Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Charlottesville Shirt Factory

What might a quilt made of shirt factory remnants in 
the 1940-1960 years look like?

Cora Lewis Hunt Carver (1893-1977) of Charlottesville, Virginia, was remembered in a local history as a "quilt maker who sold quilts for $25 to local residents and sewed in a shirt factory on Monticello Avenue where she was given permission to take remnants for the quilts."

Quilts from online auctions: Ca. 1960 Factory Cutaways?

The factory, probably the Monticello Shirt Factory, closed about 1990. Based on Cora's age I'd guess the time discussed is 1940-1960s.
"Monthly she returned with quilt tops to Nelson County with her aunts and cousins who would each create 5-10 complete quilts. Depending upon family crises at the time, number of returning quilts varied...illness, birth of babies, etc. She won first prize for her designs in the earliest state fairs."
We don't know what the Nelson County quilts looked like
but we can guess they were busy.

As in some of these wonderful combinations of stripes,
plaids and pineapples.

1955 Spiegel catalog

In her cottage industry Cora provided work for rural relatives and recycled local remnants
and probably made a little extra cash for herself.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Commercial Artist

Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman (1860 - 1935)

Charlotte Perkins is best known as a writer and leader in the women's movement from the 1890s till her death in 1935. When she was young she supported herself and her mother with commercial art. Her diaries are full of references to painting and drawing greeting and advertising cards.

Charlotte's drawing for a Soapine trade card.
The Schlesinger Library at Harvard has her papers.

The published card advertising laundry soap

In February 1881 when she was 21 she described her day in Providence, Rhode Island after waking up under "14 thicknesses of blanket...Paint marguerites with good success. Do a bit on cards" She was crocheting a shawl and in the manner of someone focused on production rather than process she calculated, "It takes about 30 hours as I estimate it to make one of those shawls. I do five times across tonight, twenty minutes at a time." 

She may have cared about time because she was selling her crocheting too. Despite her sewing business, teaching art and selling card designs, she and her mother Mary Fitch Perkins were always on the edge of hunger. A pair of shoes was an elusive goal one winter. Father Frederick Beecher Perkins, related to Harriet Beecher Stowe, was remarkably indifferent to the family he abandoned, sending little money and paying little attention to his son and daughter.
Charlotte wrote in her diary of struggling with the whale, a Soapine theme,
as in this display poster 38" wide.

Charlotte managed to spend the academic year in evening classes at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1878-79. 

Her cousin Robert Brown, bookkeeper at the Kendall Soap Company, found a sideline profitable for him and Charlotte. With Robert designing and Charlotte doing the drawing Perkins & Company Designers earned $370 in the early 1880s.

Feb 7 1881. "Bah! A lazy wasted miserable mispent day....Paint less than one card." (She'd spent her day reading.) The following day: "Work on Archery cards with some application and finish 'em.... R(obert) isn't satisfied of course so I needs lug my poor little cards back again."

Walter Stetson painted flowers in Charlotte's copy of Keats's poetry.
The Schlesinger Library at Harvard has her papers.

In 1884 she quit her freelance work after she married artist Charles Walter Stetson and gave birth to daughter Kate a year later. 

Katherine Beecher Stetson (1885-1979) with her mother in 1893.
Is that a quilt behind them?

Some blame an unhappy marriage for Charlotte's depression after childbirth but it is most likely post-partum depression aggravating her life-long bipolar disorder, which terminated only with her suicide when she was 65 and ill with cancer. She and Walter Stetson separated in 1888 at her request and she moved to California with Kate.

From Hometown Pasadena

Charlotte and Kate rented a “little wood-and-paper four-room house,” at the corner of Orange Grove and Arroyo Terrace in Pasadena for four years, where she taught art and began her writing career in earnest. She then moved to Oakland and San Francisco. 

She went on to a very different life with a particular interest in the economic injustices women faced but her youthful career as a commercial artist gives us some insight into the free-lancers behind those thousands of advertising cards.

Read more about Charlotte Perkins Gilman here:

Denise D. Knight, The Diaries of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1994.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Commercial Quiltmaking in Connecticut

Ad for a machine made quilt 1940

In 1895 several newspapers ran a lengthy story about commercial quiltmaking in Connecticut, which began with a tale about cottage industries where local women quilted for an entrepreneur who peddled their needlework to retail and wholesale customers. Industry histories always treat the facts loosely but this sounds reasonable---if vague.
"About 1874 this business originated....quilt materials were stored, to be distributed among the farmers' wives of the vicinity, who occupied their leisure hours between the regular 12 o'clock dinner and 6 o'clock tea, as well as the long winter evenings, in quilting for the manufacturers, who repaid their labor by the munificent sum of 12-1/2 cents for each finished quilt."
Were the women workers hand quilting or machine quilting?
"When a sufficient number of quilts were completed the manufacturer started upon the road with his stock, peddling his goods alike to house and store keepers. As his trade increased, quarters were prepared for the workers within the storehouse, which then really became a factory, where eventually the quilts began to run by ordinary sewing machines. A year or two later the business had increased...a large stone factory was built, power machines superseded the old-style ones...and three or four hundred boxes and bales of a dozen quilts each were shipped....700 quilts daily."
The article goes on to talk about production.
"The quilting machines are tended by girls, who are paid two and a half cents for each quilt, and forty quilts are considered an average day's work. Some of the girls make $7 a week....
In 1884 a new machine for quilting was invented...The quilt is stretched in a wooden frame and stitched in the most intricate designs by power....The designs are frequently interlaced, mingled, and multiplied upon the same surface until the result is an arabesque of great regularity and attractiveness."

I would guess that the unnamed factory was one of the Palmer Brothers Bedquilt Manufacturers in Fitchville, New London or Montville, Connecticut. From a late-20th-century Fitchville history:
"Edward and Elisha Palmer copied the designs from the beautiful quilts Elisha's daughter was making....George Palmer originally designed and patented the machines that were used to sew the quilts. The quilts were made in many different designs and colors. The Palmers became world famous for these unique heavy warm quilts."

Elisha had two daughters, Arabelle Palmer Latimer (1849-1928) and Mary Alice Palmer Mitchell (1847-?). (Mary Alice's DAR number is 66475.)

The Palmer Brothers purchased a mill in Fitchville, New London
in 1886. This complex burned in the 1960s and '70s.

The Palmer mills continued manufacturing quilts well into the 20th century.

Library of Congress
When the housing was photographed in the 1930s the
factory was making comforters for the army. 

Giant quilting machines

In 1941 you could buy Palmer Patch Bedquilts at Quackenbush's in Paterson, New Jersey.

Or at Snellenburg's in Bristol, Pennsylvania in December, 1942.
We get a clue to as one kind of Palmer Bros. bedquilt:
Wholecloth sateen with wool batting?

The company disbanded in 1948.

Read more about those Connecticut quilt mills in Jon B. Chase's book Montville. See a Google Preview here:

Monday, February 3, 2020

Mabel Obenchain: Famous Features

Mabel Elizabeth Schmitz Obenchain (1903-2001)

Mabel Schmitz Obenchain was a 20th-century version of a "gentlewoman in reduced circumstances," the term used for once-well-to-do women forced to seek employment outside the home. The daughter of  a prosperous family in Evanston, Illinois (her father was Weigh Master at Chicago's Board of Trade) she graduated from Northwestern University in 1924 and soon after married a handsome Evanston lawyer named Ralph Riley Obenchain.  After three children and fifteen years of marriage Ralph died rather suddenly in 1939.

Ralph Riley Obenchain (1890-1939)
About the time Mabel married him

The Great Depression was almost over but Mabel had no assets. As her daughter has written at the Find A Grave site:
"When Mabel was growing up in the early part of the 20th century, young women were never expected to work outside the home. But in 1939 Ralph died leaving her with three young children to support. Although a graduate of Northwestern University, as a widow with no income, circumstances forced her to attend night school in order to learn shorthand and typing. She secured a job working in the steno pool at Esquire magazine."
Smart enough to move up the journalism ladder, she found a job with the Famous Features Syndicate where she edited, wrote and publicized features for women, including quilts. Mabel wrote several quilt pattern booklets. 

Her booklets published in the 1970s & '80s 
must have sold many copies in dimestores around the country.
You can find them on Ebay and Etsy.

According to her Find-A-Grave obituary she joined with Louise Roote, editor of Capper's Weekly in Topeka, to write her first quilt book, All-Time Quilt Favorites in 1971.

The design and the quilts reflect that Bicentennial era when
quilts were once-again popular.

The artist was Vera Lengel (1932-1997) whose spare modern style
defined the Famous Features booklets.

Mabel worked for Famous Features from 1943 until the 1980s, continuing to contribute quilting ideas after she retired to Rogers, Arkansas, where she was a founding member of the guild. She died in 2001 at the age of 97. Mabel who never remarried was buried next to Ralph in Indiana. Ralph must have been something, a "man in a million."

Madalynne Donna Connor Obenchain (1893- )

Any search for Ralph's name reveals that he was a famous feature himself in the 1920s. His first wife Madalynne Obenchain was a femme fatale flapper, accused of conspiring with one boyfriend to murder another boyfriend in Los Angeles in August, 1921.

Wedding announcement in the Northwestern alumni magazine

By that time she and Ralph had divorced after a short marriage in 1919 lasting four days before she told him she was in love with someone else. She was tried three (?) times for John Belton Kennedy's murder but never convicted. 

Ex-husband Ralph was on her legal team during her first trial after quitting his job in Chicago to help her out. He paid for the lawyer for the second.

From a recent book on Madalynne's trials:
"Ralph Obenchain, handsome, athletic, and charismatic, gallantly turned up in court as a witness to defend her name and reputation...[He] became America's hero; even Madalynne's love letters to [the victim], read in court and causing Ralph to sink his head in his hand, did not shake his loyal assertion of her innocence. Few in court knew that his purpose in acting the forgiving husband was to pave the way for a film on the case in which he appeared...."
Madalynne called the loyal ex-husband and incipient film star "a man in a million," a name that stuck. The movie starring Ralph as himself was A Man In a Million produced by Charles R. Seeling, which left few impressions. Apparently L.A. theaters refused to show it as too sensational. No word on Evanston movie houses.

The Obenchain case influenced another film. Cecil B. DeMille's 1922 Manslaughter starred Leatrice Joy who said she based her character on Madalynne Obenchain after observing in court during the many trials. 

His film career on hold, Ralph returned to Evanston, where he married again in 1924.

Both women's names are spelled wrong in this 1924 article.

You have to hand it to Mabel. Not only did she manage to raise their children well in Evanston on what she could earn herself, she kept that scandalous name until no one remembered Madalynne or Ralph and she was the only Obenchain in the newspapers.

Read about Ralph's first wife here:
Women Who Kill Men: California Courts, Gender, and the Press By Gordon Morris Bakken & Brenda Farrington:

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Mrs. Trapp the Sample Woman

"The Dry Goods Clerk"
seems to have been a comic stock figure

It was a difficult way to make a living,
or so they often told us.

Several wrote memoirs and there were also many comic fictions about
the job and the customers.

His natural adversary was the sample collector...
As told in an 1844 tale:
Shinning It: a Tale of a Tape-cutter; Or, The Mechanic Turned Merchant by M.Y. Beach

The narrator was new at his job.
An experienced friend observed the scam.

The charming customer persuaded him to give her many large samples (3 or 4 inches each)  to show her country nieces---both French prints and calicoes--- and walked out with a bundle of chintz and calico pieces.

The friend informed the clerk that he'd been fleeced. The woman, Mrs. Trapp, would not return to buy any fabric. She had quite a reputation.

So there's a little window into professional quiltmaking in the 1840s.

Read Shinning It: a Tale of a Tape-cutter; Or, The Mechanic Turned Merchant by M.Y. Beach,