Monday, January 10, 2011


Last year our honorary Uncle Dan went off to the local garbage disposal site and while he was there, he checked out the book recycling bins. That's when he spied the old-time sewing publications that someone had disposed of. Now, Uncle Dan has an avid sewist at his house in the person of Aunt Chris, and he immediately recognized the worth of these vintage manuals. Gathering a sampling, he took them home, and she immediately sent him right back to the disposal site to get the rest of them. Alas! Too late. They were gone.

"What's the name on those publications?" we asked Aunt Chris. "The Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences," was her answer. And an internet search of that institute brought up the name of Mary Brooks Picken. "Through further research I learned of Mrs. Picken's work in the world of domestic arts, sewing, and fashion. I gathered that in her day Mrs. Picken had been an important player in providing education for women, and yet, I had never heard of her. But then, I asked myself, just how much do you know about the history of domestic arts, about those who established training for women in household arts. I had to admit I really know nothing about it. I determined to research further, perhaps find a book . . .

Before many months had passed, I noticed a synopsis of Amy Barickman's book, Vintage Notions, An Inspirational Guide to Needlework, Cooking, Sewing, Fashion, and Fun (2010). It was the title – Vintage Notions – that drew my attention, but in reading about the book, I discovered it was dedicated to bringing Mary Brooks Picken out of relative obscurity and introducing her to the modern world. I noted the title on my Christmas list and found a copy under my tree, courtesy of my daughter.

Ms. Barickman credits Mrs. Picken as the sole inspiration for Vintage Notions, calling her "a wildly talented, intelligent, creative, and courageous woman" and "an American heroine." On the title page Barickman notes: "The material [in Vintage Notions], both editorial and artwork, first appeared in various publications of The Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, located in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Most of it appeared in periodical newsletters and magazines published under the names Fashion Service and Inspiration, between the years 1916 and 1934. Many of the essays reprinted here first appeared in the book Thimblefuls of Friendliness by Mary Brooks Picken, copyright 1924." I might add here that Picken also authored The Singer Sewing Book, 1949, which was apparently her most widely distributed book, but if you're like me, you think more of the content of such manuals than who actually wrote them.

Mary Brooks Picken was born in 1886. I immediately relate Mrs. Picken to my own ancestral timeline because my maternal grandmother, Nina Mae Saunders Portfors, was also born in 1886. To excerpt from Barickman's introduction: "As was the custom, she [Mary] married young and began a traditional home life that would later directly influence her career path as the first American authority on home arts and founder of The Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The school, founded in 1916, was the heart and soul of Mrs. Picken's vision and combined correspondence courses with classroom instruction in dressmaking, millinery, cooking, fashion design, beauty, and homemaking. It attracted students from around the world as enrollment climbed to almost 300,000 women, making it the largest school in history devoted solely to the education of women." So, as the ideas Mrs. Picken promoted were used and accepted in society, her work undoubtedly influenced my mother's generation (born in 1909) and was perhaps reflected in my mother's skills and attitudes. We might say that this work is the foundation upon which today's experts continue to build, regardless of how much it has changed.

Ms. Barickman explains that she found Mary Brooks Picken through the publications of The Woman's Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, and her research materials undoubtedly included the same titles that Uncle Dan found in the recycling bin. She says: "I conceived of this book, Vintage Notions, to rescue Mary Brooks Picken from obscurity and to reintroduce the inspirational essays, clever sewing patterns, cooking basics, and beautiful illustrations from the Institute's newsletters with a fresh and modern voice. The book is organized seasonally – each chapter represents a month of the year – because our lives are keenly connected to the change of seasons, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear."

Just to give you an inkling of the projects in this book, the January subjects include soup-making basics and how to make an apron from a man's shirt.

KW's Project Report: I spent four hours cutting strips for the "Vintage Holiday" quilt. I found a new use for a 5-pound weight. Yes, I made several measuring mistakes. I only bled once. KW  


Hallie said...

Sounds like a good book--great graphics, too!

drMolly, the BeanQueen said...

Gracious - would love to see those. Sounds like an interesting lady.

Kathy said...

Did you look through the book, Hallie, before you wrapped it?

From what I have read, I believe Mary Brooks Picken was truly a woman of noble character, working selflessly for the betterment of women.

Hallie said...

I just flipped through it a little bit. I didn't sit down and read anything--didn't want to ruin it for you! It looked very interesting, though.

Leah said...

This story reminds me of a book I bought several years ago. "Home Comforts - The Art & Science of Keeping House" by Cheryl Mendelson ©1999. This woman is a lawyer and loves keeping an orderly and safe house. Many of her facts come from the USDA & University Extension Services. The dust jacket extols her expertise..." for the first time in nearly a century a sole author has written a comprehensive book about housekeeping." It is a great housekeepers bible for today's woman. You can learn: how to build a fire in the fireplace, care for books, remove stains, laundry tips, about bacteria in the house, how to store clothes, etc. etc. I especially liked the 13 PAGES of charts telling how long foods last on the pantry, in the fridge and freezer. There's even instructions on what to do if your dog enconters a skunk!

It is 837 pages of wisdom for running a house in today's world. There's even a chapter on How to replace important documents and where to write to get them.

Kathy, I looked for Picken & Barickman in the Index, but they weren't listed. "Home Comforts" has a very lengthy chapter on Fabrics. She even details the weaves of cloth and has pictures to explain. I consulted this book before I bought a new sofa a few years ago. Since my sofa was going to be custom made and I would choose the fabric, I wanted to get it right.

A whole book on sewing, what a wonderful present.

Chris said...

I'm a little late coming to this party, but here I am. Grammy/home duties have taken up my time of late. :-)

This book sounds great! I'll have to tell Dan he was the "inspiration" of a new research/reading project for you. All because he found those books! He'll smile.

P.S. Good work on your project! Especially only bleeding once!! :-)