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Empowering Embroidery

Using needlework to celebrate selfhood and service

In an era of rigidly defined gender roles, many educated middle-class women gave up their professions after marriage and became homemakers. A well-kept home was considered a reflection of the taste and character of the lady of the house. Mass-produced do-it-yourself embroidery kits like the one for this set of kitchen towels made it possible for middle-class women to create personalized home decor. In the absence of multigenerational homes, many learned this traditional skill from kits, not elders. A 1948 advertisement for Paragon Needlecraft touted “easy-to-follow instruction sheets,” and included photographs of a smiling, impeccably dressed woman displaying beautiful linens throughout her home and the slogan: “EVERYTHING for EVERY room in your own ‘dream house.’” 

For many women, these embroidered linens weren’t just home decor; they were emblems of respectability and upstanding citizenship. Mary Thompson Ford (1861–1960) and her adult daughters Blanche (1897–1992) and Ethel (1899–) spent time and effort adorning the kitchen of their family home in Jersey City, New Jersey. The days-of-the-week motif they selected depicts a housewife’s weekly tasks. On each kitchen towel, a young woman performs a daily domestic activity: washing on Monday, ironing on Tuesdaygrocery shopping on Wednesdaysewing on Thursday, cleaning on Friday, baking on Saturday, and resting or attending church on Sunday. The structured weekly schedule paralleled office or factory work, suggesting that the modern homemaker’s labor was equally necessary and worthy of admiration. 

Middle-class women of all races took great pride in decorating their homes with their own handiwork. Because the patterns were so affordable, homemakers were able to stretch their household budgets, making room for things otherwise out of reach. Given the skill, creativity, and resourcefulness these women used to run their homes successfully, it’s unsurprising that many, like the Fords, chose to commemorate their important role through needlework.

—Miriam Doutriaux, Collections Manager, Anacostia Community Museum

Kitchen Towel, Thursday, Sewing

slideshow with 3 slides
Date
1943
Caption
The embroidered design on this linen towel reserves it for kitchen décor rather than for drying dishes. Stitched in cotton thread on a white towel is a woman wearing a blue-and-white striped apron over a yellow dress. She holds fabric flecked with red starbursts unfurling from a gray dress form. The pins in her mouth and on the floor beside a pin box and black scissors also point to sewing, Thursday’s housekeeping task. Behind the dark-haired woman, green leaves grace tree boughs outside an open window trimmed with red gingham curtains. A framed bouquet of blue flowers hangs on the wall. The towel is part of a days-of-the-week set made from a needlecraft kit, a popular creative endeavor in the 1940s, when smaller, single-family homes and new appliances eased the burden of housework for middle-class women. Mary Thompson Ford (1861-1960) was both college-educated and a proud homemaker in Jersey City, NJ. Her daughter Blanche Ford Hart (1897-1992) likely embroidered these towels for use in their family kitchen. An apron and a tablecloth complete the days-of-the-week collection (2008.0002.0006a-g).
See more items in
Anacostia Community Museum Collection
Cite As
Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Theresa Allen
Data Source
Anacostia Community Museum
Accession Number
2008.0002.0006c
Type
towel
Restrictions & Rights
CC0
Medium
linen fabric, cotton embroidery thread, thread
Dimensions
26 3/4 × 17 3/16 in. (68 × 43.6 cm)
GUID
http://n2t.net/ark:/65665/dl841ea0f1a-abe9-40f9-8b1d-e6f53902fe48
Record ID
acm_2008.0002.0006c
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