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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged by jeanine head miller

Brightly colored quilts hanging on a black backboard

A display of quilts made by members of the Lincoln, Nebraska Modern Quilt Guild at American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.

The 400 quilts in The Henry Ford’s collection, dating from the 1700s to the 2000s, represent quilting traditions of nearly 300 years--all reflecting the resourcefulness and creativity of their makers. Quilts were among the objects of everyday life that Henry Ford collected as he gathered objects for his museum. Since Ford’s time, The Henry Ford’s curators have continued to add to the collection, gathering quilts that represent diverse quilting traditions.

Quilts serve a practical purpose as warm bedcovers. Yet they are also inherently about design--from a simple traditional pattern to a unique motif crafted through the expert manipulation of pattern and color. While many quiltmakers have no formal training in design, they instinctively create attractive quilts that display their innate talents.

Quiltmaking has continued to evolve, reflecting new aesthetics and influences. An exciting, robust trend of the past 20 years has been the Modern Quilt Movement—a style of quiltmaking we are eager to add to our collection.

Quilts, mostly shades of black, white, and gray, hanging on a black backboard
A display of quilts made by members of the Lincoln, Nebraska Modern Quilt Guild at American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.

A wonderful opportunity arose. While giving a paper at the American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar, I met Kristin Barrus, who was presenting a poster session on “Why Women Under 45 Quilt.” (Silent Generation and Baby Boomers created the quilt revival of the post-Bicentennial era. They were followed by GenX and Millennial quilters, many of whom have shaped and embraced the Modern quilt aesthetic.)

Board titled "Why Women Under 45 Quilt," containing text and images, sitting on quilt
Kristin Barrus’s poster, presented at the American Quilt Study Group Seminar in 2019. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.

Kristin, a graduate student studying Material Culture and Textile History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is not only knowledgeable about the Modern Quilt Movement, she’s a modern quiltmaker herself. We were delighted to have Kristin join us this Spring for a remote practicum experience at The Henry Ford, conducting research on the Modern Quilt Movement to help us more fully understand its vibrant landscape. Her research will inform strategic additions to our collections: examples of modern quilts, printed materials reflecting the movement, and books on the topic. Part of Kristin’s research involves a survey of modern quilters.

Here’s Kristin to tell you more about the Modern Quilt Movement, and her research survey.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.



Image of woman with long blonde hair in a long-sleeved red shirt.
Kristin Barrus. Photo by Alisha Tunks.

Hi, I’m glad to have this opportunity to tell you about my quilt research project! I started quiltmaking around 2003 in my twenties and got swept up with this new aesthetic called Modern quilting. I co-founded the Utah County Modern Quilt Group, which ran monthly for seven years in Lehi, Utah. While I taught at meetings, quilt shows and retreats, I realized I was more interested in watching the quiltmakers make connections with each other than with what came out of the other side of my sewing machine. (Although I do still love to make quilts!) The topic of my thesis for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is the first study of QuiltCon, an annual convention for Modern quiltmakers.

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Modern Trends, Kristin Barrus, 2017. A sampler quilt turned Modern by joining several popular quilt blocks together in a new layout. Photo by Kristin Barrus.

There is much to celebrate and investigate in 21st century quiltmaking. The Modern Quilt Movement is a sub-category within quiltmaking, bracketed at years 2000–2020 for the purposes of my research. Modern is a very broad and sometimes contested term, not just a new aesthetic. It’s also a new kind of experience in the contemporary quilt world. People come to Modern quilting not only to make quilts, as traditional quiltmaking guilds do, but to be a part of the energetic vibe that happens at Modern meetings, both online and in person. Often people who do not consider themselves Modern quiltmakers join because they love the inclusive comradery, mini quilt swaps and inspiration of the Modern Quilt Movement. Thus this popular phenomenon is identified not only by what Modern quilts look like, but also the type of person and the community involved.

The main design philosophy of Modern is exploration through bending or breaking unspoken—and sometimes spoken—traditional quilt rules. It relies on the use of technology such as blogs, Instagram and digital publications to connect across distances, initially building a vibrant community online. Because of the variety and dispersed nature of these makers, Modern quilting is complicated. The look of Modern quilts can include brighter color palettes in solids or prints, or quiet neutrals to create quilts with a strong graphic feel. Or it could just be a new twist on a traditional pattern. Other common aspects include, but are not limited to, large use of negative space, asymmetrical design and straight-line, rather than curvilinear, quilting.

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Group Improv, Kristin Barrus & Sew Night Friends, 2018. An example of collaborative quilt design by seven women, using popular colors and fabrics. Photo by Kristin Barrus.

For my practicum at The Henry Ford, I will present a paper on “The Landscape of the Modern Quilt Movement, 2000-2020” next Spring. I will also recommend specific quilts from the movement to consider acquiring for The Henry Ford’s collection, as well as books on the topic. In the meantime, I will be conducting recorded interviews with key individuals from the movement to be included in The Henry Ford’s archives, as well as future research.

My project also includes a survey for Modern quilters. I am hoping to hear from anyone who has participated in Modern quiltmaking in any way, via an anonymous survey. I hope to capture what Modern means to the people who play a part in it: What do they feel Modern is? What are the trends and people that have influenced them? This data will help academia study what the Modern Quilt Movement is, as well as its impact on the lives of many people all over the world. The survey is anonymous, contains 15 questions and takes about 5–8 minutes to complete.

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Tula Pink Millefiori, Kristin Barrus, 2017. A hand applique medallion quilt using motifs from popular fabric designer Tula Pink. Photo by Kristin Barrus.

Let Your Modern Voice Be Heard

If you have participated in Modern quiltmaking in any way, please consider taking the survey, or sending it to someone you know who makes Modern quilts. The lines between Modern and Modern-traditional quiltmaking are blurred and intersect often. As you answer each question, please reflect on what Modern means to you specifically, regardless of how anyone else defines Modern quiltmaking. You can access the survey here, or using the QR code below.

Black and white QR code

Kristin Barrus is a graduate practicum student at The Henry Ford.

design, by Kristin Barrus, by Jeanine Head Miller, research, making, quilts

Melville and Anna Bissell, husband and wife entrepreneurs, solved their own “sweeping” issues--then “swept” the market with their mechanical carpet sweeper.

Needed: A Better Way to Clean
Housework has always been physically demanding and time-consuming--including keeping floors free of dust and dirt. For centuries, people used brooms to tidy their homes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the first mechanical breakthrough in sweeping would appear.

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This trade card illustrates a more elaborately furnished--and more challenging to clean--home of the late 19th century. While brooms worked well enough on bare floors, they were much less effective at removing tracked-in dirt or coal dust from heating stoves that settled in carpets. THF208366

As house size grew and furnishings increased, people needed more effective methods of cleaning. Carpeting became very popular in middle- and upper middle-class homes during the last half of the 19th century--and it was more challenging to clean than bare floors. Going after dust and dirt with a broom on a carpeted floor wasn't terribly effective--it tended to just spread dust around. “Deep cleaning” one’s carpets was an elaborate process. Carpets had to be taken up once or twice a year, carried outside, and beaten with a carpet beater. The carpet then had to be reinstalled in the room.

Mechanical carpet sweepers made their debut in America during the mid-19th century. Carpet sweepers had a rotary brush connected to a pair of driving wheels. As the sweeper was pushed, the brush revolved, sweeping up and depositing dirt into a container that could be emptied easily. The United States Patent Office granted the first flurry of carpet sweeper patents in the late 1850s--five in 1858 and nine in 1859. Other patents would follow in the coming decades.

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The fashionably dressed middle-class housewife in this circa 1880 Goshen Sweeper Company trade card “demonstrates” the company’s product. (She reminds me of June Cleaver from the 1950s television show, “Leave it to Beaver”-- who vacuumed while wearing high heels and pearls!) THF184126

Sweeping the Market
Grand Rapids businessman and inventor Melville Bissell would design his own carpet sweeper in 1876.

Melville Bissell was a serial entrepreneur. In 1862, at the age of 19, Melville opened a grocery store with his father Alpheus in Kalamazoo, Michigan. By 1870, the Bissell family had moved to Grand Rapids where father and son operated a successful crockery and glassware store. Melville Bissell had married 19-year-old Anna Sutherland in 1865. Anna would prove to be an astute business partner.

The Bissells’ crockery and glassware stock arrived at their Grand Rapids store packed in sawdust or straw. Unpacking this merchandise before placing it on store shelves created a hard-to-clean-up mess-- sawdust and straw escaped the wooden crates and collected in carpet fibers. While the Bissells owned a mechanical carpet sweeper, they found it just wasn’t up to the task. Melville solved the annoying problem by developing a much better mechanical carpet sweeper and patenting it in 1876.

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Bissell Crown Jewell No. 3 carpet sweeper, 1889-1900
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Anna Bissell quickly recognized this improved sweeper’s marketability--American housewives could keep their homes clean even more effectively, reducing the drudgery of housekeeping!  She became the driving force of sales and marketing. The Bissells decided to distribute their product through houseware retailers, rather than door-to-door salesmen. Anna made many sales calls to stores in the Grand Rapids vicinity, succeeding in getting shopkeepers to purchase and display their carpet sweeper.  Soon, hired workmen were turning out 30 sweepers a day on the second floor of the Bissell’s crockery shop to meet demand.

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The left side of this circa 1880 Bissell trade card shows a vexed couple using a broom to clean their carpets. The right side depicts the couple--much happier now--using a Bissell carpet sweeper. (When holding the two-sided card up to the light, the entire message and images appear.) THF184124; T184125

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An image of the Bissell company factory and a list of Bissell carpet sweeper products appear on this 1888 invoice. THF184432

In 1883, Melville Bissell organized a stock company with a paid-up capital of $150,000 and built a five-story factory for manufacturing their carpet sweepers. When the factory burned the following year, the Bissells mortgaged the family home and other property to finance its reconstruction. Soon, the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company was on its way to dominating the field as carpet sweepers grew increasingly popular in the 1880s.

It was essential to not only have a good product--but be adept at marketing it effectively to potential customers. This Bissell trade card lists the many advantages of Bissell carpet sweeper--making it unquestionably better than sweeping with a broom! THF213981

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This "Christmas Bissellisms" advertising brochure suggests that a Bissell carpet sweeper would be a welcome Christmas gift for any woman. THF277410

Tragedy struck when Melville died of pneumonia in 1889 at the age of 45. Anna--now a widow with four children age 21, 7, 4 and 1--stepped in to lead the company. From the company’s beginning, Anna had been intimately involved in business affairs. Anna Bissell served as president of the Bissell company from 1889-1919--the first female CEO in the United States--and then as chair of the board from 1919-1934. She successfully managed the business, defending the company’s patents and marketing the sweepers throughout North America and Europe.

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This circa 1891 Bissell carpet sweeper was sold by J.C. Black & Son at their store, The Fair, in San Jose, California. THF17277

By the 1890s, the company had an international presence and was producing 1000 sweepers per day. In addition to the company’s branch office in New York, the Bissell company established factories in London, Paris, and Toronto, with agencies in 22 foreign countries. A progressive employer, Anna Bissell was among the first business leaders of the time to provide her employees with pension plans and workers compensation.

Melville and Anna Bissell took a risk and thought big. They might have chosen to remain focused on their crockery business. But their collective vision for success went beyond. Bissell carpet sweepers would dominate the mechanical sweeper market, as people “bisselled” their way to cleaner carpets and rugs.

Bissell, Inc. is still a privately-owned, family-led company today, selling a wide range of home care products.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

home life, entrepreneurship, by Jeanine Head Miller, Michigan

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When Jenny Chandler photographed these Brooklyn children playing games about 1900, she also unwittingly provided us with a “cameo” image of herself. The photograph includes her shadow, slightly bent over her camera as she takes the shot. THF 38025


In 1890, 25-year-old Jenny Young Chandler suddenly found herself a widow with a two-month-old baby to provide for. This heart-rending personal loss would take her on an unexpected path--one as a photojournalist and feature writer for the New York Herald, capturing life in Brooklyn, New York and vicinity. Over the next three decades, Chandler’s sensitive, insightful photography would depict people from all walks of life and the world in which they lived--a legacy preserved in over 800 glass plate negatives.

Jenny Chandler was born in 1865 in New Jersey to William Young and Mary Lewis Young. An only child, Jenny was raised by her father and stepmother, Sarah Bennett Young. The family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when Jenny was six, so her father could work as the city editor for the New York Sun newspaper. Jenny followed the normal “career path” for a young lady at that time, marrying William G. Chandler on April 25, 1888. The groom, a neighbor, worked as a sales representative for a picture frame manufacturer. Jenny and William welcomed a son, William Young Chandler, on October 12, 1890. Two months later, Jenny’s husband died of typhoid fever. Chandler unexpectedly needed to earn a living for herself and her child.

When Jenny Chandler embarked on her career, photographs were made by lugging a heavy camera, glass plate negatives and tripod. Understanding how the photo chemicals worked and how light and camera lenses interacted proved to be an exacting task. While photography was growing in popularity as a hobby for young women whose families could afford the equipment, as a profession, it was still considered a male domain. Yet Jenny Chandler mastered the technical details of camera and chemicals, then used her sensitivity and insight as a professional photojournalist to create evocative images of the world around her.

Jenny Chandler’s photographs have an immediacy—a “you are there” quality. She had a remarkable talent for portraying on film the lives of people of diverse economic and ethnic backgrounds. Chandler captured well-off Brooklyn girls and boys playing games, the exuberance of families enjoying the beach at Coney Island, the well-mannered curiosity of students on a museum visit, young girls bent over their sewing tasks, scruffy boys hanging out at the beach, children gathering tomatoes, a fisherman mending his net, shipwrights making wooden boats, and Norwegian immigrant women laboring at their farm work.

In 1922, at the age of 56, Jenny Young Chandler died of a heart ailment. For nearly 10 years, her photographic legacy quietly remained in her Brooklyn home. The subsequent owner of the house, Betty R.K. Pierce--recognizing its importance--contacted Henry Ford hoping “to have Mrs. Chandler’s work preserved in some way.” Mrs. Pierce had read about Henry Ford’s museum and historical village, and thought the photographs particularly related to Ford’s collections. In May 1932, five large boxes containing the carefully packed 800 glass negatives were on their way to Dearborn.

The result of this donation is an amazing document of early 20th century life.

Cynthia Read Miller, former curator, photography & prints, and Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford.

Brooklyn and its environs offered Jenny Chandler a varied palette of urban and rural scenes, wealthy and impoverished people, and daily work life and leisure experiences. Below are a few selections from her remarkable collection of photographs.

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Coney Island’s beaches and amusement parks offered cooling breezes and leisure opportunities to New York City area residents. THF38292

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Girls learn to cook at a trade school. THF38041

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Girls visit a children’s museum in Brooklyn, 1900-1910. THF38128

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A family enjoys an outing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, about 1905. THF 38192

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A photograph of residents in their backyard - a rare “behind the scenes” glimpse of everyday life. THF38085

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Clearing streets of snow. THF38073

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“Tomboy of Darby Patch, Nellie punching bag.” In “The Patch,” a down-at-the-heels part of Brooklyn, the majority of residents were working class Irish immigrants. THF38251

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A gypsy family enjoys an outdoor meal. THF241184

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Boat Builders, New York, 1890-1915. THF38018

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Children in front of a Gowanus Canal house, Brooklyn, New York. Gowanus Canal was a busy - and polluted - domestic shipping canal.   THF38009

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Gathering radishes in Ridgewood. Ridgewood - a neighborhood that straddled the Queens/Brooklyn boundary - remained largely rural until about 1900. Buildings in the background attest to the increasing urbanization of the area. THF38392

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Norwegian immigrant women laboring at their farm work, about 1900. THF38397

It was so difficult to choose only a few of Jenny Chandler’s photographs! You can enjoy hundreds more of her images in our digital collections.

by Jeanine Head Miller, by Cynthia Read Miller, photography, Jenny Young Chandler, women's history, photographs

Many of us have been baking a bit more than usual while staying at home. So, let’s take look at how America’s favorite cookie, the chocolate chip, was born.

Before we get to chocolate chips, let’s talk chocolate. It’s made from the beans of the cacao tree and was introduced by the Aztec and Mayan peoples to Europeans in the late 1500s.  Then a dense, frothy beverage thickened with cornmeal and flavored with chilies, vanilla, and spices, it was used in ancient ceremonies.

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Map of the Americas, 1550. THF284540

Colonial Americans imported cacao from the West Indies. They consumed it as a hot beverage, made from ground cacao beans, sugar, vanilla and water, and served it in special chocolate pots.

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Chocolate Pot, 1760-1790  THF145291

In the 1800s, chocolate made its way into an increasing number of foods, things like custards, puddings, and cookies, and onto chocolate-covered candy. It was not just for drinking anymore!

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Trade Card, Granite Ironware, 1880-1890 THF299872

Today, most Americans say chocolate is their favorite flavor. Are you a milk or dark chocolate fan? My vote? Dark chocolate.

Cookies were special treats into the early 1800s; sweeteners were costly and cookies took more time and labor to make. Imagine easing them in and out of a brick fireplace over with a long-handled peel.

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Detail of late 18th century kitchen in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. See the kitchen for yourself with this virtual visit.

As kitchen technology improved in the early 1900s, especially the ability to regulate oven temperature, America’s cookie repertoire grew.

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Detail of 1930s kitchen in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. See the kitchen yourself with this virtual visit

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Until the 1930s, baking chocolate was melted in a double boiler before being added to cookie dough. Check out this 1920 recipe for Chocolate Mousse from our historic recipe bank.   

Then came Ruth Graves Wakefield and the chocolate chip cookie. Ruth, a graduate of the Framingham State Normal School of Household Arts, had taught high school home economics and had worked as a dietitian. 

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Image: "Overlooked No More: Ruth Wakefield, Who Invented the Chocolate Chip Cookie" from The New York Times

In 1930, 27-year-old Ruth and her husband Kenneth opened a restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts called the Toll House Inn. The building had never been a toll house, but was located on an early road between Boston and New Bedford. The restaurant would grow from seven tables to 60. 

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Toll House Inn business card, 1930s. THF183299

A quick aside: our 1820s Rocks Village Toll House in Greenfield Village. Early travelers paid tolls to use roads or cross bridges. This one collected fares for crossing the Merrimack River.   

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Rocks Village, Massachusetts toll house in Greenfield Village. THF2033

With Ruth Wakefield’s background in household arts, she was well-prepared to put together a menu for her restaurant. It was a great location. The Toll House Inn served not only the locals, but people passing through on their way between Boston and Cape Cod. 

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Toll House Inn business card, 1930s. THF18330

Over time, Ruth’s reputation grew, and the restaurant became well-known for her skillful cooking, wonderful desserts, and excellent service.  On the back of this circa 1945 Toll House Inn postcard, a customer wrote: “…down here two weeks ago & had a grand dinner.” 

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Toll House Inn postcard, about 1945. THF183298

Ruth Wakefield, curious and willing to experiment, liked to create new dishes and desserts to delight her customers. The inn had been serving a butterscotch cookie--which everyone loved--but Ruth wanted to “give them something different.”

About 1938, Ruth had an inspiration. She chopped up a Nestle’s semisweet chocolate bar with an ice pick and stirred the bits into her sweet butter cookie batter.  The chocolate bits melted--and didn’t spread, remaining in chunks throughout the dough.    

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Recipe Booklet, "Favorite Chocolate Recipes made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate," 1940. THF125196

Legend has it that the cookies were an accident--that Ruth had expected to get all-chocolate cookies when the chocolate melted. One of those “creation myths?” A great marketing tale? Ruth was a meticulous cook and food science savvy. She said it was a deliberate experiment.

The marriage of sweet, buttery cookie dough and semisweet chocolate was a hit--the cookies quickly became popular with guests. Ruth shared the recipe when asked. Local newspapers published it.  And she included it in the 1938 edition of her “Tried and True Recipes” cookbook.

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The Toll House, Whitman, Massachusetts, circa 1945. THF183297

Nestle’s saw sales of its semisweet chocolate bar jump dramatically in New England--especially after the cookie was featured on a local radio show.  When Nestle discovered why, they signed a contract with Ruth Wakefield, allowing Nestle to print the recipe on every package. 

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Nestle’s truck, 1934. Z0001194


Nestle began scoring its semisweet chocolate bar, packaging it with a small chopper for easy cutting into morsels. The result was chocolate “chips”--hence the name.   

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Recipe Booklet, "Favorite Chocolate Recipes made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate," 1940. THF125194

In 1939, Nestle introduced semisweet morsels. Baking Toll House Cookies became even more convenient, since you didn’t have to cut the chocolate into pieces.

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Toll House Cookies and Other Favorite Chocolate Recipes Made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate, 1941. THF183303

Nestle included the Toll House Cookie “backstory” and the recipe in booklets promoting their semisweet chocolate. 

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During World War II, Nestle encouraged people to send Toll House Cookies to soldiers. For many, it was their first taste of a chocolate chip cookie--its popularity spread beyond New England.

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Advertisement, "His One Weakness, Toll House Cookies from Home" November 1943. 
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The homemaker in this 1940s Nestle’s ad celebrates her success as a hostess when serving easy-to-make Toll House Cookies. Chocolate chips would, indeed, soon become our “national cookie.” 

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They Never Get Enough of My Toll-House Cookies!, 1945-1950. THF183304

Chocolate chip morsels were a great idea, so other companies followed suit.

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Recipe Leaflet, "9 Famous Recipes for Hershey's Semi-Sweet Chocolate Dainties," 1956. THF295928

Other delectable treats, like these “Chocolate Refresher” bars shown in this 1960 ad, can be made with chocolate morsels. The possibilities are endless.

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Nestle's Semi-Sweet Morsels Advertisement, "Goody for You," 1960. THF43907

More from The Henry Ford: Enjoy a quick “side trip” to this blog about more American chocolate classics.

Holiday baking is a cherished tradition for many. Chocolate chip cookies are frequently a key player in the seasonal repertoire. Hallmark captured holiday baking memories in this ornament.

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Hallmark "Christmas Cookies" Christmas Ornament, 2004. THF177747

The museum’s 1946 Lamy’s Diner serves Toll House Cookies. Whip up a batch of chocolate chips at home and enjoy a virtual visit

Cookie dough + chocolate chips = America’s favorite cookie! It may have been simple, but no one else had ever tried it before! Hats off to Ruth Wakefield!

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Toll House Cookies and Other Favorite Chocolate Recipes Made with Nestle's Semi-Sweet Chocolate, 1941. THF183301

After all this talk of all things chocolate, are you ready for a cookie? This well-known cookie lover probably is!

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Cookie Monster Toy Clock, 1982-1986. THF318447 

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

restaurants, women's history, recipes, food, entrepreneurship, by Jeanine Head Miller, #THFCuratorChat

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With mail order catalogs, rural Americans could choose from among a much wider variety of goods than at their local general store. THF119939 and THF115221

Today, shopping opportunities are everywhere—as a way to purchase things we need, as well as leisure time entertainment. We cruise the mall, trod the aisles of big-box stores, browse the shelves of trendy boutiques, roll our carts down the grocery store aisle, stop off at the convenience store, flip through store catalogs delivered to our door, and shop online. We can even shop from the convenience of our smartphone or tablet. Shopping is now a 24-7 opportunity filled with endless choices of goods made all over the world.

During the late 19th century, things were quite different. Most Americans lived on farms or in small villages--shopping choices were limited. Yet, the advent of mail order shopping was opening up a world of new possibilities.

Shopping Locally
Where did most rural people shop during the late 19th century? Usually the small stores located at a nearby village or town or perhaps a general store located at a country crossroads.  These stores provided a narrow selection of items that served the needs of the locals, yet offered shoppers the tactile experience of handling the goods before deciding to purchase. Factories were turning out consumer goods of all kinds, advertising trumpeted the merits of the products to potential customers, and railroads made it easier to get those goods to rural stores as well urban ones—so rural shoppers in America’s hinterland could obtain some of the same or similar items found in the city. 

Still—small town shopkeepers couldn’t afford to stock an endless variety of merchandise to broaden their customers’ choices. So, instead of selecting from dozens of shoe styles or tableware patterns, or printed fabric designs, rural customers often made their choices from whatever goods were at hand in the local merchant’s store.

Mail Order Shopping Debuts
During the final decades of the 19th century, America’s farmers developed a growing discontent towards institutions they felt were stealing too large a share of their hard-earned profits: “middlemen” like the grain elevator operators who they felt were paying too low a price for their crops and the storekeepers who they felt charged them too high a price for the goods they bought at retail. Farmers organized themselves into “the Patrons of Husbandry,” also known as the Grange, to protest these inequities as well as seek opportunities to form cooperatives through which they could purchase goods at wholesale prices.

Aaron Montgomery Ward of Chicago recognized that his innovative idea for direct-mail marketing meshed well with this growing discontent on the part of farmers. In 1872, Montgomery Ward & Company launched what would become the first general mail order company in American history.  Advertising his company as “The Original Wholesale Grange Supply House,” Ward stated that the firm sold its goods to “Patrons of Husbandry, Farmers and Mechanics at Wholesale Prices.” His recipe for success—high volume, a wide selection of goods, ease of handling, and low prices—enabled Ward to extend the advantages found in urban marketplace directly to rural customers.

As Montgomery Ward & Company’s mail order business quickly grew, other companies joined in. The other mail order giant, Sears, Roebuck and Company, also located in Chicago, began offering mail order in 1888.  By 1900, these two mail order houses were the two greatest merchandisers in the world. Countless other firms offered a variety of goods from ready-made clothing to hardware and farm equipment, using the direct-marketing of mail order to extend their reach to customers all over the nation.

Mail order catalogs brought city and country together. The enticing products shown on their pages represented the new and modern to their rural readers, promising higher standards of living and material progress through the attractive goods and labor-saving devices displayed there. Mail order catalogs offered rural residents a “taste” of the urban experience, offering goods found in the shops and department stores that blossomed in the commercial districts of America’s burgeoning cities. Catalogs, of course, broadened the merchandise selection for some city people as well.

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Montgomery Ward & Company launched America’s first general mail order company.  Over 22 years later, their 1894-1895 catalog still proudly trumpeted this fact:  “Originators of the Mail Order Business.”
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A Cornucopia of Material Delights
Flipping through these mail order catalogs brought a visual feast of tens of thousands of products—some satisfying needs and some gratifying wants.  For a farm family whose lives and daily activities brought little variety, these catalogs opened a world of new material possibilities:  fashionable ready-made clothing, hats and hat trimmings, jewelry of all kinds, sewing machines, cook stoves, and hardware for use on the farm or stylish hinges to update farmhouse doors. Even carriages and automobiles could be shopped for by mail.  

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The northern Indiana family shown in this circa 1900 parlor photograph could have obtained many of the goods by mail order—even the piano. 
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The photograph above depicts a middle-class family from a farm or small town surrounded by the mass-produced goods that provided an attractive, comfortable lifestyle.  Many of the items could have been purchased from a mail order catalog. (Keep in mind that, while rural residents might have access to many of the same goods, they often had far less spending power than urban America.)

Delivering the Catalogs—and the Goods

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From placing the order to delivery of the goods, the image on the cover of this 1880s Jordan Marsh catalog suggests the ease of “successful” shopping by mail—allaying any concerns for those new to the process.  THF119786

Mail order catalogs came to farmers—not surprisingly--through the mail. Yet, for many years, that did not mean convenient delivery to their doorstep. Though city dwellers had enjoyed free home delivery of mail since 1863, rural residents still had to pick up their own mail at the nearest post office—even though they paid the same postage as the rest of the nation. Bad roads and distance often meant that farmers rarely picked up their mail more than once a week. So placing a catalog order could take longer for farm folk than city dwellers.  A farm family might pick up a catalog on a trip to town one week, then place the order the next time someone went to town. Payment for mail orders was made by money order, purchased through the post office.
In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added.  In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

In 1896, the success of mail order retailing helped encourage the introduction of rural free delivery, which began as an experiment with mail being delivered at no charge to customers on a few rural routes.  Delivering mail throughout the countryside soon proved successful and sustainable, and additional routes continued to be added. In July 1902, rural free delivery became a permanent service. Now all rural Americans enjoyed mail delivery to their homes, opening their mailboxes to find not only letters from family and friends, but a growing number of mail order catalogs presenting enticing goods for their consideration.

How did merchandise ordered get to the person who ordered it? Before the advent of rural free delivery, people could pick up small packages at the post office. Private express companies delivered larger packages shipped to the nearest railroad station, transporting them to the customer’s home. Farmers might use their own wagons to transport goods shipped by rail to them. 

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Heavy or large packages sent by mail were shipped to the local railroad station.  An express company would then deliver them to the customer.  If the customer owned a horse-drawn wagon, they might pick up the package at the railroad station themselves.
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After the beginning of rural free delivery, mail carriers delivered packages weighing up to four pounds to their customers’ mailboxes. By law, heavier packages had to be delivered by private express companies.  

In January 1913, the U.S. Postal Service established parcel post—now goods could be delivered directly to homes. It was an instant success, boosting mail-order businesses enormously. During the first five days of parcel post service nearly 1,600 post offices handled over 4 million parcel post packages. Within the first six months, 300 million parcels had been delivered. Weight and size limits were gradually expanded. By 1931, parcel post deliveries included packages weighing up to 70 pounds and measuring up to 100 inches.

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In the early years of rural mail delivery, farmers could use whatever was at hand as a mailbox—pails, cans or wooden crates. When rural free delivery became permanent and universal in 1902, the United States Post Office required rural customers to have regulation mailboxes in order to receive their mail.
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Something Gained, Something Lost
While catalog shopping brought variety and convenience to rural Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century, there was an important trade-off. The face-to-face communication and personal relationship that had existed between a local storekeeper and his customers was eroding, helped along by national advertising which told potential customers what to buy—rather than customers seeking the advice of the storekeeper. Too, stores became increasingly self-serve. This trend toward less personal, “non-local” shopping continued to grow throughout the 20th century for rural and urban people alike, involving not only orders by mail, but by phone and, eventually, the internet.  In the 21st century, sales of consumer goods increasingly take place online. 

Yet, more recently, people have come to value the attentive personal service offered and unique goods stocked by many local retailers. Many shoppers combine the advantages of shopping online for the wide variety goods available there, with the personal touch and service-oriented experience of shopping locally. Encouraging this shop-local trend are national campaigns like Small Business Saturday, which takes place Thanksgiving weekend, encouraging shoppers to patronize small retailers.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

shopping, mail order, by Jeanine Head Miller

Nostalgia for those who experienced it—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others.

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The Visits with Santa experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation this year is a throwback to the 1960s. Kids can tell Santa their wishes as they sit next to him under a colorful kiosk made by Ray and Charles Eames for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  Nearby is a cozy 1960s living room vignette—complete with a La-Z-Boy chair, television set, and an aluminum Christmas tree from the era.

This mid-century modern theme coincides with the opening of our newest permanent exhibit in the museum, Mathematica, also designed by Ray and Charles. Several components of Mathematica were featured inside that IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, so we were excited to bring those two experiences together for this year’s holiday programming.

The scene provides a bit of nostalgia for those who experienced the 1960s—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others. Let’s look at some blasts from the 1960s Christmas past.

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Aluminum trees brought a modern look to a mid-1960s Christmas.  THF170112

The early 1960s brought a fresh, new look to Christmas tree aesthetics.  A completely modern look--the aluminum Christmas tree.   It made a shiny, metallic splash in living rooms all over America.  More than a million trees were sold during the decade.   A tree choice that eschewed the traditional pine- or fir-scented Christmas experience when it landed on the Christmas scene in the 1960s, now conjures up images of a retro Christmas past.

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Color wheel sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, 1960-1965.  THF8379

A color wheel lit up the aluminum tree, with the tree changing from blue to red to green to gold as the wheel revolved.  The color wheel was there for a practical reason—you couldn’t put strings of lights on aluminum trees because of fire safety concerns.   But to those viewing the transformation, the color wheel seemed a no-brainer way to light these trees—so modern and so magical.  It was mesmerizing to watch—whether from a front row seat in your living room or the view through your neighbor’s window.

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The Smith family of Redford, Michigan purchased these ornaments in 1964 to hang on their aluminum Christmas tree.  THF309083

Aluminum trees called for minimalist look. The trees were often sparingly decked with ornaments all of one color. 

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The Wojewidka siblings pose for a Christmas photo in front of their live tree in 1960.  THF125145

Yet, “real” trees remained popular as well—fresh-cut trees chosen from one of the many temporary Christmas tree lots that popped up in cities and towns. (The cut-your-own trend was not yet widespread.)  Scotch pines were favored by many—though there were diehard balsam fans as well.  These trees were bedecked with a varied array of ornaments—glass ones by the Shiny Brite company were popular. And shiny “icicles”—made of lead before it was prohibited—hung from the branches to add to the sparkle.

Holiday Greetings in the Mail

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By the early 1960s, Christmas cards offered a greater variety of seasonal images beyond those traditionally found. This image shows a woman clothed in a pine tree decorated with 1960s trendy-colored ornaments.   THF287028  

By mid-December, mailboxes were filling with Christmas cards, sent by family and friends to let the recipient know that they were being specially thought of during the holiday season. It was exciting to pull out handfuls of cards from the mailbox—it may have been the only time during the year when a kid had much interest in what the postman delivered. And not necessarily because of the cards themselves—the cards were a tangible sign that Christmas was indeed on its way and that Santa would soon be making his deliveries!  

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Christmas card display clothesline and pins, about 1964. THF155082   

Where did people display all these Christmas cards? On a mantle, a table, or the top of the television. Or taped to a wall or a large mirror in the living room. Hanging them from a Christmas-themed clothesline was a more novel way to display them.

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This 1962 stamp carried traditional Christmas images of lighted candles and a wreath.  THF287036

In 1962, the United States Postal Service issued the first Christmas-themed postage stamps in America. (A few other countries had already beaten us to the punch on issuing Christmas-themed postage stamps.) But once begun, Christmas stamps graced more and more Christmas card envelopes to complete the annual presentation of holiday-themed greetings sent through the mail. 

Making a List

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Christmas catalogs like this 1964 Sears, Roebuck & Company got a workout in December. THF135874

Kids were busy deciding what to ask Santa for. Instead of perusing the web, kids looked forward to the arrival of Christmas season catalogs sent by stores like Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward.  Kids (and adults) eagerly leafed through the pages of the toys, clothing, and other gifts offered within, making their wish list for Santa’s perusal before passing the catalog along to another family member.

Television offered additional gift ideas, playing out the merits of products before viewers’ eyes in commercials that one couldn’t speed past with a DVR.

Toys for Girls and Boys
Many 1960s toys that appeared on the Christmas lists of millions of kids during the 1960s—some in updated versions—are still classics.

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Silly Putty modeling compound, about 1962.  THF135811

Silly Putty was invented during World War II as General Electric researchers worked to develop a synthetic substitute for rubber.  While no practical purpose could be found for the stuff, it did turn out to be a great toy. Silly Putty bounced higher and stretched farther than rubber.  It even lifted images off the pages of color comics. (My sister took Silly Putty to bed with her, leaving a perfect egg-shaped stain on the sheets that never came out.)

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Eight-year-old Rachel Marone of New York received this Etch A Sketch as s Christmas gift in 1961.  THF93827

The 1960s saw an innovative new arts and crafts toy—the Etch A Sketch. Turning the knobs at the bottom of the screen (one to create horizontal lines, one for vertical) let the user “draw” on the screen with a mixture of aluminum powder and plastic beads. To erase, you just turned the screen over and shook it.  Incidentally, it was the first toy that Ohio Art, its manufacturer, ever advertised on television.  (Accomplished users could make great drawings on the Etch A Sketch—and some of us were just happy to produce decent-looking curved lines.)

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This 1962 Play-Doh Fun Factory was a childhood toy of Mary Sherman of Minnesota.  THF170363

Play-Doh introduced their Fun Factory in 1960. Now kids could go beyond free-form modeling with their red, yellow, blue and white Play-Doh. The Play-Doh Fun Factory provided instructions on how to create things like trains, planes, and boats—and an extruder with dies to easily make the components. 

Watching Christmas Specials on TV

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Album from A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, about 1965.  THF162745

Kids eagerly listened for announcements on television or leafed excitedly through TV Guide magazine to find out when the holiday specials would air.  You didn’t want to miss them—it was your only shot at watching!  There were no DVRs or DVDs back then. Two animated classics from the mid-1960s--A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas--are among the earliest and most enduring of the Christmas specials developed for television.  

Within their engaging storylines, these two shows carried a message about the growing commercialization of the holiday.  As kids watched the barrage of toy ads that appeared with regularity on their television screens and leafed through catalogs to make their Christmas lists, seeing these cartoons reminded them that Christmas was also about higher ideals—not just about getting presents.  These television shows—and the increasing number and variety of Christmas specials that have since joined them—remain a yearly reminder to temper one’s holiday-related commercialism and to think of the needs of others. 

Not only have Charlie Brown and the Grinch become perennial favorites enjoyed by children and adults alike, but the soundtracks of these shows have joined the pantheon of musical Christmas classics. 

Christmas Music

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The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, with its freshly melodic “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong ding” background vocals on this 1963 Phil Spector-produced album, has become an iconic Christmas classic. THF135943

What would a 1960s Christmastime be without Christmas-themed music heard on the stereo at home and over speakers in stores? The 1960s saw a flood of Christmas albums and singles. Various singers—like Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Beach Boys—recorded their versions of old favorites and new tunes.   

The Annual Christmas Photo

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In 1963, the Truby brothers of Royal Oak, Michigan, posed in Santa pajamas given to them by their grandmother. THF287005

After the presents were opened and everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery, it was time to round up the kids for photos. Siblings (and, sometimes, their parents) might be posed together in front of a seasonal backdrop like the Christmas tree or a fireplace. Some families filmed home movies of their celebrations. These home movies often captured only strategic snippets of the Christmas celebration—movie film was expensive. And these home movies were without sound—which was probably sometimes a good thing!

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

correspondence, events, Henry Ford Museum, popular culture, by Jeanine Head Miller, toys, holidays, Christmas

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This alphabet quilt, likely made in Berks County, Pennsylvania, dates from about 1910.   THF168579  (Purchased through the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund.)

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G—   H, I, J, K, L-M-N-O-P—.… Now I know my ABCs”

The alphabet song gave us a fun way to learn our ABCs—and the order of the letters.  (I don’t know about you, but I sometimes still find myself singing it as I alphabetize something.)  Even before kids head off to school, we not only sing the alphabet song to them, but surround them with images of alphabet letters—on building blocks, children’s dishes, and even, wallpaper—to help them learn their ABCs. 

Alphabet letters also appear on quilts. Quilt block patterns published in the 20th century made it easier to plan and create these quilts. In 1906, Ladies Art Company, a mail order business that published hundreds of quilt patterns, offered a series of alphabet block designs. The Henry Ford’s alphabet quilt was likely made using these patterns.

The letters on this alphabet quilt may look like they are curved—but they are actually made up of triangles, squares, rectangles and trapezoids.  The letter blocks were designed to avoid curved seams, which are more difficult to execute than these other geometric shapes. Yet, even using these Ladies Art Company patterns offered challenges.  Some letters, like the G and Q, required more intricate piecing.  Some quiltmakers simply deviated a bit in piecing the blocks for these, and other letters.  Our quiltmaker managed the Q, but made a few small changes in creating the G.

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Though working from the same pattern, each individual quiltmaker created her own unique quilt through her choice of fabric, the exact arrangement of the letter blocks, the design of the sashing and borders, and the quilt patterns used in the decorative corner blocks that complete the quilt. Some quiltmakers arranged the letter blocks in rows of three and five. Others placed them in four rows of five letter blocks—and then figured out what to do with the leftover Z! Our quilt maker tucked the Z into one corner, creating a delightfully whimsical effect.

We don’t really know who made this quilt, or who they made it for.  But it is easy to imagine a child cuddling with this charming alphabet quilt—and learning his or her letters at the same time.

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making, design, by Jeanine Head Miller, quilts

mccords

Susan McCord (at far right) with family at the McCord farm, about 1904.  (with Susan, from left to right:  Susan’s daughter Millie McCord Canaday, husband Green McCord, granddaughter Ruth Canaday). Right: Susan and Green McCord, about 1885. EI.1929.2222

On her family’s farm near McCordsville, Indiana, Susan Noakes McCord (1829-1909) made meals for her husband and children, cleaned the house, sewed and mended the family’s clothing, knitted accessories, cared for the chickens, milked cows, tended the vegetable and flower gardens, read her Bible through each year, and participated in community gatherings.

In her “spare” time, she also made exquisite quilts. Exceptional quilts.

This ordinary Indiana farmwife had an extraordinary genius for designing and making quilts. Her “palette?”  Like other resourceful housewives of her time, Susan used materials that she had on hand: scraps of cotton prints or dress velvets left over from making her family’s clothing. She also cut usable fabric from the family’s worn-out clothing. Susan made some of her quilts in patterns then popular. And she likely used the flowers in her garden as further inspiration. 

But what Susan created with these everyday materials, the inspiration she found around her, and her rich imagination was stunning. Susan could manipulate fabric, color, and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary. Her workmanship was equally superb. She joined her quilt top, the layer of filling, and the backing with thousands of tiny, even stitches—averaging 10 to the inch.

THF95129Floral Urn by Susan McCord, about 1860. THF 95129

Susan’s Floral Urn quilt is reminiscent of album quilts made of large appliqué floral or wreath blocks that were popular during the mid-19th century. But Susan's version is exceptionally imaginative. Susan's love of gardening likely inspired the fuchsia, tulips, and daisies which spill whimsically from the urns.

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Ocean Waves Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1880. THF 95131

This Ocean Waves quilt pattern was well-known in the late 19th century. But in Susan's hands the design is breathtakingly executed, formed of hundreds of tiny half-inch triangles cut from printed cotton fabrics. Susan finished the borders of this quilt with her unique meandering vines with colorful pieced leaves.

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Fan Variation Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1900. THF 95136

In the late 19th century, decorative "crazy" quilts -- made from silk, velvet, and wool scraps stitched together "crazily" and embellished with embroidery -- were all the rage. This quilt is a variation of a crazy quilt design called fans. Most quilters placed a fan in just one corner of a block. Susan sewed fans of varying sizes in each corner. Then she joined the blocks together to form "wheels" that dazzle with a sense of motion and energy.

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Vine Quilt by Susan McCord, 1880-1890. THF 95128

This stunningly beautiful quilt is Susan's masterpiece. This trailing vine design is a Mc original. Susan pieced together printed and solid cotton fabric scraps to create the over 300 leaves on each of the 13 vine panels. Susan used variations of this vine in the borders of several quilts. But Susan's vine design is rendered to perfection in this work of genius.

Do I sound like a member of the Susan McCord Fan Club? I am—along with hundreds of her other admirers. 

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making, by Jeanine Head Miller, women's history, quilts, design

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Pig Pen Variation and Mosaic Medallion Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73662

African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel. Created from the 1930s to the 1970s, Susana Hunter's quilts reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the poorest counties in the United States.

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Strip Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73619


Susana Hunter made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life.

Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among both blacks and whites in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South. People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever was available in the local store.  These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations.  

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Bedsheet Pieced Together from Commercial Sugar Sacks by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1970. THF94355

Making an improvisational quilt top required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand.  Overall visual impact mattered most—not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape.  Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.

Creative recycling such as this was not only a means of survival. For many rural quilters, it was also a matter of pride to be able to "make something pretty out of nothing." Represented in the fabrics that make up Susana Hunter's quilts are work clothes worn from the family's toil in the fields, sacks from the cotton seed they planted each spring, scraps from the clothes Susana sewed for her family, and bulk sugar sacks from the food staples the Hunters bought in bulk at the local general store. 

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Sewing Thimble Used by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1969. THF93486

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Handmade Fan Used by Susana Allen Hunter. THF44759


For Susana and her husband Julius, life often meant hard work and few resources.  The Hunters were tenant farmers who grew cotton and corn, tended a vegetable garden, and raised hogs, chicken and cattle. They lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. The outside world came to them through a battery-powered radio and a wind-up phonograph. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest 20th century technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food. 

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Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. THF125834

Susana Hunter wanted all of her quilts to be different. Some of her quilt designs have a warm, homey feel. Many resemble abstract art. Other quilts pulsate with the visual energy created by many small, irregular pieces of vividly-colored fabric sewn together. Still others incorporate cornmeal or rice sacks, often reserved for quilt backing, as part of the design of the carefully-pieced quilt top.

Susana's quilts warmed her family during chilly Alabama winters in the inadequately heated home.  They added splashes of color to the unadorned living space—a cheerful kaleidoscope of vivid pattern and design against newspaper-covered walls.  Susana very rarely bought new fabric for her quilts, she used what was at hand.  Yet the lack of materials didn't restrict this resourceful quilter's creativity.  Susana Hunter could cast her artistic eye over her pile of worn clothing, dress scraps, and left-over feed and fertilizer sacks—and envision her next quilt.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

African American history, women's history, quilts, making, design, by Jeanine Head Miller

People often send us letters offering items for our collection. Recently, I received a letter in the mail that surprised and absolutely delighted me.

 

Among the notable collections of The Henry Ford are 12 quilts made by an exceptionally talented, unassuming Indiana farm wife named Susan McCord (1829-1909). I opened the letter to find that the family of McCord’s great-grandson was offering us the opportunity to acquire one more: a Triple Irish Chain quilt made for her daughter, Millie McCord Canaday, about 1900.

 

Name tag

 

It was the last remaining quilt known to have been made by Susan McCord. Soon after, this beauty was on its way to Dearborn to join the other 12 McCord quilts in The Henry Ford’s collection.

 

The Triple Irish Chain is a traditional quilt pattern — but in Susan McCord’s hands, this design became much more. Like all of her quilts, the Triple Irish Chain demonstrates McCord's considerable skill at manipulating fabric, color and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary.

 

Quilt detail

 

I could easily imagine Susan McCord carefully choosing fabric from her bag of scraps, cutting it into thousands of fabric squares, carefully determining their placement within the overall design and sewing the squares together. I could picture McCord then topping off this creation with her utterly unique, “signature” design — a stunning vine border, the leaves expertly pieced from tiny scraps of fabric. And it certainly wasn’t hard to imagine Millie McCord’s delight when she received this lovely gift!

 

To all who see Susan McCord’s quilts - whether experts or casual observers - the remarkable beauty and craftsmanship is evident. Now beautifully photographed, the story of this quilt can be readily accessed through our online collections – so that anyone, near or far, can enjoy McCord's quilt at the click of a mouse.

 

Do you have any special family quilts or other handmade heirlooms? Share your story in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

 

Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford, is an unabashed Susan McCord “groupie.”

making, by Jeanine Head Miller, women's history, quilts, design