Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Carrie Hall: Entrepreneur

Carrie Hackett Hall (1866-1955) in "Colonial" costume, 
dressed for a lecture about quilts.

Carrie Hall made a living through sewing all her long life. She began as a dressmaker in Leavenworth, Kansas, probably in the 1880s. 

Carrie Alma Hackett about the time she
arrived in Leavenworth

She was raised on a homestead farm near Smith Center, Kansas and after teaching at a rural school there she moved to Leavenworth. With a population of about 20,000 and home to an important Army base the city supported nearly 90 seamstresses in the first decade of the 20th century.


"Dress Making Parlors on Third Fall
Madam HALL and Miss MALLOY, Modistes"

Carrie elevated herself as "Madam Hall, Modiste." Married twice, she seems to have been employed through marriages, widowhood and separation.

Street cars in downtown Leavenworth, about 1910
That could well be Carrie climbing on the tolley on the right. I interviewed
people in Leavenworth who knew her. One told me she rode the cars to
work daily, reading the race track news.

During her career as a dressmaker she worked with at least two of Leavenworth's department stores and was probably nearly as successful as she liked to tell reporters. Her income went for a large house called Maplehurst, supporting two ill husbands (successively) and permitting her expensive hobbies such as book collections on Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and fashion. She may also have had a gambling problem. With two prisons and an army base Leavenworth had a reputation as just the kind of place a dressmaker could find a bookie.

Ready-made dresses from the 1928 Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog

After World War I the dressmaking business declined as inexpensive, mass-produced clothing in more casual style became the norm. Small's Department Store closed in 1928. Services of dressmakers like Madam Hall may have been needed for lavish weddings and formal occasions, but fewer fancy events occurred as the Great Depression changed the social fabric of the country. By the time the stock market crashed she was 62 and in need of some income.


Carrie realized she could turn one of her hobbies into a new career. She'd been stitching quilt blocks in the late 1920s. Being an obsessive collector she aimed to make one in every pattern. 

Most of her blocks are in the Helen F. Spencer Museum of Art
at the University of Kansas

The periodical publishing world was flooded with quilt patterns from about 1926 to 1940. She later wrote she little realized "the magnitude of the undertaking," but she made more than 850 blocks before she abandoned the task in the mid-1930s.

The Tonganoxie Nine Patch
Tonganoxie is a town 20 miles from Leavenworth, Kansas

Madam Hall developed a lecture about the history of quilts illustrated with her blocks. During the Great Depression she drove to nearby Kansas towns with the quilt patches packed in a suitcase and wore a Colonial dress of her own design. Another marketing idea: Creating an original block named for the town where she was speaking.

Sunflower

As her knowledge of quilt patterns grew she found herself conversing on the subject frequently with friends who, perhaps exasperated with the topic, suggested she write a book. The suggestion lay dormant until she discussed the topic with another Kansas quiltmaker, Rose Kretsinger. They found they had each been considering such a project and decided to collaborate. 

Photography by Mary Ellen Everhard must have cost 
quite a bit.

The quilt book, Carrie's index to patterns with a history of quilting by Rose, may have been another money-making idea, but it was the Great Depression. Little money seems to have accumulated in anyone's accounts.

The deluxe first edition---maybe 10 printed.


I do think Carrie (and probably Rose) paid a printer to publish the first edition of The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America in 1935. The Caxton Printers in Caldwell, Idaho, seems to have done subsidized books at the time. To add to everyone's financial problems Caxton burned to the ground in 1937, probably destroying many books authors had paid for. And she had a serious house fire the following year.


Once the book was out Carrie donated the quilt blocks to the art museum at the University of Kansas.  By the time she sent the last group she was 71; she no longer needed them for quilt talks as she felt traveling the circuit was too tiring.

Ben Hur's Chariot Wheel

Her finances were in terrible shape at the end of the thirties. In 1941 Carrie Hall was forced to leave Leavenworth due to a financial scandal. She had long had difficulty handling money. She'd borrowed  from friends and from the accounts of the clubs of which she was treasurer. The organizations demanded repayment when losses were discovered. Carrie at 75 with no cash assets sold her book collections, her  house and rental property and moved to Rigby, Idaho, ostensibly to stay with a newly widowed sister for the summer. But she never returned to Leavenworth.


She soon asked the art museum for the temporary return of her quilt blocks as she intended to make "a few bright colored quilt patches" and give a few quilt talks to start off a quilt business for her sister in Rigby. Sister (probably Agnes) needed the money, she confided, and she knew making quilts would help her sister's morale. She did not mention her own finances. Money may have been a life-long difficulty but morale was never one of Carrie Hall's problems.


She next turned to a new career using her knowledge of costume and sewing expertise. She began selling figures dressed in period costumes. The business, based in her last home in North Platte, Nebraska in the 1940s and '50s, prospered for several years.


See an article on Carrie's doll dresses by Laurie Baker in Doll Collector magazine:

Carrie, with her usual enthusiasm and craftsmanship, made hundreds of dolls. She remarked on working sixteen hours a day, but allowed that she no longer was chipper after a long work day. In late 1945, even after a serious illness, she talked of plans to enlarge and hire employees.

She died on January 5, 1955 at the age of eighty-eight of chronic heart disease. She was buried in the Smith Center cemetery near her family homestead.

Carrie Hall was an entrepreneur, an entertainer and a heck of a seamstress---many of us quilts professionals today have followed in her footsteps.

Without the embezzling----and no gambling. Both very bad ideas, Carrie.

Here is a link to the quilt block collection at the Spencer Museum:

Cardinal Points may have been one of Carrie's own designs.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing.

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