Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Family in the Dry Goods Business

Medallion chintz quilt attributed to Jane Weakley Leche (1792-1855)
Collection of the Virginia Quilt Museum. Estimated date: 1825.

Ad for David Leche & Son, 1845

Pennsylvanian Jane Weakley married Irish immigrant David Leche in 1819 and moved to Baltimore where her husband was a successful dealer in textiles, a dry goods merchant. See more about the family here:

My first thought about having a husband in retail fabric sales was that Jane had access to a lot of fabric at wholesale prices, permitting her to indulge her quiltmaking hobby with some "British, French & China Dry Goods." 

But then I started thinking about how many other quiltmakers shared her good fortune. For example, Adeline Parks.

Quilt attributed to Ann Adeline Orr Parks

When Adeline married David he was in the dry goods business in Charlotte, North Carolina. He did well and retired in 1855, long after her death when she was in her early thirties.

Collection of Colonial Williamsburg

For many years a large group of appliqued bedcovers has been attributed to Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1854) of Baltimore, whose husband William Wilkins (1767-1832)  was a well-to-do drygoods merchant in business with his brother Joseph at a store at 165 Baltimore Street in the first half of the century. 

Joseph Wilkins (1782 - ca 1850) and his wife Mary Cooke Bedford

Dr. William Dunton first wrote about the quilts associated with the Wilkins family in his 1945 book Old Quilts. He found several in the families of Wilkins family descendants and concluded they had been made under the direction of Achsah Wilkins by free or enslaved seamstresses in a form of "quilt industry."
Smithsonian Collection, inscribed A.G. Wilkins, 1820 at a later date.

In her 2018 paper "The Chintz Gardens of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins" for the American Quilt Study Group Ronda Harrell McAllen notes an 1819 ad she found from Wm. & Jos. Wilkins & Co. offering a few sets of very elegant printed moreens, chintz patterns, a new article, which will be sold in sets to private families." (He apparently wasn't selling the chintz sets, which we assume to be companion prints, to the competition.)

She also notes that Achsah's daughters' husbands left inventories with their wills indicating the family had 72 quilts in their possession at the time the wills were read---"extraordinary, even for very wealthy families...."
A pair of quilts by Lucinda Ward Honstain at the 
International Quilt Study Center & Museum

Lucinda Ward Honstain's famous pictorial quilt dated 1867 includes a block with a wagon labeled W.B. Dry Goods, which researchers have linked to her brother Thomas's store Ward & Burroughs. Lucinda's father, another Thomas, was also in the drygoods business in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Her husband was a tailor for two decades before the Civil War and her sister was a professional dressmaker. This was truly a family in the drygoods business. Was Lucinda's quilt a form of advertising? A quilt like this one displayed in a store or at a fair would certainly sell some calico.

Dr. Dunton also showed this midcentury Baltimore chintz quilt, noting that Mrs. Kunkel owned it in 1945 and had inherited it from her aunt. "The maker of this quilt is unknown but it belonged to Mrs. Annie G. Broadbent who conducted an exclusive dry goods business of Charles Street, Baltimore, between Lexington and Fayette during the Civil War."

The dry goods district about 1910
As an Atlantic Ocean port Baltimore was
 full of dry goods stores in the 19th century.

Anna Gordon Broadbent (ca 1800-ca 1891), listed as a drygoods merchant, was married to Gershom Broadbent who is also listed as a dry goods merchant at 18 North Charles Street in city directories. A William Broadbent was a dealer in "French fancy goods."

What role did being in the dry goods business have to do with these elegant quilts?
1) Luxury fabrics at wholesale prices encouraged female hobbyists to make luxury quilts.
2) The quilts were models made by family or professional seamstresses to promote the fabrics.
3) The quilts were made by family or professional seamstresses and sold in the store.

Baltimore Pilot & Transcript
November 2, 1840
Comforts---Comfortable Comforts
"Just finished, a large supply of Comfortables, an excellent article for the approaching winter; a person ensconced beneath one of these truly comfortable articles can bid defiance to the rudest attacks of his frosty majesty. Apply...corner of Lombard & Light streets."

Betts Family quilt, Colonial Williamsburg #1970-194

 UPDATE: Terry reminded me of the Betts family's South Carolina quilt in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. The medallion framed by diagonal stripes includes a popular striped poppy fabric. The quilt descended in the family of James Betts, Charleston dry goods merchant. Betts, confined to a chair, is said to have finished the quilt, perhaps after his wife Emily Margaret Silliman Betts appliqued the center. Emily died at 28 years old in 1841. James never remarried and lived into 1875.

Betts advertised widely in the South before the war. He seems
to have been both a storekeeper (a retailer) and a merchant (a

See a post on the poppy print and advertisements for similar stripes for "bordering quilts" here:

Monday, November 19, 2018

Women's Work: Designing Calico

Priscilla Bell Wakefield (1751-1832)

Priscilla Wakefield was an English Quaker philanthropist from Tottenham, a member of the Barclay's banking family, who founded the Lying in Charity for Women, a maternity hospital for the poor in 1771. A few years later she began a School for Industry to teach girls academics and needlework skills. A practical woman and an excellent artist she realized a basic cause of women's poverty was the lack of acceptable female occupations.

In 1798 she published Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement.

Some of her suggestions:
"Designs for needle-work, and ornamental works of all kinds, are now mostly performed by men, and those who have a good taste, obtain a great deal of money by them; but surely this employment is one [that] should be appropriated to women."

See a post on Madame Lauzin's New York pattern shop here:

Radical in 1798, this idea seemed the status quo fifty years later in England and the U.S.

Wakefield also advised women with artistic talent to consider doing wood engraving for publications, miniature painting and scientific illustration, which she had done herself, writing and illustrating Reflections on Botany (1796) and other scientific books.

Another suggestion:
"Patterns for calico-printers and paper-stainers are lower departments of the same art, which might surely be allowed as sources of subsistence to one sex with equal propriety as to the other."
Detail of a painting, a design for a cotton print by 
William Kilburn (1745-1818) About 1790
Victoria and Albert Museum

Paper-stainers must refer to wallpaper designs. Calico-printers is obvious. Whether it's a lower art?

British female textile workers at Burnley
They look to be wearing some kind of leather waist protectors.

Working as textile machine operators had been acceptable work for women since the first mechanized factories opened in the late 18th century....

And back into the early years of the European cotton printing industry.
These women are adding dye details with brushes, called penciling.

Applying pattern with a wood block

Nineteenth-century employee perhaps doing the metal work on a calico
printing cylinder.

We do not find so much about textile designers creating pattern for industry as we do pattern makers selling to craftswoman, but Wakefield's advice was reasonable and female designers do appear in records.
Mary Phinney Von Olnhausen (1818-1902)
You may remember her as a nurse in the television
series Mercy Street

Mary Phinney Von Olnhausen's Civil War memoir mentions her career as a textile designer. Single, left to her own devices in 1849 after her father died, the 31-year-old enrolled in Boston's School for Design for Women, one of several institutions founded in the 1840s and '50s to train women in occupational skills and to assist American manufacturers with product quality. 

A Cocheco Mill print from an 1884 sample book
in the Cooper Hewitt

Mary Phinney went on to work as a textile designer at the Cocheco Mills in Dover, New Hampshire and the Manchester Mills in Manchester before volunteering to work in Union hospitals during the war. She married a German-born dyer she met in New Hampshire.

Philadelphia School of Design for Women.
Edwin Forrest House, which still stands

The Philadelphia school was founded as a private charity by Sarah Worthington Peters in 1848

Sarah Worthington King Peters (1800-1877)

The school was taken over as a branch of the Franklin Institute in 1850, becoming the largest art school for women in the U. S. under director Emily Sartrain at the end of the century.

Emily Sartrain (1841-1927) at 27
She was a professional mezzotint engraver.

 Again, women learned commercial arts such as lithography, design for wallpaper, carpeting and other textiles and wood engraving, the method used for newspaper and magazine illustration.

How many of the design school graduates obtained jobs in textile design is unknown, but there must have been a reasonable chance of employment or the schools would not have been so successful. How many female "pattern drawers" made a living either in free-lance work or as mill employees is also unknown.

Mallow wallpaper design by Englishwoman 
Kate Faulkner for Morris & Company
Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum

Friday, November 2, 2018

Patterns---Truly Ephemeral

Princesses Louise & Helena, Queen Victoria's daughters
with needlework and a pattern about 1865

Over the years I've collected many vintage needlework patterns. I have quite a few 20th-century patchwork designs like this collection, cut from cereal boxes and magazine pages.

I also save photos I find in online auctions, sometimes because the sheer
homemade quality of them is so charming.

More valuable are 19th-century patterns like this set in the American Museum of Folk Art,
 passed on with the quilt top known as the Bird of Paradise.

Plate 76 from Ruth Finley's 

Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them

Finley's Connecticut family the Ebrights had a set of "quilting patterns" made of "mill net." I imagine these are cut from a stiffened cloth.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has this survivor from 1828, a newspaper pattern for patchwork. We have to classify patterns cut from scrap paper as among the most fleeting of needlework tools.

DAR Museum
Gift of Anne Ely Wain, Harrisburg Chapter DAR

The DAR Museum recently was given this family heirloom,
"Figure of a Quilt marked for Mrs. Joanna Nichols
October 5th, 1792"

It appears to be a design for a quilted border drawn by a professional quilt marker, probably for a quilted petticoat rather than a bedquilt.

The DAR Museum also owns this piece of unfinished needlework, a net collar with the paper pattern still attached. The pattern is drawn on several layers of paper from an account book, "conveniently leaving the heading Bath, Maine 1833 on one scrap," as Curator Alden O'Brien writes me. You can see the steps in creating a fancy collar from a piece of plain netting.

Alden sent pictures of a third pattern.This one looks to be for patchwork similar to Caesar's Crown.

From an online auction

Needlework patterns are the kind of thing that gets tossed at an auction, but a Pennsylvania
dealer found these inside a sewing box....

A package of patterns and papers with many hand-drawn designs, probably
for lace work as in the collar above. I was the high bidder last year.
 But there's more.

Patchwork patterns cut from a German-language newspaper

They belonged to Lucy Ann Loch Hallman, born November 14, 1844
 in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Lucy Ann's box contained quilting patterns, patchwork patterns and pieces
for applique.

Maybe something that looked like this?
Caesar's Crown again?

"Lucy Ann Loch." Dates include 1861 and 1862.

One of my treasures