Finding Crochet's American History, Part 2
I was so impressed with Deniseâ€™s previous research on crochet history in America that I invited her to follow it up with another. Part 1 can be found here: http://crochetinsider.com/article/reclaiming-crochet-and-its-american-hi...
In this second installment of my inquiry into Americaâ€™s history of crochet, I have turned my attention to the period after World War II. It is unfortunate, although not surprising, that there is a dearth of information dealing with crochet during this time. As I previously wrote, there is one book dealing with U.S. crochet history, although the treatment is relegated to the bookâ€™s final chapter. Interestingly, an Internet search of crochet history will yield a few electronic sources, two of which are virtually identical. Neither shed any new light.
So I once again turned to periodic publications for some further insights. As you will see, the state of crochet in the 50s mirrored the decade â€“ fiber was plentiful and crocheters were innovative, using their crochet skills to earn money as well as local bragging rights.
The Rise of American Affluence After WWII
Unlike the need to reform social ills at the turn of the 20th century, America was ready to enjoy the good life, giddy from its World War II victory. Even though we had supported troops and our allies overseas with war munitions and resources of all kinds, the U.S. economy was relatively healthy at the end of the war. If anything, policymakers and politicians spent significant time between the end of the war and the early 1950s fighting inflation as a result of continued robust consumer demand.
Americans, however, were not only willing to spend money - they were also willing to increase the size of their families. One of the biggest spikes in child birth rates started in 1945 (some soldiers werenâ€™t yet back on U.S. soil when their wives gave birth!) and did not stop until 1960. We identify these children today as â€œthe baby boom generation.â€
As a result, cultural roles underwent serious revision. Soldiers coming home either expected to find easy employment or make use of the GI Bill to obtain an education so they could be the sole family breadwinner. Women, who had held so many key positions in the workforce while their male family members were fighting, were expected to willingly step away from the workforce and return to a more traditional role as leaders in the domestic sphere, including taking care of all those babies. Finally, we see the rise of the suburbs and the invention of all kinds of new household machines â€“ the dishwasher and the television to name but two â€“ that were supposed to provide convenience and offer family entertainment.
Of course, there were cracks in the foundation of womenâ€™s newly exalted domesticity. Many women wanted to continue to work outside of the home. As birth rates soared so, too, did divorce rates. Many more women than ever before found themselves alone and raising a family. And of those women who were happily married (still the vast majority of women, to be certain), many found themselves ambivalent about being chained to a purely domestic scene. It was no accident that Lucille Ballâ€™s I Love Lucy sitcom made Monday nights on CBS from 1951 through the end of that decade the original â€œmust watchâ€ television show. American viewers everywhere, and especially women, identified with Lucyâ€™s schemes to get out of the house in the desire to inject some thrill into her hum-drum, everyday routine.
Crochet in the US â€“ 1945 - 1959
While hand-knitting enjoyed its coming-of-age during the 30s, it is unclear the state of crochet during the same period. Once WWII commenced, however, knitters and crocheters picked up their sticks and hooks once again as a charitable service to help the war effort in any way they could. Making socks and vests to keep the troops warm were the order of the day. In fact, a quick peek at the National WWII Museum website yields current crochet scarf patterns that can be made for donation to a WWII veteran.
In a poignantly ironic twist, one of the most enduring images of crochet from the mid-40s comes from Ansel Adamsâ€™ photographic record of daily life in Californiaâ€™s Manzanar War Relocation Center. For those who may be unfamiliar, Manzanar was one of several â€œinternment campsâ€ that housed those of Japanese descent and others on U.S. soil who were rounded up (quite literally) by government officials after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. While not the focus of this article, more information on this can be found not only at the Library of Congress, but at the non-profit Densho website â€“ www.densho.org
Patterns and Designers
Many women were able to find crochet pattern books in the mid- to late 40s (Hiawatha was a frequent pattern book publisher during this time), and some patterns were published in magazines such as Womenâ€™s Day, Good Housekeeping, Womenâ€™s Home Companion and Better Homes and Gardens throughout the 50s. However, unlike the turn of the century, magazine editors were now only publishing limited numbers of free patterns; others were available for purchase through the magazine. In March, 1955, the Farm Journal published crocheted cotton rug and table placemat pictures with a note at the end stating that for 10 cents, the directions for all five patterns would be sent. Similarly, Good Housekeeping published a free crocheted clutch pattern in September 1954, but had gloves, a gray lace cardigan, a red cardigan, a pillbox and a beret all for order, each just 10 cents.
Individual designers were virtually unknown during this period. While that Good Housekeeping clutch in September, 1954 was published under the name of Alice Carroll, virtually few other designerâ€™s names appeared in any publications â€“ with one notable exception. K. Melinaâ€™s name was synonymous with many of Hiawathaâ€™s pattern publications throughout the late 40s. Handbags, purses and hats were her specialty. Many of her bags were beaded and/or used motifs to create highly distinctive geometric-shaped clutches. Melina hats were either small with embellishment that sat high on the front of the head, or large and covered most of the head, snood-like. You can see more images of Melina's designs at the links provided below, (which will lead you to some amazing vintage crochet pattern booklets)
The Yarn Story
This period brought about real innovation (for better or worse) in available fibers for crocheters. In September 1949, Good Housekeeping published a primer on knitting and crochet yarns available for the home crafter. Along with the stand-by wool and cotton, now the home crocheter could choose rayon and rayon blends; nylon yarn was an advantage over wool if one wished to avoid felting; plastic and metallic yarns were great for trim and accessories; finally, fur yarns were touted as the most soft and luxurious fibers to use, namely, angora imported from France (the American variety was blended with wool).
Of course, the most luxurious of all fur yarns â€“ cashmere â€“ swept the fashion runway and home crafting scene by the mid-50s. Because of Americaâ€™s increased affluence, as well as the rare and exotic nature of the fiber, we became the largest importer and consumer of cashmere from Himalayan goats, according to the May 13, 1957 edition of Newsweek. Featuring a classic cashmere twinset, the November, 1959 edition of Practical Home Economics wrote all about cashmere â€“ the nature of the fiber, why it was a good investment, and how to care for it.
Of some note during this highly domestic-oriented time was the plethora of articles published on how to care for wool and other fibers. No less than four articles (two by the same publication) in a relatively short time span educated women on how to care for garments made of wool and other fibers.
Crafting for Money
The other phenomenon to note at this time is the anecdotal evidence that crochet had turned into a hobby from which some women (and even a few men) earned extra income.
Profitable Hobbies, the precursor to the current My Home, My Style (Workbench) publication, ran a series of reader-written stories between 1953 and 1956 that tell of women who created something for themselves and turned that creation into a cottage business. For instance, in July, 1953, Deborah M. Barr tells of creating a crocheted purse and pillbox hat to spruce up a lackluster-looking tweed coat. After wearing the creations in public and receiving compliments on them, one thing led to another, and before she knew it she was creating purses and pillbox hats for friends and neighbors.
Similarly, Mrs. H. Sanders wrote, in October, 1954, of a virtually identical situation â€“ she made a crocheted hat to perk up a tweed coat. She made several hats, all slightly different, using different fibers (cotton, metallic and rayon). She wore them around town and soon had a cottage business on her hands, charging $2.00 for hats made of simple cotton and $2.50 for those made with more exotic yarns. Each woman devised her own pattern and never made the same hat twice â€“ each successive accessory was just slightly different than the previous one.
Not to be left out, Homer Cantrell wrote a letter to Profitable Hobbiesâ€™ editors in March, 1953, telling of his love for crochet (given to him by an aunt) and that it was just as natural to him as â€œthe ticking of a clock.â€ He sold doilies, handkerchiefs and pillowcases for anywhere from a low of $1, up to a high of $5 He wrote that friends told others of his â€œunusualâ€ hobby, and there seemed to be demand for his crochet work.
The contradictions and ambivalence women felt in the stifling domesticity of the 50s foreshadowed the womenâ€™s movement (the second wave of it, some might argue) to come in the 60s and 70s. Crochet had served as a vehicle of choice in the Progressive Movement at the turn of the 20th century; crochet continued providing options to women mid-century, and will eventually play an equally integral role in the 60s.
Denise lives in the crafty Pacific Northwest, where she teaches at the college level, occasionally drinks wine, and is currently exploring the joys of blogging at http://voiedevie.blogspot.com.
For more K. Melina, visit these links: