Choking back the tears, she thanked everyone for coming. The funeral was over. Four years. They’d been married only four years, and now her Harry was gone.
He was just 26 years old. And two days ago, he was alive. But things move fast these days, and Harry who died on June 20 was buried on June 21 after a home funeral. A funeral service held in their own home.
Twenty-four years old, and a widow. Not that it was unheard of, in 1911. No, unfortunately, such things were too common. But to think… to think… what was she going to do? Going back to her parents’ home was simply not an option. She had eight siblings, and most of them still lived at home.
Since her marriage to Harry she’d taught classes at the local YWCA. Her passion was sewing, and she shared her knowledge in her classes. She loved to sew! There was nothing quite like putting the small house to rights, and then sitting down for an afternoon of creating at the sewing machine. Finishing a new dress or coat gave the maker such a feeling of accomplishment. Passing that ability along was one of the best things she could do.
Teaching at the YWCA, however, wasn’t going to support her. As soon as time allowed following the funeral, she found a position as instructor at the American College of Dressmaking in Kansas City, Missouri. This promising and popular correspondence school taught sewing lessons by mail to women all over the country.
These were full days, days she spent long hours at her sewing machine. Later, she remembered with great fondness the kindness she received from neighbors. When she was so busy, scarcely thinking of food, they never forgot to send her a bowl of stew or a meal from their own tables. They always kept the young widow in mind, and she remained thankful for them, long after she moved away from the little house she and Harry had shared.
Well trained and passionate at her craft, by 1915 Mary was the head of instruction at the dressmaking school. However, at about this time she heard a siren’s call. A larger correspondence school had heard about her skill and lured her away from the American College of Dressmaking. This school specialized in men’s career training. They taught courses in art and advertising, mechanics and masonry. And now they wanted to open a women’s division, but they needed someone capable to run it.
Here was a place that Mary could make the difference she longed to make. Drawing upon her years of training in dressmaking and tailoring, plus her experience with teaching, she wrote many lesson manuals on various dressmaking and design topics. She also oversaw the writing of two sets of lesson books covering millinery (hat-making) and cooking. With three subjects, the women’s division was ready to begin in early 1916. By the end of 1916, the school had its first female graduate. Mary was beginning to be known as a Domestic Diva.
Freedom with a Needle
Over the course of the next twenty years, over 100,000 women took these courses. And they learned to sew. But Mary’s goal was to teach the women more than how to sew a straight seam. Mary, you see, was a quiet subversive. She believed that teaching women how to sew their own clothing could lead them to financial freedom. She was, in her own way, a rebel.
How frightening it was to find herself a 24 year old widow! If she could help women make it through a situation like that, her life’s work would be worthwhile. Between 1916 and 1925 Mary encouraged women to take the courses, using advertising and the occasional gimmick if necessary. She explained that through the coursework she designed, any woman could learn to sew. But more than that, she could learn to copy the clothes she saw in a shop window, or on the street. And she could make extra money sewing for others who did not know how to sew.
And for those brave enough, or those who needed it, she included information on how to open and run a dressmaking shop. Her advice was that a good dressmaker would always find work. Many women started home businesses or opened small storefronts and found the financial burden less heavy. Some excelled and thrived. Letters poured into the office extolling Mary and her methods.
The woman’s name was Mary Brooks Picken. She wrote close to 100 books on dressmaking and sewing in her lifetime, and her books are still in demand. And that school? They called it the Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences. Most of her books are long out of print. After collecting them for years, I am working to make them available in their correct order.
So which is it, Domestic Diva or Retail Rebel? Was Mary a Domestic Diva who was in charge of teaching the best available information in cooking, sewing, and millinery? Or was she a Retail Rebel, someone who upset the status quo by encouraging women that they could make their own way, and they could be financially independent? Really, it depends. It depends who you ask.