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:

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