It’s 1908, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith are going on a trip. Mr. Smith has just finished packing his new pride-and-joy: a hot-off-the-Detroit-assembly-line “Model T.” No horse and buggy for the Smiths! Mr. Smith helps Mrs. Smith in, cranks up the “T,” and off they go on their lengthy (40 miles at least!) journey.
But wait: Mrs. Smith has forgotten something. No, she simply cannot do without it, don’t even ask. Mr. Smith sighs, stops the auto, and heads back into the house. He emerges lugging Mrs. Smith’s portable sewing machine, (the 1907 “Singer Travel Model”). At the turn of the 20th century, a sewing machine is a must-have, even when you’re on vacation.
In our ready-to-wear world, sewing is often regarded as merely a quaint curiosity, a nearly-forgotten homemaking art. But, once upon a time, sewing was a mainstay of the harried housewife’s daily “to do” list. As the 1947 edition of the Singer Dressmaking Guide noted:
“Since time immemorial, sewing has been the special field of expression for woman. Down through the ages, the advance of sewing has marked the progress of the world, as definitely as rings mark the age of the tree.”
How long have there been sewing accessories? Well, how long have folks been wearing clothes? “Bodkins” (stone “needles”), discovered in French cave dwellings, have been reliably dated to the 15th century—BC! The real glory days of sewing accessories, however, had to wait until the 19th century, when mass production made them readily available to all classes.
Ordinary folk, sewing only for their own family, had the plainest tools. A wealthy household might indulge in more elaborate sewing accessories, for use by ladies’ maids. The most elegant sewing utensils were reserved for use by the ladies themselves—those for whom sewing was a “genteel art.” A prized gift in these circles was an etui, a decorative box filled with exquisitely realized sewing accessories. (An example of sewing’s downward tumble in today’s public awareness: a well-stocked etui was recently offered for sale as “Aunt Ida’s manicure box.” Aunt Ida evidently liked her manicures on the rough side.)
What constitutes a collectible sewing accessory? Well, for starters, thimbles and thimble holders. In addition to metal thimbles, here have been wood thimbles, plastic thimbles, and porcelain thimbles, as well as less practical options, such as glass and mother-of-pearl.
Naturally, all those thimbles called for thimble holders, and here imagination ran rampant. Some portrayed classical or pastoral figures. Others were issued as souvenirs of specific occasions: a shell thimble holder from the 1898 Omaha Exposition depicts a boy in a sailboat.
Also ubiquitous in the sewing realm: pincushions. There are pincushions held by winsome ceramic children . . . metal and wood pincushion shoes … beadwork pincushions . . . and fashionable ladies boasting pincushion skirts.
The 20th century saw the advent of a new batch of sewing collectibles, including catalog advertisements, instructional booklets, and sewing patterns. Judging by the colorful illustrations on the pattern packets issued by Butterick, McCall’s, and Simplicity, sewing perfection was just a needle-and-thread away.
And, while few collectors have enough space available to host hordes of full-scale sewing machines, there are plenty of travel and toy versions available. “Junior machines” with bright case colors were marketed as teaching tools for youngsters. Promos for Singer miniatures of the 1920 proudly boasted that “every little girl over four years of age can set one up and sew in a jiffy.”
Homemakers once spent countless hours on sewing and mending. Imaginative renditions of the necessary tools lightened their daily drudgery. Nowadays, these basics of yesteryear’s everyday life have become cherished collectibles. In many cases, they’re even put to their intended uses once again, with the art of sewing rediscovered by a new generation. As the Spool Cotton Company put it, in their 1941 booklet Learn How, sewing “gives color and meaning to modern life.” “Mrs. Smith” would definitely agree.
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann. Sewing collectibles courtesy of Suzanne Earnest.
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. Unfortunately, he can’t sew a stitch. Please address inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org