Materials: Wood, Metal
This object is a Singer Sewing Machine, it was made by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Singer is an American company, founded by Isaac Merritt Singer and Edward Cabot Clark, that has been making sewing machines since 1851. The Singer sewing machine was the first sewing machine that was designed for home use, rather than factory production. The first machine had the basic eye-needle and lockstitch that was patented by Elias Howe. The basic eye-needle, also known as the universal needle it has a rounded point and is used to sew on woven or knitted fabrics. The lockstitch is the most basic stitch that creates a straight line by interlocking two threads together one from the top and the other from the bottom.
Isaac Singer was born October 27, 1811 the eighth son of poor German immigrants in Pittstown, New York. Isaac went to work as a mechanic and cabinetmaker when he was a young man. He designed his first invention when he was working for a manufacturing plant that made wooden type for printers. He created a machine that was better at carving the wooden type. It was in 1850 that Isaac saw a sewing machine being made and decided that he could make a better version of the machine.
The first sewing machine that Isaac made was too bulky and expensive to be attractive to housewives, which were his target customers. But after awhile Isaac was able to come up with a mass production version, which had interchangeable parts and brought the price down to $10. In the 1850s that was equivalent to around $295 today. Isaac continued to upgrade the design and his company began offering the assistance of repair mechanics and sewing instructors. The company and the machine became a household name by 1863 when Ebenezer Butterick, a tailor, started selling the first graded dress patterns. Singer still makes sewing machines today, the only times that the company stopped manufacturing them was during World War I and II, when the factory was tasked with making weapons to support the war effort. Once the wars were over the company went back to making sewing machines and other accessories for them. [Illa Bennett, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]
Materials: Metal, Wood
This object is a charcoal iron from Hungary. A charcoal iron is an early version of a modern clothes iron that we use today. The reason it is called a charcoal iron is, because it has a container inside its base where burning charcoal is placed to heat it up. The holes that line the base allow air to circulate and keep the charcoal embers burning. Sometimes there is a funnel or a chimney that directs the smoke through the top of the iron keeping the it away from the clothes.
The charcoal iron is a step up from the stones, glass, and presses that were used in Europe when people first started ironing clothes. But there was a similar contraption used in Asia as early as the 1st century B.C. Women would iron clothes with a pot heated with coals, while stretching clothes taut. In the Middle Ages sad irons, also called flat irons, were being made out of stones and metals that are able to hold heat for a long period of time. Some of these materials were cast iron and soapstone. The way that these irons are used is by heating them up in a fire or on a stove top. The reason that this iron is called a sad iron is because; sald is an old English word for “solid.” In modern English the sad iron would be solid iron. Sad irons were still used even after the invention of the charcoal iron, up until the 1880s when the first electric iron was invented.
Between the charcoal iron and the sad iron, the sad iron was preferred, because although the charcoal iron was easier to use, it produced a lot of smoke from the coals. The sad iron had its faults too. For one it was not easy to use. It was solid piece of metal with an attached metal handle, meaning that the handle would also heat up. To keep from burning your hands a cloth pad, like a pot holder, had to be wrapped around the handle. The iron would also cool down fast, which meant that you would have to wait for it to reheat, or you would need to have two for continuous ironing; one heating up while you ironed with the other. But around 1870 Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa made an iron with a detachable handle and a base with two points. This made it easier to handle without burning your hands and made it possible to move the iron back and forth without having to pick it up. [Illa Bennett, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]
Materials: Wood, Glass
This object is a washboard, which was used to wash clothes. Before there were a washing machines and dryers to clean and dry our clothes a washboard and a clothesline were everyday household items. But this was a step up from how clothes were washed before the washboard was introduced into Western Europe. They would have to soak and beat clothes with washing bats to clean them. Some Eastern European countries like Norway and Finland have had washboards made from wood with notches carved into them for centuries but it was not officially patented until 1797. The first washboards were made entirely of wood, but in the 19th Century steel and zinc ridges replaced the wooden ones, but they still had a wooden frame. Later into the 19th century and early 20th century glass washboards, like the one pictured above, were introduced but were not as commonly used as the ones made from metal.
The way to wash clothes with a washboard would be by setting up two tubs one with hot water and another with warm or room temperature water. Once the water is in the tubs you then add the dirty clothes to the tub with hot water in it. It is suggested that the clothes are allowed to sit in the water to loosen up any dirt or stains, but it is not a necessary step to the process. After putting the clothes in the water you will then set the washboard in the tub with the clothes. The soap is then applied; it can be applied in one of three ways. 1) By shaving some off of a bar of soap and adding it into the water. 2) By scrubbing a bar of soap against the washboard. 3) By scrubbing a bar of soap against the clothes themselves. Any way you want to do it you will be adding soap to the clothes and the water. After the soap is applied, the clothes are then be scrubbed one-by-one against the washboard until they are clean. After a piece of clothing has been scrubbed it is then wrung out of any excess water and soap, then rinsed and repeated until the all of the soap is rinsed away. Some people had a machine that would wring the clothes out for them instead of having to do it by hand. After the clothes have been washed they are hung up on a wash line, which consists of a wire or a piece of twine tied between two objects, usually two posts are used, but in cities the line is more often strung between buildings. [Illa Bennett, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]
This object is a Swedish women’s vest. It is part of a traditional costume made in 1922 in County Skane, Sweden. Costumes like this can still be seen worn by women of Swedish descent during celebrations of Swedish culture.
The first Swedish immigrant to enter Texas was Swen Magnus Swenson in 1838. He was an entrepreneur who started many businesses throughout his life, and founded SMS Ranches in west Texas- consisting of more than 300,000 acres. He became a wealthy man due to his cotton plantation, and in 1844, he was joined by his uncle- Swante Palm– who was the first person to emigrate from Sweden with the goal of living in Texas. Up until that point, most Swedish immigrants entered through Ellis Island in New York and established communities in the Northeast and Midwest.
In 1848, Swenson was convinced by his friend, Sam Houston, to bring more Swedish families to Texas. The first group he brought over consisted of twenty-five people, mostly family and friends. Swenson and his uncle then began operating an informal immigration company, initially paying people’s travel expenses to Texas from Sweden. In turn, these people would pay back their credit by working as indentured labor on Swenson’s ranch.
By 1850, Swenson sold his ranch in west Texas and purchased 100,000 acres around Austin. He continued his efforts in immigration throughout his life, establishing the strongest concentrations of Swedish-Americans, first around Austin, then fanning out to Dallas, Ft. Worth, and Waco.
People left Sweden mainly for economic and political reasons. Population growth made farmland scarce, and the overpopulation made it nearly impossible for families to support themselves. Another factor was the growing resentment against the Swedish Lutheran State Church, which was repressing the citizens and emphasizing the snobbery of the Swedish monarchy. As with most other immigration groups, the promise of personal freedom, open spaces, and uncharted land attracted many to a new life in Texas.
By 1900, more than 4,000 Swedes were in Texas. They proved to be hardworking and successful in business as well as ranching and farming. Swedish immigrants were responsible for building churches and colleges, including Texas Wesleyan College in Austin and Trinity Lutheran College in Round Rock.
More than 160,000 Texans claim Swedish ancestry today. Through organizations such as the Linneas Society, Vasa Lodges, New Sweden Cultural Heritage Society, and the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation, Swedish-Americans have both assimilated to the United States cultures, and kept their heritage alive. These organizations were designed to give support to new immigrants, help them learn English, and provide an extended family in a new land.
Today, these organizations strive to provide education about Swedish culture, and preserve their heritage. Though the Swedes of Texas value the culture of their homeland, they also embrace their life as Americans, and most prefer to be known as Swedish-Americans. [Carrie Klein, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]
This object is a quilt, made in the 1950s, in the African- American tradition of quilt-making. An appraiser from Antiques Roadshow was able to identify it based on the style, construction, and materials used. It appears to be hand-quilted and pieced, assembled in the strip construction technique, in which strips of scrap fabric were sewn together to create a pattern.
African textile traditions have not been well-documented in comparison to other types of folk art, however, it is thought that their origins can be traced back to four civilizations of Central and West Africa. In Africa, most textiles were made by men. It wasn’t until African slaves were brought to the United States that women took over the tradition, with work being divided based on Western gender roles.
By the time African-American quilting had become a tradition, it had been combined with traditions from the Caribbean, Central American, and southern United States. However, some distinct characteristics survived, and can still be identified in quilts today. Bold colors, strips of fabric, and symbolism are all dominant features in African-American quilting.
Large shapes and bright colors were used in African tribes to distinguish people from far distances. The ability to identify different warring tribes or hunting parties was crucial to survival. This use of bold colors and oversized shapes has endured in African- American textiles.
Combined with that is a distinct tradition of asymmetrical patterns and improvised designs. There are many reasons for this. The ability to change or alternate the pattern allowed quilters to get the most use of scrap fabrics, as opposed to a repeating pattern, that required specific colors in set quantities.
More importantly, breaks in patterns held great symbolism for African cultures. A break in pattern could symbolize rebirth in the power of the wearer or creator of the quilt. Pattern breaks were also believed to keep away evil. It was believed that evil traveled in a straight line, and by breaking the pattern, evil spirits would become confused and be slowed down. Improvising the patterning also ensured that the pattern could not be copied, and gave the creator and owner and strong sense of ownership and creativity.
Once in the United States, African quilts took on even more meaning. Many women would create story quilts, in which they would applique pictures onto their quilts. By doing this, they could record their family history- like a photo album- or tell a story in pictures. One of the most famous women to create story quilts was a freed slave named Harriet Powers. In 1896, she created an intricately-crafted quilt which she entitled “Bible Quilt”, depicting several Biblical stories. In 1898, she crafted the “Pictorial Quilt”, illustrating three rows of Bible stories, historical events, and significant weather anomalies. The “Pictorial Quilt” now hangs at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and the “Bible Quilt” is housed at the Smithsonian Institution.
Few examples of African- American quilting tradition have survived through the years. They were considered necessities rather than luxuries, and most were worn out. However, men and women of African descent have kept the essence of the traditions alive, and are illustrated in pieces such as this quilt from the 1950s. What was once simply a functional piece of bedding, we know know is artistry to be preserved and celebrated. [Carrie Klein, edited by Kathryn S. McCloud]
This item is a piece of a Scottish tartan from the MacLean Clan, which is one of the oldest clans in the Scottish Highlands. It consists of green, white, and black patterned lines. Tartans have a long history, not just in Scotland but around the world, where the familiar plaid pattern has been used for centuries. Today we view the tartan pattern as representative of Scotland and their kilts.
Tartans are the patterns of interlocking different colored stripes that run horizontally and vertically, which are known as the warp and weft of the cloth. Tartans are defined as the pattern itself, so it can technically be used to describe the pattern in any form, such as in a digital picture, painting, or print. The earliest tartans can be dated back to the third or fourth century A.D. in Scotland though the pattern can be found as early as 3000 B.C. in other parts of the world. Originally tartan patterns did not have any significance, it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries that tartan began to symbolize clan affiliation.
The naming of tartan patterns began after 1765 when the firm William Wilson & Sons of Bannockburn began producing and collecting tartan patterns. By 1815 100 tartans had been named and clan chiefs began to gain interest in preserving their history and identifying a pattern that represented their clan. In 1822, King George IV visited Scotland expecting to see the clans present their tartans, this forced many clan leaders to choose or invent new tartans for their clan. Although tartans today are generally thought to represent clans, they can also represent towns, districts, corporations, individuals, and events.
This tartan is connected to the MacLean Clan of Duart Castle. Today the MacLean Clan has more than 10 different tartan patterns registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans. The MacLean’s have the prestige of having one of the oldest recorded tartans, which was described as early as 1587. Although it is difficult to know the exact origins of the clan, clan historians trace their ancestors as far back as 1050. Their name itself originated in 13th century when Gilleain na Tuaighe was chief. Maclean literally translates to son of Gilleain.
Today, tartans continue to be made and in the last fifty years have become an increasingly profitable business dominated by a few large mills. The tartan continues to be a representation of Scotland as much as kilts and bagpipes are. People continue to connect their genealogical history to their ancestral clans and the corresponding tartans. Clans continue to meet in reunions in Scotland, and Highland Games around the world to this day. [Briana Miano edited by Joscelynn Garcia]
This item is a quilt from ca. 1950 obtained from the estate of an African-American family living in the San Antonio area. An appraiser from the Antiques Roadshow verified the date and ethnic origin of the quilt by its style, construction, and materials. The quilt appears to have been made using a “strip construction” technique. Strip construction uses strips of fabric cut and sewn together in bands. This method, combined with the improvisational style, is consistent with African American quilts from the 1950’s.
The origin of quilting in African-American culture is a greatly debated topic. Researchers are unsure what influenced the quilts style. They also question what purpose and function they were made for. The answers are hard to pin down because few quilts from before, during, and shortly after the Civil War survive today. Some scholars suggest that African-American quilts were influenced by traditional African weaving and textile production. In West Africa, men were traditionally the main producers of textiles. However, when enslaved Africans were transported to the United States, women became the principal makers of quilts. Some scholars point to the use of bright colors combined with pattern improvisation, asymmetrical design, and strip banding as proof of African influence in African-American quilting. They claim that strip banding in particular is similar to African weaving. They also suggest that slaves may have hid African designs and religious symbols in the quilts they created in order to preserve their African heritage. However, other scholars say those theories are the result of speculation. Instead, they believe that the time periods as well as the regions the quilts were produced in were the major influences on the design and construction of African-American quilts.
Another controversial topic is whether African-American quilts were used during the Civil War to conceal secret communications. Two historians, Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond Dobard, suggest that a “quilt code” may have been used to assist slaves in navigating the Underground Railroad. According to their theory, a slave seamstress would sew a quilt that contained several patterns for other slaves to memorize. The seamstress would then display different quilts using those patterns to provide information to help people trying to escape. The patterns displayed may have included designs such as a wrench pattern directing them to gather tools, a wagon pattern indicating the need to pack, and a bear claw pattern directing slaves north over the Appalachian Mountains. But no verified “code quilts” exist to this day. Additionally, Tobin and Dobard obtained their information about the quilt code from only one source: an individual descended from slaves. The claims have yet to be corroborated by other individuals or oral histories.
Some of what we do know about early African-American quilting culture was obtained by the WPA during the 1930’s. During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a New Deal program created to provide work relief. The WPA started the Folklore Project in order to employ out of work writers. They would gather stories from Americans who lived during major historical periods, including former slaves. In the oral histories, prior slaves could recall female family members piecing together quilts out of old clothes and scraps. More information on early African-American quilting can be found in documents about slave life. Both the WPA and written records verify that slaves made quilts for both their masters’ use as well as out of necessity for their own families. What does seem to be apparent about early quilting practices is the importance of quilting parties, or frolics. Quilting parties were integral in allowing slaves to socialize. Informally, female slaves would gather in the evening or on Saturday afternoons to quilt and sew. After the Civil War, quilts were made from scraps of discarded clothing and feed sacks. During the 1920’s, more and more people moved to northern cities to find work in jobs created by increased industrialization. As the years passed, African-American women were able to create quilts for enjoyment as well as need.
In 1966 a group of African-American women in Alabama established the Freedom Quilting Bee, a quilting cooperative. The group began as a way for poor women to provide for their families. It began with 150 quilters who learned their craft from their mothers and grandmothers. They would auction off their work and split the proceeds with their members. The group also provided a support network for the women of their cooperative. Their group is credited with revitalizing the popularity of quilts in American home decor during the 1960’s.
Today, African-American quilts are artistic as well as functional and can be found in both homes and museums. A list of museums that exhibit African-American quilts can be found here. Despite the controversy of its origins and influences, what is clear about the African-American quilting tradition is that it is a mix of cultural influences and traditions that can be seen in quilts made today. [Ashton Meade, edited by Joscelynn Garcia]
San Antonio, Texas
Materials: Cloth, Metal
Wedding dresses have been worn by brides for hundreds of years, however a white wedding dress is a fairly new custom. Over time wedding dress styles have changed and not all cultures share the same wedding traditions. This wedding dress was worn by Emma Steubing on her wedding day, December 14, 1912 to Robert Gass. The dress was likely made by a family member or the bride herself, which was common. The dress is an off white color and has lace trimmings throughout. Lace was and still is a popular material used in wedding dresses.
Today in Western culture the traditional color for a wedding dress is white. Queen Victoria is credited for starting the white dress trend in 1840 after her marriage to Albert of Saxe-Coburg . Phillipa of England wore white in in 1406 and Mary Queen of Scots wore white when she married Francis the Dauphine of France in 1559. In France, white was typically the color of mourning for French Queens, but Mary wore white anyway because it was her favorite color.
Before Queen Victoria decided she would wear white to her wedding, the popular color of the time was red. In the 1800s brides would usually wear the best dress they had to their weddings, which were usually a color like red or blue, rather than wear a dress specially made for the occasion. White was rarely used because at that time washing white articles of clothing was difficult. It was then easier to wear a dark colored dress and use it multiple times after. Wearing white was usually just done by the wealthy. However, Queen Victoria also wanted to send a message that she supported domestic commerce using only British made materials, a custom still supported 171 years later at the marriage of Catherine Middleton and Prince William. A few years after Queen Victoria’s wedding a popular lady’s monthly called white “the most fitting hue” for a bride, “an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.” It was after this publication that young women everywhere started shifting their ideas of what a wedding dress should look like.
Although white maybe the popular color to wear in places like the United States, in China the brides usually wear red. The color red symbolizes love and prosperity in Chinese culture. In South Asian cultures a sari is worn during weddings. Sari, which translates to ‘strip of cloth’, is a clothing garment made of a piece of cloth five to nine yards in long and two to four feet in wide. The sari is wrapped around the waist and one end around the shoulder, baring the midriff. The wedding sari was traditionally red with gold and made out of silk but different colors and fabrics are also used today. All around the world wedding dresses and traditions are different, and as time goes by the styles of these wedding dresses change. [Rebecca Gonzalez, edited by Joscelynn Garcia]
Victoria, and Barry St.-John Nevill. Life at the Court of Queen Victoria, 1861-1901: Illustrated from the Collection of Lord Edward Pelham-Clinton, Master of the Household : with Selections from the Journals of Queen Victoria. Exeter, England: Webb & Bower, 1984.