Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Monday, May 14, 2018

Selling Fabric: Making a Fortune

Dry goods shop in the 1860s

In 1846 a directory of Philadelphia's wealthy citizens listed Jane Lang as worth $50,000. "An industrious, persevering lady, who has made a fortune in the retail dry goods business; having been established for a series of years, in north Eighth street, and keeping always a choice and well selected stock of fancy and staple articles."

Jane Lang never married. Her tombstone indicates she lived from 1789 to 1867 into her late 70s. She was in her early forties when she was listed as wealthy.

Her marker in Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery
 includes three other women, perhaps a sister and two nieces.

Looking towards 5th Street on Chestnut when the Langs kept dry good stores.
Library Company of Philadelphia
Philadelphia's large shopping district included Chestnut and Market Streets.

The city's commercial directories list Jane Lang's business from 1839 until after the Civil War. Her dry goods stores were located at various spots,  35, 37 & 41 N 8th and 733 Filbert Street. At one point she lived at 37 N 8th in 1839, probably above the shop.

North side of Chestnut Street.

733 Filbert Street about 1960 from the Library of Congress

Dry goods seem to have been a family business. George S. Lang also owned a business in the same building. He is probably Jane's brother, both children of John Lang, who was a clerk in the United States Bank, family history tell us.

George Shortread Lang (1799-1877) was an "engraver of considerable reputation; he afterwards went into the dry goods business on Eighth Street, from which he retired about ten years ago," according to his 1877 obituary.

Lang's engraving of Washington after a Sully painting is his most famous work.

Album quilt dated 1841, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 
Bequest of Natalie K. Rowland, 1941

Is he the same George S. Lang who signed this album quilt in 
the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art?

We can wonder where all those chintz squares cut exactly alike in
the alternate blocks came from.

In 1864 both George and Jane Lang paid income tax to support
 Union war efforts. Each paid over $8,000,
 higher than most of the Philadelphians listed.

George's son James Traquair Lang (1858-1920) went into the family dry goods business after leaving Swarthmore College in the late 1870s. He became a lawyer after his father died and that seems to have been the end of the Lang's retailing businesses.

I can find very little about Jane Lang's personal life. Leaving no children means no descendants to find you in their genealogy. Being a successful woman business owner means you are ignored in much of the commerce boosting publications of the time---unless of course you are singled out as an oddity. "Woman Earns Money!"

Mrs. Treen's card for an end-of-the-century Philadelphia shop

But Jane was not an an oddity. Running a dry goods store specializing in fabrics was a common occupation for women.

Mrs. J. Benson
Fancy Dry Goods, Freeport, Illinois

Mrs. S.J. Thompson, Marengo, Iowa
Most of the trade cards for woman-owned dry goods stores are
from the end of the 19th century when color lithography was new.

Except for the remarkable early version below.

Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Mrs. Holt commissioned William Hogarth to make her
a trade card about 1710. Her London fabric shop sold silks, damasks
and Italian wines.

Portrait in Black
 Philadelphia Museum of Art 

We can follow the Langs into the 20th century. George's best known descendant was his granddaughter artist Annie Traquair Lang (1885-1918) who died at 33 in the 1918 influenza epidemic. She was quite close to William Merritt Chase who painted the above portrait in 1911

Annie Lang is getting her just due these days:

See Jane's tombstone here:

And do note that the chintz in the Philadelphia album quilt is the same as one the Boyle sisters used in Petersburg, Virginia. See the last post.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Boyle Sisters: Professional Quiltmakers

In 1844 a fire swept through a neighborhood in Petersburg,Virginia,
burning the home of James Boyle. The fire hose was too short to save the house 
and outbuildings according to a newspaper account in the Richmond Enquirer.

This sounds like a disaster and if this is the James Boyle who had four seamstress daughters living at home quilt lovers can shudder at what was lost. Quilts? Chintz?

Quilt attributed to the Boyle Sisters of Petersburg #1991.644
Collection of Colonial Williamsburg

The Boyle sisters were professional seamstresses. One of their specialties was chintz appliqued quilts. There must have been many Southern women who made a living stitching chintz quilts but the Boyles are a rare example of professional quiltmakers whose story was handed down with the handwork. The account is in the cataloging data for a pair of quilts at Colonial Williamsburg.

The second of two Boyle Sisters' quilts, #1991.645,
Detail showing an inner border.
"According to family tradition, this quilt was made by the Misses Boyles for D'Arcy and Elizabeth Scrosby Cooke Paul of Petersburg, Virginia. The Boyles were unmarried sisters living on Pine Street who made their living making quilts and sewing.... Family tradition states that D’Arcy commissioned the quilts from two unmarried sisters named Boyle who made their living stitching and selling quilts."
#1991.645 is 116  x 115 inches, a large quilt.
The centerpiece is the popular fruit panel.

#1991.644 is another large quilt of unusual shape,
67 x 107 inches,
and features a different floral panel in the center.

Notice the large bouquet blocks are the same as the
 border bouquets in the other quilt.

The quilts descended in the Paul/Gilman/Roper family until 1991 when Colonial Williamsburg acquired them.

In the years 1830-1845 when the quilts were made Petersburg was a thriving town on the Appomattox River about 20 miles from Richmond.

Petersburg Courthouse

The Paul family who commisioned the quilts was wealthy. A biography of D'Arcy Paul's great-grandson described them:
"old Anglo-Irish ... magnates and civic leaders in Northern Ireland, whose American branch had come to Virginia in the person of his great grandfather, D'Arcy Paul, founder of a bank and of notable charities in Petersburg."
The Boyles, a family of craftspeople, were not wealthy. They left few records but information at Colonial Williamsburg and other internet sites gives us a view. James and Jane Harding Boyle had six children, five girls and a boy, none of whom married. They appeared to live together supported at first by father James who was a candle and soap maker. He died in October, 1845 and is buried in Blandford Cemetery with the rest of the family. 

Burying ground at the Blandford Episcopal Church. No markers
are currently listed for the Boyles but several are listed in the records.

Brother Joseph John Boyle was a carpenter and also must have contributed to the family accounts. Five sisters lived at home: Hannah (about 37 when her father died), Emily (35), Melvina (31), Rosina (27) and Jane (about 22) 

From Colonial Williamsburg:
"Family tradition states that D’Arcy commissioned the quilts from two unmarried sisters named Boyle who made their living stitching and selling quilts."
 Which two sisters?
"Emily, Melvina, Rosina, and Jane were, at least at one point, mantua-makers, or dressmakers. Their oldest sister, Hannah, kept house." 
The quilts themselves give us no clue. Each is inked on the back:

“B. Roper / from her grandmother / E. S. Paul.” 

Bettie Roper (1846-1912) was probably named for her grandmother Elizabeth Cooke Paul (1794–1865) who commissioned the quilts.

Detail of #91.645 showing the beautiful buttonhole stitch that
secures the applique

"No other quilts have been identified as the work of the sisters, but the skill in the design and execution of these quilts strongly suggests that there must be more."

I visited Colonial Williamsburg several years ago and took detail photos of the Boyle quilts. I will be looking for more quilts in their style. The small floral bouquet is a clue, something I might be able to see in photographs.

UPDATE: I found two other quilts with the same floral as in the bouquet, both Philadelphia made and both in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Here's one dated 1841: 
The white flowers look like dahlias and in the uncut version it's an arborescent print.
The Boyle Sisters' method of working seems obvious in this pair. They used a standard applique block cut from chintz plus showy imported furniture fabrics like the border on the square quilt.

From #1991.645
The Victoria and Albert Museum has a piece of the same print,

which they attribute to 1824 or 1830.

One could imagine a Boyle business model in which British chintzes were stockpiled and spare time spent appliqueing blocks that could be incorporated into various designs. Customers might choose size, fabrics and perhaps a favorite panel. 

If the story of the quilts' commissioning had not been handed down we would assume from the label that Elizabeth Paul made them.

 “B. Roper / from her grandmother / E. S. Paul.”

How many other women bought quilts from professional seamstresses and left them to their children and grandchildren with similar accurate yet quite confusing labels?

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: