame.

It's one piece of fabric with floral trail and rope,
mitered corner.

From the online catalog:

"This quilt descended in one of the most notable families of Williamsburg....
Family history attributes the quilt to Mary Inglish Galt, 1742-1778, first wife of James Galt of Williamsburg. It is more likely that the quilt was created by Mary W. Taylor Galt, (ca. 1761-1813), the second wife of James Galt."
The Galts are well-documented in Colonial Williamsburg, a family of silversmiths and physicians. James Galt (1741-1800) like his father Samuel worked in gold and silver but he became the "gaoler" in the town, in charge of the local prison. In the 1770s he was hired as keeper at the Public Hospital ("part jail/part infirmary") in Williamsburg, which became an innovative place for people with mental illness.

The hospital in 1850

That hospital stands in replica in Colonial Williamsburg today. The first building with its additions burned in 1885 and when the city restoration as a Colonial history museum took place in the early 20th century the hospital was rebuilt "along the lines" of the building as it had been before the Revolution.

A large complex of galleries and meeting rooms is underground
at the hospital building today.

James Galt married twice to women named Mary. With the first wife Mary Inglish he had four children; with the second Mary Taylor he fathered eleven children. Mary Inglish died at 36 in 1778; Mary Taylor lived to be 62 dying in 1813. James died in 1800 at about 59 leaving the second Mary a pregnant widow of about 40 with 14 children of various ages (she had two sets of twins). Find-a-Grave lists three: Alexander, age 7 when his father died, Sarah 5 and Gabriel 2.

The hospital a few years before it burned in 1885

The genealogy is quite complex. Here's a book that will tell you all about those Galts. Many of them were physicians; they were in charge of the hospital into the mid 19th century.

We do not learn much about the Marys who are thought to have made this quilt, except for the references to James's wife Mary as being the matron at the hospital. This may have been the first Mary Inglish in the 1770s before her 1778 death or the second after her marriage---but it probably refers to both. In addition to raising all those children they were responsible for doing or overseeing the cooking, meals, bedding and cleaning at the hospital.

In 1826 another Mary Galt was making $400 a year as
Matron at the hospital

The Galts lived in a cottage built on the hospital grounds (and moved at least twice since then.)

Galt house as it appeared when restoration was begun in the 1920s. "The house seems to have originally consisted of a 16 x 20 foot unit.... with lean-to additions."

Inner border seems to be a strip picturing a chintz vase framed on either side
with a geometric stripe.

How this extravagant quilt fit into the framework of the Galt's lives is confusing.

As the catalog says: 
"That Mary [Taylor] found the time and energy to stitch such an intricate and lovely quilt is remarkable."

A date of 1790 seems reasonable. Perhaps Mary Taylor Galt had time and assets to make it before her marriage to the keeper of the asylum. But attributing this quilt to a Virginian in the Galts' circumstances seems far-fetched. We only believe this is true because we firmly believe that American women stitched quilts as hobby needlework or to keep their families warm. The more austere the circumstances the more likely patchwork quilts were to be made is the assumption. 

The Galt family's attribution of this quilt to Mary Inglish, matron at the hospital before her death in 1778 is undoubtedly based on this notion. But if we look at the object with no preconceived notions as to where it came from we would have to say that it looks British in its abundance of Indiennes, (imported Indian-style florals) and in it's central cornucopia filled with chintz appliqued florals.

Very much like a block sold at Christies in London
a few years ago

and added to Cora Ginsburg's inventory.

And similar to cornucopia details in British frame quilts pictured by English quilt historian Averil Colby as a style found on the Isle of Wight.

These cornucopia are later, perhaps 1820s & 30s, stitched with conventional applique as well
as cut-out chintz.

The quilt also looks like evidence of wealth. As Gloria Seaman Allen established in her 1985 Uncoverings paper for AQSG a quilt in 1790 (and particularly a quilt like this) was linked to the owner's wealth.

How might the Galt family have come to hand down this quilt that seems so far above their circumstances? One of the many Marys might have purchased it---as the years went by the Galt children became doctors at the hospital rather than the warden. Perhaps a matron received it as a gift from a grateful inmate. Did she save it from an inmate's estate or did she confiscate it from a hospital  bed because she realized its worth?

We cannot know, but we can guess it was not made by either of James Galt's Williamsburg wives.

Mary Taylor Galt's grave:

More about style:

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Tobacco Sack Stringers

Bet Rash and family, North Carolina

Women’s work and the Southern yeoman farmer’s story are two neglected areas of American history.
Jean Odom pointed out on our QuiltHistorySouth Facebook page a website at the University of North Carolina libraries---a great source of information about both.

Tobacco has always been a huge part of Southern farming and industry; in the early 20th century much loose tobacco was sold in small cotton pouches about 3 inches x 4, each tied with a short piece of string, a drawstring threaded through a gathered tube. At the end of the Great Depression in the late 1930s a billion bags a year were manufactured to hold loose tobacco. Three giant companies manufactured bags and sold them to the tobacco companies. 

Susan Nelson has tobacco bags in her lap

By 1939 Durham, North Carolina’s Golden Belt Manufacturing Company had machinery to insert the strings but the other two relied on hand labor. It was women’s work and it had gone on for quite a while.

Reidsville, North Carolina’s Chase Bag and Richmond, Virginia’s Millhiser Bag Company used similar systems to put out the work, hiring a bag agent in communities to manage the work distribution, payment and return. Communities black and white relied on the at-home work to make ends barely meet.

Jesse Lee Shepherd Family

Jesse Lee Shepherd was a young man who ran a small store in Reddis River, North Carolina. He farmed and worked about half time in a government program. With a wife and three children he added to his income as a bag agent, distributing work to be done through the store and trading store goods to the women workers when they returned the bags. Other agents paid in cash. Website records tell us how much the women earned.

Alice Dickman, Virginia

Times were tough and the bag agents often had more requests for work than they could fill. The agent
in Leakesville, North Carolina figured there was a stringer in every household in his community. The work was tailored for women, repetitive hand work requiring dexterity (and good eyesight for close work) that could be done at home in intensive stretches, at social times, worked around housework and while caring for children. While it did not pay well, it paid and was often the difference between hunger and getting by in many households.

The woman on the right cuts the yellow string.

In 1939 bag stringing caught the attention of the National Labor Relations Board, concerned that no bag stringer was making the minimum wage. “Not long after the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, the Virginia-Carolina Service Corporation, based in Richmond, began lobbying for an amendment to the act that would exempt home workers. The Service Corporation commissioned a report to argue for the vital importance of the income earned from tobacco bag stringing by many families in Virginia and North Carolina. The authors of the report solicited and published testimony from agents who distributed the bags and from local government officials.”

Bessie Holsbrook's family holding bags

Rather than feeling exploited, the women stringers protested losing their work. The website records economic information about each family and how the work benefited them. Dozens and dozens of families were interviewed and photographed inside and outside their homes.

Mrs. Leacey Royall
Wall paper of magazine pages was decorative and somewhat insulating. 

The photos are a remarkable record of the people of Virginia and North Carolina 80 years ago, their rural cabin homes, some new or well kept, others run down and rather miserable.

Go to the site and the list of workers towards the top on the right."The Workers."

Choose any woman and get a little insight into our poorly understood history. Those who look to a
nostalgic rural past for a sweet view of a simpler life might use these short stories as a cautionary tale. Several are sad stories of true American poverty before universal public education, Social Security and Medicare. Such sophisticated items as a pair of reading glasses seem unobtainable.

Gertrude Maynard's Family

The women workers were dependent on husbands, unemployed, under-employed and in particularly tough situations, absent through death or divorce. Yet the short biographies are inspiring, telling us a lot about the universality of being female and how enjoyable repetitive handwork can be.

Mrs. Howard Kirkman

Here's our QuiltHistorySouth Facebook page: