The Preservation of History, Culture, and Craft

This is one of the treasures of the museum where I volunteer, the Shelton House in Waynesville, NC. It’s a wall hanging by Kate Clayton Donaldson, and it may look a bit familiar because I’ve shared other works by Granny Donaldson, as she is often called. Granny started making these hangings with crocheted figures in the 1920s, and was soon selling them through the John C. Campbell Folk School which was near her home.

This post is not a detailed story of Granny’s work, as I am in the process of research in the hopes of writing a paper for presentation or publication. I do want to use her as an example to express some opinions about how folk arts and history are sometimes portrayed.

In the recent devastating flooding in eastern Kentucky, people lost their homes and belongings, their livelihoods, and their lives. They have also lost valuable records of their history when storm waters inundated Appalshop, which held “hundreds of thousands of archival pieces from across mediums: film, photographs, artisan crafts, woodworking, musical instruments, magazines, newspapers, posters and personal family archives that have been donated to the group — all depicting life in the Appalachian Mountains.”

For a region whose story has often been told by outsiders, these records were the story of Appalachia, told by Appalachians. And this is important. From the last years of the nineteen century, Appalachia has been “explained” by people from outside the region, most often in an unfavorable light. This continues today in the book by J.D. Vance, who claims to be from Appalachia, but who is from central Ohio.

It is important that any group of people should be in control of the narrative about them. After years of letting others tell our story, Appalachians have been writing the histories that should be read, collecting the artifacts that go beyond the homestead and cabin, moonshine and feuding trope. That’s why I like Shelton House so much. It shows that Appalachians are a diverse group, who were fashionable, educated, and well-traveled. They were not a throw-back to the past, but instead were a part of the greater culture of the USA while still practicing crafts and farming and folkways.

This is Kate Donaldson in the 1930s, during the time she was making her crocheted and woven wool wall hangings. You can see that she is somewhat fashionably dressed, with no sunbonnet nor homespun. Often photos of Appalachians made by professional photographers show evidence of props, which were used to present a more folksy image. In other words, they were telling the story as they wanted it to be, not as it actually was.

I have found quite a few photos of Mrs. Donaldson that were posed on the porch of a cabin, her needlework on her lap. Seen with her is Allen Eaton (from Oregon), who in 1937 wrote a book titled, Handicrafts of the Southern Appalachians. He came to Western North Carolina in 1926, where he became an influential figure in the craft revival that was sweeping not only the Southern Appalachians, but most of the country. In this revival movement poor rural people were encouraged to take up the crafts of the past, such as weaving, basketry, pottery, and woodwork. In most places, even in the most remote corners of the mountains, looms had long been taken down and stored away as cheap manufactured textiles became available. The earliest proponents of the crafts revival had to actually find weavers, some from Europe, to reteach the skills to mountain women and girls.

I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m being too harsh about the craft revival people, because a lot of good did come out of the movement. Weaving skills were saved, old folk songs were recorded and poor people had a source of cash money.

What bugs me about the whole thing is that, once again, the narrative was being presented by people from outside the region. When Allen Eaton wrote about Kate Donaldson’s work, he said that she had been shown a blanket from Italy which was used to decorate the backs of cows during certain festivals. Granny thought, “I can do that,” and set about making copies of the Italian blankets. The story became so widespread that even today, Granny’s wall hangings are more often called “cow blankets”.

Years later, in the late 1950s, Granny set the record straight through the writings of John Parris, a local journalist and collector of stories from Western North Carolina. He would visit people in the mountains who were still practicing some of the “old ways” and then wrote about them in his popular column in the Asheville Citizen. Many of the articles were then published in book form.

When Parris visited Granny Donaldson at her home in Marble, NC, she let him know she had never seen an Italian cow blanket, and that she never called them by that name. To her, they were a “pretty wall-piece”. She started making them after decorating a neighbor’s baby’s blanket that had been left at her house and a visitor from the nearby John C. Campbell Folk School saw it and thought it had retail potential.

What bothers me is that the cow story survives, though John Parris published Granny’s version of the story twice. Like I said earlier, the people in a culture can tell their own stories, without embellishment from outside the culture, no matter how well-intentioned.

If you are interested in Southern Appalachian stories, the books of John Parris cannot be beaten. Especially wonderful is Mountain Cooking, but also look for These Storied Mountains, My Mountains, My People, Mountain Bred, and Roaming the Mountains.


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Edith Vanderbilt’s Cape

One of the most fun things about volunteering at a small, local museum is finding the treasures and oddities within. For example, one wouldn’t expect to find in a house dedicated to local history and mountain handicrafts a garment that once belonged to the mistress of the renowned Biltmore Estate, located about thirty miles away. But according to family history, this cape did belong to Edith Vanderbilt.

In case you are not familiar with Biltmore, it’s the 1890s house built by George Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt who made millions from railroads. Even after the money filtered down to the grandchildren, there was enough to buy 125,000 acres in Western North Carolina, and to built this huge vanity project. In 1898 George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser, and it is she who supposedly owned the cape.

This garment was donated to my museum by the daughter of a women who worked for Mrs. Vanderbilt years later. By that time Edith had remarried and was living part time in the new luxury housing development, Biltmore Forest. Biltmore House was inhabited by her newly married daughter and her young family.

There’s no hard proof that the cape came from Edith, but there are some things to consider. Biltmore House is huge, with dozens of rooms that could have stored the family’s out of date clothing, but according to a curator I talked with twelve years ago, there was little old clothing to be found in the home when they went looking for it. The oldest things dated to the 1920s, and probably belonged to the daughter.

So where did the Victorian and Edwardian clothing go? It is likely that Edith did give it all away to people who worked for her. This was a somewhat common practice among royalty, and American nouveau riche loved to imitate royalty. Even today it’s said that Queen Elizabeth gives her castoffs to her dressers.

The family history seems to be pretty solid, with the donator providing details about the gift. And the big question is, how would a woman who worked as a maid come about such a luxurious garment?

And it is a very fine object. It’s made entirely of silk from the ties at the neck to the tassels and silk-covered beads at the hem.

It is constructed of black silk strips joined with silk netting, and decorated with chenille trim. Except for a few beads, the cape is intact and is in great condition.

I was able to unmount the cape and to examine the interior. I was really disappointed to see there was no label.

So is there any way to prove this cape came from Biltmore House? The only way I can think of is to find a photo of Edith (or maybe another family member) wearing it. The Vanderbilts’ lives were well-documented by photography, so it is possible the evidence is somewhere in the Biltmore Company’s archive. As of yet, I have not been able to find it in books and online.

The pink flowers are not original to the cape.


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Lasting Threads: Heirloom Quilts and Linens

Here I go with quilts again. I just find them so darned interesting, and I have learned a lot about textiles just by examining them. I also have several wonderful books that involve scholarly research into quilts. My absolute favorite of all quilt scholars is Laurel Horton. So when I got this notice from the Fountain Inn Museum, I jumped at the chance to meet her.

I’ve always heard that meeting one’s heroes is risky, but meeting Laurel was a true delight. She took the time to talk with me and we even found out that we attended the same event back in the fall, the Costume Society of America conference in Bowling Green. One of the white coverlets on exhibit was donated by her family.

What made Laurel’s talk so engaging was that she studies quilts as historical objects, with an eye toward the details that tell so much about the maker and where the quilt was made. Having worked with South Carolina quilts for decades, she shared with us what makes the quilts from that area unique.

This stunning quilt was made by Isabella Ann Stewart in 1845. The provenance was attached to the back of the quilt, but even if it had been missing, Laurel identified this as having been made in Laurens County, SC because the shape of the white is unique to that region.

I adore this cross between a fan and a crazy quilt. Crazy quilts are always creative and each is different. Perhaps the maker of this one couldn’t quite let herself go crazy and needed a bit of structure. I can relate.

Can you see the baskets? No quilter would have put in the time to make a quilt with so little contrast. This quilt is a victim of fugitive dyes, caused by washing and exposure to sunlight. The baskets were originally red.

This is the Wild Goose Chase pattern. It was made in the 1890s by Emmie Stewart Fulmer. Miss Fulmer made many quilts, and Laurel was able to place a date on this one because of the black prints, which replaced blue as a favorite in the early 1890s.

This Ocean Waves quilt was made by Belle Hellams Leake. probably in the 1940s.

This Rising Star quilt was also made by Mrs. Leake. These quilts are even more amazing once you know that she was legally blind.

This Pineapple quilt pattern has long been associated with South Carolina.

This book, Mary Black’s Family Quilts is one of my favorite quilt books. Laurel carefully analyzed a collection of sixteen quilts using family history and records, the history and records of the South Carolina midlands, and her vast knowledge of quilting history to create a compelling story of what we can learn from material culture.


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F. A. Picard, Sun Valley, 1949

A recent catalog find, this catalog from F.A. Picard of Sun Valley, Idaho, is a real treasure. I’d only heard of Picard as a mention in a 1940s wartime White Stag catalog, but there’s a great story behind the company. In the 1930s Fred Picard was making skiwear in Switzerland, but moved his company to Sun Valley in the late 30s or early 40s. There he opened a store selling his Swiss-inspired ski togs.

At the time Sun Valley was a relatively new ski resort, but it had already attracted the attention of Hollywood. Pretty soon stars were buying their ski clothes at Shop Picard, and in 1941 Picard supplied the ski clothing for a new Sonja Henie movie, Sun Valley Serenade.

Much of what Fred Picard carried in his store and catalog was exclusive to him. Illustrator Max Barsis designed textiles, like the scarf above, and illustrated books on skiing for the store. There was even a ski themed wallpaper.

The catalog covers were also designed by Barsis. They included cut-outs that let the following page show through.

The clothes are wonderfully imaginative, like this vest constructed of a scarf with edelweiss border and a Swiss map, worn over a sweater with cable knit wool sleeves.

You could also buy the scarf.

Or how about this sweater with whimsical skiers? It’s another Max Barsis design, and was made in Austria. It retailed for $30, which would be $373 in 2022 dollars.

Picard continued to pull from Swiss and Alpine motifs for his ski clothing. Many of the items were made in and imported from Switzerland, like this embroidered parka.

I don’t usually associate capes with skiing, but she does look interesting. I’ve love to see this in action.

And I especially loved these pony skin après-ski boots. They also came in chamois suede, for both men and women.

F.A. Picard also designed ski clothing for other companies. These ski pants are shown in a wartime 1940s White Stag catalog, but the same pants are in my 1949 Picard catalog. Some of the sweaters in that catalog were imported from Europe, but others were made by Garland, an American sweater and blouse company. And in the early 1940s Jantzen made Picard-designed sweaters.


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1930s Baseball/Softball/Basketball Uniform

This 1930s basketball/softball/baseball uniform was another lucky online find. I had no uniforms of this type and had been sort of looking, but was really happy when this one popped up in a If you don’t know about Gem, it’s a handy app that searches for vintage clothes and accessories across many sales venues. It saves a lot of time.

Anyway, how does one date such a utilitarian object? I start with the label, but there were none in either piece. I then turn to vintage catalogs that sold sportswear. A 1936 Lowe & Campbell catalog showed similar sets, with bloomers offered, but shorts predominating. They offered these uniforms in various fabrics including “colored khaki, a twill cloth in colors”. That’s an interesting way to describe the cloth, because I tend to think of khaki as a color.

Next I looked through my photograph collection and books on women’s sports. I noted that while most of the professional women’s ball teams of the 30s and 40s wore flashy satin, some wore twill like my uniform.

But it’s the details of the uniform that helped me settle on a date of the early to mid 1930s. The collar has the vestiges of the middy which was more popular in the 1920s.

 By the late 30s the side buttons were being replaced with zippers. Bloomers were replaced with shorts. The wide button tab of the top is another clue. This type closure was popular in the early 1930s, not just in sports clothing, but also in fashionable dress.

 Best of all, the shirt is the “Ted” style, which I have seen only in early 1930s catalogs. It was a clever innovation. It must have occurred to someone that the between the legs strap used in early 1920s women’s underwear would be handy to keep the shirt tucked into the shorts while playing.

This envelope chemise is from a 1920 Sears catalog.

But why was the shirt called a “Ted” shirt. It may go back to clothing manufacturer Theodore Bear, who in 1913 made a type of combination camisole and drawers and then named it after himself – the Teddy Bear. We still use the term today to mean a one-piece undergarment, but who remembers poor Theodore?

At any rate, I date this piece as early 1930s. As for which sport it was used in, I have no way of telling. Baseball and softball players of this era sometime expressed a preference for long pants, as sliding into base in short pants could lead to bad scrapes on the legs. Basketball was played in bloomers from the inception of the game in the 1890s. The first ones were below the knee, but they gradually got smaller, as you can see.

See the Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog to read more about Teddy Bear.


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Aldrich and Aldrich Exercise Suit

I’ve been collecting gym attire for a long time, and I’m glad because several years ago the prices went crazy. The first ones I acquired in the 1990s were actually given to me because they were pretty much unsalable. But in spite of generations of girls despising the gymsuits they were forced to wear, the gymsuit-less generations have decided they are cool. I’m okay with that, because I can already see the prices falling. Seems like a garment that almost every girl who went to high school and college between 1920 and 1975 had would mean there are still millions of the things out there. The supply is starting to catch up with the demand.

I already have eighteen sets, dating from the 1860s to the mid 1970s. Ironically (or maybe not), the one era I don’t have is a late 60s model like I was forced to wear. Maybe it’s time to start looking for a cheap suit. Maybe not.

I spotted this dress and bloomers set on Instagram last week and decided to add it to my collection. I was intrigued by the fact it is knit. I had seen the style before. Someone had the same dress in yellow a few years ago, but there were no bloomers. And recently someone had a similar style in blue. Seems like it had long sleeves.

Aldrich and Aldrich was a large maker of gymsuits. I have one of their catalogs, dating from 1940 where they were celebrating twenty years in the business.

Of course I was hoping to find my new set in the catalog, but the closest I found was the leotard and skirt set above. Notice the similarity in the neckline.

Best of all, the catalog gives an explanation of the use of this knit set. It was used for dance class. But when? I am quite sure it was around the time of the illustrated set in the catalog.

One reason I am so sure is that in a very good stroke of luck, the seller, @fleabitevintage was able to provide me with details about the life of the original owner, Eleanor, who was born in 1923. The set is small, but not tiny, so my guess is that she wore it between the ages of fifteen and twenty-two. So, this one gets a general date of late 1930s or early 40s.

The matching bloomers or panties are not attached to the dress. The waistline is quite high so no skin would show if the skirt flipped up.

I love that neckline.

And if anyone runs across an ugly white dacron snap-front gymsuit from 1967, give me a shout.


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Shopping with The Vintage Traveler

It’s time once again to look at the great stuff I’ve come across but that for some reason I did not buy. You might think that the book above was a definite acquisition, but it was, disappointingly, a book of poems. It was also quite expensive.

This is a bridge tally, which I often see with images of sporty 1920s girls. These are often cute, but they are sometimes sexualized, and the outfits are not entirely accurate.

I can’t remember why I didn’t buy this book by the great Louise Suggs, especially since I have a golf jacket from her clothing line.

These wood burned boxes seem to have been really popular in the early 20th century. I have a golfing girl one, and I’ve seen a tennis girl, but for some reason I just didn’t love the lazing in the sand bathing girl.

I loved these shoes. I mean really loved them. But I didn’t buy them. They are my size and I knew I would end up wearing (and ruining) them.

Very early 1960s Jantzen knit top. Loved it; didn’t need it.

The next few photos are from the Liberty Antiques Festival, which was in April. It’s my favorite shopping experience. This hat form was already sold, ten minutes after the show opened.

I loved this. Bowling images are hard to find.

I wanted this photo, and I was prepared to pay for it. But the asking price was crazy so I had to leave her for someone with deeper pockets. The seller was nice enough to let me take this photo.

It’s a rule that every flea market and antique mall must contain baskets of old hankies. This is probably the best way I have ever seen them displayed.

Do we even use the term “junior” to refer to teenage fashion any more?

This was a nifty little sewing machine kit.

There was an entire set of these amazing signs that led shoppers to Leon Fields Ladies Store.

This sign looked old, but it also appeared to have been repainted. Walk-Over was a well-known brand.

My favorite kind of display.

All ready to fence except for the shoes.

I loved this 1890s calico dress. It’s proof that even a farm wife could aspire to having the latest fashionable sleeves.

I’m a sucker for old pennants, and I did love this one. The first time I ever saw the ocean was at Myrtle Beach.


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