Women Yesterday and Today 4: More on Anna Laise Phillips

As we celebrate the history of women this month, I want to return to the story of Anna M. Laise Phillips and her book Hooked Rugs and How to Make Them (1925). My last post about her discussed her as a business woman who set up a brokerage-type rug business in the 1920s. She developed a network of various pods of hookers, often in rural poor neighborhoods around the East and the South, and purchased rugs that they themselves designed and hooked from "rags." She marketed the rugs in New York city as authentic American folk art "like grandma used to make" at a time with Americana and nostalgia for the good ol' days (before industrialization) was on the rise in the states. She was very successful in selling these rugs, moving them into the homes of wealthy women and collectors. It appears that she was so successful that she went out on the state farm circuit lecturing about rugs, in order to solicit rugs from women she would meet there and establish new pods.

If we ever wonder why our hooking groups today are called "guilds" all we have to do is remember that the origin of our craft is connected to the fact that women who were hooking rugs in the teens and twenties were doing so to sell them. They found it convenient to gather together during the day at the guild leader's house and hook together. Phillips talks about two or three neighbors gathering in the kitchen and hooking their rugs.

She also talks about the dye pot being "as much a part of the kitchen equipment as is the stove today." The rags they used were turned into "beautiful colors" from "barks, roots, and herbs brewed and combined to make the desired tint." They used vegetable dyes grown in their gardens. Saffron raised for medicinal tea made a brilliant golden color when used as a dye. Logwood and onion skins were also used (p. 30).

I noticed when reading Phillips' book that her brokerage business is only part of her story. What she is doing in her book is trying to persuade wealthy women to try to hook rugs. She describes her audience as women who " attend to their household duties systematically and conscientiously, yet have their leisure hours when they might be doing some other form of expressive work if they could only decide what to take up" (p. 10). It is a hard sell because this was a craft of poverty that used "rags." All the books from this period talk about the women using materials that were so worn they couldn't be used for anything else anymore. So they hooked them into rugs that they would walk on (think farmer's boots) or put in front of their hearths (think cooking and open fires). During this time, rugs were largely made by women of poverty to sell or trade for food and clothing.

Nevertheless, she tries to bring the craft to a new audience in her chapter "Making Rugs for Ourselves" (pp. 87-100). She does so by trying to persuade women of leisure that the craft is "old" and "American" and part of the "revival" of past. Tired of industrialization and commercialism? Tired of cheap imitations? Tired of mechanical perfection? Then rug hooking is for you. At a time when women had just won the right to vote, Phillips writes, "This chapter is written in the spirit of helpfulness, of encouragement to our women to return to something which they can do in their own homes, by their own firesides, while father reads his paper or even while he is at the club" (p. 88).

But her big move was to convince these wealthy women of leisure that by hooking rugs they were not becoming part of a merchant guild. They didn't have to sell their rugs. She writes, "Lest I weaken, I am going to tell you right here: do NOT make rugs to sell, make them for YOURSELF" (p. 88). She advises them against making rugs for "your lover, your husband, your mother, or your friend, for if you do you will not make a really individual rug. Make rugs for yourself. Make the kind of rug you like, the kind that appeal to you, the kind of rugs that you would keep forever...Leave it to the other woman to make her kind of rug. You make your own kind" (pp. 88-89).

As for the rags, she is suggests that rugs making is a good recycling project. Instead of disposing of "father's pants" why not turn his ugly old worn out cast offs into "articles of virtue and delight"? Why not make your home beautiful with the things you already have? (pp. 89-90).

In another post, I will review what Phillips knows about rugs during her time, and how she suggests to go about making them.