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 Tuesday, grocery shopping on Wednesday, sewing 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