Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

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.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Pair of Panel Quilts

"Quilt given to Rosa Benson Snoddy by her 
mother & father when she married" in 1853,
Spartanburg, South Carolina

Laurel Horton has studied the quilts of the Snoddy/Black family and published a book and several online articles about Mary Black's inherited quilts. This one seems to be the oldest in the family collection.

It's also the only one attributed to Mary Black's grandmother
Nancy Miller Benson (1809-1879) who lived her life in Spartanburg.

Spartanburg about the turn of the last century

Yardage, Collection of the Winterthur Museum,
which has several pieces. Curator Florence Montgomery
identified it as 1840-50, England. Curator Linda Eaton
describes it as 25-1/2" wide.

The fabric features a repeat of rose wreaths, circular panels
in two sizes and a rose sprig on the left and right.

The family was uncertain who made the quilt but the information passed with it indicated it was a wedding present for Rosa who married Samuel Snoddy.

Laurel Horton has summarized the family history:
"The Bensons could have purchased the chintz locally but it is quite possible that they demonstrated the importance of their eldest daughter's marriage by making a shopping excursion to Charleston to buy special items such as fabric for a wedding quilt.The information handed down by Mary Black is not specific about who made this chintz quilt; it is probable that Rosa's mother made it, alone or with help from family members or household slaves."
The assumption here is that this was a gift especially for Rosa and that her parents gave it to her. Therefore, her mother must have made the quilt or supervised its making in their home, using fabric specially purchased for this quilt.

I am questioning that assumption. My main evidence is a nearly identical quilt in the collection of the Los Angeles Museum of Art.

Whole-Cloth Quilt,  1850, 97 x 97 1/2 inches. 
Gift of Louise Bloom (M.90.144)

Both  are quilted in a diagonal grid.

Rosa Benson Snoddy's quilt: 
"She quilted the three layers in a simple, overall diagonal crosshatch. The chalk-like material she used to mark the quilting lines remains visible, an indication that the quilt has never been washed....The simple crosshatch quilting design could have been accomplished in a relatively short time, suggesting that Nancy Miller Benson chose not to take this as an opportunity to display fine handwork."
The major difference is in size with the LACMA quilt being a wider square with a full strip on the right here. Both have a length of about 6 wreaths.  Rosa's quilt looks to be a redder colorway than the LACMA quilt, which is the greenish shade usually seen in this wreath panel. (Color difference may just be a color accuracy problem in the photos.) The LACMA quilt seems to have an added red binding while Rosa's quilt has the back brought over the front for an edging.

Single wreath in an album quilt dated 1843,
unknown source

My interpretation of this pair of quilts: They were made by professional quiltmakers in South Carolina about 1850. The Benson family bought the quilt readymade for Rosa's wedding.

It seems that someone stripped whole-cloth quilt tops of the wreath yardage and quilted them with a simple grid. How many others were made and sold? 

When we hear the words wedding and quilt our conventional wisdom about quilts makes us assume a few things:

Wedding Quilt---Made by Mother
Two identical quilts---Mother made one for each child?

Why not Wedding Quilt---Bought by Mother?

I think it is time to think differently about women's work.

See one of Laurel Horton's posts about the Black family quilts.