by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 20, 2012.
In November of 1913, a group of 12 Exeter girls - all between the ages of 7 and 9 - got together to form a sewing club. A copy of their record book, written in clumsy school-girl script, was donated to the Exeter Historical Society in 1991 by the family of Faith Kenniston, one of the girls in the group. In a very grown-up way, they elected officers, decided on the purpose of the club (to learn to sew), set meeting dates as Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and collected dues of one cent per meeting. Faith’s mother, Inez, would serve as their adult advisor. It was all very business-like until the final entry: “After the business was over, the members danced for half an hour. Helen E. Redman, Secretary.”
They named their group after a character in Charles Dickens’, Our Mutual Friend. Jenny Wren was a sympathetic care-taker of her alcoholic father, who supported herself by making doll clothes. The girls may have heard of this character, but it was more likely that they had not. Our Mutual Friend was not one of Dickens best known or easiest novels - certainly not the choice reading material for girls barely out of second grade. The Jenny Wren Club of Exeter was part of a larger program to encourage home sewing by one of the nation’s largest makers of sewing patterns - the Butterick Corporation.
Butterick sales were lagging due to the expansion of ready-made clothes. It was simply no longer necessary for women to spend hours and hours hand sewing clothing for the family. It was just as easy (and sometimes just as inexpensive) to purchase clothes off the rack. To keep their sewing patterns selling, Butterick had to figure out a way to convince women that homemade clothes were somehow better than their more convenient store-bought counterparts.
The company began by publishing a fashion magazine called The Delineator - so named for the master dressmaker patterns that professional tailors and seamstresses used to individually fit a garment to a customer. The Delineator became wildly popular, setting fashion standards in a way that earlier women’s magazines, such as Godey’s Ladies Book, had done in the mid-nineteenth century. But rather than encouraging women to purchase the new styles in the magazine, The Delineator reminded them that home sewing patterns, particularly those made by Butterick, were fully adaptable and would produce a garment that would conform better to any size woman. And, it would be better made, because you made it yourself. Home sewing was no longer seen as a necessity, it was a question of quality and womanhood.
But what about the new generation of girls who would not necessarily have to be taught to sew by overworked mothers? How could home sewing skills be encouraged in the next generation? To tackle these problems The Delineator created a national movement of girls’ sewing groups called Jenny Wren Clubs. The Exeter girls were part of a much larger movement.
It was probably Mrs. Kenniston who suggested to the girls that they form a club, and they met at the Kenniston home for most of the first meetings. The club was duly registered with The Delineator and received a club certificate, membership pins and frequent letters of encouragement .
Even with the help of a national magazine, Mrs. Kenniston had her work cut out for her. School-aged girls one hundred years ago were no more demure than girls of the same age today. And anyone who presumes that girls are quiet and happy to sit still sewing for an hour hasn’t hung around with any of them. Once the girls met, took attendance, collected dues and settled into their project of the day, Mrs. Kenniston kept them amused by reading or telling stories - she once spent nearly the entire hour telling them about the girlhood of Helen Keller. The club eventually rotated meetings between the member’s homes, inviting one another’s mothers to host the group.
They would sew for a while, have a snack and then do something more active before the meeting adjourned. Sometimes they danced, (“with the phonograph for music, and Mrs. Kenniston for teacher, the members danced the Virginia Reel”) or played in the snow or “played at magic writing.” Who knows how much actual sewing the girls learned, but the club certainly provided them with companionship and an initiation into the world of club life. And Butterick still makes home sewing patterns today, so the experiment proved to be a success for all involved.