Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Friday, August 10, 2018

Professional Quilters Part 2: Advertising for Work

Oklahoma immigrants quilting in Kern County, California,
Photo by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration,
1936. Library of Congress.

"Wanted- Quilting or plain sewing to do." 1897, Topeka, Kansas

 Advertising is a good source for information about the quilting professional. Above, M.W. in Topeka ran an advertisement.

In 1911, widowed Mississippian 
Marthy Usrey explained why she needed the work.

I searched through the Library of Congress's online newspaper site for the words wanted quilting and found quite a few women looking for work, particularly in the 20th century.

In 1922 a Virginian mentioned her fee:
$1 for every spool of thread used.

Harper's Weekly, 1870
"Many an aged woman, who otherwise would be idle, is now
busy piecing and quilting quilts....earning a nice little income all her own."
The Indiana Farmers' Guide quilting booklet tells us about 1930.

I also found an 1843 advertisement from the House of Industry in New York City, with a lengthy list of the kinds of sewing services they offered.

 A House of Industry was a social services agency that organized piecework for poor women. This New York House would quilt a large quilt or a small one and quilt or tack comfortables (an early reference to the word "tack" for a tying a comforter.)

Women sewing at Philadelphia's House of Industry about 1900

Phillipsburg, Missouri church quilters about 1960

Women who quilted to earn a living competed with charity organizations, particularly church groups who raise funds by quilting tops---still the case. In the past charity groups like women's exchanges, Asylums and Houses of Industry were the competition.

Woman quilting in Grant County, Illinois.
Photograph by John Vachon, 1939
Library of Congress

See a post about women's exchanges here:

Columbus Mississippi, 1908
The Southeast church quilters delivered the finished quilts. Hard to compete with that.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Teaching Needlework in the Early 19th Century

Madame Deborah Grelaud advertised an
embroidery curriculum in this ad from the
Pennsylvania Gazette in the fall of 1801.
Mrs. Grelaud informs ladies inclined to learn the Science of Music that she gives lessons on the Piano Forte at her house No. 24, Filbert Street where she also keeps a Boarding School for Young Ladies who are instructed in .....Embroidery and Plain Work.
Women required to work might teach or run a school. A good education was not an absolute prerequisite and some schools had better reputations than others. One of the most fashionable girls' schools was Madame Grelaud's in Philadelphia, which took in boarders from about 1800 to 1850. 

Madame's skills seem to have been musical. Her establishment was known for public musicales that entertained Philadelphia society in the evenings. Being a French emigrant from Haiti she spoke the language and offered art and geography lessons in addition to English and Arithmetic. She advertised that she was "aided by the best masters."

Madame Rivardi's school was in the Gothic Mansion on Chesnut Street

Academic rigor was probably not a selling point. Girls attended to become finished---eligible marriage material. Parents who hoped for a better educated graduate might choose competitor Madame Rivardi's. Among familiar names in Grelaud's alumnae lists: Washington/Custis family girls, Southern belles Varina Howell Davis and Mary Boykin Chesnut and Presidential daughters Angelica Van Buren and Maria Hester Monroe.

Sculptural portrait of Maria Monroe (1802-1850)
as a 15-year-old student. Collection of the James Monroe Museum 

In 1810 Mme. Grelaud's Seminary was on the north side of Arch Street above 3rd, with the Second Presbyterian church on the corner.

Ornamental needlework and plain sewing were part of nearly every girl school curriculum until the mid-19th century. Madame Grelaud undoubtedly hired needlework teachers to assist her.

Henrietta Maria Ghegenise stitched this needlework picture at Madame Rivardi's in 1803.

A copy of a needlework sampler wrought by
Maria Hester Monroe in 1814. I have found
little needlework attributed to Madame Grelaud's.
The original of Maria's is in the collection of the Monroe Museum
at Ash-Lawn Highland, shown in the Childrens' Room.
Shall we assume the building is the school?

Sampler worked in Philadelphia in 1823 by Margret T Child (?)

The many women who taught needlework are largely erased from the record. One good source for their names and accomplishments is the MESDA Craftsmen Database.

MESDA index card scanned

Here's a search for needleworker:

Mrs. Adams advertised in the Virginia Herald in December, 1812 about her Fredericksburg school that emphasized needlework. We assume Mrs. Adams was the needlework teacher. If you wanted a class in Arithmetick or French she charged extra and also offered:

"Young Ladies supplied with elegant patterns and their work drawn at moderate expense."

Sampler attributed to Barbara Gerz, Philadelphia.
M. Finkel & Daughter

See an online catalog of samplers with much information from Philadelphia sampler specialists M. Finkel & Daughter.

Sampler patterns were passed on by professional teachers to their students and we have to assume patchwork and quilting patterns were too.

Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur, unfinished mosaic patchwork, 
collection of the James Monroe Museum 

Maria Hester Monroe married Samuel Laurence Gouverneur in 1820 and lived in New York City, where she pieced this hexagon quilt in the 1830s while her father President James Monroe was fatally ill. She never finished it. Her g-g-g-granddaughter donated it to the museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Read more about Madame Grelaud's School here:

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Emma Zimmer Brockstedt and the Mail Order Business

Dry goods store about 1900

In 1885 Emma Zimmer, a 20 year old resident of St. Louis, is listed in the city directory as running a dry goods store at 2930 Chouteau Avenue. She was second to the last in a long alphabetic list of dry goods merchants.

In this series I've been following women business owners and Emma is one worth following. The next year she married Henry Marcus Brockstedt, fourteen years older than she. Henry ran a job printing shop; he was a  professional printer who might produce books like the city directory above or single sheets such as handbills. Born in Europe, he came to St. Louis as a young child.

Olive & 3rd Streets looking North in 1854 
Missouri Historical Society

Henry's printing business was at 3rd & Olive between 1887 and 1891 according to quilt historian Connie Chunn. Brother Walter was also a printer. Their father Johann Brockstedt ran a St. Louis grocery store. 

In September, 1886 Henry and Emma's daughter Alma was born and two years later another daughter was named Emma. 

The couple combined their businesses---drygoods and printing. In 1889 they published a catalog of  the needlework designs with a focus on patchwork patterns. The enterprise was called the Ladies' Art Company in keeping with the late-19th-century trend for art needlework (the implication being that the patterns were more sophisticated and a better use of one's time than old-fashioned fancywork.)

Cover of the 1897 edition of the catalog
Collection of Connie Chunn.
Notice the name under the Ladies' Art Co. title
"H.M. Brockstedt, Manager."

Emma Z. Brockstedt was never mentioned.

Quilters value the Ladies' Art Company for the pattern booklets, which were reworked and re-published over the years between 1889 and into the 1930s and then again in the 1970s. Connie estimates over 75 catalogs were published. I assume she means catalogs of all kinds of needlework.

Their Practical Tatting Book was copyrighted by Deaconess, a pseudonym for Emma Brockstedt, according to the copyright records from the teens. She also published crochet and cross-stitch books.

See more about the Ladies Art Company in this post:

An ad for Fancy Work Hand-books
Written By Deaconess, probably Emma.

Patchwork was popular but redwork outline embroidery was
the rage. Many of their quilt catalogs included ads for printed paper

Stamped decorative linens...

And stamped pillowcases.

They seem to have sold everything at one time or another...

From needlework tools
to furniture.

Their business model is familiar. In fact, it's quite like Emma Keytes Wilcockson's who with her husband Herbert operated a Fancy Repository in London in the 1850s and '60s. Emma Wilcockson knew needlework; Herbert was a printer, a practical partnership.
Read about the Wilcocksons at this post:

My guess is that H.M. Brockstedt was responsible for the printing from patterns on pillowcases to paper pamphlets and Emma Brockstedt was responsible for the needlework content. He has gotten all the credit because that is the way they presented the business.

The only mention I can find of her is in the copyright records of her publications under the penname Deaconess.

Emma probably did not write this booklet in their catalog,
Hunters and Trappers Practical Guide

 They must have been quite successful. Connie found records of 50 employees in the 1930s.

Their crypt at Hillcrest Abbey Mausoleum in St. Louis.

I haven't found much information about their personal lives. After Henry died in 1920 Emma went to live with her eldest daughter Alma in Cheyenne, Wyoming where she died on September 2, 1948 when she was 84 years old.

Alma married Charles Lane and died in Wyoming in 1973. At 19 she'd made headlines by swimming three miles in the Mississippi River.

Younger daughter Emma died in a terrible accident, playing with a bonfire when she was seven years old. A telling news story announcing her death ended with,
"The victim was a daughter of Henry M. Brockstedt....He is almost frantic with grief."

Once again, no mention of Emma Zimmer Brockstedt.

Ladies' Art Company printed pattern card

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Women's Exchanges & Depositories

Women earning money by sewing were often viewed as miserable.
The wages were low (true) and the work was viewed as unpleasant (by whom?)

A large problem in studying the role of professional seamstresses in the making of fancywork like quilts is the 19th century aversion to discussing women's need to earn money. In the delusional view of an ideal society women were supported by men. Women needing to earn their own money were seen as disreputable failures.

"Decayed Gentlewoman" and family

One solution to the lack of employment choices for poor women was the Women's Exchange movement, which is generally thought to have begun in the U.S. in Philadelphia is 1833. The first annual report of the Philadelphia Ladies' Depository explains:
"In every large city, a numerous class of persons is found, whom the vicissitudes of fortune have reduced from a state of ease or affluence to the necessity of gaining a subsistence by their own personal exertions. The sufferings of females are, in most cases, greatly augmented by a natural feeling of delicacy, which leads them to shrink from observation...To devise means for relieving this class of females; to afford them facilities for disposing of useful and ornamental work in a convenient and private manner, a number of ladies consulted together, and as the most eligible plan for effecting the object, determined to open a small shop...."

Mathew Carey (1760-1839)

Rather than helping the lower classes, these early charity organizations assisted women of "good families" who had fallen upon hard times. The idea was suggested by Irish-born Philadelphian Mathew Carey in 1828 who saw a need for discretion in paying these women better wages than could be earned at plain sewing for a wholesaler.
"There is no subject that has more painfully occupied my mind, than the very inadequate return, for I will not call it compensation, made to females who depend on their needles for support...I allude to persons who have been delicately brought up, but have all there prospects blasted, and who have not strength for any other employment than the needle…"
An 1855 sweatshop

Carey suggested that well-to-do "ladies form associations in order to have...poor women...taught fine needlework, mantua making [dressmaking], millinery, clean starching, quilting, etc. There is always great want of women in these branches." Elizabeth Phile Stott and her friends followed his suggestions and opened the Philadelphia Ladies' Depository.

Carey's idea caught on. The basic principles: Seamstresses were anonymous and items for sale handled discreetly.  The shop sold fancy needlework of good quality made by women who received most of the price less a commission to support the agency. Plain sewing did not sell well and poorly made or unfashionable items were rejected, hopefully with advice or training in how to improve. Some agencies established sewing rooms for training and to provide pleasant working conditions. Charitably minded sponsors paid dues to the society and helped with the organization.

Organizations and shops were known by various names. In 1854 the Brooklyn Female Employment Society opened at 64 Court Street where women were given "a fair share of the work at fair prices, from the finest embroidery down to a Hickory shirt."

Sewing room at the House of Industry about 1900

Quakers in Philadelphia developed a second agency, the House of Industry, to give work to a different class of women--- immigrants and poor women. Lucretia Coffin Mott, one of the founders, described a trip to the shop in 1879 where she paid $2 for two quilts, " very pretty red patchwork quilt and a red & mixed-calico not large." A 1919 directory described the work of the House of Industry as making "new quilts and recovering old ones."

Store at the Women's Educational & Industrial Union in Boston

In the late 19th century the term Women's Exchange came into general use. A few of these Women's Exchanges continue in their traditional mission today, still keeping the craftswoman's name discreetly secret. Manhattan's New York Exchange for Women's Work closed in 2003 after 125 years but the Greenwich Connecticut Exchange for Women's Work is still going strong---with a Facebook page:
Follow this link to see an 1898 list of Women's Exchanges.

New York City's House of Industry advertised that they did quilting in 1843. A large size quilt was 15 something (maybe shillings?), a smaller one 9. They'd tack a comfortable for 3 or quilt one for 4.60.

The Brooklyn Women's Exchange is still open.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Quilt Blocks Through the Mail

Many of us interested in quilt patterns have collections of blocks---lone blocks.

There was a time when we thought these "orphan blocks" needed to be set, quilted and bound.
Wilene Smith addressed this issue thirty years ago in an AQSG Paper. She writes: "Gradually I realized that these were not left over quilt blocks, or stray quilt blocks, but quilt pattern collections."
Her paper  "Quilt Blocks? -- or -- Quilt Patterns?" gave us some insight into the origins and use of many of these lone blocks.

Until the explosion of printed patterns in the late 1920s quiltmakers kept pattern blocks just as we keep digital files on Pinterest pages. We can guess their reasons for saving single blocks: Quilts they intend to make; quilts they might make again; patterns to share with friends. And some people just love to collect patterns.

Pattern collector Mary Pemble Barton (1917-2003) collected many vintage single blocks, organizing them by color and tacking them to backgrounds. Her collection is now in the Iowa State Historical Society. Her panels are pictured in the Quilt Index.

Carrie Hackett Hall (1866-1955) was another pattern collector. She donated her collection of over 800 blocks to the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Hall made a few quilts and a lot of blocks in the 1920s and '30s, hoping to make one in every pattern she could find.

California Star

She also collected older blocks which are scattered throughout
the collection.

Block with a note attached from an online auction.
The date may be 1881

When we look at these blocks today we think about women stitching them and perhaps trading them. Here's one origin story that hasn't occurred to me until recently.

1898 Ladies' Art Company catalog

The Ladies' Art Company in St. Louis is well-known as a source of quilt patterns from about 1890 through the 1930s.

For a dime "we will send you...paper patterns" and a colored diagram.

The colored diagram was printed on a small card

But when you notice the fine print in some of the catalogs you also see they would send you a Finished Block.

"We will make up finished blocks to order from any diagram in this catalogue, of any size....It will be impossible to quote any prices here....some...are simple and require little labor, while again others are very complicated....They will be worked in the neatest and most artistic manner....we can make them any size desired."

Has anyone ever identified an "orphan block" as a Ladies Art Company product?

See a post on Emma Zimmer Brockstedt, the woman behind the Ladies Art Company.

Double Z - Ladies Art Company 192

Later catalogs listed prices for blocks. Here: 35 cents to 60 cents.

Capital T - Ladies Art Company 84

$1.25 for an appliqued wreath.

I'd buy 9 of the pineapple #93, thank you.

The purchased blocks may be the source of some of these
circa 1900 samplers of different sized squares.

Dated 1905, the Macy Family
from a Laura Fisher ad in The Clarion

And here's another question? Who stitched those blocks in "the neatest and most artistic manner?" 
Ladies Art authority Connie Chunn finds the company had 30 employees in the 1930s.