Thursday, May 5, 2016

From Academy to Seminary to College: Women’s Education in the 19th Century

In my last post, I noted that the practice of making samplers in American schools started to die out in the 1830s, in part because of changes in attitudes toward female education. By that time, activists like Catharine Beecher, Zilpah Grant, Emma Willard, and Mary Lyon had established schools in the northeastern US that aimed to give girls an education equivalent to that available to boys. These female seminaries were also intended to train women as teachers during a period when America’s public school system was rapidly expanding. 

A book in the Alice’s collection provides a window into this pivotal moment. William Woodbridge and Emma Willard’s Universal Geography was co-authored by one of the pioneers of women’s education, and this particular copy was owned by a young lady who would later attend a pioneering institution for women’s higher education. 

Emma Hart was born in 1787 in Berlin, Connecticut to a farming family. When she was only twenty years old, she became the principal of Middlebury Female Seminary in Middlebury, Vermont, where she also met her husband John Willard. She gave up teaching after her marriage, but a few years later, with the family in difficult financial circumstances, she opened her own school with a more rigorous curriculum than the one offered at the Seminary.
Emma Hart Willard 

Willard’s experiences at Middlebury led her to become more active in the movement for female education, and in 1819 she published An Address to the Public...Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education. While nominally addressed to the members of the New York State legislature, it was really meant for a wide audience. In it, Willard laid out what she thought were the defects in the current system of female education and made an argument for publicly-supported female seminaries. 

Although the legislature rejected her proposal, the Willards moved to New York, first to Waterford and then to Troy, where the Troy Female Seminary opened in 1821. Although she was very careful not to refer to her school as a college, Willard clearly modeled it on those elite male institutions. At Troy, girls could learn mathematics, philosophy, and science, in addition to the subjects that were traditionally thought appropriate for women (reading, writing, arithmetic, perhaps a little history and French). Willard felt that the “ornamental” branches of drawing, music, and dancing could be part of a seminary curriculum, but needlework, other than the purely useful sort, she regarded as “a waste of time.”

It's literally a Temple.
John Willard died in 1825, and thereafter Emma Willard depended upon the income from the school and her writing to support herself and her son, John Hart Willard. She was the author of a number of textbooks which were widely used in American schools, and she introduced some truly novel ways of graphically representing knowledge, such as the “Temple of Time” to depict history. The Universal Geography was really two texts packaged together—William Woodbridge’s A System of Universal Geography (which covered the modern world) and Willard’s Ancient Geography. First published in 1824, it went through at least ten editions and was still being used into the 1850s.

The copy of Universal Geography in the Alice’s collection belonged to Margaret Tufts of New Haven, Connecticut. Margaret was born in 1815, the daughter of Matthias and Matilda Tufts. Matthias Tufts was a ship carpenter and a member of the New Haven School Society (essentially the board for the city’s public schools), which suggests that he had an interest in the subject of education. We don’t know where Margaret was a student in 1833, when she acquired this textbook—she could have attended one of the half a dozen young ladies’ academies in New Haven, or been a boarding pupil at a school like Troy Female Seminary. But wherever it was, her education did not end there. In 1837, she became one of the first students at a new institution that was just opening in Massachusetts, the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Mary Lyon
Mount Holyoke’s founder, Mary Lyon (1797-1849), came from a similar background to Emma Willard. Also from a New England farming family, she became a teacher as a young woman and then helped to run two female academies started by Zilpah Grant. When it came time to open her own school, she was determined to offer the best education available to women at the time. Entrance requirements were rigorous and aimed to admit “young ladies of an adult age, and mature character.” Mount Holyoke’s curriculum was modeled upon—and indeed was nearly identical to—that of nearby Amherst College. At both institutions, students were required to take courses in ancient history, astronomy, botany, chemistry, geography, geology, logic, philosophy (mental, moral, and natural), political economy, and rhetoric. Lyon also encouraged students to take Latin, classical languages and literature being the key subject that had always distinguished male education from female learning.

Despite the similarities between Amherst and Mount Holyoke, one was a college while the other was a seminary. There was simply too much resistance to the idea of admitting women to the power and prestige associated with a college education. As one historian has written, “The college world was a fraternity all its own, a time-hallowed preserve of masculine identity, masculine knowledge, masculine privilege, and masculine society, where the elite white men who regarded leadership and public power as their birthright were trained. To either admit women to that fraternity or countenance their acquiring too many of its trappings was more than undesirable; it was inconceivable.”

Over the next few decades, some of that resistance would be chipped away, and true colleges for women, offering bachelor’s degrees, would be founded. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary would become a college in 1888. However, neither Mary Lyon nor Margaret Tufts lived to see that happen. Margaret became a teacher in New Haven after graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1840. In 1842, she married Sherman Booth, a noted abolitionist, and in 1848 they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so he could establish the abolitionist newspaper that came to be known as the Wisconsin Free Democrat. The Booths had three children who died in infancy, and Margaret herself died in 1849 shortly before her 34th birthday.

Many thanks to my grad school colleague and dear friend Caroline Hasenyager, for patiently answering my questions about early-19th century women’s education, and allowing me to quote from her dissertation, “Peopling the Cloister: Women’s Colleges and the Worlds We’ve Made of Them.”

If you are interested in learning more about the history of women’s education, here are a few good books:

Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1976)

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s (2nd ed., 1993)

Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (2006)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Concerning Samplers

Sampler made by Margaret Platt,
1736. Margaret was a cousin of the
Platt brothers who founded Plattsburgh
and the great-grandmother of Lucretia
Maria and Margaret Davidson.
As we prepare to reopen the museum in May, I have been working on some new labels for the samplers in the Weaving Room. I’ve tried to find biographical information about the girls who made the samplers and other needlework pieces in the collection—a difficult task. Like most women who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, they left little mark on the official historical record. However, their samplers were treasured and handed down in their families until they were “discovered” by collectors in the early 20th century. In the age of the suffragette and the flapper, samplers became powerful symbols of the industry, piety, and domesticity of early American women.

Until relatively recently, needlework skills were an essential part of female education. All girls learned basic sewing skills, and some pursued more advanced embroidery. The sampler emerged sometime in the 16th century and was originally a pattern record of stitches and techniques (the term sampler comes from the Latin exemplum, or example). Colonists brought this tradition of sampler-making to North America in the 17th century, though very few examples have survived from that period. By the 18th century, distinctive sampler styles were beginning to develop, identified with specific regions and often with particular schools or teachers. However, American samplers shared common elements: alphabets and numbers, religious or moral verses, names and dates (often in the form of a family record), floral motifs, landscape scenes including people, houses, and animals, and geometric patterns.

Scenes from a Seminary for Young Ladies,
ca. 1810-20
Saint Louis Art Museum
In the years after the American Revolution, educational opportunities for girls expanded dramatically. Historians have identified this push for female education as part of an ideology they call republican motherhood. If the new nation was to survive, its citizens must be virtuous, and children’s first lessons in virtue came from their mothers. Therefore, women had to be educated in order to transmit republican values to future generations. Although the emphasis of republican motherhood was on women’s roles in the home, it opened the door for arguments in favor of broadening education for girls. As author Judith Sargent Murray wrote in 1798, “Female academies are everywhere establishing and right pleasant is the appellation to my ear.”

These new academies offered girls the chance to learn the same subjects as boys did: not just reading and writing but mathematics, geography, philosophy, and Latin. However, there was still a great emphasis on fashionable accomplishments or what were called “ornamentals”—embroidery, painting, drawing, and music. Most of the samplers that are in museum collections today were made during this post-Revolutionary period, and almost all of them were produced in schools, under the direction of a teacher.
“Miss Godchild's First Sampler,”
English print, 1793

A girl generally made her first sampler between the ages of five and nine. This would usually be a marking sampler, intended to teach basic sewing and literacy skills through the stitching of letters and numbers. In a time when household linens were extremely valuable, every sheet, napkin, pillowcase, and towel had to be marked with initials to ensure that it was returned safely from being sent out for laundering, and with numbers so that items could be rotated for even wear. If her education continued at a female academy, the young lady might then make a more decorative sampler or needlework picture. This piece might be part of an exhibition at the school, demonstrating her skill to family, friends, and local dignitaries, and would serve as an advertisement for the school. She would then bring the framed needlework home to be displayed as a sort of “diploma,” testifying to her educational and artistic accomplishments.

Colonial Revival sampler, 1917
Samplers began to fall out of the school curriculum in the late 1830s, as educational reformers argued that girls should receive the same education as boys. By the mid-19th century, they were generally found only in Catholic schools and in some frontier areas. In the 20th century, colonial-style needlework enjoyed a revival among middle-class women, who could purchase commercial patterns and kits to make their own “heirlooms.” It was at this time that collectors began to take a second look at the productions of 18th and early 19th century needlewomen. Virginia Robie, writing in House Beautiful in 1902, noted that the sampler had “not yet become a fad”; it was still lumped in with the fancywork of the Victorians and “mildly ridiculed or completely ignored.” But within a decade, the first scholarly works on samplers would appear, and they would be eagerly sought out by collectors like Alice T. Miner.


Early works on samplers include Marcus B. Huish, Samplers and Tapestry Embroideries (1913) and American Samplers, published by the Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America in 1921. For recent scholarship, the works of Betty Ring, particularly Girlhood Embroidery and American Needlework Treasures, are invaluable.

Friday, April 8, 2016

San Francisco In Ruins: Photographs of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

“The historians of modern or ancient times have never recorded such a maelstrom of terrified, horror and panic-stricken human beings as awoke to the realization of the master seismic tremblor, in the City of San Francisco at 5:13 on the morning of April 18th, 1906. The initial quake, being followed by many of less severity, tumbled chimneys, large and small buildings of poor or faulty construction, broke water mains and ruptured electric light and power conductors, causing many conflagrations in a few moments. Then followed a catastrophe unparalleled in modern times, a disaster beside which, for property losses, the Chicago fire the Johnstown flood, the Galveston tidal wave, the Mont Pelee eruption, Vesuvius’ spouting and the Baltimore fire, fade into infinitesimal disturbances on the records of Father Time.”

This is how author A.M. Allison described the devastating earthquake and fire that struck San Francisco and the surrounding area in the introduction to San Francisco In Ruins: A Pictorial History of Eight Score Photo-Views of the Earthquake Effects, Flames’ Havoc, Ruins Everywhere, Relief Camps. I recently came across this book while reorganizing the Alice’s book collection, and since we are less than two weeks away from the 110th anniversary of the earthquake, it seemed like a good time to take a closer look at it, along with some related items in the museum archives.

“Citizens Rendezvousing on the Vacant Places
When the Fire Was Raging in the 

Mission District,” J. D. Givens
The photographs in San Francisco in Ruins are the work of James D. Givens (1863-1939). Givens moved to San Francisco in 1899 and established his home and studio at the Presidio, a U.S. Army base on the peninsula. He became the post photographer and recorded the personnel and daily activities of the post. He also went to the Philippines in 1900 to document the Philippine-American War and to Mexico with General John J. Pershing during his pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1915. Givens was just one of many photographers, professional and amateur, who produced images during and after the disaster. The San Francisco earthquake is probably the first natural disaster to be thoroughly photographed, as it occurred at a time when inexpensive, portable cameras had become available to a large portion of the population, who used photography to document their experiences, create insurance records, and produce souvenirs for sale.

As we saw in a previous post, William Miner took up photography as a hobby in the late 1880s, and brought his camera along on his frequent business travels. William frequently traveled to California, first as an employee of the Hutchins Refrigerator Car Company and its subsidiary the California Fruit Transportation Company, and later representing his own company. He visited San Francisco in 1906, at a time when the destruction caused by the earthquake and fire was still very much in evidence, and recorded what he saw in a set of photos now in the Alice’s archives. Here are some of his photographs.

In the distance is the Fairmont Hotel, which was still under construction
at the time of the earthquake
Grace Church, California Street
In the background are the Call newspaper building and the Mutual Bank building.
Another view of the same street.

It is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 people died in the earthquake and subsequent fire, and about three-quarters of the city was damaged. Two years later, people were still living in refugee camps. However, political and business leaders downplayed the effects of the earthquake, fearing loss of outside investment which was desperately needed to rebuild. Reconstruction plans were quickly developed, and less than ten years later, the city hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. (This world’s fair is also important because it started a fashion for Spanish colonial architecture, which likely influenced the design of Chazy Central Rural School.) But the thousands of photographs in archives, libraries, and personal collections today remain as documents of the events of April 1906.

You can look at a copy of San Francisco in Ruins at the Internet Archive—or come see Alice’s copy when we reopen next month.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Forgotten World’s Fairs: Detroit, 1889

If you are a regular reader of this blog, or know me in real life, you probably have noticed that I’m a little bit obsessed with world’s fairs. So you can imagine how I felt when, while reading a letter to William Miner from his sister Jottie Mitchell, I encountered a reference to an exposition in Detroit that she was planning to visit. A fair that I’d never even heard of? I was already doing some research on another forgotten fair—the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial of 1926—and now here was another, even more obscure one. The Detroit International Exposition and Fair of 1889 turns out to be a really interesting example of a pre-1893 world’s fair—and an example of how even big events can be almost completely forgotten.

Aerial view of the Fair, from Harper’s Weekly, August 17, 1889

Detroit in 1889 was still a decade away from opening its first automobile factory and boasted a diverse manufacturing economy, producing shoes, soap, paints and varnishes, hoopskirts, patent medicines, railroad cars, and packaged seeds, among many other commodities. Located on the Detroit River, which connects the Great Lakes with the St. Lawrence Seaway, it was a major port as well as a railway hub. But Michigan was also still predominantly an agricultural state, and the organizers of the Exposition and Fair hoped to demonstrate all that the region had to offer in both manufacturing and farming.

James McMillan, Exposition
President and founder of the
Michigan Car Company
The idea for a fair in Detroit had been a subject of much discussion for many years. City boosters wanted to hold an annual event that would be bigger and better than the Michigan State Fair, which moved among various cities. Like many Americans, they had been captivated by the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and were certain that a fair was a sure-fire way of drawing attention to their city. The president of the exposition corporation was James McMillan, someone Will Miner undoubtedly was familiar with, as he had made his fortune as a builder of railroad cars and was now representing Michigan in the U.S. Senate.

The corporation purchased 72 acres of vacant land just outside the city line, at the point where the Detroit and Rouge Rivers meet. Workers were brought in to drain marshes, lay railroad tracks, and build docks for excursion boats. Local architect Louis Camper designed a massive 200,000 square-foot exhibit hall with an observation tower, from which (as a writer from Harper’s Weekly put it) “may be seen a panorama worth an hour’s study.” To the left was the city, “tinged over with the smoke of industry,” and to the right, “the green fields of Canada.” On the river, barges, schooners, and steamships continually passed, while “all alongshore the giant elevators and the prosaic warehouses give strong contrast to the dim beauty of Belle Isle and the farther stretches of river and woodland, and the drifting sails of commerce.” The fairground and its surroundings united the natural world and the man-made world in a way that was particularly satisfying to 19th-century Americans.

Cattle and Sheep Exhibit
River Rouge Historical Museum
The Exposition opened on September 17, 1889. Although the day was rainy and many exhibits were still incomplete, the fair promised to be a success. There was so much to see, said the same Harper’s contributor, that only a “professional pedestrian” could hope to do it all in one day. In addition to the mechanical and agricultural exhibits, there were other wonders to behold: a house made entirely of soap, a facsimile of the Statue of Liberty, Professor Woodward’s trained seals, a pig who could play cards. There were games of baseball and lacrosse, horse racing and yachting competitions. The Detroit fair combined educational exhibits of art and technology with sideshow attractions in a way that future fairs would not.

Soap Cottage
River Rouge Historical Museum
By the time the fair closed on September 27, it had produced a tidy profit of $5,000 for its investors. It would run again for three more years. But in 1895, the land was sold to the Solvay Process Company, which tore down the exhibition buildings and began mining for salt. The former site of the fair, according to Detroit historian Richard Bak, is now “a toxic landscape of smokestacks and blown-out houses with the bleakest future of any neighborhood in the city.” This was an outcome that city residents and visitors to the fair probably never could have imagined. In 1889, they had every reason to believe that Detroit—along with the rest of the nation—could look ahead with boundless optimism toward a prosperous future.

So why has the Detroit Exposition and Fair been forgotten? Its original structures are gone, but that’s true of most fairs, which were never meant to be permanent. It was an annual event which ran for only ten days at a time, unlike other fairs which ran for six months, which meant that it ultimately received fewer visitors. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the Exposition Universelle going on at the same time in Paris—the main building’s tower may have provided a spectacular view, but it was no Eiffel Tower. From the perspective of later observers, it was probably also neglected because of the overwhelming success of that other great midwestern fair, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. But to visitors like Jottie Mitchell, it was a “grand affair,” one which symbolized all the hopes they had for the Middle West.


Richard Bak, “A Fair to Remember,” Hour Detroit, February 2009

Brendan Roney, “All Roads Lead to Delray,” Detroit Historical Society blog, December 2012

“Detroit International Fair and Exposition,” Environmental History in Detroit

Friday, March 4, 2016

From Kentucky to Chazy: Anna Ernberg and the Berea Fireside Industries

Advertisement from the Plattsburgh Sentinel
In August 1926, the Redpath Chautauqua arrived in Plattsburgh, bringing a variety of musicians, lecturers, and other entertainers to the North Country. The Redpath Chautauqua was a descendent of the original Chautauqua Assembly, established in 1874 in Lake Chautauqua, New York to combine recreation with religious instruction and informative lectures (if this sounds familiar, it’s because it was also the inspiration for the Catholic Summer School at Cliff Haven). In 1904, Keith Vawter started the first circuit or tent Chautauqua, in which a group of performers traveled together on a set route from town to town, staying a week in each location.

On the fifth day of Redpath’s stint in Plattsburgh, August 19, Anna Ernberg gave a lecture and demonstration of dyeing, weaving, and handcraft. The advertising in the Plattsburgh Sentinel gave no further information about Ernberg, perhaps assuming that audiences would be familiar with her. As the head of Fireside Industries at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, Anna Ernberg was one of the most visible proponents of the Appalachian weaving revival in the early 20th century.

Coverlet given to Alice Miner by Anna Ernberg
Having completed her lecture but with another day to go before heading to the next stop on the circuit, Ernberg and her son Axel spent the following day in Chazy, visiting Heart’s Delight Farm and taking a tour of the Alice T. Miner Museum conducted by Alice herself. As she later wrote of her visit, “It was more than delightful and we are both very grateful to you for your kindness and hospitality.” As someone who was working for “the revival of the Arts of our grandmothers,” Ernberg was impressed by Alice’s efforts in collecting examples of textile art “and arranging it all so true and beautiful.” To show her appreciation, she sent Alice a “kiver” for her collection—a coverlet in the Blooming Leaf pattern, made using the “Summer and Winter” weave, which differs from the overshot in that it produces a reversible fabric, light on one side (for summer) and dark on the other (for winter). The coverlet is made from three panels and is shaped to accommodate a four-poster bed.

Anna Ernberg weaving on the small counterbalance loom
she designed and introduced to Berea, 1912
Born in Christianstad, Sweden, in 1874, Anna Ernberg emigrated to the United States with her husband when she was in her twenties. She lived in New York and taught weaving at Pratt Institute and Teachers College. In 1911 (now a widow with two young sons) she was invited by Berea College president William Goodell Frost to run the school’s weaving program. In addition to the work she did as an instructor, supervisor, and designer, Ernberg was a tireless fundraiser who traveled to major cities throughout the northeast to sell the products of Fireside Industries. She was a popular speaker with women’s clubs, patriotic organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution, church groups, and art organizations. By 1917, she had raised enough money to fund a new building called the Log House, which held the looms, spaces for finishing work, sales areas, and an apartment for Ernberg and her sons. In 1930, she was chosen by Ida Tarbell as one of the 50 outstanding women in America, a list that also included Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, Jane Addams, Mary McLeod Bethune, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Amelia Earhart.

Ernberg directed Fireside Industries for 25 years and turned it into a reliable source of income for the college. When William G. Frost became president in 1892, he introduced the free tuition policy that continues today. Students needed to work to contribute to their tuition as well as room and board expenses. He also had learned that coverlets were an excellent promotional tool and were much appreciated as gifts to donors. Selling woven textiles would make money for the school and would become central to the school’s public image.

From the Berea Quarterly, 1912
When Berea College was founded in 1855, it was both coeducational and interracial. However, in 1904 the Kentucky legislature passed a law prohibiting integrated education. Although the college challenged the law and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, the school lost the case and from 1908 until 1950 (when the law was changed), Berea admitted only white students. In the 1910s and 20s, the supposed “pure Anglo-Saxon heritage” of Berea students became a selling point with potential donors. Many people believed that the isolated regions of the Appalachian Mountains were home to Americans who closely resembled the original 17th- and 18th-century English settlers. These mountain folk, it was hoped, would help to counterbalance the influence of African-Americans in the south and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe nationwide.

An example of the way Berea emphasized the links between
“southern highlanders” and early colonists
Because weaving was so closely associated in the popular imagination with the colonial era, Fireside Industries and other Appalachian weaving programs strengthened the perception that mountain residents represented (as Woodrow Wilson put it) “an unspoiled stock...of the original stuff of which America was made.” These images of the noble mountaineers existed side-by-side with stereotypes of Appalachians as feuders and moonshine-makers, which educators like Frost worked hard to dispel. Mountain folk were only “backward” because of their isolation, he argued; education and economic opportunity would “uplift” them and allow them to take their rightful places as useful citizens.

In an article on coverlet weaving in the south that appeared in House Beautiful, author Mabel Tuke Priestman praised the domestic weaving revival for being “a very important step in the labor movement, as it gives employment to those living in rural districts, who have few interests in their monotonous lives, and saves from oblivion a beautiful craft, distinctly American in its conception.” Anna Ernberg and Alice Miner certainly would have agreed with this sentiment (whether weavers themselves had the same ideas about their “monotonous” lives is another question). Woven coverlets represented all that was good about the past—diligent work, self-sufficiency, thrift—in a form that was aesthetically pleasing. By bringing these pieces into the modern home, collectors hoped to transmit some of the values associated with them into the present day.


If you are interested in learning more about the Appalachian weaving revival, Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Philis Alvic is an excellent place to start. For an earlier assessment of the craft revival, try Allen H. Eaton’s Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands, originally published in 1937. Appalachia on Our Mind by Henry D. Shapiro is the classic work on the place of the mountain South in American consciousness. In All That Is Native and Fine, David E. Whisnant examines how the “cultural missionaries” who came to Appalachia created their own version of folk culture.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Revival of Weaving in the 20th Century

In the same year that the Alice T. Miner Museum opened its doors, a new organization was founded in Chicago by a group of women interested in the study and collection of woven coverlets. While Alice herself doesn’t seem to have been a guild member, she knew at least one of its organizers: Georgiana Long Gunsaulus, the widow of Frank W. Gunsaulus, who shared with her late husband and with Alice an interest in collecting and preserving examples of early textile art.

The founding of the Coverlet Guild in 1924 was perhaps the logical outcome of an interest in the art and history of weaving that had been developing since the early 1900s, and which intersected with a number of other contemporary movements. Alice’s coverlet collection might be seen as an outgrowth of her interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement (evident in the scrapbook articles she saved from the 1890s) as well as her connections to the Colonial Revival. It also brought her into contact with individuals who were attempting to revive or preserve weaving in Appalachia in an effort to “uplift” mountain women—a project that was itself influenced by the Progressive movement and the settlement houses of Chicago.

Tools of textile production on display
at the Hull-House Labor Museum
Proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Appalachian craft revival, and Progressivism all believed in the ability of handicraft to improve people’s lives. Handwork provided a creative outlet and a vehicle for self-expression; it could be a way to counteract the homogenizing forces of industrialization and mass production; and on a more practical level, it might provide income for people (women, especially) whose economic opportunities were limited. Many different crafts were promoted (metalwork, pottery, bookbinding), but weaving was especially beloved by all three groups. It was fairly easy to learn and produced useful goods; it had connections to early American history but also was an important part of many of the cultures from which immigrants came; and it was a craft traditionally performed by women in their own homes.

In his 1904 report for the Bureau of Labor, “The Revival of Handicrafts in America,” Max West recorded the activities of dozens of organizations dedicated to reviving hand weaving (mostly in the southern mountains) and rug making (in New England). All were founded by educated, middle- to upper-class women (many of whom had spent time at Hull House or another settlement house) who came to rural communities and worked with local women to revive their craft traditions. 

Women preparing to warp a loom using traditional
methods, North Carolina, ca. 1910
The Appalachian region was the obvious target for this kind of reform work. Communities tended to be economically depressed and isolated, and life was considered especially hard for women, who lived largely without modern conveniences. But because these areas had been “left behind” in the race toward modernization (as reformers saw it) textile production and other handicrafts had never died out completely. There were still plenty of women in the Appalachian south who knew how to spin and weave, using knowledge and patterns that had been passed down from the early nineteenth century.

Blue Mountain Room, White House
Already in 1904, West reported, “There is a constant and apparently increasing demand for hand-woven fabrics, notwithstanding their expensiveness as compared with factory-made goods. Aside from the popularity of old-fashioned blue-and-white coverlets for decorative purposes, handmade linsey-woolsey and cottonades are coming into vogue for outing and golf skirts, and even to some extent for men’s clothing; and there is also a growing demand for hand-woven linen and other cloth to serve as the backgrounds for art embroidery, etc.” The Appalachian weaving revival got an important boost in 1913, when first lady Ellen Wilson redecorated the White House’s Blue Mountain Room using traditional textiles made by Emelda McHargue Walker, a Tennessee weaver who worked with Allanstand Industries, one of the major weaving centers in North Carolina.

Allanstand Industries product display, 1910s
Women living in rural areas of the Appalachian Mountains were receptive to the idea of producing coverlets and other textiles as a source of income. It was something that many of them already knew how to do, the materials were readily available, and the products could be shipped inexpensively. Perhaps most importantly, it was work they could do at home and was compatible with childrearing and other household duties. Whether women felt the kind of creative satisfaction that proponents of handicraft assumed they would is another story. Most of the time, weavers did not get to decide what they made. They were given patterns and materials by the managers of weaving centers, who designed products that would appeal to middle-class consumers. Weavers felt pride in their technical skills and doing a job well, but it was not necessarily an uplifting, aesthetic experience. Still, in a region where currency was in short supply, weaving provided a reliable source of cash income. 

The founders and managers of weaving centers also hoped that their work would preserve the traditions of weaving. However, the pattens, tools, and materials they used were modern ones, suited for the production of large quantities of textiles for sale in urban markets. Over time, weaving centers tended to shift production from coverlets and other large items to smaller pieces like towels and placemats that required less time and skill. But women did keep weaving (indeed, the Allanstand Craft Shop is still in operation), and the craft centers do seem to have encouraged a greater appreciation for antique textiles, which helped to preserve them and led to the creation of groups like the Colonial Coverlet Guild.

So where do Alice Miner and her coverlet collection fit into this story? We’ll get to that in the next post, when a visitor from the Kentucky mountains pays a visit to the North Country.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gems from the Age of Homespun: Woven Coverlets and Their Makers

“Wheel of Fortune” coverlet from the
collection of the Metropolitan Museum
The term “homespun” encompasses many different kinds of fabric. When Martha Ballard wrote about of the cloth produced in her household, she sometimes recorded the kind of fiber used (cotton, linen, tow, wool, or a combination) and sometimes the pattern produced, like “check” or “diaper” (a fabric with a small, all-over pattern). Sometimes she noted what the fabric would be used for—handkerchiefs, shirts, towels—and sometimes who it was for (“Cyrus’s web”). It was rare for Martha to include all this information in a single entry. One occasion on which she did was November 21, 1792, when she noted, “Hannah wove a Bed Blankitt for her Self, Tow & wool.”

Hannah had been married on October 28 to Moses Pollard (brother of Dorcas, who had helped her learn to weave) but she was still living with her parents and continuing to produce the goods she would need in her new home. Between the end of October and December 12, when she and Moses officially “went into housekeeping,” Hannah made a quilt, the aforementioned blanket, and at least two “coverleds.” These bed coverings served a practical purpose, of course, but they also would provide an extra degree of comfort and beauty in the Pollard home, while demonstrating Hannah’s skill at the loom.

Detail of a woven coverlet
It was these woven bed coverings—variously called coverlets, coverlids, and “kivers”—that captured the imagination of collectors in the early 20th century. Unlike humble towels, sheets, and handkerchiefs, coverlets were likely to be treasured, preserved, and passed down through the generations. They used simple color combinations (usually white and indigo blue) and geometric patterns to produce striking effects that appealed to Americans who were tired of the ornate furnishings of the Victorian era. To many collectors, the coverlets were true works of art that demonstrated the innate aesthetic sense of early American women. They also served as tangible symbols of the industry and thrift associated with the “age of homespun.”

Overshot weave structure
Coverlets were made on the same four-harness loom that was used to produce other kinds of cloth. As I noted in the last blog post, in its most basic form weaving involves only two sets of elements—the warp and the weft. In plain weaving, the weft yarn goes over one warp yarn, then under the next, and so on. In float weaves, there are also two set of elements, but the weft goes over or under more than one warp. (Twill and satin are examples of float weaves.) Coverlets use a type of weave called overshot, which also uses floats but adds a third set of yarns to create a compound weave. There is a warp and weft of white cotton or linen and then a supplementary weft of colored wool, which “floats” over and under the warp to create the pattern. Since the width of a loom was limited to the span of the weaver’s arms, coverlets were woven in two halves and then sewn together down the middle.

Example of a weaving draft
Weavers shared overshot coverlet patterns with friends and family as drafts, a form of notation that recorded the way that threads were to be put through the heddles of the harnesses and the sequence of the treadles that controlled the harnesses. Drafts bear a certain resemblance to musical notation, with four horizontal lines representing the harnesses and numbers or other marks representing the threads. Each weaver had her own way of recording drafts which can seem quite mysterious to non-weavers. Like quilters, weavers also gave their coverlets fanciful names—Broken Snowballs, Lafayette’s Fancy, Wandering Vine—which varied by region. In a world of mass-produced goods, the individuality of coverlets and their makers was part of their charm to collectors.

The earliest American woven coverlet that can be definitively dated is from 1771, and women continued to make them into the 19th century, though by the 1820s professional weavers were also making more elaborate jacquard coverlets. As families moved west from New England into New York, Ohio, Indiana, and beyond, they brought the tradition of weaving coverlets with them. In certain parts of the south, particularly the mountain regions of Kentucky and Tennessee, domestic textile production remained an important part of the local economy well into the 1900s. In our next posts, we’ll look at early collectors of coverlets and their relationship with the movement to preserve hand weaving in Appalachia.