SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University Library.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Thank you. Thank you for that nice introduction. I'm excited to be here. When I got this fellowship last summer, this was all toward research for my dissertation. So large portions of this are kind of pulled from different areas of my dissertation. Hopefully it's all come together in a way that will make sense. There are two different chapters that I was sort of pulling from on this. And fingers crossed I'll be done next year.
So at first glance, this article, "Be a Better Buyer and Unravel the Secrets of Cotton, Silk, and Wool" reads like a fashion magazine. The two women examining fabric in this image are lithe and fashionable, richly outfitted and stylish forms, including a fox fur stole, which you can see wrapped around the woman on the left. Their makeup and dress indicate privilege, leisure, and access rather than deprivation and hard work. This was actually published in 1933. Not exactly how we might imagine rural women, or most women, for that matter, struggling to cope with the Great Depression.
However, this article is not from a fashion magazine, but rather from a pictorial review which had a wide readership amongst lower and middle income women. And when one moves past this illustration, the article actually focuses on textile production, policy, and use, issues not particularly associated with leisure. In fact, it actually outlines many of the growing dialogue surrounding three of most popular fabrics for women's clothing regardless of income and location. And it talks about the issues centered on quality, availability, materiality, and standardization.
So the use of these stylish women and the opening illustration was perhaps meant to show women of all backgrounds, that educating oneself about textiles was a responsibility of modern fashionable women, a status all women could and should aspire to regardless of circumstance, an argument home economists throughout the country were making at this time.
This call for women to be better buyers in a national publication was not unique or even particularly new. As the home shifted from a space of production to consumption, so too did ideas about women's roles. Emphasis on women performing good or appropriate consumption-- and good and appropriate are terms far more complicated than they might at first seem-- became a concern amongst audiences and became explicitly linked to conceptions of citizenship. Being good buyers indicated a readiness and ability to take on civic responsibilities, including training the next generation of Americans.
When this article claimed textiles as a women's issue, specifically arguing that quote, "Since time began textiles have been our field, and we have every right to claim authority over them," and then noting that because women, but all but a small percentage of fabrics, they could, if they chose, have an enormous influence over their character. It was recognizing that fabric knowledge was far from a trivial matter. Understanding the relationship between textile materials, production, and consumption could be used to assert more authority over consumption and as a mode of expressing citizenship.
At this time, rhetoric surrounding female consumption for all women often took the line of elevating the moral responsibility of women to consume. For example, women like Edith McClure Patterson, who was a leading member in the General Federation of Women's Clubs, believe that women's greatest responsibility was to buy, and through this action they could lift and maintain the home to a higher level of efficiency, which was part of a vital national project, particularly throughout the Great Depression.
In fact, she went so far as to say that consuming was of national economic importance because as women made good or bad decisions in spending their money, so too did they raise or lower the standards of living of the entire nation, a lot of responsibility, according to her.
Thus, when the text of being better buyers called on women to do their part to make quality more than a slogan by choosing wisely to demand responsibility from retailers, it was because the purchase and choice of textiles made women responsible for the standards of quality and honesty which affected the very fiber of our nation.
As this article demonstrates, and as my dissertation project takes as its premise, textiles and textile knowledge was a significant part of women's lives and part of local and national discussions on economics, policy, and class.
So a little bit more about my dissertation project more broadly. I contend that fabric is an essential part of the daily lives of all people. I see you're all wearing clothes. It's great. But the task of purchasing and choosing textiles has historically been a female one. Dressing oneself and one's family were considered essential skills for good housekeeping, tasks which required a basic understanding of what was available. And this was obviously very individual based on budget, on sewing skill, on access to retail outlets, as well as what was in style. So all of these are playing a part.
Aesthetic and economic value systems are formed and shifted as women made their decisions. And this is never just a one way street. It was never one group dictating to another and vice versa. Knowledge of textiles was thus a key aspect of real and imagined femininity during the early to mid-20th century in the United States. Racial, class, and aesthetic definitions were tied implicitly and explicitly to this knowledge.
So debates over textiles, their meanings, uses, and economic and aesthetic value were, in fact, debates over what determined standards of femininity, class, race, and citizenship. And for my project overall, I'm interested in the interactions of rural women, home economists, fashion textile producers, and then textiles themselves to drive the narrative of my dissertation. So I look at cotton, silk, and rayon. And at one point, I actually had wool in my dissertation, and then I dropped that because I wanted to graduate and I could only get funding for so long.
And I connect these to the processes of production and consumption together, which have generally been separated in scholarship, especially on textiles and clothing, and then link these to larger discussions on consumer identity, aesthetic sensibilities, and citizenship, as well as looking at categories of race, class, and gender. So all of these trying to bring together in this discussion.
The experiences of women living on farms and in rural areas are not typically thought of in terms of their relationship to clothing, labor, and culture. And in fact, they were often in positioned in contrast to urban modern women in terms of appearance and clothing. However, rural women, like women in urban areas, were interested in fabrics, aesthetics, and clothing. And this is something that home economists knew well, which is why I picked these two groups.
So why home economists and rural women? Both rural women and home economists were central to the debates I talked about earlier in terms of quality, standardization, who is using textiles, where, and why. Throughout my research it became quickly obvious that home economists were leaders in textile research and education during my time period in question. And my time period is 1920 to 1945, but I'm not really discussing World War II today because I only have so much time, and that is a whole other issue with fabric restrictions. And there's a number of interesting surveys I found in the archives here, actually, that I would love to talk about, but I won't because [INAUDIBLE].
So trained textile specialists, and particularly those working for the federal government and for universities like Cornell and for the extension service, saw rural women as a key audience for their work. In fact, much of their research and efforts, while generally couched in white middle class language, aimed to improve the quality of life for rural women. Whether or not rural women agreed or not is open for debate.
So while I began with home economists, their interest led me toward rural women. And then when I began to look for secondary sources, I realized that although much has been published on rural life, very little has considered the ways rural women thought about and utilized clothing and personal appearance. And often the phrase rural women summons up images, and even rhetoric, of tired, worn down-- I always think of the Dorothea Lange photo.
However, circumstances varied, and women showed incredible initiative and diverse circumstances. They developed business strategies, took care of their families, attended reading groups, listened to radio programs, read periodicals, and attended classes and annual events at universities like Cornell, such as Cornell's Farm and Home Week.
And in fact, extension workers, home economists in universities, and the Bureau of Home Economic found many rural women did want to learn about textiles and clothing. There are always exceptions, and one of the big issues of studying personal appearance, you have to make generalizations. And then when you get down to the individual level, it is often wrong because it's individual.
However, extension work programs, reports on activities of farm and home weeks, county fairs, correspondence, and research studies done by home economists across the country show that many rural women did care and wanted more information. Take, for instance, there is a woman who was interviewed and just named Mrs. Farmer at a Cornell Farm and Home Week in 1938. She talked enthusiastically about the sewing machine demonstrations that she attended and how impressive they were.
And then not only that, she stated that farm women wanted to learn new ways of making clothing just the same as they wanted to learn about new ways of cooking, and that farm women aren't set in their ways nearly as much as people would think.
So home economists, meanwhile, were deeply interested in the same fabrics as rural women. And my period in question, the main fabrics-- cotton, silk, rayon is coming into being, and is-- throughout the 1920s and 1930s-- is rapidly being used, wool, and then linen as well. But I'm also not dealing with linen.
For the federally employed, university professors, and extension workers, rural women were a key constituency so that many of their concerns overlap with those expressed by rural women. However, home economists had broader interests as well, and they were often rooted in public policy, American economics, and white middle class values.
For the home economists of the American Home Economics Association, the Bureau of Home Economics, and women working in university settings, clothing and textile knowledge was part of a larger system whereby homemakers could make their lives more efficient and beautiful while at the same time bringing them into the American polity through consuming. For these groups, the ability to make economical choices that reflected their tastes and values, aesthetic and economic, was essential to being good consumers and citizens.
Throughout all of this, rural women and home economists' relationships varied by state, region, and race. Under the umbrella of the United States Department of Agriculture, the Bureau of Home Economics worked to address national issues, while also responding to concerns from women across the country. They worked closely with the extension service, which was a more hands on organization that sent female clothing, food, and homemaking specialists into communities and into rural homes.
And many of the women in the home extension service are trained home economists, but they're working in the field versus, say, at the policy level, like Ruth O'Brien, who was heading the Clothing and Textile Division of the Bureau of Home Economics. So although these extension agents had ideas of what constituted correct skills, they tended to be more informed and sympathetic to the daily lives of the women they served. Policies and ideas developed at the national level did not always work on the ground.
It is noteworthy, then, that clothing and textile demonstrations and courses were frequently in high demand within home extension programs. Workers repeatedly noted that home economics was now so much more than cooking and sewing, although these elements did not disappear. Rather, they changed form. Clothing construction and textile education replaced classes demonstrating basic stitches, although sewing classes stuck around as well, but just put into different contexts.
Ready to wear was beginning to make inroads in many areas, although many women still could not afford, or maybe didn't like, ready to wear options. So whether learning about new types of textiles, how to make over old garments, or new sewing skills, rural women were interested in expanding their knowledge.
I know I've talked several times about textile knowledge. And what I mean by that varies depending on group. But broadly, I define this phrase as referring to an intellectual knowledge, so scientific research, particularly in terms of home economists, potentially at the microscopic level, identifying fibers, looking at how they respond to stress tests, but also an understanding of how fabrics feel, look, and behave in different circumstances, so their materiality.
And like I said, this often meant very different things for trained home economists and laypeople, in part because they had different bases of knowledge, but also, in part, because of their different lived experiences. And it's the difference in women's lived experiences that interests me and how that relates to issues of race, class, and gender.
So for home economists, they were deeply interested in expanding textile knowledge to consumers and producers, believing it would benefit both groups, and frequently in some of the same ways. And they built off of progressive era reforms, and then through much of the 20th century, developed programs that emphasized how women, particularly rural women, should consume properly.
Clothing and textiles was consistently a major part of single women and family budgets. And from the earliest days of home economics as a field, considerable attention was paid to textiles, clothing, and female purchasing. And part of what their research included-- so like a more scientific point of view-- would be thinking about textile knowledge as something that could be broken down and quantified through qualities such as tensile strength, thread count, material, and weave.
For home economists, the most important aspects of textile knowledge were based on these studies and observations because these were characteristics that could be linked to quality, and unlike aesthetic elements, could be quantified and thus standardized. At the same time, they did recognize the highly subjective nature of clothing as part of personal experience and how it fit into ways of living socially, personally, and professionally.
They believed that the scientific elements of clothing could be reconciled with more nebulous aspects, but only through careful consideration and education. For women outside of home economics, textile knowledge was based more on their lived experiences with fabrics. They picked clothing based on feel, on sight, on touch, on previous encounters, and potentially through things that they read, both good and bad.
While they might not have known the chemical composition of rayon, they understood that material properties affected their daily lives through wearing and caring for their clothing, as well as that of their families. Textile knowledge, for rural women, was a combination of aesthetic and economic values, constantly shifting based on available merchandise, style, and economic opportunity.
So you shouldn't really be surprised that perhaps these groups did not always agree on the best way to develop knowledge and use it. For their part, home economists and extension workers recognize some of the difficulties, many of which rural women likely would have agreed with. A lot of it had to do with class and social status as well as race.
Although extension work was already segregated by race, at least officially, they had separate African-American extension agents who visited African American homes, and then white extension workers. And I want to get more information on that and hopefully be able to incorporate that into my own research.
Some obstacles, however, seem to be common in all sections. There's potential indifference or prejudice in families about being told how to live their lives or what to do. Home demonstration programs were sometimes-- probably often-- designed to interest the more intellectual and prosperous groups of families, so women who had access to education or were formally educated. And then low educational status, which might prevent the intelligent reading and interpretation of literature. Also, lack of accurate information and social barriers that might be unknown to outside extension workers could exclude lower income families from active participation.
So as many of these examples indicate, lifestyle cultural values and lived experiences could vary greatly. At the same time, extension workers saw their work as extremely important for rural women. One extension specialist even listed the aim of the organizations as quote, "To establish demonstrations which are practical, progressive examples of better homemaking, which lead onto greater profit, culture, comfort, influence, and power," which is really saying something when they're talking about going out into these areas where women are maybe isolated and bringing them into different areas.
So these possibly conflicting impulses, a potential lack of understanding of what rural women could see as leading to this greater profit, culture, comfort, influence, and power, account for some of the differences in how these groups understand and utilize textiles. Some rural women felt extension workers did not properly understand their circumstances, and they could hardly be expected to embrace their teaching regardless of how scientific or official it might be.
Extension workers and home economists in contact with women from rural backgrounds frequently complained about issues such as poor choices in fabric and style. So for example, favoring how something looked over testing for quality, a lack of understanding of what constituted good dress or the importance of good dress, and a preoccupation with novelty.
These issues, however, rather than indicating a lack of intelligence or comprehension of textiles, reflected differences in cultural values that developed from lived experience. Thus thinking about cloth in terms of textile knowledge means thinking about how hierarchies of value are formed and then expressed through personal appearance.
So the two case studies I'm going to talk about today are cotton and silk. First I wanted to show you this song quickly because this kind of summarizes how economists thought about cotton and silk. And this is part of a play, a health play for the use of rural schools and clubs from The Farmer's Wife in 1923.
I don't know what kind of music would go to this, but I really enjoyed this when I found it. And it describes cotton is practical as you can see, and silk is beautiful and costs a lot and doesn't wear well, but all the pretty girls love it. So I'm going to work this into my dissertation somehow. I don't know how. But this is the beginning my time period, so this is a pretty good illustration of some of the differences in how popular views of these two fabrics differed.
And again, it's teaching young rural children the importance of the main textiles used in clothing. So cotton is used in work and children's clothing. It's a fabric known for affordability and durability. And then silk, on the other hand, we all know has a long history. I frequently see it referred to as the queen of fabrics. It's popularly associated with fashion and femininity.
This is the last part of this song to reiterate why you should dress properly because if you don't, you'll be drowned in tears. If you look at this last line, if you don't dress well, you're going to die, is really the takeaway from this song for children. I just wanted to show that. And while cotton and silk might seem like they have nothing in common, or even be oppositional in how they were used, they still came into many of the same conversations for home economists.
And in this period, they're some of the most frequently used materials for many women's garments. And really, rural women were interested in both cotton and silk for similar reasons. When they're buying cloth, they wanted to look good, they wanted to get a good deal for their money, they wanted to get good wear out of the cloth and have something they could take care of in a way that wasn't too onerous, and be able to take care of their family's clothing as well.
At the same time, cotton and silk underwent cultural transformations during this period. From the perspective of home economists, cotton was an underutilized but highly useful fabric, as you can see from this quote from Lewis Stanley in 1927. The Bureau of Home Economics and home economists at universities such as Cornell partnered with cotton textile trade groups, most notably the Cotton Textile Institute, which is the precursor to National Cotton Council. And they endorsed cotton as a fashionable fabric, which was something that hadn't taken place before this time.
Silk, on the other hand, had no need of promotion in terms of fashion publication. It was already very well-publicized. And in fact, during this period, silk was available in more prices and more varieties than ever before. Rather than sales, concerns about silk instead centered on quality standards and truth in marketing and labeling.
Rural women-- rather than home economists, rural women showed more variety and their concerns and complaints. And it's been harder to try to get at what their specific thoughts are. But they did provide feedback at farm and home weeks. They participated in reading courses, as I said earlier. And they sent in letters to publications such as The Farmer's Wife as well as to the Bureau of Home Economics. So I tried to use these, and I've tried to use observations from home economists, reading sort of against the grain and keeping in mind their own biases toward white middle class values to try to get a better idea of the lives of rural women.
And rather than endorsing one fabric over the other, as clearly some in the Bureau of Home Economics were doing, many rural women wanted to get a better idea of what they were purchasing and what would last, and why they should purchase what they're buying. Beauty did not have to mean low quality, just as a high price did not have to be good quality. Women wanted to know what would withstand washing and what was in style, and what would work for their families.
And in general, female consumers and home economists alike agreed that the market for fabrics was growing ever more complicated. Purchasers who wanted to know the composition and performance of a textile had relatively few, if any, options. You could try a burden test when you're buying fabric, although if you walked into an area and you tried to burn a little section of it, I don't know how well that would go over.
But that was something home economists advocated. If you wanted to see if something was a natural fiber, there are different methods you could try if you ever wanted to try that. This becomes more complicated, obviously, as fabrics are blended together, as you have rayon coming onto the scene. And then when synthetics come into being much later.
And labels are not on clothing. Maybe I probably should have said this earlier. Clothing isn't labeled. And this is something that home economists are really pushing during this time period as well. And this goes along with their efforts toward standardization. But there aren't labels that say the percentage of fibers on clothing. And during this period, you see some push toward that, particularly with wool. But this becomes an issue with silk weighting as well.
So what home economists did do is they undertook research studies to try to provide more information for consumers, for themselves, and for retailers. And one example of this type of study were the Purnell Projects, which were led by Beulah Blackmore here within the College of Home Economics. And Blackmore partnered with other state agricultural experiment stations, including Pauline Berry Mack, who was at the Penn State agricultural station, who none of you have probably heard of.
I read about her all the time because she was the person doing research on silk, and all her grad students did research on silk. And she was very instrumental in trying to get more information and show that weighting was not a positive thing. But the object of these studies here at Cornell was determined the chief causes of non-durability in silk rayon and cotton textiles used for women's and children's apparel.
And then this information was then used for formulating consumer standards for wearing apparel and fabrics, and they worked closely with New York's extension personnel to collect samples and partner with agricultural experiment stations throughout the nation. So their work developed rapidly over the years, expanded to wool, and they presented their findings and recommendations to federal agencies as well as the public.
So as they went through these programs-- the experiments ran from, I believe, 1938 through the 1940s-- they took into account what consumers were saying and then put that back into their work so they could try to figure out what women wanted to know and what was most important for them to look at. And of these projects combined scientific study with this input and then pushed that forward.
So with cotton, the US Department of Agriculture, whose main constituents were rural men and women, was seriously concerned with the cotton situation in the 1920s. It was very significant to USDA programs as well as the country for a number of reasons because in the mid-1920s, cotton was the third largest agricultural crop in the United States, and the cotton textile industry was seventh in terms of production.
Through the Bureau of Home Economics and partnerships with the American cotton industry, they embarked on ambitious plans to increase cotton usage, particularly for women's clothing. When they cast their program at a wide audience, and this included middle class women, their partnerships with the extension service, and their already close ties with rural populations meant that the actions and concerns of rural women were part of the equation. And for this, economics neatly dovetailed with home economists' argument that comprehension, taste, and responsible use of textiles, including cotton, were important skills for women as consumers to develop.
The main message from home economists concerning cotton was that buying cotton was a marker of good citizenship and good femininity because cotton was an American product. Through purchasing cotton textiles, discerning buyers propped up their households, and by extension, the national economy. Publications such as Ruth O'Brien's book on selecting cotton textiles and USDA bulletins were particularly aimed at rural women.
And during this period, it wasn't necessarily that cotton wasn't used in many types of women's clothing, but that it was not always heavily associated with style the way that silk, rayon, and wool were. Associations between cotangent of the crop and cotton as a fiber played into this, as did the low prices of cotton during the years after World War I.
In fact, the USDA bulletin. 1444 noted that the poorest people depended on cotton goods for clothing. So these connotations with poverty and cotton could be hard to dispel and certainly doesn't fit into definitions of fashion. But cotton certainly was used in garments and many household items. However, it was not necessarily a common choice for dressier or good garments.
The promotion of cotton textiles as fashionable took place through the Cotton Textile Institute, which was the major trade organization after 1927 and a frequent collaborator with the Bureau of Home Economics, the American Home Economics Association, and textile specialists throughout the country. Here's an example of some of their current information on cotton.
The extension sermons and programs such as farm and home weeks promoted cotton use for rural women through demonstrations and exhibits. For example, in 1928, Susan Bates, a trained home economist and employee of the Cotton Textile Institute, as well as an adjunct of the Bureau of Home Economics-- And I think she also worked at Iowa State, but it's been really hard to find this, but she was sort of all over the place with what she was doing-- planned a style show at the American Farm Bureau Federation.
This was considered a great success. It was heavily promoted in newspapers across the nation, and they took this as an indication they should push this further. This led to, in some ways, the establishment of cotton weeks, cotton fairs, and programs continuing this promotion. So this is also published by the Cotton Textile Institute. And there would be these weeks where they would say everything cotton this week. Stores would promote it. So it was across a lot of different fields.
Finally, through press releases, magazine articles, and radio releases, the desirability of cotton for household and clothing purposes was kept before the public during these years, during the 1930s and 1920s. And in fact, by 1941, 69% of all clothing was made from cotton. So this works. And you actually see a lot of complaints, during the [INAUDIBLE] war years, when cotton is restricted, of women writing into the Bureau of Home Economics or talking to home economists in the AHEA about the poor quality of cotton.
Messages from rural women, particularly in the 1920s and '30s-- sorry-- were more ambivalent toward cotton. They wanted to purchase things that looked nice and could be cared for, as well as get a good value, and this wasn't always cotton. For example, in the 1927 Yearbook of Agriculture, home economist Edna L. Clark noted that over the last five or six years, so from 1922 to 1927, cotton was being replaced by silk or rayon for women's clothing, farm women's clothing.
They interviewed 231 women, and they listed a number of reasons for the switch. Silk was cooler in the skin, it lasted longer, and perhaps most importantly, silk was more attractive than cotton. So some blame was placed on textile clothing manufacturers, and home economists argued that more effort needed to be put into the manufacture of beautiful cottons as effort had been put into silks, and that cotton fabrics that were of artistic design of real character were difficult to find.
And the study also demonstrates that women in rural as well as urban areas demanded proper attention to fabric texture, color, and design in relation to garment design if they were to take cotton seriously. And all throughout this period, home economists and the cotton textile industry spent a lot of time and effort trying to convince rural women and others to buy cotton. And it stands to reason if they were already wearing all cotton wardrobes, why would they spend all this time and money to do this?
Wearing cotton might have been part of basic life, not necessarily a status symbol, and many women did buy cotton because it was affordable, available, and practical in ways that silk and rayon were not. Rural women, at the same time, could and did benefit from the efforts of the Cotton Textile Institute's and the Bureau of Home Economics' efforts to promote new developments and designs in cotton for women's clothing as new varieties, prints, and finishes became available.
In my chapter-- I could have said this, too. Each of my chapters in my dissertation is based on fabric. So my first chapter is cotton, silk is my second chapter, and I talk a lot about silk weighting within this chapter. And this is an image of what silk looks like when it's been weighted and it's deteriorating. It starts to shred, and I actually was able to see some examples of this in the costume collection here as well. But I couldn't find the pictures. Not entirely sure I took them, but I saw them. And it's really fascinating. So I googled this and found this instead.
So all these debates surrounding silk weighting in women's clothing are part of a larger conversation and concerns over quality control, standardization, and truth in labeling and merchandising. Home economists and the American Home Economics Association were concerned about this for a while. They formed a committee on standardization in 1920.
And at the time, the committee identified some of the main issues as there was a lack of laws to protect consumers from misrepresentation, so people could kind of say whatever they wanted, and no one was really regulating this. Ignorance or indifference of a large proportion of women and girls to clothing problems, which often led to a selection of yard goods and clothing based solely on surface finish, color, and cut, and led to extravagant spending on dress. And that's that middle class judgment coming through right there.
There's a lack of tests and specifications for minimum standards, indifference and possible antagonism in the trade, and then determination of the most effective way to identify fabrics to reach or pass minimum standards didn't exist. So the goals of this committee, which might seem pretty basic-- like we want to know what we're buying-- were not without controversy.
And they noted that their idea is a new one, a big one, one that involved some radical changes in the established order. And they believed, however, that in the long run, the interests of the consumer, producer, and retailer are identical. So home economists and rural women themselves argued that women had a right to know what they were buying.
And as I'm talking about silk weighting, you might be wondering, what is silk weighting? How does this relate to the interests of home economists and rural women? I will to get to that, I promise. Up until this point, [INAUDIBLE]. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, affordable silk wasn't really an option, particularly people in lower circumstances. However, industrialization and mass production changed this for silk, and it made this luxury item within the reach of many more middle class and some lower income customers. So by the 1880s, the combination of more raw materials, mechanized looms, and a steady supply of labor allowed previously unimaginable amounts of American economically produced silks to move into the marketplace.
This became available at department stores and through mail order catalogs that spread these goods across the country. And women began to expect access to these new reasonably priced silks rather than viewing them as a foreign luxury. Granted, these weren't the most affordable. They're still going to be more expensive than other fabrics, but for greater groups of women.
As demand and markets expanded, producers looked for ways to meet expectations while making a larger profit, and silk weighting is born out of these impulses. So to weight silk, the silk cocoons are unwoven and the silk is spun. And it needs to be degummed, so getting the gum off of the fibers so it can then be dyed and processed. And this causes the fiber to lose a percentage of its weight.
The weighting process, then, consists of emerging woven unfinished silks into baths of mineral salts, most often tin. And lead was also used, and there's some interesting correspondence with the AGA contacting the Surgeon General asking how bad is led waiting? Is the lead going to come off in the clothing and poison people? I never found an answer for that. Still working on that. It was mostly tin, however.
And then a common method was to dip the fabric alternately in solutions of tin chloride and disodium phosphate. And then as the fabric would go between these two solutions, the weight would increase. So as many as six passes could be given, and it could add as much as 50% of end weight in mineral materials. So this makes the fabric feel heavier and potentially more expensive.
And based on home economics research led by Pauline Berry Mack at Penn State, a fabric with 50% weighting in tin salts had a short wearing life, particularly when combined with wear, wash, and perspiration. Weighted silk, hung in a room in a private house and left alone, was shown through testing to disintegrate in about four months so that a person could pull it apart with her hands.
And 50% weighted silk it wasn't really that unusual. One study showed that a cross-section of dresses bought in the New York retail market at prices ranging from $2.98 to $59.50-- and almost all of these that they tested were sold as unweighted or low weighted-- more than 90% of the dresses were 50% weighted silk. And various trade sources confirm that this was a fairly standard to the market.
And in response to all of this-- and home economists had been concerned about this for a while-- but it took some time for the industry to take notice and start to consider that might be an issue. A nationwide study on silk took place in early 1930s, with home economics departments across the country sending in samples to be analyzed in order to get a better idea of truth in retailing and labeling, how the fabric wore over time, and how much was I paid for it.
So I have some samples of these that I have found in the collections here. This one is from Alaska. She dry cleaned her own silk dress in gasoline at home. But she wore it approximately 25 times, and it was only $3.00 per yard. I actually don't know where this-- some of these have samples with them, too.
So that's from Alaska. This one's from Hawaii, I believe. And a lot of these, in the archives, it was great. They actually had the samples of silk with them, and they're still in very good condition. And I was looking-- I know some of them I saw, you could actually see the tears coming in from the weighting.
But yeah, they asked them what the retailer told them when they bought it, how much it cost, what it was used for. So you can see some of the different examples that women pulled up. And some women said that they got good wear from their dress. Some women said, I wore it twice and it started to fall apart at the seams. And they have a detailed study at the end where they summarize all the results, which was great because I was going to do that myself, but they did it for me. That was really nice.
And what's really interesting about this study is that the amount of weighting in the silk-- because they sent these to Bureau Standards and they tested them-- price doesn't correspond to weighting. So you could get pure silk, and it might be cheaper than weighted silk, even though there's actual more silk product in it. So there's not really-- there's no regulation. There's no necessary correlation between price and quality. I'll show a couple more.
This one's $2.00 a yard for an afternoon dress, not washable. I'm not sure if it's weighted. So some women might know to ask if it's weighted. Sometimes the retailer didn't know. It really just depended. And discussions of stock weighting and its hazards stretched from the silk industry, so this included manufacturers of textiles, garment makers, distributors, and retailers, to issues of public health-- health, like I mentioned, with lead-- and then to issues of taste and proper consumption and into fights over standardization of goods.
Home economists, government officials, and even major silk companies agreed that overweighting was a problem. Some major silk companies, such as Cheney Silks, are really concerned about this because they are producing higher end silks and they didn't want these smaller businesses to cheapen their product necessarily because at this point, press notices showed marked lack of cooperation of trade in conforming to standards from some silk companies because some silk manufacturers felt the competition of others that weren't holding to standards forced them to vote for more weighting because they needed to be competitive in the marketplace.
So this brought some strong opposition. And there are articles that talk about this as a scandal. There's a lot of really interesting articles in the trade press that make it sound very dramatic. It was great. In all of this, it didn't stop companies from weighting silk or women from purchasing it because if you can buy a cheap and inexpensive silk when maybe you couldn't have bought that before, how much are you going to care if it's weighted? So personal considerations, what you're looking for, you could possibly compare it to fast fashion now, where it's not going to last, but you can afford it.
And reasons varied. Like I was saying, some women were probably legitimately duped by a heavier hand of silk, but others saw an opportunity to purchase more aesthetically pleasing materials previously out of their reach. So this is all taking into consideration economic, social, racial considerations while purchasing fabric by the yard or ready made clothing. And even weighted silk wasn't exactly inexpensive. In the late 1920s, when silk was at its most plentiful and least expensive, it was still unattainable for women of lower incomes.
And from what I talked about, the earlier survey that women switching to silk, we know that some rural women, probably dependent on their own situation, were wearing silk, and the number increased during the 20s. And this continued into the 1930s for women who could afford it.
There is also evidence that some women would not even attend church if their clothing wasn't nice enough. So in terms of why women might be buying something that might be out of their budget, if they're concerned about presenting themselves for social events or to go to church, this would potentially be an issue. So it might not have been for everyday wear, but for some, it would have been an option.
Silk was still certainly fashionable based on how it felt, looked, and wore, and somewhat exclusive based on price. But the issue of silk weighting threw doubt on former notions of silk's innate superiority. When seams could rip, fabric split, or dresses fall apart after one wash or wear, what was the value in purchasing silk? However, for other women, affordable silk, even if it was weighted, was a chance to engage in modernity and newly accessible fashion systems.
So for silk and cotton, these are all the areas that I'm working through and hoping to expand more. And in conclusion, I just wanted to end with a memo from the Department of Home Economics at Cornell, a 1933 memo that was addressing the aims of the clothing and textile department.
And this is that students who could go out into communities, and who organized things for the community, who came into Cornell, noted particularly that clothing was an important part of the harmonious expression of personality. Students should understand how it fit into ways of living socially, personally, and professionally because clothing influenced women's sense of security and social efficiency.
The Department of Textiles and Clothing recognized all of this and aimed to help students study textiles and clothing from the standpoint of health, comfort, and economy to understand its contribution to social and professional success, enjoy as an expression of aesthetic beauty and for creative self-expression. For home economists and rural women, textiles could provide some or all of these things, making them a central but often invisible part of their lives. Thank you.
And this illustration was from one of the booklets for Farm and Home Week here, Uncle Sam holding the hand of a housewife. Thank you.
AUDIENCE: Alison, was a lot of the silk imported, or was there a domestic silk industry as well?
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: So they're importing the raw material, but then they were making it here.
AUDIENCE: So they're actually importing the silk from China.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Yes. They're getting the raw product, yes. And then there are issues with-- I think the mid-1930s-- with getting silk from Japan and Japan becoming more hostile. So there's that push for lyocell stockings versus silk.
AUDIENCE: Was this up until '45, did you say?
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: My dissertation will be up until '45.
AUDIENCE: I'm curious how the effect of World War II and our entering-- I mean, you mentioned something in 1941. And then I'm thinking all the fabrics that are needed, the wool, perhaps. Well, I don't know. World War II might have been as much cotton as wool for the--
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: So they didn't actually-- based on the studies that I saw, the lack of cotton became an issue. They had the raw product, but they didn't necessarily have the looms for it. So the looms were being used for Army products, and they couldn't produce enough things. And actually, a common complaint was that the products that were being produced were either too expensive or of such poor quality women didn't think they were worth buying. And they were talking about cotton.
I didn't see as much about wool, but there was a lot on the quality of cotton, and that the only things available were rayon house dresses that weren't worth-- it just wasn't even worth the money because they'd fall apart or they'd shrink.
AUDIENCE: It doesn't have wet strength, right? But the other thing that I was thinking of is that they didn't have washing machines in those days. So that's a big--
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Definitely. And that is something that's--
AUDIENCE: That's post-World War-- yeah, that's post-World War II that all the washing machines became-- every housewife had have one and all that.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: And when that's the case, if cotton is difficult to wash, why would you want to buy cotton, especially if it shrinks, if it loses its finish, all those different things, which are--
AUDIENCE: Silk isn't too terrific in the washing machine.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: I ruined something silk one time. I'm like, I can hand wash this. Couldn't hand wash that. Ran everywhere. Other questions?
AUDIENCE: So first a confession. I have been known to burn little threads from things. [INAUDIBLE] dressing room to make sure the fiber content was accurate. But I'm wondering, when they were talking about promoting cotton and the aesthetics of cotton, if wrinkling was ever brought up as a detraction. Is that because-- that's something we don't really deal with anymore, but would have been.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: It is, yes. They talked about-- about partway through this, they start to come up with the new finishes that help with wrinkling on. But in some of the earlier surveys, that is a discussion where they're saying they don't retain the starch, and then they get wrinkled. They're just not retaining that starch very well. And what starches you can use, and which ones work best for cotton, should you choose to do that, were some of the studies that are published in the Journal of Home Economics, actually. But that was an issue that women found as well.
AUDIENCE: Sure. That's an excellent subject matter. And I wonder if your future research will include speaking to farm wives.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: What?
AUDIENCE: Farm wives.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Yes. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Because most of it seems to have come from the archives. And I can see that home ec brochures do talk about textiles, but farm wives talk about bolts of cloth, and maybe even fabric. But textiles is a bit pretentious.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Actually, that's a really good point, yeah. I've been going through-- I've just started to go through The Farmer's Wife to look through the letters that the women were writing in as well to see what they specifically are saying. So I haven't really gotten through that material as much as I would like. But that is certainly a part that I want to know what they're saying.
AUDIENCE: And you have to think about women who were maybe sewing by hand. No, they wouldn't have had machines. They might not have even had treadle machines.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Yeah. Yes, definitely. That would make a huge difference in the terms of patterns and what types of garments, and how much time they would have, too.
AUDIENCE: And then talk to women today about what their mothers did and maybe what their grandmothers did.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Yes, thank you.
AUDIENCE: The Beulah Blackmore work that you were talking about. What got her started doing that?
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: That's a great question, actually. I'm not sure.
AUDIENCE: OK. Because I'm trying to figure out what made her--
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I was curious if there was any connection that you came across in the archives to the work that was happening in the costume shop, which started around 1920. It was in operation until the '40s. They were serving clientele, but that could have been an impetus.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Probably. I think actually had the papers with me. We can look afterwards. I'm not even kidding. They're in my purse.
AUDIENCE: That might be it. That might be it.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Yes. That would make sense in terms of-- because the project started in'37, '38. And if they're working on making clothing for women-- yeah.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Yeah.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: So maybe that was why. And then during the Depression, they had the WPA sewing rooms, too, so maybe also related to that.
AUDIENCE: And even the doll collection, where they really did use the vintage fabric from those in the '20s. Yeah, that's '20s. It's a good question. I don't know the answer.
AUDIENCE: So when did Levi's come in? I would have thought they were rather important on farms.
AUDIENCE: They're 19th century.
AUDIENCE: Yes, late 19th.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Yes. I haven't talked about that.
AUDIENCE: Then presumably they would be technically ready to wear.
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: They would be, yes. More for--well, I guess some women would probably wearing them as well. I know there's been some interesting work done-- oh, I can't remember who the scholar is now. But she looked at them as a way for African-American women to assert their identity within a working context. I would have to look at the article. I haven't done any work with denim.
AUDIENCE: Considering race is part of your work, does region come in to play in terms of just either the rural women that you're hoping to kind of address, or any other way?
ALISON BAZYLINKSI: Yes. I'm trying to do-- I'm kind of trying to do case studies. I'm actually hoping to go down to NC State and look at their records for African-American extension workers in the next two weeks. I've pulled some stuff from Iowa State and from here, and then I've been looking at some secondary sources.
But right now I know it's lacking. I would like to look at the differences, if there are differences, between the extensive work done by African-American women. And a lot of that does come down to access and opportunity as well, which makes sense. But that's something that I want to build on to.
So I'm trying to look at a couple places down in the south, Midwest. Haven't really done much with Pacific Northwest, like east of the Mississippi River, maybe. Anyone else? Thanks.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University Library.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
Fabric is an essential part of the daily lives of all people, but the tasks of purchasing and choosing textiles have historically been gendered female. Alison R. Bazylinski, the College of Human Ecology 2018 Fellow in the History of Home Economics, presents some of the insights gleaned during her research in the home economics archives housed in the Rare & Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library.
Her talk explores the cultural histories of cotton and silk from 1920 to 1945 by examining how rural female consumers and home economists understood, used, and talked about textiles. Highlighting consumer and professional home economist interactions with textiles, Bazylinski examines how cultural meanings surrounding cotton and silk – economic, aesthetic, and social – came into being and shifted in the interwar period.