Friday, January 20, 2012

The Jenny Wren Club

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.”

In 1913 clubs of all kinds were popular with all ages. It was an era with little outside entertainment. Men joined fraternal organizations like the Masons, Odd-Fellows, Foresters or Improved Order of Red Men. Women sometimes joined the auxiliary branches of the men’s groups or they formed their own reading clubs, church organizations, social welfare groups or current event clubs. The girls of Exeter had plenty of examples of how to run a proper club.

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.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Amos Tuck's Magnificent House

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 6, 2012.

In 1838, young lawyer Amos Tuck moved to Exeter with his wife Sarah and three young children. There were numerous lawyers already in town, but Tuck, at his wife’s urging, decided there was room enough for another. The Tucks moved into a plain but roomy wooden house at 72 Front Street. In this house, Sarah and Amos would have five more children and would mourn the deaths of most of them. In a time when infant mortality was high, it was unusually high for the Tucks. Of their eight children, only three survived into adulthood. The most children they had at any one time was five – and that lasted only four years.

Sarah herself died at the age of 36 in 1847. Ever a practical man, Tuck was married again within six months to Catherine Shepherd. Marriage wasn’t the only change in his life that year; he was elected to the U.S. Congress and the family moved to Washington D.C. in November. It was at his first congressional meeting that he met another freshman congressman, Abraham Lincoln.

The two men were the same age and both were disillusioned with their respective political parties’ views on the expansion of slavery. He and Lincoln served together for two years, forming a strong friendship. Lincoln went back to Illinois to resume his legal career. Tuck continued to live in Exeter and Washington, D.C., serving two more terms in congress.

In 1853, after returning to Exeter, Tuck decided to build a new house on Front Street. Moving slightly away from the center of town, he purchased a piece of land on the opposite side of the street. His family, by this time, had shrunk to nearly an empty nest. Son Edward was off to Dartmouth and his eldest daughter, Abigail, married that year. This left Tuck, his wife and 14 year old daughter Ellen as the only permanent residents in the new house.

The Tucks decided not to make their new house similar to the other old colonial structures on Front Street. They chose, instead, to build an Italian villa, a trendy new style in architecture in 1853. Most of Exeter’s architecture up until that point, consisted of boxy symmetrical colonials with deeply pitched roofs and overlapping clapboarding. Tuck’s house, although constructed of native materials, was designed to look like it was dropped in New England from the outskirts of Tuscany. The clapboarding is smooth to mimic Italian stucco. The roof is designed with a low pitch with deeply overhanging eaves that are heavily bracketed. Italian villa homes, like the Tuck house, are usually asymmetrical and feature a prominent porch. It remained the unrivaled example the Italianate style until Alva Wood built his house across the way at 84 Front Street in 1864.

Tuck’s house oozed elegance. When Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert, came to Exeter in the fall of 1859 to attend Phillips Exeter Academy, he often visited the Tucks at their fine home. When his father stopped by the following winter, he did not spend any time with the family, although it was long presumed that he had stayed at the house. Amos Tuck was in St.Louis when Abraham Lincoln was in town, and later berated him for not even stopping to visit his wife and daughter. For many years, however, the house bore a plaque that stated that Lincoln had stayed there. It seemed like the logical place for Lincoln to stay – he and Tuck were old friends from Congress. In later years, Tuck’s son, Edward, would state that he thought Lincoln had stayed at his father’s house – but he had been away at college at the time, so his statement, made in old age, is a bit suspect. In actuality, we have no idea where Lincoln slept during his brief visit.

Tuck lived in the house until his death in 1879. The house remained in family hands for decades after. Still a private residence, the house has undergone extensive renovations in this past year under the careful guidance of Exeter’s Historic District Committee. It remains a jewel on Front Street.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Clothing During the Great Depression

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, December 27, 2011.

Are you knitting furiously to finish those Christmas mittens? Maybe deciding to make 10 pairs of mittens for Christmas presents was a bit ambitious. Time to head to the drugstore for last minute presents. Today, we make clothing as gifts, but it used to be a time consuming chore to keep the family clothed.

Maude Richards, of Exeter, had six sons and a daughter to take care of in the early part of the twentieth century. On top of all of her other duties -- cooking, marketing, canning, cleaning, adjudicating family squabbles, keeping rooms for academy boarders and eventually running a catering business out of her kitchen -- Maude also had to make sure everyone in the family had enough clothing. Her husband was a salesman and was frequently out of town.

In 1913, Maude began keeping a record of all the sewing and knitting projects she completed. Each page of the journal contains a brief description, “kimono apron for myself,” or “marble bag for William”, and frequently a swatch of fabric. Her output is a wonder considering she only had a few hours per day to devote to sewing and knitting. There are a few years missing – 1917 through 1919 must have been too complicated for the family – but it picks up again just as clothing styles began to change in 1920.

When her sons were little, Maude dressed them in rompers and blouses. She used primarily cotton fabrics, which her daughter Olive remembers her buying as remnants from the Exeter Manufacturing Company. Pink was definitely an acceptable color for boys at the time and Maude seemed to favor it. Page after page shows her preference for pink – March 1st, 1913: “rompers for Lauris, blue trimmed with pink and white check” reads one entry.

Some days she managed only a small bit of sewing, “hemmed 1 napkin”. On other days she’d complete much larger projects, “cream linen gown for myself, Baltic blue linen & white pearl buttons for trimming.” Over the few days around January 7th, 1916, she managed only a “small doily with crocheted edge.” It doesn’t seem like much, unless you consider that baby Olive Jeannette was born on January 2nd and Maude notes “in hospital” almost as an afterthought.

Olive’s birth allowed Maude to sew girl’s clothes at long last. After all those boys, she must have been glad to create more decorative pieces for her daughter, although she still favored pink for the entire family. “January 16, 1920: pink & white pajamas for Olive Jeannette. January 18th, 1920: Pink & white outing flannel night-gown for Donald.” She rarely mentions underclothes, except for occasional petticoats, perhaps because underwear could be purchased cheaply. She also doesn’t list those articles of clothing she had to alter.

The Great Depression in Exeter began in the 1920s, not the 1930s as in other parts of the country. A growing family meant that the Richards’ had to be frugal to keep everyone properly dressed. Olive recalls that most of her school clothes came from an annual rummage sale held in the town hall by the O’Leary sisters. Elizabeth O’Leary and her sister, Cecelia Donnelly, would collect used clothing year-round to supply the sale. Although she didn’t particularly like wearing other people’s made-over clothes. She later wrote, “Mother used to say that I had more clothes than any other girl in town; and I’ll bet I did! But nearly all of them were castoffs, rummage-sale items or greatly marked-down things from an Exeter or Haverhill store.”

Maude didn’t buy pre-made sheets and towels. Muslin for bed sheets came in widths that were not wide enough for the average bed. The long, perfectly straight seams had to be made either down the center or on the sides to make a sheet that would fit on a bed. Pillowcases had to be made by hand and Maude generally took on all the bedding projects at one time. During one week in July of 1920, she stitched together seven bed sheets. When the sheets wore out, they were reused. Olive Richards Tardiff later recalled, “Nothing was wasted in our house. Old sheets were cut or torn up for many uses. The best parts were made into pillow cases. Squares were torn for dust rags or for window washing. On rainy days, the children might be set to work tearing strips off the ends of the sheets to wrap into balls for use as bandages to tie onto sore toes or fingers.”

Like so many Exeter women, Maude Richards had to be creative, resourceful and, most of all,productive to keep the household supplied. One of her final entries in the sewing book contains a particularly productive week:

“August 8 to August 12 (1920). Aunt Alice and I had a ‘sewing ‘ time and made three envelope chemesis for her, two envelope chemesis for myself, two slip-ins for me, two nighties for myself, one for Aunt Alice, two long petticoats for her, one nightie for Olive Jeanette, one pair of rompers for Dorothy’s baby, one lavender gingham for Aunt Alice, finished black and white striped gingham for myself and four aeroplane linen napkins for Aunt Alice, for which I take credit for half.”