The Progressive Era, one of the most dramatic periods of American societal change, is particularly worthy of study. The beginning of the 20th century was a significant time of social upheaval. Women were questioning and redefining their roles at home and in the workplace. This, in turn, placed the needle arts in a new perspective.
Even before the 20th century began, many in the United States believed in the need to deal with the problems — political, social, and moral — associated with the rise of urbanization and industrialization. This impulse toward reform took firm root roughly from 1900 – 1915, in what historians have termed the Progressive Era. No corner of American life was left untouched, from the way we processed beef, to the way we treated immigrants, to the number of hours in a workday, to the arrangement of domestic life.
The Progressive Era incited the birth of the women’s movement. A mere century ago, women in most states did not have the right to vote, could not own property, were not welcomed in most professions (except those deemed traditionally “female”, such as teaching and social work) and held an extremely low profile in the public sphere. Women were thought to belong, virtually exclusively, in the domestic domain.
The changing social landscape, brought on by rapid industrialization, made many women question their public, as well as domestic, roles. The push for female suffrage dominated this period. Attempts were made to join the ranks of the professions — engineering, law, and medicine — some were successful, others not. A critical percentage of women remained single (around 10% at the turn of the 20th century), and for the majority of those who did marry, mechanization of many household chores, along with longer school hours for children, freed up much of their time. Finally, divorce was on the rise — by the end of 1915, approximately one in nine marriages ended in divorce, up from one in every twenty-one in the last decades of the 19th century.
All of this led to women taking a more public role in society, whether in clubs (cultural organizations where middle- and upper-class women gathered for intellectual pursuits), as activists, in settlement houses, or within government.
Most American needlecraft had declined dramatically during the middle of the 19th century. There was, quite simply, a drastically reduced need to spin yarn and create fabric in such a time-consuming manner. At the turn of the 20th century, crochet was not receiving much American public attention, although it had made inroads on the Paris fashion runway. As one example illustrates: the “crochet” entries in the Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature between 1900 and 1904 numbered only five articles devoted solely to crochet during that entire period! One factor in the relative scarcity of crochet in 19th century America was the need to put distance between this country and perceptions associated with English royalty. Crochet had deep English roots and lace had all but been banned as an export to England during America’s founding.
As a new wave of immigrants came ashore via Ellis Island, however, they brought with them the “stuff” of their home countries, and needle arts were a part of that rich, immigrant experience. Women were in the midst of redefining their public and private roles, and the ability to choose to create crocheted garments, accessories and home fashions played an ever-expanding role. It helped that materials were easier to obtain (the Sears Roebuck catalogue was an excellent source of wool for many), and the manufacture of crochet cotton was well underway by companies such as Coats and Clark Thread Company and Columbia Cottons. Additionally, continued American westward expansion not only was tailor-made for crochet’s sturdier and more practical fabric, but aided in its popularity as an American art either to be engaged in during leisure time, or for additional income. Women no longer needed to be exclusively dependent on a husband’s income.
There was also a rise in the use of crochet and knitting for social change. Needlecraft programs were developed in many settlement houses as a way to provide an outlet for immigrant expression, and for middle-class women to come into contact with that expression. Home economics courses were developed and adopted as college requirements. Many school girls took afternoon classes in knitting and crochet, with the hope that they would be able to earn a living through these skills. As in the 19th century, crocheted items were used to support charitable works of all kinds through church- or community-sponsored events.
Very little attention, unfortunately, has been paid to early 20th century crochet designers, although they were known in their time for their art, and many gained a loyal following. Women such as Anne Champe Orr, Mary Card, Anna Wuerfle Brown, Antonie Ehrlich, Sophie T. La Croix, Helen Marvin, and Anna Valeire are only some of the designers who helped pave the crochet design path during the Progressive Era. These designers were proficient in many crochet techniques brought from other countries — Irish crochet, Australian crochet techniques, Venetian and French lace crochet — as well as other needle arts.
Antonie Ehrlich had many crochet designs published in magazines in the latter portion of the Progressive Era. In certain instances, since only written instructions were included in magazines (and often they were incomplete), women were required to send money for complete instructions directly to Ehrlich.
Anne Champe Orr’s career began at Coats and Clark Thread Company; she eventually went on to publish her design pamphlets through her own publishing company, and charted patterns became one of her areas of expertise. She was a trailblazer not only as a designer, but also for her ability to provide employment for many others. She was also heavily involved in charitable works in her Tennessee community.
Another designer, Mary Card, has a particularly compelling story. Although not born in the United States but in Australia, Mary Card turned to designing and teaching crochet when she experienced deafness in adulthood. She published many designs in America, and devised a method of charting her crochet designs. Charting became a great Card teaching tool; it not only allowed her to pursue a career despite her disability, but also to reach a far greater student audience; she eventually made her charts larger to accommodate those with poor eyesight. Many who have crocheted a Mary Card design say they are some of the best examples of craftsmanship from the period.
Crocheted dress collars, baby garments, hats, slippers and sweaters for adults and children made up a large portion of the patterns designed during this period. Of particular note were crocheted golf sweaters for women – as their involvement in the sport increased, so did the desire for patterns. Bedspreads, lace edgings for curtains, tablecloths, doilies and other home fashions were also very popular, as well as gorgeous crocheted handbags. In many instances, the genesis of today’s patterns for crocheted bags can be seen in the designs originating during the Progressive Era.
For many, magazines were a great source for crocheted patterns. The Delineator, Ladiesí Home Journal, Womens Home Companion, The Modern Priscilla, and Harper’s Bazar were among the many nationally published magazines from which middle-class women followed not only current crochet trends and patterns, but also gained general information on personal and home fashion trends. Antonie Ehrlich was published in Ladies’ Home Journal; Helen Marvin was a frequent contributor to Women’s Home Companion. Many of the designers mentioned earlier had individual publications devoted exclusively to their designs published by magazine companies.
The lasting legacy of the Progressive Era is still debated by historians, including the legacy of women’s activism during the period. I keep coming back to words by Kim Werker from one of her essays in Crochet Me, her 2007 book regarding why crochet, now:
“My pet theory, though, the post-feminist theory of our lovely crafty revolution, is that fiber arts are popular these days because we’re reclaiming the ‘women’s work’ from which our mothers fought so hard to break free.”
Given all that women had to fight for, and against, during the Progressive Era, I am convinced that many women back then would agree with Werker’s current statement. One of the hallmarks of crochet at the beginning of the 20th century was that for American women, for the first time, it was a choice. Reclaim on!
Denise J. Lavoie lives in the crafty Pacific Northwest, where she teaches at the college level and occasionally drinks wine.