Crafts Then and Now: Godey’s Ladies Book

September 13th, 2013
By Karen Osburn, Archivist
Many of my friends are artists and “crafters”, people who create beautiful jewelry, furniture, clothing, housewares, musical instruments and more with their hands.  Through knowing these talented folks a bit of their interests have rubbed off on me and over the years I have tried my hand at a wide variety of crafts including macramé, embroidery, crochet, sketching, sewing and beadwork to name a few.  I find learning new crafts exciting and fun.  Apparently so did women in the 19th century.
In the Historical Society Library and Archives we have copies of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine dating from 1858 to 1870 and Peterson’smagazine from 1863 to 1877.  They show many examples of handwork for women. Godey’s had a section called “Work Department” and other areas called Novelties, Embroidery and Fashions.  Each of these sections of the magazine had ideas, patterns or suggestions of items to be stitched, altered, crocheted, tatted, embroidered or created by hand.  The archive also has a copy of Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The American Woman’s Home which devotes an entire chapter to “Home Decoration”.  Many of the projects in these publications are suggested as a way to make something useful expending as little money as possible.  This seems to have been a common thread in many ladies publications of the 19thCentury.  
It appears that in the past, women of financially stable families were encouraged to do handwork.  In the Historical Society collection we have several samplers by different individuals testifying to proficiency with a needle.  Information gathered from Geneva newspapers, such as the Geneva Gazette of November 1, 1809, which gives notice of a school for girls opening in the instructor’s home that will be for the purpose of “the instruction of Females, in the various branches of usful [sic] and ornamental education-”.  A similar newspaper notice in the Gazette from August 31, 1814 announces, “Geneva Academy, The public are informed that this Academy is now open for the reception of Students.  The Trustees have employed Mr. Ransom Hubbel, as Principal; Mr. Moses Young, and Mrs. S. Mizner as Assistants- all of them experienced and weil [sic] recommended Teachers.  The various branches of Classical and Common Literature, together with plain, and fine Needlework, Painting, Drawing, &c. are taught in this institution, on reasonable terms.  …..”  and one in 1823 that states, “Advertisement for Mrs. Plumb’s Female Boarding School- Teaching feminine arts. Includes costs.”  Women were often considered too delicate to acquire an education in mathematics, science or languages like Greek or Latin.  They were guided toward music, art, painting, drawing and sketching, literature and needlework.  In part because of this, magazines like Godey’s became popular since they came with patterns, instructions and pictures as well as stories and advice.
Some of the items promoted in magazines were as fun and interesting to create then as it now.  In the Godey’s Ladies book of February 1864, vol. LXVIII there is a pattern for a beaded watch pocket.  I had the privilege of working with Native American beadwork collections housed at the Rochester Museum & Science Centerand the Royal OntarioMuseum in Toronto and one of the pieces I saw was a beaded watch pocket.  In the 19thcentury many Native Americans made beadwork pieces to sell to tourists and the items were popular enough that patterns were printed in women’s magazines so American women could try their hand at them.  Of course this opens room for a discussion as to which came first, Native American bead goods that encouraged women to imitate their product, or a desire for a certain type of product on the part of tourists that caused the indigenous people to create items that catered to that taste?  I don’t know the answer, but I do know that both Native American women, many times from Iroquoian language based groups, did some beautiful beadwork purses, pockets, pincushions, card cases and more, as did other women who had the leisure time to do this type of handwork.  The colors, patterns and varieties are varied and lovely.
What types of items did women create in the 1800s?  We have examples of clothing, embroidery, samplers, feather wreathes, hair jewelry, and hand painted items in the Geneva Historical Society collection.  Some crafts like drawing, painting and crochet continue to be of interest through time.  Other ideas, such as hair wreaths, are seldom created anymore. 
All the women I grew up with did handwork.  My grandmother was capable of looking at a crocheted doily on a neighbor’s table and reproducing it without instructions.  She also did embroidery that was just beautiful. My mother was a very capable sketch artist as well as good at sewing clothes, embroidery, wood carving and crochet.  My sister is good at all those things plus makes incredibly decorated walking sticks.  I also have male friends who have made musical instruments, their own chainmail shirts, carved with chain saws, and made furniture. Crafts and art are an equal opportunity form of expression.
Perhaps you have a favorite hobby?  You may want to look in old books and magazines to find new/old patterns to embroider or crochet; new techniques to try with painting or even a new/old hobby such as stenciling.  There are many satisfying and intriguing historic crafts just waiting to be rediscovered.  I hope this piques your interest enough to investigate your talents.

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