Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Eleanor Beard Studios

Ginger Rogers in Top Hat 1935.
Bedrooms couldn't be any more fashionable than this one.
Where'd she get that quilt?

Among the most successful of the 20th-century entrepreneurs to build a business in quilts was Eleanor Beard of Kentucky. At one time she reportedly had a thousand employees stitching quilts and
other items sold in shops from Madison Avenue in New York to Santa Barbara.

Eleanor Robertson Beard (1888 - 1951)

Eleanor Robertson was born in Covington, Kentucky to Benjamin and Anna Collins Robertson. Her father was apparently in the paint manufacturing business and moved to Louisville, a center of the industry. 

Louisville, Kentucky's largest city,  in 1906

In 1917 when 29 Eleanor married widower Marvin Beard, who owned a store in Hardinsburg, about 70 miles southwest of Louisville. Marvin had two teen-aged sons (two daughters had died) and twelve years after their marriage Eleanor gave birth to their only child Barbara Ann in 1929.

Hardinsburg's main street in the 1870s. 
The Beard family was in the retail business. See the store on the left.

Cuesta Benberry's paper on "Cottage Industries" for Uncoverings describes how during the 1920s when Kentucky farmers were suffering from low commodity prices Marvin accepted wool as payment for goods.

Center of a typical Eleanor Beard wholecloth quilt

Eleanor decided to make use of the wool by creating whole cloth quilts of satin in the style of the boudoir quilts described by Virginia Gunn in her AQSG paper "Quilts for Milady’s Boudoir:"
"Boudoir quilts, comforts or puffs cold be either hand quilted, machine quilted or tied. The best...featured luxurious or soft outer fabrics like velvet, satin, taffeta, or crepe de Chine."
Eleanor Beard quilt in the collection of the
International Quilt Study Center and Museum
68" x 80"

In the 1920s these satin or taffeta quilts with wool batts retailed for $20, according to Benberry.

Metropolitan Museum curator Amelia Peck traces Beard's Hedgelands Studio to 1921 and the earliest ad I've found is a classified notice in a November, 1922 issue of House and Garden magazine. 
"HAND QUILTED COMFORTERS. padded with pure lamb's wool. Charming designs, straight or scalloped edges. Exquisite materials. Write for samples and booklet. Eleanor Beard. Hardinsbury, Ky."

The post office undoubtedly delivered the letters addressed to the misspelled Hardinsbury to the correct address. By the next year the ad was correct and larger:
"Quilts and Comforters. Hand quilted in charming designs with scalloped edges. Lightly padded for summer use with thin sheet of lamb's wool or quilting cotton in finest tub fabrics or silks. No patchwork or appliqued designs. Price example--- $17.50 for double bed size quilt in English sateen."
She seems to have learned some practical lessons. Scalloped edges were selling and customers wanted "tub fabrics", washable rayon satins, probably. Do note she did not sell patchwork designs, just wholecloth. And she was using the name "Hedgelands."

The following year the Washington D.C. Evening Star advertised a trunk show of "hand-quilted silk robes and comforts" from Eleanor Beard, handled by Mrs. Ruth A. Waddell. Like other cottage industries at the time, the Beard Studios had sales reps who traveled to department stores.

In 1931 Waddell was still doing Washington trunk shows, selling "Eleanor Beard's Hand Quilted Things" which probably included bath robes and bed jackets, pillows and other boudoir items.
That same year upscale Los Angeles department
store Bullocks Wilshire advertised "a lovely eleanor beard robe."

From the Indiana project and the Quilt Index

Like many other bedcovers made commercially, this one has been passed down in the family with the story it was made by an Indiana mother for her daughter. It looks like one of Eleanor Beard's designs. Beard, a master at marketing, included a label on the reverse of her quilts.

Here's one from the 1940s on an unlikely quilt.

In the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Apparently Beard would make chintz sampler quilts to order
of antique prints and new chintzes.

At some point Beard must have decided there was a market for appliqued
quilts and she began a line of chintz bedcovers.

But most of them were modernized with a look that 
wouldn't be confused with an 1850s album. The Met's
quilt raises questions about how many other chintz reproduction
quilts the Beard Studios made.

One of a pair of twin bed quilts from Karen Alexander's blog

They also did conventional applique as in this
auction quilt with a Beard label on the reverse.

The business was enormous for its type. Beard employed many women in the small town of Hardinsburg and then she moved to Louisville. One gets a good description of the company's operations in a lawsuit the U.S. Department of Labor filed against Eleanor and Marvin Beard, American Needlecrafts, Inc., Regina Inc. and Miller Bros & Company in 1942.

The suit describes the whole production system in great detail. At issue was the fact that the needlewomen, called homeworkers, worked long hours for little pay (the age-old problem with sewing for a living.)

The Department of Labor seems to have thought the women should get a raise but the "Court holds that the homeworkers are independent contractors rather than employees of the defendant and are not subject to the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Acts of 1938." 

"No raise for you."
The case was appealed the following year:
But nothing seems to have changed.

Do read the brief here for more details about the Eleanor Beard Studios worked. 

A summary:
"The defendant American Needlecrafts, Inc., is a New York corporation with its principal office in New York City. It has four branch offices or studios in Kentucky which are located at Elizabethtown, Hardinsburg, Greensburg and Columbia. These branch offices employ approximately forty employees in the studios and deal with approximately 500 workers who perform services for the studios. ....The company manufactures, sells and distributes in interstate commerce comforters, bed spreads, pillow slips, robes, crib covers, house coats, monogrammed articles and other articles of a kindred nature, which have been produced in part by appliqueing, quilting and needle work on the part of the homeworkers. The articles are produced for and sold in the luxury trade....The Elizabethtown studio specializes in appliqueing and the Hardinsburg studio in quilting some comforters are appliqued in Greensburg, bound in Elizabethtown and quilted at Hardinsburg."
In 1934 Mildred Potter Lissauer had Louisville's Regina Quilt Shop,
an arm of the Beard company, quilt her "Godey Quilt." The caption at
Western Kentucky University says three women spent six months on it.

Eleanor died in her early sixties in 1951. Daughter Barbara Beard Castleman took over the business and most recently Jane Scott Hodges of Leontine Linens bought the Eleanor Beard Studios in 2002.

Read Virginia Gunn's "Quilts for Milady’s Boudoir" in Uncoverings 1989 at the Quilt Index.

Tell Ginger NOT to wash that quilt! The satin may be "tub-fast" but the wool batting will shrink in hot water and the dryer.


Sunday, July 28, 2019


Public opinion decried the occupation of seamstress
but offered no alternatives.

In looking at women who made a living doing needlework I have found that 19th-century attitudes considered seamstresses quite low on the scale of occupations. There were a couple of jobs open to females that were lower, however, among them prostitution and thievery.

Vanity Fair, 1861
Racial stereotyping of Irish laundress in a Civil War camp

One socially acceptable profession a step below seamstress was that of washerwoman. It was a job for the uneducated, the non-English speaker, the recent immigrant, the slave and the free-woman-of-color.

The Irish washerwoman was such a cliche that there is a fiddle tune with the name.

And nobody wanted one in New York City during the anti-Irish bigotry of the 1850s.

It wasn't that the job was unskilled labor; the advantage was
that it required no formal education. Another advantage:
There was always plenty of laundry to be done.

The stereotype is of a Chinese laundry man
but there must have been plenty of women working in Chinese laundries.

Civil war army laundress by Winslow Homer for Harper's Weekly

Hard, back-breaking work is another cliche.

Laundry wasn't only about getting the clothes and household linens clean, the laundress finished
with ironing in the age of starched cottons and linens. Catherine Beecher will tell you the basics in her 1841 book A Treatise on Domestic Economy: For the Use of Young Ladies at Home

Page 275
See Chapter 26 "On Washing"

Basic tools of the trade: a wooden laundry tub,
a barrel with staves so tight it holds water.

Note the iron on the ground in front of the tub of this army laundress during the Civil War.
The man is holding another basic tool, a wooden stick for agitating the wet laundry, called a laundry dolly in England. Beecher calls it a wash stick and says you need a wooden fork too, to remove the wet clothes.

This may be England, where the woman on the left is
agitating the clothes.

British washer women

An insult to the Scottish laundress
and some soft core pornography. Legs!

Mrs. Hallam, 1932
Archives of New Zealand
Another vital tool: Wash board to scrub stains.

This woman photographed in 1863 seems to have
a more sophisticated tool for scrubbing.

Jack Delano photo
Buckets from the pump in an Iowa winter in the 1940s

The hard work also involved obtaining the water. And as there was no cold water soap....

Photo by Arnold Genthe, New Orleans, 1920

Boiling the water first in a metal container

One needed some kind of a wringer to get the water out.

Then the clothes were dried---on a sunny day in the yard if one was lucky.

Boston 1905
Inside if it looked like rain

And then the ironing began.

There was no spray starch. You added the starch in a starch tub when the clothes were wet.

And if you go back to Catherine Beecher's time there was no commercial starch. She said you needed a supply of  "starch, neither sour or musty....Before hanging out, dip [the clothes] in starch, clapping it in, so as to have the equally stiff, in all parts."

You had to make your own starch and your own lye (she spelled it ley.)

They hadn't invented the electric iron yet. Heck, they hadn't invented
the ironing board yet.

Doris Ulmann photographed a woman using a "sad iron" in the 1930s. You heat a sad iron on a stove and use it with a pot holder while it remains hot. You have another iron in the fire waiting.

Russell Lee photographed a refugee ironing with a sad iron in a tent
in Oklahoma in the late 1930s.

Jack Delano photo, Georgia

Once everything was starched, ironed and primped there was optional delivery.

Bowling Green, Ohio
by Lewis Hine

Steam Laundry delivery, Alaska

After considering the whole occupation of washerwoman I have
a new respect for a skilled occupation.

Refugees in a cabin 
Russell Lee, Oklahoma
"Washings and Iornings
Done Here"

Bertha Bridges's 1940's string star quilt is on view right now
at the North Carolina Museum of History in QuiltSpeak.
She raised her daughter in Shelby County, North Carolina by working as a laundress,
sending her to the Hampton Institute and Columbia University.

See a post about Irish laundress Mary Kilraine Komiskey who was awarded Civil War veteran's honors at her death:

And read Tubs & Suds: Civil War Laundresses in the Field, Camp & Hospital by Virginia Mescher: