Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Entrepreneurs: Scioto Imhoff Danner

Scioto Imhoff Danner (1891-1974)

Pattern collectors are familiar with Scioto Imhoff Danner's quilt booklets. Mrs. Danner's Quilts was a long-lived Kansas pattern source, purchased by Helen Ericson from Danner in the 1960s and only recently closed at Ericson's death.

Scioto (She pronounced it Sigh'-oh-toe) Imhoff was born in Missouri in June, 1891.

ElDorado in 1906

Her parents, half-sister Della and grandmother moved to ElDorado, Kansas at some point. She attended college in Warrensburg, Missouri and taught in Missouri where she kept many ties. During World War I she traveled to Maui to teach in a mission school. Miss Imhoff married Mr. Danner in the 1920s but they soon divorced. Looking for income after her divorce she and the women in her family turned to quilts, hoping they could sell their handiwork. According to her autobiographical manuscript (Blanche Greenstein & Thomas Woodard refer to it in their book Twentieth Century Quilts) selling a quilt for $25 was "like finding an oil well."

Danner made several wedding ring quilts when she
began making quilts to make money. This one, reportedly by her hand, is now
in the collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum,
in the Helen Ericson collection.

In the late 1920s she arranged with Wichita's Innes Department Store to exhibit quilts and sample blocks. Few customers were interested in buying her quilts, she later recalled, but "so many people asked me for my designs that I took orders and came home and cut patterns by hand for those who wanted them so badly." 

In 1931 Rorabaugh-Wiley's in Hutchinson, Kansas offered quilts for $2 
during a Mrs. Danner trunk show in 1931. Wilene Smith found this advertisement.

The manager at Innes's suggested she enlist local high school girls to draft the patterns and mimeograph them. (Let's hope she paid adequately.) This was a low overhead scheme, what we'd
call print on demand. Catalog booklets might be ordered in large quantities but one could mimeograph patterns as they were sold.

Before the Xerox machine every school relied on the mimeograph,
which used a paper stencil wrapped around a drum to print in in sometimes smelly fashion
depending on the technology.

As many other entrepreneurs figured out, selling patterns was the way to profit. Mrs. Danner seems to have been a remarkable success.

In 1934 she displayed her wares at 
Kahn's Department Store in Washington, DC.
[Scioto is hard to spell and hard to pronounce.]

Her business model was impressive. She and her employees traveled around the country doing exhibits in department store fabric sections from Macy's at Herald Square to Famous-Barr in St. Louis. The store might show her quilts in the windows and hang some next to the bolts of recommended fabric. 

Quilt display (not Danner's) at an Ohio store in 1931
---a popular marketing tool for the drygoods department.

Danner or her employees offered sewing and shopping advice and sold patterns. 

In 1934 she began publishing small catalogs of
her popular designs with information about
quilts that inspired the patterns.

At one point she had six (or eight) women traveling for her, each with a set of quilts, blocks, kits, basted tops and patterns. In 1934 she told the Kansas City Star 24 women sewed for her. Thirty plus employees (who took care of the mail?) during the Great Depression is an achievement.

The Ladies' Dream was one of her most popular designs.
See a post on the pattern here:

In 1936 Danner apparently sold most of her 125 quilt samples and moved to Berkeley, California, where she managed a boarding house. Her retirement was not complete, however. A 1938 issue (only issue?) of a Lockport Batting publication Land O’ Nod, the Monthly Magazine for Quilters carried her name as editor.

After her father died in 1942 Danner returned to ElDorado to help her mother and revived Mrs. Danner's Quilts by offering mail order patterns again and republishing her catalogs. 

Detail of a Horn of Plenty sampler in Ericson's collection.

According to her obituary (not always accurate) she operated the Cape Cod Flower Shop there too. When she retired in 1970 she sold the quilt business to Helen Ericson who moved it to her home town of Emporia where she designed her own quilts, patterns and catalogs as well as continuing some Mrs. Danner favorites.

How many kits, basted tops and completed quilts did the Danner quilt empire sell in the halcyon days of the 1927-1937 quilt craze? Well, we dropped the ball on this one and forgot to interview anyone in ElDorado during the Kansas Quilt Project in 1986. It never occurred to us that any of those 1930s quilts people brought in to show us might have been made in a complex cottage industry system.

IQSCM has a page on Cottage Industries discussing this little considered topic in their World Quilts.
"Quilts made within cottage industries may be the true anonymous works, particularly because multiple quiltmakers often contributed to distinct aspects of the project—such as cutting, piecing, marking, quilting, or binding—and the final product was removed from its community of creation."

Read Wilene Smith's page on Scioto Danner:

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

William Gardner's Quilt Shop: Buying a Quilt

I recently bought this 1868 receipt on eBay. 

What caught my eye was that William Gardner on Canal Street in New York City sold everything that had to do with the bed: The bedstead, the pillow slip, the sheetings, the feathers  and Quilts.

His store was on Canal between Broadway and Centre. This 1838 painting
shows the corner of Canal and Broadway---a large retail district.

Across the street from Earle's Hotel.

Gardner advertised the drygoods part of his business in the years 1866 - 1868.

He sold
Especial attention is called to our stock of 
and other STYLES OF QUILTS in 9-4, 10-4, 11-4, 12-4, 13-4
BERTH, CRIB and CRADLE sizes."

I know what some of these are. Crochet quilt seems obvious---probably machine made.

A Marseilles Quilt is what would be advertised today as a Matelass√© quilt---a machine woven bedcovering with texture. The name seems to have been the generic name for factory-made coverlets of the type.

Lancaster Quilt was the trade name of a machine-made bedcover woven at a factory in Worcester County, Massachusetts at the Lancaster Mills.

An Allendale Quilt was a similar item, made in Providence, Rhode Island.

I found a few references to a Chintz Alhambra quilt and I'd imagine we could describe it as a whole-cloth print quilt, maybe quilted. Above an English reference to a "coloured Alhambra." The name might have to do with the Oriental craze for bedroom decor. I can imagine an Alhambra quilt in a paisley pattern.

UPDATE: Virginia V puts my paisley dream in the category of unsubstantiated information:
She found much more about Alhambra Quilts, distinguished more by the weave than any
decorative imagery.

"The term 'Alhambra' is a descriptive trade name employed to distinguish a well-known type of textile fabrics comprising several varieties that are chiefly produced in relatively coarse and heavy cotton textures of an inferior and cheap class that are sold under a variety of fanciful names, and employed extensively as counterpanes or bed-quilts." Grammar of Textile Design by H. Nesbit.

This 1916 discussion of factory-made coverlets tells you more than you want to know about where the filling comes from.
UPDATE: Now I am thinking they are referring to the filler in the weave across the warp rather than the stuffing inside the quilt.

 This indicates that these might be more like an actual comforter than a machine-woven textured bedcover.

"Wanted Two Good Operators---
One on Wheeler & Wilson's machine, and the other on Plainer & Angers"

Here's a New York ad in 1861 for sewing machine operators. "Must understand quilting." Perhaps an ad from a quilt factory that made some of those commercially produced bedcovers.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Basted Applique Blocks

This wonderful basted antique applique block was
sold at our last guild quilt show.

The Turkey red and green calico is all ready to applique,
heavily basted in place. It looks like a variation of Poinsettia
or Coxcombs & Currants, popular in the mid-19th century.

Here's another block in the same state, not as well-basted though.
You let those projects sit around for 150 years and you are
going to have to do a little clean-up work.

I have several of these basted blocks

Which makes me wonder about their purpose.

From an online auction
Were they just unfinished projects or were they pattern blocks, unfinished just to keep a record of the pattern?

Another possibility is a two-person project. One stitcher with more skills than the other designed, cut and basted the block. The other did the applique stitching. Handing a child a basted block was a good way to teach a sewing technique. As Abby May Hemenway wrote in 1891 of the olden days: "The odd bits and ends of calico dresses were cut and basted for bed-quilt blocks by the mother and given to Miss to sew."

Unfinished block signed Mary Swain, Ohio
from the Collection of Minneapolis's MIA.

I learned about a trend--an avalanche of basted blocks---from missionary societies who sent them to sewing teachers working with freedpeople in the South. In 1883 Nancy Marsh of Providence, Rhode Island published suggestions for women who wanted to help the schools.
"Women in Stoneham, Massachusetts basted 1,465 blocks of patch-work... for teachers in Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and Ladies Island [South Carolina].

Teacher and students, late 19th century

A Middleboro, Massachusetts woman wrote:
 "As I am an invalid, and unable to give money, I thought I could cut and baste patch-work if nothing more.... 
"A lady in Chesterfield, Illinois [and] friends have basted 300 blocks of patch-work for teachers in Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee....One old lady, who is much interested in the young, and fond of patch-work, gave us 78 blocks very nicely basted, which were sent to Ladies Island, so meeting the needs of a young girl whose quilt had come to a standstill for want of materials."
The blocks were appreciated. Right after the Civil War M. Webster, teaching in Petersburg, Virginia wrote "In my box from home I received enough patchwork to supply my sewing class for a few weeks."

The students were both children and adults who needed to learn the basics of sewing. I assume that the blocks in the Home Missionary boxes were what we'd call appliqued and what they might have called patched or patchwork. Pre-basting pieced blocks does not make any sense.

Basted block in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society

Another possibility explaining pre-basted applique blocks is that one skilled stitcher sold them to another woman to finish---a kit. We know that seamstresses in Baltimore bought prepared blocks in the glory days of the Baltimore Album quilts from about 1845-1855. 

20th-century kit for embroidered and appliqued quilt block
with the pink flowers basted down.

This mode of professional quiltmaking continues today. Many of my friends in the pattern and fabric business baste blocks for paid stitchers to finish. Each person in the collaboration has a set of skills. 

I chose the fabrics, cut and glue-basted the block I designed for my Prairie Flower
quilt and Jean Stanclift machine-appliqued it in excellent fashion.

In the first half of the 20th century a group of Indiana women headed by designer Marie Webster offered basted quilt blocks for sale. 

Their Practical Patchwork company offered a block of Webster designs basted for $2.00. Ida Lilliard and Evangeline Beshore published this catalog offering patterns, stamped blocks, basted blocks and whole finished quilts.

Cluster of Roses, Marie Webster design, Karen Alexander's collection

$2 for a basted block was a lot of money before World War II and only a certain class of seamstresses could afford to pay that, but if I had an extra $2 back then I'd have bought pre-basted Marie Webster blocks.

You could buy the whole top basted for $30!

No prep work. Just sew.

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.