Women Yesterday and Today 3: Anna M. Laise Phillips

I have been continuing to reflect on women's history, and reading some old books I never got around to until now. And I would like to share one in particular with you today because it is a testament to the time that Lady Anne Grenfell was operating her mission mat business and may explain why she was so successful. It also lays some of the historical narrative necessary to understand what happened when Pearl McGown came on the scene.

Six years ago I was in an antique mall and my husband was rummaging around the old books there. He came across a book I bought although I did not recognize. It was written in 1925 by Anna M. Laise Phillips. It is called Hooked Rugs and How to Make Them. I recall leafing through it and shelving it at home. And forgetting about it. Until I found it again as I have been preparing to write this series of posts on historical women in rug hooking.

From the first lines of Phillips' book, I was captivated. She writes in the first lines of her foreword: "Sometimes I wonder if the thing itself is as big or important as the reason for its being; and in view of the darkness and dawn, the chaos and then the order, the trials and then the joy of our work, it seems that the things we do are but the outlet of our inner selves" (p. 9). She goes on to call rug hooking "expressive work" and she states that she hopes her book will encourage women who have "leisure hours" after attending their "household duties" to express themselves by hooking a lovely rug for their hearths. It is very clear throughout the book that Phillips' wished to cultivate rug hooking as an individualistic expressive folk art form (more on this in another post on another day!).

How did she learn about rug hooking? She tells the story of a bleak December day when she was traveling in the Alleghenies mountains to visit a cemetery where some of her kinsfolk were buried. She is traveling in a very poor part of the mountain country and states that she stopped by the dilapidated home of a "big, motherly woman" whose husband was ill and unable to work. When she enters the home, the woman apologizes for its sorry state, including the fact that her house had no heat. The woman then tells Phillips, "Indeed, I can make rugs and I work fast, too. If you'll let me make you one I am sure you'll be pleased." Phillips says that the woman was so earnest that it nearly broke her heart. The woman needed something to do to earn an income since her husband had been ill for a year.

When Phillips got home to New York City she began receiving packages of rugs from the woman: rugs with morning glories and marigolds scattered across them. She considered them good quality. Phillips paid her. More rugs arrive. There is more cash exchange. We learn that the woman told her neighbors about her new income and they begin to have "little rug parties where two or three gathered and visited" and hooked rugs to send to Phillips.

Soon Phillips has more rugs than she knows what to do with. And doesn't want to keep buying them for herself since she was running out of extra money. So she wrote the hookers and told them that she couldn't buy anymore of their rugs. They wrote back, "Please, Mrs. Phillips, don't stop buying our rugs. You are keeping the coal shovel and the bread knife going."

So Phillips regrouped. She asked the woman and the group of hookers she had organized to hook rugs for a year, working with "bits of cotton and wool, with here and there a thread of silk" creating "rugs from her (the hooker's) own designs." When Phillips had enough rugs, she put on an exhibit at the Art Center in New York. She showed "a few nice pieces" in order to show that the work of this group of women "deserved to be encouraged." The show was successful and the rugs sold. The buyers then began commissioning work from the women, and the "bread knife" and the "coal shovel" were kept going through their patronage.

I actually found the New York Times article from May 14, 1922, which describes the exhibition Phillips was referring to. The Exhibition was called "Old and New Types of American Handmade Rugs" and it was billed as a collection of American handmade rugs "patterned after the very old ones and made by women whose mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers were skilled rugmakers." She had on display seven types of rugs: knitted, crocheted or "cottage rugs", braided or "grandma's rocker" rugs, rag or "Betsy Moore" rugs, and two kinds of hooked rugs. The first type she called "old-fashioned rugs" that were made from a variety of materials. And a new concept rug she called "hearthstone rugs" because of it "cheerful homelike appearance", rich coloring, and thickness.

The New York Times article states that the hookers were "groups of women throughout this and other States in the East and South who, being skilled in the art of rugmaking, are anxious to make their work practical. All the work is done in the individual homes and each woman completes her rug after her own design and according to her own methods of work. The result is a very unusual collection of handmade rugs...It is the aim of Mrs. Phillips to broaden the scope of this work so that other women who are equally skilled may be given employment in this kind of occupation which brings out their skill and talent for making beautiful floor coverings, without leaving their homes."

What was going on here? I haven't been able to find an official biography of Anna Phillips, but reading between the lines of her book, I suspect that it was not a chance encounter with a stranger in the mountains that brought rug hooking to Phillips' attention. Phillips' was visiting the area to attend to the graves of her relatives and when she leaves the hooker's home and returns to New York city, she mentions that her trip had taken her back "to the scenes of childhood." This makes me think that the "big, motherly woman" was Phillips' impoverished relative, and Phillips agreed to buy her rugs while her husband was convalescing to keep the family from starvation. And once the neighbors heard about it, they wanted in too. So Phillips' found herself in a difficult situation. She had understood her offer to buy her relative's rugs to be a temporary measure, and now she was being sent boxes of them.

From photos in her book (which I have digitalized here), I can see that she was a wealthy woman. She shows us a room in her house adorned with hooked rugs, a room which she calls "Ye Heartstone Studios". I imagine that the name "heartstone rug" is meant to reflect her studio name. So I think she had connections in New York society which allowed her to put on an exhibition at the Art Center where other patrons could buy the rugs her relative's group had hooked. This appears to have been so successful that Phillips branched out, going around to various state and county fairs to tell about her cottage industry and invite women to hook rugs to sell to her. She mentions particularly a group of women who were school teachers from the rural districts of Memphis, Tennessee, who were delighted to find out that they could make rugs out of "old materials" and sell them to Phillips (p. 158).

What appears to have happened in the 1920s was a revival of rug hooking as part of a revival of Americana. Phillips attributes it to post-WWI emotions and nostalgia for the good ol' days, and I have no reason to doubt her on this. It seems that New York city was one of the main centers of commerce for things Americana. It was becoming vogue for wealthy city women to have American folk art in their homes. Phillips appears to have known this and creates a cottage industry from it, just as Lady Anne Grenfell was doing in Canada. The differences are stark though. Phillips is not supplying kits and instructions to her workers. She encourages them to create rugs from their own designs because she is certain that only when this freedom is granted to her workers will the rugs be truly expressive.