Women Yesterday and Today 6: Who was Mrs. Titcomb?

I can't believe my luck this week. I have been working through Pearl McGown's books in order to write a couple of posts about her, but I have become sidetracked with a new found interest in rug hooking in the 1920s. Phyllis Lindblade suggested a couple of titles that I might enjoy. So I ordered them up (don't you love the internet for finding used books?!). And two arrived the day before yesterday. Last night I got around to reading one of them by Ella Shannon Bowles, Handmade Rugs (1927). Bowles is writing after Phillips, and actually refers to her in the bibliography. The book is a comprehensive description of all the different types of handmade rugs that were being produced in the 1920s during the revival of rugmaking in the Arts and Craft period, when women were interested in bringing Americana accessories into their homes. She has two chapters on hooked rugs, which she also calls "pulled" or "drawn-in" rugs. These phrases appear to be synonymous with "hooked" since she uses them interchangeably.

Surprisingly, according to Bowles, the types of rugs that these women were after were not the "primitive" rugs that you or I might think about when we consider American country or folk art. Bowles knows that the height of rugmaking was in the Civil War period, but she complains how unfortunate it was that "many of the products of the years following the war were crude in design and coloring, for the commercial rug-patterns of the time were hideous" (p. 11). The rugs that she notes were being designed in the 1920s for women patrons were orientals, floral sprays with scrolls, landscapes, and so forth - apparently not so much the "primitives" we are familiar with.

She appears to be targeting women who are interested in making rugs, but not necessarily for their own personal use. She wants to help them go into business and so her last chapter is on the "commercial opportunities of rug-making." She says that rug making is good for women because they can create their rugs at home and then sell them out of their own homes or deliver them to gift shops and department stores for sale. The business woman might not want to hook at all, but become a business manager and organize a group of rug hookers, and then sell those rugs at a profit for herself.

She mentions a couple of rug businesses: Society of Deerfield Industries at Deerfield, Massachuetts; South End House in Boston; and Martha Titcomb and her daughter Elizabeth Titcomb. It is the latter I am immediately interested in because the used book I bought came to me with a surprise: a newspaper clipping from the late 1920s that describes the work of Miss Elizabeth Titcomb. Titcomb was a famous rug hooker in northern Vermont. The best I can make out, around 1910 her mother Martha had a dream to "give to the lonely women on the isolated farms of her home state an opportunity to make something beautiful, something that would occupy the weary hours of snowbound months, and at the same time give them the almost non-existent cash that would afford them a feeling of independence" (newspaper clipping). She decided to concentrate on rug hooking since it was "what was already there." She solicited women from the local Women's Club to begin hooking for her. Her first worker drove to her home and told her, that "she just loved to 'draw-in', and would like to be one of her workers" (newspaper clipping). The business was set up so that the workers hooked the rugs in their own homes and sent them to the Titcombs who then sold them to the client who had ordered the rug.

Titcomb and her daughter were the rug designers. Martha's rug designs were described by the critics at the time as "beautiful and elevating," as "the loveliest things one can imagine". They were drawn on an old painted pine table, to meet all kinds of tastes. Her designs were inspired by "the spirit of the old creations": baskets of flowers, very realistic, with some unconventional; ships sailing green oceans; golden sunsets; block designs with hit-or-miss. After the design was drawn the Titcombs painted the burlap with the colors that were to be used by their workers. The painted burlap was given to the workers, along with a key to the colors and the yarns to be hooked, yarns which the Titcombs had dyed themselves in their "workroom": turquoise, green, mauve, pale cream, deep red, tawny browns. Their "pulled-in" rugs were like those made by grandma except they are "always of wool and they are far lovelier in color" (newspaper clipping). They were not the "crude thrift rugs" made by women to use up bits of wool and rag and silk.

Titcomb's home industry was so successful that she could not keep up. The Titcombs claimed that "the rugs sell as fast as they can manufacture them" (newspaper clipping).

The rug in the photo (scanned from the newspaper clipping) is the type of rug that the Titcombs were designing and manufacturing and selling in the 1920s. It had a black background and is a duplicate of the first large rug ordered and manufactured by the business. It was designed to go with some "chintz" in the home of the woman who ordered it. The Titcombs preferred to design rugs to meet the decor needs of their clients. The rug pictured lay "before the hearth in the living-room of Elizabeth's father's house, where it must feel very much at home, in the atmosphere of the olden days that prevails in every particular" (newspaper clipping).

Were their workers happy? Elizabeth reports that one of her workers once told her after finishing a rug, "Send me something else to do quickly; I am like a hornet when I haven't a rug to work on" (newspaper clipping).