The book sat wedged between two other volumes at the used bookstore. With a worn spine that was unreadable, the book looked forgotten and forlorn. That’s when I decided that regardless what its pages contained, Saturday Mornings needed to come home with me. I gently pulled the book from the shelf, opened it, and realized I’d found a treasure. Saturday Mornings was a housekeeping story.
Written by Caroline French Benton in 1906, Saturday Mornings is instructional, but uses a story to get its point across. Like many of its competitors through 1919, the book explains how to complete tasks within the framework of a story. I’ve always loved these books and have several in my collection. This one is actually titled Saturday Mornings: A Little Girl’s Experiments and Discoveries, or How Margaret Learned to Keep House.
I recently found it on my bookshelf again, nestled between a few vintage cookbooks. I decided it was time for an airing, to use an old housekeeping term.
The Book’s Story
Saturday Mornings began as a series of articles in Good Housekeeping magazine in 1905. Titled “Margaret’s Saturday Mornings,” each article became a chapter of the book, with a little more added. The articles were edited a bit before their final form. I found that words changed between the Good Housekeeping article and the printed book. Fun became delightful. A list of bathroom tasks was shortened to clean the grates and other things. Overall, however, the book and the articles remained almost the same.
Margaret’s journey begins at the Christmas Tree, where she finds everything she needs to run a household tied to the branches. In addition, a small red book nestles among the branches. Its title is Saturday Mornings, and it holds everything she needs to begin her adventure in housekeeping.
Throughout subsequent chapters Margaret learns the best way to keep a kitchen fire alive, and set and serve various meals in the dining room. She learns about laundry and linen, bedrooms and bathrooms. The last short chapter takes Margaret through an entire day’s work, where she showcases everything she knows.
Looking over the pages, some housekeeping tasks remain the same over 100 years later. Others, however, changed quite a bit. We no longer clean anything with gasoline, for instance. It was used to cut deep grime and for other tasks, but I couldn’t imagine wetting a cloth with gasoline to clean anything. Of course, in 1906 your choices for cleaners included ammonia, vinegar, cake soap, and other similar chemicals. Since fiberglass tubs and electric clothes washers stood far in the distance, the materials used to clean these items were unheard of as well.
Caroline French Benton wrote many other articles and books on the home and the women’s sphere. Her most well known book is probably A Little Cook Book for a Little Girl in 1905, although she went on to write about women’s clubs, motherhood, and thrifty lifestyles.
Read it Yourself
You can find a copy of Saturday Mornings, a housekeeping story, at Project Gutenberg, and download it in several formats or read it online.
Today’s poem, Humanity, from 1874, is by Harriet Bush Ewell. You may remember the first Bush family poem I wrote about, called October. Although Harriet had fewer poems published than her older sister Belle, you can see with Humanity that she also had a gift for rhyme.
Harriet lived and worked at Belvedere Seminary in New Jersey. The school accepted students from kindergarten through graduation. It offered all customary subjects plus some extras. At one time the school even had an astronomy instructor on staff. Harriet taught music. Her two older sisters ran the school.
On June 23, 1870, Harriet married Belvidere Seminary’s mathematics teacher, Arthur Ewell. She was about 33 years old. Arthur was six years younger. The wedding capped a three-day anniversary celebration for the school. June 21 and 22 focused on the student’s achievements, with an address to close the celebration by suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The next day the celebration continued with wedding and cake. The newlyweds spent the rest of their careers and lives working at the school, leaving it more than 30 years later.
Harriet was a Spiritualist, and Belvidere Seminary was a Spiritualist school for children. Spiritualism became a cultural phenomenon a little after she was born, and she and her two much older sisters spent their lives as Spiritualists dedicated to teaching the younger generations.
After the school closed, Harriet accompanied her husband and her sister to New York, where they settled at a Shaker Community. Her sister Belle officially joined the Shakers before she died. However, it seems that Harriet and Arthur never did, although they lived in the community and were active participants. (The Shaker Museum Facebook page discusses
Her poem Humanity was specifically written for the Spiritualist publication Banner of Light. It was published in December of 1874.
by Hattie (Harriet) Bush Ewell
Each life on the earth is a poem,
A volume of measure and rhyme,
With pages of truth and of beauty,
With stanzas both grand and sublime.
Each deed is a line from that poem,
The record of glory or shame,
That leads to a beautiful moral,
Or covers with sorrow the name.
The chapters are wonderful stories,
Of love, of unkindness, of hate,
Of the soul in its struggle for freedom
Through many a battle with fate.
The leaves of this book have a gilding
From the gold of a beautiful life;
How sad that they ever are tarnished
By the fingers of envy and strife.
The type is full often illumined
By the smiles of the good and the true;
And each year we may add to our treasure
Some pages both charming and new.
This is the only poem by Harriet I could find. Her description of each life as a poem, tinged with gold, added a positive note to the day. I hope to discover more, dated later than 1875, to see how she matured as a poet.
If you enjoyed this poem Humanity from 1874, you might also enjoy Harriet’s sister Belle’s book of poetry, Voices of the Morning.
When I opened my grandmother-in-law’s stash of threads, I was amazed. Colors and types of vintage embroidery threads spilled out of the bags and boxes, left over from seventy years of embroidery. The vintage workbasket held more possibilities than you find in today’s 400 skeins of DMC floss, and Grandmother’s was no exception. In the early to mid twentieth century, needleworker had several companies from which to choose. Need six-strand embroidery floss? You could use DMC, or Bucilla, or Royal Society. What if you didn’t want to use six strand cotton embroidery floss? What then?
Then you chose from many different thread types and a host of manufacturers. Silk embroidery floss. Imitation art silk floss, made from rayon. Pearl (perl) cotton. Wool three-strand embroidery yarns. Coton a broder, also known as broder cotton. This was a single strand of thread, available in several sizes and many colors up to about 2010. Size 16 was equivalent to two strands of embroidery floss.
Embroidery used to be called Art Needlework when it was created for beauty’s sake. The person who made the family clothing always used a sewing needle. But when that needle worker used colored silks or cottons, and used the needle like a paintbrush, the work turned into art. Bluebirds sailed across household linens. Pine trees stood lonely and alone on hillsides. Flowers bloomed on everything from under linens to table runners. The vintage embroidery threads brought them to life.
Once needleworkers began to work with colors in embroidery they seldom looked back. You can see that by the current selection of modern cross stitch patterns.
The companies that released the threads also created patterns to work with them. After all, what good is a brilliant blue thread if you have nothing do use it for? Readers purchased patterns through the newspaper and monthly housekeeping or needlework magazines. They also found projects and threads from their friendly Frederick Herrschner mail order catalog, or through a flyer from their local dime store. By the 1930s it seemed that everyone was into the pattern or project by mail scheme, and needleworkers bought kits and supplies in droves.
Getting ready to begin
If the design didn’t come already stamped on fabric, the worker needed to transfer it. Then came thread selection time. Unless you planned to reproduce a lifelike flower in embroidery silks, or you worked from a prepackaged kit, colors remained up to the worker. Usually a pattern offered suggestions like brown, light blue, or dark pink. Which shades you pulled and how you incorporated the colors together was your choice. Between four or five cotton embroidery thread companies you might have ten or more shades of dark pink. This gave the worker a lot of leeway in color choice.
Often the project featured whatever threads I have on hand. An avid needleworker might have a small box of silk threads, a larger bag of cottons (or several bags of cottons), and some pearl cotton. These could be mixed into a work to create contrast, texture, and shine.
Bye bye threads
Most of these vintage embroidery threads exist no longer. Some, like Corticelli and Richardson silks, are simply gone. Corticelli silks and Richardson silk mills both ceased operation in 1932. By this time companies like Bucilla introduced their synthetic art silk, often made from rayon. These threads didn’t really feel like silk, but they were shiny and inexpensive for embroidering. They too are gone, although Bucilla remains as a subsidiary of Plaid Enterprises, and embroidery kits continue to appear under the Bucilla name.
As I mentioned before, most of the coton a broder threads were discontinued in the 2010’s, at least in the U.S. It looks like this thread (also called broder special or brilliant cutwork and embroidery thread) is still being produced in limited colors by both DMC and Anchor. However, getting any of this to the U.S. can be a difficult matter. You may have to special order it from Europe if you want some. This is NOT the same as the thread called Floche. Floche is far more expensive and not as sturdy.
All is not dreary news, however. Some threads, like cotton embroidery floss and pearl cotton, still exist. You can find substitutes for many others, even though you may not find them at your local craft store. You might need to poke around a bit on the Internet to find them.
Here are some options:
Six strand embroidery floss: DMC, Anchor, Sullivan’s, Madeira.
Coton a broder/ broder special: You may be able to locate white, ecru, black in the U.S. As a substitute look at Sulky Petites, size 12. It’s thinner than the size 16 coton a broder, but it will give you the same experience of one strand that equals two strands of embroidery floss.
Pearl cotton: still exists. Look for DMC. Some chains have house brands in limited colors.
Silks: Shiny silks in the U.S. have largely been replaced by threads like DMC’s shiny satin, which is 100% rayon. For a traditional embroidery silk from France, look for Au Ver a Soie’s Alger thread.
Silks: Although they are not all shiny, companies have produced 100% silk embroidery threads within the past 20 years or so. Some options: Treenway Silks, Caron Waterlilies (silk variegated), Kreinik Silk Mori, Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor.
Stranded wools: Appleton wools have existed since 1835 in the UK and they still provide wool yarns to the needlepoint market. These work wonderfully for embroidery. Once I came across some instructions from the 1850s calling for “5 shades of apple green wool.” Who makes five shades of apple green? Appleton wools does. Their leaf green selections fit my project perfectly.
Be creative… have fun!
Regardless what threads you use, I hope you enjoy the process. Picking out various threads, choosing or drawing a pattern, beginning a project… these are exciting times. Incorporate one or two of these old-time threads into your next project, and see how you like it. You never know. You may be hooked.
How many bags can one person use? Well, in a vintage world without pockets –– unless you happen to be wearing an apron –– quite a few bags, actually. You need a knitting bag, a travel workbag, a sewing bag, an evening purse (for those nights you go out), and a day purse. Most of these need to be updated every year or two as the fashions change. Oh! Don’t forget the storage bags, the travel bags, the organization bags…
For someone who enjoys making bags, the 1910s through the 1950s is a world of creativity waiting to happen. Every needlework magazine offered the latest in bags for this use or that one. Individual crochet booklets offered bags. Once in a while, a company published a booklet containing instructions for bags for nearly every use imaginable.
Vintage bags organized life
In a vintage household, a bag was a sign of organization. Items that needed their own places found themselves nestled into bags or containers specifically made for them. The most obvious example of this in the vintage home was the string holder which hung in the kitchen or pantry.
Have you ever tried to keep a ball of string from unraveling until you used the last of it? Regardless whether it’s thin or thick, slick or rough, string tends to unwind. And it often unwinds in large bunches, a layer at a time. Let’s say you’re in a hurry, you need some string, you open that kitchen drawer and… it’s everywhere. Somehow the string got caught in the ice pick and several layers lie strewn about the top of the drawer. You can’t even see the cut end to pull it. And you are in a hurry. You were on your way out the door to a meeting, and planned to take this package with you….
Keep the string handy
You can see the problem. Thus, one of the most oft-used bags in a kitchen was the string bag. Sometimes it looked like a tomato hanging from a hook. Other times it looked like a puffy round ball of fabric. At all times, though, a thin string of some kind hung from an opening in the bottom of the bag. You pulled the string, it unwound inside the bag, and you cut off whatever you needed to use. The rest of it waited in the bag until next time.
And why did everyone need a ball of string or twine in the kitchen? Because before 1930, Scotch/cellophane tape did not exist. There was no tape. The only tape that existed was for medical use. Everyone else used string. Need to truss a chicken? Cut some string. Tying a roast for dinner? Use the string. Need to get that package ready for the mail? Grab the string. (This, by the way, is why the U.S. Postal Service still states that they cannot accept packages tied with string for mailing. Because for many years, they did! You can find that in this list of packaging suggestions from the USPS.)
Keeping a ball of general purpose string handy is still a good idea. Several times a year I find myself poking through my yarn stash, in search of some inexpensive cotton string or yarn that I can use to tie or measure something. And to keep it neat, I can make a string holder for the pantry.
Organize that linen closet!
If you really had your act together in 1925-1945, your linen closet held a selection of specially made bags. Some held sheets and pillow cases. Others held your best tablecloths. Opening your linen closet door, you could take immediate stock of what was available and what you needed. Your linen closet might even hold a closed bag for soiled laundry of some kind.
Keep your crafting separate
Do you tat lace? Then you need a small bag that hangs from your wrist so that your lacemaking thread remains untangled –– and stays with you instead of rolling across the floor. You also need a small bag to keep your tatting shuttles and other implements safe. In that bag goes your current project.
If you knit, you need a knitting bag. Or two. Or more. Some knitters are One Project At A Time knitters, but most knitters I know have two to three projects going on a time. Often they are a quickly made project, an intermediate length project and something large like an afghan or a detailed cardigan that takes many hours of work. Mixing these together in one knitting bag is not wise. All those knitting needles start talking together while you aren’t looking, and before you know it you have a knitting mutiny on your hands.
Seriously, though, keeping projects separate means that they remain clean. They also survive with fewer poked holes in them. I don’t know what those knitting needles do in there, but I inevitably find a stray needle poking through my current project if I have more than one per knitting bag.
Crocheters need bags too. Even though it uses yarn just like knitting, a crochet project works best by itself in its own organization bag. For one thing, crochet can get bulky as the project grows.
Today many crafters grab a large ziplock bag to create a “project bag” with yarn or thread, needles or shuttle. Then they are ready to go. These individual crafting bags predated the plastic ziplock bag and fulfill the same function. Truly, they were bags for every use.
Sewing on the go
Although makers use their sewing machines a lot, keeping a sewing bag close at hand can be quite useful. A few vintage lovers find themselves making garments and items completely by hand. Others (myself included) prefer handworked buttonholes to machine buttonholes. (The fact that I can’t seem to get a buttonholer attachment to work with any of my vintage machines doesn’t help either, but I digress…)
Mending used to be never-ending in the vintage household. Someone always needed a replaced button, lengthened dresses or pants, darned socks. The clever worker kept a mending bag just for these items, with a darning egg, matching threads, strong threads for attaching buttons, and other such necessities. That way, when ten spare minutes presented themselves, they could grab the bag, open it up, and complete a quick project.
Other people kept a sewing bag specifically for pickup work. This included small handmade gifts, embroidery projects for spare moments, and that placemat project you wanted to start last year. Items you can pick up, spend half an hour on, and put back down until next time.
So when you see those lists of bag projects from vintage years, keep in mind that the vintage worker kept bags for every use under the sun. If you’re looking for an easy project to carry in a bag, these Outline Stitch squares go together to make up a small quilt.
It’s cold outside. It’s raining. Perhaps you don’t feel well. How do you amuse yourself on cold days, rainy days, and quiet days? Not too long ago, adults and children alike reached for the View-Master. View-Masters provide a look into the past, as well as laid-back entertainment.
Though morphed into a children’s toy, the original 1939 View-Master specialized in 3-D nature scenes for adults. In a day before the Internet and home television, View-Master reels allowed people to engage in armchair travel. At the same time they could marvel at the colors created by Kodachrome film. The beautiful beaches of Hawaii, the mountains of Germany, and the wonder of Hoover Dam all found a home on these reels. The viewer was small enough to easily pass from hand to hand so everyone could enjoy the scenes.
Special orders, yes sir!
The first viewers were circular and just a little larger than the reel itself. You can see the shape of the original viewer in this copy of the U.S. Patent from 1939. In the 1940s the U.S. Army used those little round viewers to teach troops how to identify aircraft. Families at home got spotter card decks; servicemen got View-Master reels. Training consisted of several reels. The Study Reel provided photos of one plane from several angles, while the Test Reel asked the student to identify seven different planes.
Bringing the past to life
Many reels brought new life to old stereoscope cards and presented them to a new audience. Whether you loved old trains, national monuments (from many nations), or black and white battle photography, you could find it all in the new View-Master reel. Even when new, View-Masters provided a look into the past. Some of the actual photography on the reels dated to 1900 or before.
Lots of adults treasured fond memories of pouring over a stereoscope at a grandparent’s home. One card showed a double picture that when inserted into the frame became 3-D. It was like magic! When View-Master reproduced some of those old cards on their reels they proved a hit. The View-Master was invented by Wilhelm Gruber, a man fascinated with the stereoscope of his youth in Germany. Not only was his invention more portable, but it held seven stereoscope cards on one reel. Seven!
One of the most compelling reasons for View-Masters among adults proved to be the culture and travel scenes. When we inherited a collection of 1950s reels from a grandmother, most of them included scenes like the ones you see below covering places like Colonial Williamsburg, Pennsylvania Dutch and Amish Country, and Holland. I loved pouring over them, seeing how View-Masters provide a look into the past.
Of course, by 1951 View-Master began to release folktales and Disney art on the reels, which cemented their popularity with children. Now we know of them as a children’s toy but that’s not how they began.
Types of viewers
After the first viewers mentioned earlier, the Sawyer company (who actually manufactured the reels) came up with a boxy, metal-and-Bakelite viewer that you see below. Almost all the following View-Master viewers were based on this style.
The top viewer in the photo above has a light attachment bolted to it. It looks like a box with a big red button on the top. This little add-on allowed enthusiasts to view the reels in low light. You could look at them anywhere, as long as you had an electric outlet for the plug that came out the bottom of the attachment. This was a great boon for night-time viewing in houses that didn’t always have adequate light available.
Now that you know all this, how can you explore vintage View-Masters on your own? If you want to see how View-Masters provide a look into the past, you can easily assemble a set via eBay. Other options include local flea markets and vintage stores, Etsy.com, and places that specialize in old toys.
This month I took a break from fiction and decided to dive into a book I’d heard about but never read. Among English Hedgerows, by Clifton Johnson, is a turn-of-the-century travelogue of the British byways. When I say turn of the century, I mean 1900. This book first saw publication in 1899, but it was republished through 1925 and perhaps beyond.
Clifton Johnson – Photographer, Writer, Artist
Its author, Clifton Johnson, was a photographer, writer, and illustrator. He wrote, edited, or illustrated more than 125 books in his lifetime, covering everything from children’s stories and folk tales to travel. Johnson was interested in people and their stories, and this is what shines through inthe travelogue Among English Hedgerows. You meet the people he met along the way, and hear their stories.
To enhance the text, Johnson provides his own photography or illustrations. Among English Hedgerows includes only photographs scattered among his stories, but sometimes he included illustrations as well. Many of the chapters stand alone because they were first published in magazines like The New England Magazine, The Congregationalist, and The Outlook.
Johnson takes us on a tour of England as it was, and he lets the people tell their own stories. How does a small town pensioner spend his days when he has nothing else to do? What does the daily schedule of a farmhand look like? What birds sing in the wood? He speaks of cricket and hotel visits, market days and mansions.
As both a photographer and a writer, Johnson brings to life the small village and the town inn (or pub). In describing traveling show caravans with their steam-powered merry-go-rounds and game booths, you want to see them yourself. He explores castles and manors, Stonehenge and churches.
Explore England with the Author
As we read his book from over 100 years on, a reader might find some of his observations intriguing. He writes of the change from oxen-drawn plows to horse-drawn plows. Then he mentions the noise created by the newfangled steam powered farm machinery. He also talks about the manpower necessary to make it go. “They are formidable affairs, and it takes five men to make a working crew.” (p.76).
Once in a while you may stumble across a passage or even a chapter that you find offensive or strange. For instance, Johnson spends an entire short chapter discussing his observations of “Gypsies.” For part of his description he relates what he has heard, but it seems that this colors his description of what he sees soon after. However, the chapter ends well. He follows a family for a bit and watches the children at play as they ride in the wagon or scamper along beside.
In a later chapter, however, Johnson provides an almost glowing description of a Traveler family who appear at a market day and sell rides to the local children. He even refers to their conveyance as a “travelling caravan.” Earlier he mentions that caravans often transport families who perform at fairs, which would make them Showman Travellers.
It’s worth noting, however, that Johnson repeats what he hears. His goal is to write down an oral history of a place, whether it is correct or not. At one point he talks to hand mowers –– men who cut hay with a scythe –– and they tell him that the day of machine grass cutters is over; more and more the hay will be cut by hand. A quick YouTube search will show you that such did not prove to be true.
Delights of the Village Fair
At one point Johnson finds himself at a festival. He says:
By the time Johnson attended the fair in about 1900, steam-powered merry-go-rounds had been delighting English fair-goers for close to 40 years. However, reading it today, I was taken by this description. Imagine the noise! Between the sound of the steam engines, plus the various tunes played at once, and adding the crowd, this must have presented quite the scene.
Among English Hedgerows is a travelogue that leads you up and down the narrow lanes of English villages. It brings you into country kitchens and alongside farmers. Johnson reveals both the charm of their inhabitants as well as their sometimes narrow views.
Note: I did find mention of a suicide as I read the book. If this bothers you, skip the bottom of page 34 through page 38, and resume reading on page 39.
To read Among English Hedgerows for yourself, click here, which takes you to a Google Books version you can read or download.
If you prefer something quick and easy and fictional, take a look at this post I wrote about The Motor Maids School Days, one of my favorite vintage juvenile fiction reads ever.
If you glance through the pages of the popular household magaazines from 1920-1940 something may dawn on you. It did me. These were magazines for everyone, as long as the woman reading them matched the editors’ ideal subscriber.
Each magazine, of course, had its own dream reader. Woman’s World, for instance, was for the Midwest reader. Needlecraft positioned itself for the lower-income reader – many of its projects could be completed with a little fabric, a crochet hook or knitting needles, and thread. Every magazine, from Good Housekeeping to Ladies’ Home Journal, had its intended readership.
However, all these titles didn’t succeed as magazines for everyone. A good number of potential readers were excluded. For instance, although every magazine covered the national holidays and Christian holidays, no one printed a Passover menu for Jewish readers. They were on their own. Did the publishers just not think their readership would appreciate such an article, or did no one on the staff have the expertise to write it?
One glaring omission appeared in the African-American community. The women’s magazines featured dress models on the fashion pages that looked different from African-American family members, even though everyone dressed in the same styles. In 1916, Half-Century Magazine launched in Chicago and it filled that void. Half-Century Magazine used African-American models on its fashion pages. Only in publication for nine years, the magazine spoke to African-American homemakers. And frankly, it is a delight to read.
I don’t have any issues of Half-Century Magazine in their original paper format. Actual subscriptions never topped 16,000 so hard copies are difficult to find. In fact, when Negro Universities Press attempted to reprint the existing issues in 1969, it couldn’t find copies of all the issues. Paging through I found a placeholder which basically said “We couldn’t find this issue. If you know of a copy let us know and we will include it in a later printing.” They are that scarce.
They may be scarce, but they are excellent. An issue of Half-Century Magazine contained short stories, a serialized novel, current fashion, needlework patterns and sewing tips. Each month devoted a full half page to jokes and quips like this one:
If I had original copies of these magazines, I would love to reproduce the recipes from the cooking pages. Some of the recipes used inexpensive or unusual ingredients, like lamb’s kidneys. Others introduced innovative treatments of normal 1920s dishes, like adding nuts to a macaroni salad. Actually, quite a few I would love to recreate. One issue’s Tea Ring recipe in January, 1920, includes raisins but no yeast and would make a tremendous teatime or breakfast loaf.
Depending on the month of the year, subscribers read about dinner etiquette, household hints, and weight loss (an all-consuming seasonal topic in every woman’s magazine of the period). One issue illustrated current hairstyles, and the magazine offered a sewing pattern service to subscribers. Most issues included poetry.
Tackling Social Issues
The women’s magazines of the Twenties through the Forties took stands on various social issues within their pages, and Half-Century Magazine was no different. Its editors covered cultural and political issues. They published letters from subscribers who needed to vent. And a regular columnist answered questions about law and inheritance.
In short, everything a homemaker would need from month to month was included in Half-Century Magazine. I wish it had continued past 1925, but the publisher ceased publication in order to launch a newspaper he called the Chicago Bee. You can download the 1923 – 1925 years of Half-Century Magazine from Google Books and see for yourself.
Saving magazines for a century? Or even fifty years? Why would people do this? What was so engaging about these periodicals that they lived in the bottom of a cupboard or drawer for that length of time?
Some of these magazines stay with a family for three or four generations. I’m a third generation owner myself. While visiting my husband’s 94 year old grandmother on my honeymoon, we uncovered a stack of needlework magazines from the 1930s. She sent them home with me. I’ve taken care of them lovingly ever since. In not too many years they will reach their centennial anniversary. Maybe I’ll bake them a cake.
Learning New Skills
Actually, people held onto their magazines for several different reasons. They were considered valuable. Women’s magazines often contained step by step cooking instructions for new cooks. Divided into twelve to fourteen months (or even longer), each article told how to create a specific type of food. If you used those magazines to learn how to cook, or even to refresh your memory, you aren’t going to throw out the “breads” issue.
Experiencing the Best Authors and Illustrators
They also contained some of the best writers of the day. Edna Ferber, Mary Roberts Rhinehart, Kathleen Norris, Temple Bailey, and Faith Baldwin filled the pages. These authors, and more like them, kept women reading and subscribing for more. Usually the stories focused on relationships, but sometimes readers found a mystery or humor. Some of the stories focused on a social problem. And many times subscribers read through a new serialized novel by a famous author before its publication. Each issue published a few chapters of the novel until it was complete. The magazines with the best stories tended to be kept by their owners. Scroll through one of those magazines, Woman’s Home Companion.
Some magazines published new or famous art prints that could be removed and framed for the home. Others specialized in current or new popular artists. (Norman Rockwell, for instance, illustrated for The Saturday Evening Post for years.) Almost all these illustrations used charcoal, pencil, or ink drawings printed in black and white. They were still eye-catching and well done. Some magazines placed a color seasonal print on the cover every month to catch readers’ eyes. Others used the cover to highlight a project inside.
Reading for New Recipes
As the seasons turned, home managers turned to the pages of last year’s periodicals looking for useful, seasonal recipes. All cooking in the 1920s and 30s was seasonal cooking, unless the cook could obtain food in a can, or personally canned it herself the year before. Although many periodicals preached meal planning, the monthly menu calendar proved a welcome sight to many a weary cook. Sometimes published recipes were family favorites. Others combined familiar ingredients in new ways. During the Colonial revival of the 1920s, some periodicals published colonial-style recipes that used cornmeal as an ingredient.
Providing Patterns for Crafting
Some readers saved magazines for the needlework patterns. For example, filet crochet reached its heyday during the 1920s and 30s. Needleworkers who enjoyed that type of crochet work kept their magazines so they had ready access to patterns that all too soon dipped into obscurity. If someone liked to tat lace, the magazines provided a goldmine of patterns. Each issue of a needlework periodical until the 1940s or beyond featured one or more tatting patterns to keep those shuttles moving. My favorite tatting pattern of all time dates from 1919. Without saving magazines for a century, I never would have met this pattern.
Often, the magazines stayed around to be brought out every now and then in a fit of nostalgia. “Do you remember when…” can be a great story starter. A comment about an article sparks a family story. In addition, there is something precious about keeping Grandma’s magazines that she loved enough to treasure for fifty years. Paging through them brings up memories of Grandma’s baked bean recipe – with no barbecue sauce, thank you. Only savory beans for Grandma. Looking at the needlework patterns brings to mind the room dividers she embroidered in brown and green. (Wonder what ever happened to those?) Memories become as mellow as the pages that turn when we look through the old magazines that stay in the family generation after generation. There’s something to saving magazines for a century. Especially if they’re good ones.
Bille Campbell is an individual. The year is 1911 and in Motor Maids School Days she decides to attend school for the year in West Haven, since her father will be working in Russia for the year and she is motherless. She stays with an elder cousin, Helen Campbell. Spinster Helen acts as both chaperone and guide to Billie. West Haven is a seaside town, filled with seaports, strange people, and high school hijinks. Fifteen year old Billie drives up to the school in her own bright red motorcar, which becomes the centerpiece for many adventures to come.
This book is the first in the very short Motor Maids series for teen girls. My copy belonged to my grandmother, and she loved it enough after receiving it sometime around age fourteen to keep it for the next 65 years.
Turn of the Century Culture
And there’s a lot to love with this book. To begin with, it starts off a six-book series which leads the Motor Maids far away from the sleepy seaport town of West Haven. Motor Maids School Days is a look into the culture of the early 1900s. Yes, it’s fiction. But it also tackles topics that most of us only read about in passing. Or those cultural artifacts we see in an old photo and wonder what happened.
For one thing, the book explains high school girls’ clubs. The high school sophomore class of girls at West Haven High School is divided into two groups: The Mystic Seven and the Blue Birds. The Blue Birds consists of all the girls not in the Mystic Seven. Seventeen of the girls join the Blue Birds. Reading carefully shows the ebb and flow of interaction between the two clubs, as the book talks about get-togethers, outings, and overnights.
School Days also talks a lot about the class system of 1900 – 1915. Some families are in, and others are out – merely based on their financial position within the town. It contains characters who are “haves” as well as those who are “have nots,” and weaves them nicely through the pages of the novel. Sometimes you feel like you get to know supporting characters better than you do the protagonist Billie. Elinor Butler introduces us to her seafaring family, and Mary Price shows us life with her mother’s tearoom.
You also read about vintage fashion and how it reflected social status. For someone fascinated by the fashions of 1910-1915, this could be worth reading the book on its own. Ulsters, veils, wraps, and dresses all take their place as part of the story.
Wrapped up in all this vintage detail you discover a mystery. Billie and her friends find themselves involved in a bizarre cat and mouse game, avoiding people whose names they don’t know as they attempt to unravel the threads that lead to an answer.
Signs of the Times
Because the book appeared in 1911, it contains outdated terms and ideas. One of the girls in the story is overweight, and although she appears in several of the stories and is a general favorite of everyone, they still tease her. Even though West Haven sits as a port town, with ships arriving with cargo from everywhere, some of the visiting characters have unflattering descriptions. These serve to increase suspense in the novel, and perhaps that is how they were intended, but at times they seem odd, especially on this fourth or fifth reading of the novel. And of course, because of the time period, servants are sometimes identified by race.
Who was Katherine Stokes?
Also a sign of the times, a lengthy search turned up nothing about the author. The book’s publisher, Hurst & Company, specialized in series books by the time the Motor Maids books released, and the company folded in 1919. If Hurst managed to stay in business, we might have even more Motor Maids books to read. Katherine Stokes, the author, appears nowhere. Only six books carry her name in any search and these are the Motor Maids books. Katherine may have been a pen name for an author or committee that churned out series books.
With absolutely no evidence to support this, I also suggest that she may have been a real person. Katherine Stokes might have taught seventh grade in Hartford, Connecticut. A Katherine Stokes appears in the Hartford school listings for the years before and after the Motor Maids books were published. A seventh grade teacher stood in a perfect position to write a series about independent teenagers. This Katherine was single, and she rented rooms and houses through this entire period, so she probably had the time to devote to constructing six books. This, however, is complete conjecture. If anyone has information on Katherine Stokes the author, I would love to know her story.
Get Your Copy
You too can read Motor Maids School Days. One of the great things about these older books is that they are freely available. This bodes well for readers who love turn of the century fiction. You can download a copy from the Internet Archive here, or you can download it or read it online at Project Gutenberg, here. Download a free Kindle version from Amazon. Amazon also sells reprints. If you want an original 1911 copy, and your grandmother or great-grandmother doesn’t have one, try eBay.
Today I give you the rest of the story. We haven’t even gotten to the confession part yet! But first, a little more background. If you haven’t read the first half of the story, start here.
When G. Lynn Sumner helped to create and release this story for the women’s periodicals of 1919, this was a gamble. No one had ever tried to sell with a story before. Today it’s become so commonplace that we view it as cliché. Back then, however, it was new.
And how did it work? Over the next few years, running these full-page story advertisements, the company brought in over 12 million dollars… from a product that cost its purchaser $61. However, that $61 had the buying power of nearly $1,000 in 2021 dollars. So this was no small investment for a person who wanted to either cut costs or start her own shop as an entrepreneur.
But how did it work for the women who sent their money to this school? Was it a waste of their time, energy and resources? Actually, the program really did work. One of their 1920s newsletters, sent to students and graduates of the program, lists several Apprentice Wanted ads from graduates who set up dressmaking shops in their own towns and now needed extra help. The newsletters also printed real letters from students that told of how much money they saved on clothing. Some families saved from 1/3 to 1/2 of their annual clothing budget by designing and making clothing at home.
Even though these stories were fictional, and the women reading them probably knew the magazine ads weren’t true, the stories spoke to felt needs of the readers: an inability to fit in; loneliness; desperation over finances; feeling less-than or socially inept. In the world right after World War I, where sickness seemed to go wherever it wanted and prices continued to climb, these feelings were real and tangible. And in some small way, the Institute provided a glimmer of hope.
Enough of the numbers. On with the story.
Never will I forget that Wednesday evening. It was the most wonderful of our lives! We had never seen our Cinderella looking quite so sweet, so beautiful. And such a dinner as she gave us! After dinner she took us all through her new home and then, gathering us before a great log fire in the living room, she told us her story:
“Of course you all know what a wretched, forlorn creature I was when I first came to the office, she began. That is all past now and I have blotted out of my memory the heartaches of those first cruel weeks when my shabby attire made me a fit subject for ridicule.
“I had never known what it meant to have stylish, becoming clothes. My home was in a little cross-roads town in Iowa. My mother died when I was a mere child and my father brought me up in a good, substantial home, but with never an opportunity to get out and see how other girls lived. I had no chance to learn the things about clothes that would have been familiar to most girls of my age.
“Two years ago father died, and when his affairs had been straightened out there was only a few hundred dollars left. So I went to Benton City and took stenography at the business school there. As soon as I had finished my course I came here and within two days had secured a position at Warners.
“And now for my confession. At the office for the first time in my life I realized how different I was from the other girls. I saw that I was not one of you. I did not know how to make myself attractive. And i felt it. At first I was tempted to give up and go back to the little country town i had left. But one night at the boarding-house a young woman whom i had to secretly admired, but never spoken to, slipped her arm through mine after dinner and said, “Come up to my room, child. I want to talk to you.
“Once in her room she looked down at me with the kindest smile, and said, ‘I am Louise Stewart. I have the little dress-making shop on Wilcox Square that you pass on your way to the office. Two years ago I couldn’t sew a stitch. Today folks say I’m the best designer and dressmaker in this city. And I learned all about planning and making fashionable clothes – right in my own room evenings.’
“‘I have seen you going to your room every night,’ she continued. ‘How would you like to use some of your evenings learning to make stylish, charming dresses for yourself, garments that will be a delight to wear, wonderful dresses, waists and suits that will surprise your friends.’
“‘Oh, tell me how!’ I fairly gasped.
“‘Sit right down now,’ she said, ‘and write a little note to the Woman’s Institute and simply tell them that you would like to learn to make your own clothes.’
“She gave me the address and told me this great Institute had developed a wonderful plan by which any woman or girl, wherever she might live, could learn right in her home or boarding place, in spare time, to make all her own clothes and hats.
“‘You may doubt your ability to do it,’ she said. ‘Never fear. So did I. But come into my shop someday and see the dresses I make!’
“I hurried to my room, wrote the letter, and mailed it at the corner 20 minutes later. And that night I dreamed I was making and wearing more beautiful clothes than I had ever seen on living people, and that every one liked me!
“In a few days an attractive, illustrated booklet came, telling me about the Woman’s Institute and its 45,000 members. The booklet contained many wonderful letters from these members praising the work of the Institute and telling how easily they had learned at home to make their own clothes. There were letters from housewives, business women, girls at home or in school, girls in stores, shops and offices. And there were, oh, so many letters from mothers who poured out their thanks because the Institute had taught them how to have dainty clothes for themselves and their little ones at a mere fraction of what they had cost before!
“Many others wrote that the Institute had made it possible for them to take up dressmaking and millinery as a business. Some now have important positions in big, fashionable city shops; others, like Louise Stewart, are making money in cozy, exclusive shops of their own. Still others have secured good-paying positions as teachers of sewing and dressmaking.
“The Institute members, I found, are of all ages. There are girls of 15 or 16 and women of 50 or 60. The majority live in the United States, but there are hundreds in Canada and in foreign lands — all learning dressmaking or millinery at home just as successfully as if they were together in a classroom!
“Well, when I read all those letters and then read in detail about the plan by which the Institute teaches, I knew that, what all these other thousands of women and girls could do, I could do.
“So, without telling anyone, I joined the Institute and took up dressmaking. I could scarcely wait until my first lesson came. And when at last I found it on the table in the hall one night, I carried it upstairs to my room and opened it as if it were a love letter! Turning the pages, I looked at the wonderful pictures! There are nearly 2000 in the dressmaking course alone and they illustrate perfectly just exactly what to do.
“And the delightful part of it is that almost at once you start making garments. Why, that little blue organdie waist you admired so much I made from my third lesson! The course can easily be completed in a few months by studying an hour a day. I found my couldn’t help learning rapidly! The textbooks seem to foresee and explain everything. And the teachers take just as personal an interest as if they were right beside you.
“And what was most important to me, I learned not only how to make every kind of garment, but I learned what colors and fabrics were most appropriate for me, how to develop those little touches that make clothes distinctively becoming to the wearer. My course opened up a whole new world to me. When, after just a few lessons, I finished my first dress and stood before the mirror, I hardly recognized myself. I was tempted to wear it the next morning to the office, but I determined to keep my skill a secret until I had enough new things made so that I would never need to wear the old ones again.
“The lessons followed each other so naturally that I was soon working on difficult dresses and suits. Gradually, I learned to copy models I saw in the shop windows, on the street, or in fashion magazines. Every step was so clearly explained that the things I had always thought only a professional dressmaker could develop were perfectly easy for me!
“Luckily, I began my studies in the summer time and by fall I had more and prettier clothes than I had ever seen before in my life, and they cost me only one fourth of what ordinary clothes would have cost ready made. I couldn’t possibly have had them any other way.
“A little while after starting the dressmaking I had taken up millinery, too, and soon I was making and trimming hats such as I have been wearing lately. And so, just a few months from the eventful night when Louise Stewart told me about the Institute, I walked in on you that morning — in the results of my evenings of delightful secret study.
“My wedding clothes! You girls saw them before dinner – did you ever see any more beautiful? Well, I made every stitch myself — a whole section of my course was devoted to complete directions for planning and making a bride’s entire outfit. I didn’t have the least bit of trouble – even with my wedding dress.
“So that’s my confession. The rest of my story you know – what a wonderful change this made in my life – how friends and happiness seemed to follow close upon the change in my appearance that lead you to call me Cinderella. I adore that name! The whole thing is like a fairy story! But of one thing I am sure — I owe it all to the Woman’s Institute. “
The page goes on to explain how the reader, too, can see the same or similar results as Cinderella if she will only take the time to complete the tiny interest form at the bottom of the page. Many women did. And many learned to sew their own clothing. Foundation garments like corsets were still purchased, and stockings were bought ready made, but the Institute told its students how to make every other article of clothing they needed, from underwear to a wedding trousseau. And the women, by and large, learned the skills they set out to master.