Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

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.


  1. I cannot imagine getting what the work is worth now days. With all the cheep/slave labor on the mass market from foreign countries now many do not believe our work is worth what we need or want for the job.

  2. There was plenty of slave labor back then too.