So, without further ado, here's the first of two articles on the U.S. history of crochet:
RECLAIMING CROCHET - AND FINDING ITS AMERICAN HISTORY
The real history of crochet has yet to be discovered. In the
, there is virtually
no written history of crochet. Of the few books providing historical treatment
of crochet, only one had a portion dedicated to American crochet history. United States
The Progressive Era, one of the most dramatic periods of American societal change, is particularly worthy of study. The beginning of the 20th century was a significant time of social upheaval. Women were questioning and redefining their roles at home and in the workplace. This, in turn, placed the needle arts in a new perspective.
The Historical Background – The Progressive “Impulse”
Even before the 20th century began, many in the
believed in the need
to deal with the problems – political, social, and moral – associated with the
rise of urbanization and industrialization. This “impulse” toward reform took
firm root during, roughly, 1900 – 1915, in what historians have termed the
“Progressive Era.” No corner of American life was left untouched – from the way
we processed beef, to the way we treated immigrants, to the number of hours in
a workday, to the arrangement of domestic life. United States
The Colored Women’s League of
Washington (D.C.) 1894
(Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)
The Progressive Era incited the birth of the women's movement. A mere century ago, women in most states did not have the right to vote, could not own property, were not welcomed in most professions (except those deemed traditionally “female”, such as teaching and social work) and held an extremely low profile in the public sphere. Women were thought to belong, virtually exclusively, in the domestic domain.
The changing social landscape, brought on my rapid industrialization, made many women question their public, as well as domestic, roles. The push for female suffrage dominated this period. Attempts were made to join the ranks of the professions – engineering, law, and medicine – and some were successful, others not. A critical percentage of women remained single (around 10% at the turn of the 20th century), and for the majority of those that did marry, mechanization of many household chores, along with longer school hours for children, freed up much of their time. Finally, divorce was on the rise – by the end of 1915, approximately one in nine marriages (up from one in every twenty-one in the last decades of the 19th century) ended in divorce.
All of this led to women taking a more public role in society – whether in clubs (cultural organizations where middle- and upper-class women gathered for intellectual pursuits), as activists, in settlement houses, or within government.
Crochet in the
at the Turn of the 20th Century US
Most American needlecraft had declined dramatically during the middle of the 19th century. There was, quite simply, a drastically reduced need to spin yarn and create fabric in such a time-consuming manner. At the turn of the 20th century, crochet was not receiving much American public attention (although it had made inroads on the
fashion runway). As one example illustrates – the “crochet” entries in the
Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature between 1900 and 1904 – there were only
five articles devoted solely to crochet during that entire period! Additionally,
given crochet’s deep English roots and the fact that lace had all but been
banned as an export to England during America’s founding, this country’s need
to put distance between itself and the perceptions associated with English
royalty may also have played a part in the lack of crochet’s 19th
century American presence. Paris
This hat, published in The Delineator in
January, 1912, included instructions on how
to crochet the Venetian lace adornment.
However, as a new wave of immigrants came ashore via
Ellis Island, they brought
with them the “stuff” of their home countries – and needle arts were a part of
that rich, immigrant experience. As women were in the midst of redefining their
public and private roles, the ability to choose
to create crocheted garments, accessories and home fashions played an
ever-expanding role. It helped that materials were easier to obtain (the Sears
Roebuck catalogue was an excellent source of wool for many), and the manufacture
of crochet cotton was well underway by companies such as Coat’s and Clark
Thread Company and Columbia Cottons. Additionally, continued American westward
expansion not only was tailor-made for (at the time) crochet’s sturdier and
more practical fabric, but aided in its popularity as an American art either to
be engaged in during leisure time, or for additional income. Women no longer
needed to be exclusively dependent on a husband’s income.
There was also a rise in the use of crochet (and knitting) for social change. Needlecraft programs were developed in many settlement houses as a way to provide an outlet for immigrant expression, and for middle-class women to come into contact with that expression. Home economics courses were developed and adopted as college doctrinal requirements. Many school girls took afternoon classes in knitting and crochet, with the hope that they would be able to earn a living through these skills. As in the 19th century, crocheted items were used to support charitable works of all kinds through church- or community-sponsored events.
An example of design by Antonie Ehrlich. Published,
with commentary, in Ladies’ Home Journal, July, 1912.
Very little attention, unfortunately, has been paid to early 20th century crochet designers, although they were known in their time for their art, and many gained a loyal following. Women such as Anne Champe Orr, Mary Card, Anna Wuerfle Brown, Antonie Ehrlich, Sophie T. La Croix, Helen Marvin, and Anna Valeire are only some of the designers who helped pave the crochet design path during the Progressive Era. These designers were proficient in many crochet techniques brought from other countries – Irish crochet, Australian crochet techniques, Venetian and French lace crochet – as well as other needle arts.
Antonie Ehrlich had many crochet designs published in magazines in the latter portion of the Progressive Era. In certain instances, since only written instruction was included in magazines (and, in many instances, it was incomplete) women needed to send money for complete instructions directly to Ehrlich.
Anne Champe Orr’s career began at Coat’s and Clark Thread Company; she eventually went on to publish her design pamphlets through her own publishing company, and charted patterns became one of her areas of expertise. She was a trailblazer not only as a designer, but also for her ability to provide employment for many others. She was also heavily involved in her
community in many charitable
A Mary Card design, published in Ladies’ Home
Journal, October, 1911, under the heading
“The New Australian Crochet.”
Another designer, Mary Card, has a particularly compelling story. Although not born in the
United States but in ,
Mary Card turned to designing and teaching crochet when she experienced
deafness in adulthood. She published many designs in Australia , and devised a method of charting
her crochet designs. Charting became a great Card teaching tool; it allowed her
to not only pursue a career in which her disability would not be a hindrance,
but to also reach a far greater student audience - she eventually made her
charts larger to accommodate those with poor eyesight. Many who have crocheted
a Mary Card design say they are some of the best examples of craftsmanship from
the period. America
Patterns and Sources
A Helen Marvin original design,
published in the March, 1913 Women's
Home Companion. It was suggested as
a good “Easter bazaar contribution.”
Crocheted dress collars, baby garments, hats, slippers and sweaters made up a large portion of the patterns for adults and children being designed during this period. Of some note were crocheted golf sweaters for women - as their involvement in the sport increased, so did the desire for patterns. Additionally, bedspreads, lace edgings for curtains, tablecloths, doilies and other home fashions were also very popular, as well as gorgeous crocheted handbags. In many instances, the genesis of today’s patterns for crocheted bags can be seen in the designs originating during the Progressive Era.
For many, magazines were a great source for crocheted patterns. The Delineator, Ladies’ Home Journal, Womens Home Companion, The Modern Priscilla, and Harper’s Bazar were some of the many nationally published magazines that were great sources from which middle-class women gained not only current crochet trends and patterns, but also general information on personal and home fashion trends. Antonie Ehrlich was published in Ladies’ Home Journal; Helen Marvin was a frequent contributor to Women’s Home Companion.
Additionally, many of these publications produced and distributed individual designers’ pamphlets. Many of the designers mentioned above had individual publications devoted exclusively to their designs.
The lasting legacy of the Progressive Era is debated still by historians, including the legacy of women’s activism during the period. I keep coming back to some words from Kim Werker in one of the essays from Crochet Me, her 2007 book regarding why crochet, now:
“My pet theory, though, is … the post-feminist theory of our lovely crafty
revolution is that fiber arts are popular these days because we're reclaiming
the “women’s work” from which our mothers fought so hard to break free.”
Given all that women had to fight for, and against, during the Progressive Era, I am convinced that many women back then would agree with Werker’s current statement. The history of crochet in
, as a
choice, was one of the art’s hallmarks during the beginning of the 20th
Century. Reclaim on. America