Mary Schenck Woolman

Over the years, I have picked up several old weaving, sewing, and home economics manuals.  Their publication dates range from 1906 to 1964.

Old textile and clothing handbooks.

Old textile and clothing handbooks.

A close-up of some of the titles.

A close-up of some of the titles.

I have always wondered about the authors of these books, and how they came by their expertise.  Take just one of those books, Textiles: A Handbook for the Student and the Consumer by Woolman and McGowan (1915); inside we find everything from an overview of centuries of textile history, to descriptions and diagrams of processing machines, to chemical tests for fiber qualities, as well as dye recipes and clothing budgets .  My assumption about an author that wrote such an all-encompassing book is that he must have come from a long line of textile manufacturers, and must have spent his whole life in the mills.

Fortunately, I found someone else interested in these authors, associate professor of history Linda Przybyszewski.  Her book, The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish, tells the story of the “Dress Doctors,” the women home economists of the 1900s.   Many of them were women who were interested in the sciences, but were prevented from working in any university science department except home economics.  “Everything that touched the home was of interest to home economists and became a specialty within their profession: truth in labeling, public sanitation, theories of child development, nutritional discoveries, architecture, and dress.” (p. 3)

In this book, I learned that the authors of that beloved book Textiles, were not men who had grown up in the industry.  They were women, and one of them came to textiles quite by accident, later in life.  Przybyszewski wrote such an entertaining account of that one, Mary Schenck Woolman, that I was intrigued, followed her footnotes, and read the original sources.

Mary Schenck was born to a well-off family in Camden, New Jersey, in 1860, and attended a Quaker school that emphasized vocational education and social service.

“In school she specialized in languages and history. Careers for women were then looked upon with suspicion, and the first college courses for women were just being established. Many of her classmates entered Cornell, but Mary Schenck could not go so far from home. She attended classes at the University of Pennsylvania, although no degree was given to women at that time.” (Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 32, No. 9, p. 586, link below)

At the age of 22, she married, but her father died soon after, and Mary’s mother and husband had poor health.  She set about teaching herself practical skills, and in 1891, the small family sold their large home and moved to a boarding house in New York City.  Mary had gotten a job correcting manuscripts for publishers, so it was natural for one of the other boarders, a professor at Teachers College, to have her look over a manuscript for a sewing instruction book.

The method it taught was to practice each stitch in isolation until it was perfect, and then go on to another.  Mary thought it was horribly boring and would make girls hate to sew.  She thought it would be much better to have the girls make simple projects that would give them a sense of accomplishment.  The president of the college asked her to write a new book with her method, and Mary became part of the staff of the college in 1892.  She stayed there for 20 years, but she was not just a sewing instructor for students.  Her book, A Sewing Course for Schools, was published in 1900, and A Sewing Course for Teachers was published in 1907.  She toured cities in the East to teach other instructors this method.

“Her interest in the industrial phases of textiles led to her second big life interest, the development of trade education for girls. Her special knowledge made her sought as adviser to boards of trade and commissions which were trying to develop industrial work. It was during her early years at Teachers College that Mrs. Woolman was asked to meet with a group of prominent men and women of New York City to discuss the problems of the working girl, then poorly paid and living under most undesirable conditions. At the request of Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, Mrs. Woolman was released for half time at Teachers College to develop the Manhattan Trade School for Girls…” (Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 32, No. 9, p. 587)

After a small beginning, the school was expanded to provide services for 500 girls daily.   It was set up to be able to admit girls (ages 14 to 17) at any time, to stay open year-round and also offer night classes, and to help place the girls in jobs and follow up on them.  Most of the students stayed for just a few months, but after a while when they realized that the training did bring them higher pay, some were willing to stay for a year.  After seven years, the school had placed 730 girls.  In 1910, Woolman wrote a book, The Making of a Trade School, describing in detail how they ran the school.

“The public school offers such children a general education which will be completed in the eighth grade, but the majority leave before that time.  For varying reasons, such at their foreign birth, irregular attendance, the impossibility of much personal attention in the crowded classrooms of a great city, poor conditions of health, and the desire of pupils to escape the routine of school as soon as the law will allow, the greater number of them, who go early into trade, have not had a satisfactory education for helping them in their working life… young workers still come from the schools at fourteen with poor health, little available hand skill, unprepared to write business letters or to express themselves clearly either by tongue  or by pen, uninterested in the daily news except in personal or tragic events, unaware of municipal conditions affecting them, ignorant of the simple terms of business life, and with their arithmetic unavailable for use…The mechanical processes, therefore, which they do know are now useless unless they can think out the problem.” (pp. 6, 7)

“The organizer of a trade school faces… a serious difficulty in obtaining instructors who are adequate to the task before them…The usual teacher of manual training knows too little of the ways of the workrooms and is too theoretical in her instruction to be trusted to train workers who must satisfy trade demands.  On the other hand, the trade worker, good as she may be in her specialty, seldom knows how to teach.  She can drive her group of workers, but she cannot train the green hands to do more than work quickly at one thing.”  (pp. 43, 44)

Other difficulties that had to be solved were that parents could not afford any fees and were reluctant to send the girls to this school when they could be out working, the city and state refused to fund the school,  and that the girls needed materials to practice on but could not afford them.  Out if all the occupations available, only some were selected to be taught at the school, trades that were thought to offer good wages, chance of advancement, and “favorable conditions, both physical and moral.”

Woolman seemed to have such sympathy for these girls.  I think it’s a rare person that can combine warm-hearted concern with wide-ranging planning and logistics as she did.

Also in 1910, Ellen Beers McGowan became a student of Woolman’s at Teachers College, and became very interested in textiles.  Woolman suggested that they write a college textbook together, with McGowan contributing the scientific material on the physical and chemical testing of fabrics.  Woolman spent seven summers abroad, learning about the industry.  McGowan wrote, ” She was a fluent and indefatigable writer, tireless in assembling factual material. She never adapted another writer’s work to her own ends but went to original sources growers, manufacturers, finishers, government reports, authorities in every related field. To describe a manufacturing process, for example, meant that she must first see it in action.”  (Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 32, No. 9, p. 589)

That book, Textiles: A Handbook for the Student and Consumer, came out in 1913.  The whole book is online at that link.  My copy is from the fourth reprinting, in 1915.

One of the many illustrations of textile industry jobs in Woolman's book, Textiles.

One of the many illustrations of textile industry jobs in Woolman’s and McGowan’s book, Textiles.

Part of a clothing budget for a family of five.

Part of a clothing budget for a family of five.

Clothing budget for the woman and oldest daughter of the family, from 1913.

Clothing budget for the woman and oldest daughter of the family, from 1913.

During World War I, Woolman was made Textile Specialist for Massachusetts under the War Emergency Fund of the United States Department of Agriculture.  She organized exhibits that were set up in a war hut on Boston Common, to show women how to re-use clothing to make their resources stretch further during the war.  (The image I linked to may or may not be hers, but that is the type of thing she taught. Sadly, I can’t find any images of those exhibits, but here is an article from 1920 describing more about them.)  She wrote two more books, Clothing: Choice, Care, and Cost and Textile Problems for the Consumer, before her death in 1940.

The Journal of Home Economics devoted five pages to her life and accomplishments, and you can read the entire article here.  In fact, you can read all sorts of home ec information on this fabulous website, the Cornell Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, History (HEARTH).  What the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is to birders, HEARTH is to people interested in the home sciences.  There are also great pictures in the Human Ecology Historical Photographs Collection — I especially love the categories  Textiles and Clothing and Local and County Fairs.

I am very grateful Linda Pryzbyszewski shared the story of these authors and the resources for finding out more about them and their era.