By Jennifer Nason
This week’s blog came about after Camille Breeze discovered some women’s military uniforms on a visit to the costume collection at Keene State College (see photo gallery below). After our recent AWVS uniform project, our interest was peeked by yet another example of women contributing to the WWII efforts. The Keene uniforms are clearly labeled as belonged to two ladies who served in the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve, also known as Woman Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, or WAVES.
The WAVES were created on July 30th, 1942, becoming the first women’s division of a U.S. military branch. It was also the first time in U.S. military history that women were paid and disciplined the same as men of the same rank and status. However it was understood from the outset that the WAVES would be a temporary division, and that it would dissolve once the war ended (hence the emergency part of the name).
Nonetheless, the women of WAVES received ample training; there were schools throughout the U.S. for educating female midshipmen and officers. Within the first year of commission, there were roughly 27,000 women active in the ranks of the WAVES. Their duties were mostly clerical, yet some branched out into the medical, intelligence, and technological fields.
The Women’s Reserve was never used for active combat, however they performed the essential tasks at home needed for a successful Navy and a safe America. They were just as important to the safety and well-being of America as any enlisted men. The WAVES also had their own official song which they sung proudly:
WAVES of the Navy,
The Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve was never disbanded as predicted. On the 12th of June, 1948, the Women’s Armed Service Integration Act allowed women to permanently enter the armed services. The Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve became W9 Women's Officer Training and W10 Women's Enlisted Training programs of the U.S. Navy.
As U.S. women begin to qualify for active combat duty we should all be grateful to trailblazers such as the WAVES for the role they played in protecting America.
By Camille Myers Breeze
This beginning of this story may sound familiar to some of you. From a young age, I started absconding with cool things my parents had in their houses, in my case the textiles. When they both downsized after I went off to College, they passed on to me everything I could find space for. By the time I was 35 and Museum Textile Services had moved to its own home, I had a bona fide study collection filling several archival boxes. Since then, family members have sent me everything from wedding gowns to souvenirs and, more recently, we have begun accepting the occasional donation.
I should stop here and make something perfectly clear. We are not a museum. We're not even a non-profit. Museum Textile Services is an independent conservation laboratory with a growing client base and a popular internship-training program. When someone contacts us about making a donation, we make it clear that we can't appraise their items or provide a tax receipt. Nevertheless, donors tell us, they are grateful to have found a place where their clothing and textiles will be cared for and put to good use.
Mike and Midge Burnham were referred to me late in 2012 by my friend Dana, who runs a vintage shop in Newmarket, NH, called Concetta's Closet. Dana had purchased much of their family's 20th-century clothing but knew that the older items were museum quality and not suitable for wearing. Was I interested, the Burnhams asked, in a donation of several boxes of 19th- and early 20th-century clothing? The size of the donation concerned me at first but what eventually convinced that it was destined for MTS was the Oberlin connection.
Some of the oldest donated items belonged to Mike's great-grandmother Cassandra Vernon Washburn Burnham. Cassandra (1849-1935) was a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary. She outlived her husband, the Rev. Michael Burnham (1839-1905), by 30 years, and during her widowhood she became innkeeper at Grey Gables in my college town of Oberlin, OH. Exactly how long Cassandra ran Grey Gables in not clear but in 1930 the college acquired it for student housing. In 1952, Grey Gables became just the second of Oberlin’s still-vibrant student co-ops but it was demolished in the 1960s during a wave of large-dormitory construction.The land on which Grey Gables stood became the Grey Gables parking lot.
Cassandra and Michael Burnham had five children, of whom two survived to adulthood. The couple is buried in Spring Street Cemetery in Essex, MA. Their son, the Rev. Edmund Alden Burnham married the highly successful contralto Ruth Thayer in 1895. Ruth Thayer Burnham's spectacular wedding ensemble, along with other outfits of hers, were also donated to the MTS study collection and will be the subject of future MTS blogs.
Museum Textile Services does not actively seek items for the study collection--we don't have the space or staff, for starters. But the stories these objects tell, and the opportunity for learning that they present, are priceless. For more stories from the MTS study collection, select "study collection" from the search bar on the right-hand side of this page.
By Camille Myers Breeze
In this third and final installment of our AWVS blog series, we hope to show how important even a simple textile conservation treatment is for long-term preservation of historic uniforms.
The Wheaton College AWVS collection consists of 20 uniform pieces and accessories, plus spare buttons and badges, a ribbon, a hat band, and some notes on paper. One of the notes reads "Ginnie Scripps Pace's hat--uniform sold to Barbara Owen." To date the identity of the two women is unknown. The uniforms and accessories appear to span a wide date range, based on their materials, which you can read more about in our last blog.
The hats, caps, pocketbooks, ties, and belt were conserved by micro-vacuuming and humidification. They were then finger pressed back to shape. Even a cool iron was avoided because the complexity of the constructions and evidence of prior scorching from an iron. For the time being, the accessories are padded with unbuffered acid-free tissue to hold their shape. Ethafoam and Volara forms are recommended for display and long-term storage.
The dress, jackets, and skirts all benefited from conservation wetcleaning to remove deterioration products, rehydrate the fibers, and realign the creases and folds. Each was first tested for washfastness, since a variety of cotton and rayon fabrics are represented in the group. The jackets and two of the skirts appear to be made of the same heavy rayon plain-weave that gives off a reddish color in warm water. The decision was made to wetclean these in cool deionized water with a single application of a .3% solution of Orvus WA Paste in water.
The remainder of the garments were wetcleaned the same way but with warmer water to facilitate in the cleaning and dispersion of the Orvus surfactant. Each garment was rinsed thoroughly until the water was free of suds or discoloration and then lightly toweled to remove excess water. The uniforms were padded with nylon net and hung to dry. Once dry, the decision was made to lightly iron each garment inside out to remove any remaining creasing. We were discourage from ironing on the outside of thick areas like cuffs and collars by evidence of the same scorching from repeated pressing seen on the garrison caps.
The conservation of the AWVS collection from Wheaton College was distinguished more by what it was not than by what it was. It was not a complex treatment requiring hours of tedious stitching to highly damaged fabric. Instead it was an exercise in modesty that met the needs of the collection and made it available for safe study and display. Above all, the AWVS collection provided an opportunity for learning about history through the intimate media of clothing and textiles.
Click here for Part I and Part II of this blog.
by Tegan Kehoe and Camille Myers Breeze
In last week's post, Jen Nason introduced you to the American Women’s Voluntary Services and the collection of WWII uniforms and accessories we are conserving for Wheaton College. Today we will take a closer look at the garments themselves, and what we they tell us about fashion and rationing during WWII.
1940’s women’s fashions for daily wear were heavily influenced by the war, even outside of the armed forces and support organizations. Women favored tailored blouses, jackets, and knee-length skirts. They were practical, sturdy, and used relatively little fabric, but had feminine details such as shoulder pads and higher hemlines than 1930’s styles. These fashions were sometimes called utility fashion, named after the Utility Clothing Scheme, one of the rationing schemes used in the UK. An exhibit on this topic, entitled “Beauty as Duty,” came to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2011.
An indication not only of the war-time economy but also of the long duration of the conflict is the variety of fabrics found in the Wheaton AWVS collection. Among the collection, we find two pocketbooks, two ties, one belt, five garrison caps, two hats, three skirts, three jackets, and one dress. There are no fewer than 5 different fabrics represented, from 100% cotton plain weave to different styles or types of rayon.
The light-blue cotton skirt, belt, and hat could perhaps be the earliest in the collection. Sgt. Burgess Scott's 1945 article Clothing and the War states that cotton was extremely difficult to come by and rayon was the most common substitute. A manufactured cellulosic fiber, rayon is neither a synthetic nor truly a natural fiber. It can mimic the characteristics of silk, linen, and cotton but rayon has poor elastic regain and was best dry cleaned.
Another interesting feature of this collection is that two of the three jackets have wooden buttons that are painted a gold color to look like metal. During WWII, metal was in short supply, so it was considered patriotic to use substitutes whenever possible and donate metal to scrap drives to be recycled for military purposes. The Wheaton College collection has extra sets of buttons, apparently salvaged from other garments.
Wheaton's AWVS collection is in very good condition and had probably been dry cleaned before going into storage decades ago. Stay tuned for our final AWVS blog, a show-and-tell of the uniforms before and after conservation.
by Jennifer Nason
This month Museum Textile Services is lucky enough to work with a prized piece of American history. We are conserving a large group of WWII women's uniforms and accessories for the permanent collection at Wheaton College.
The American Women’s Voluntary Services, or AWVS, was founded in January 1940. Its founders were intelligent and wealthy international socialites that based the AWVS on an English counterpart of the Women’s Voluntary Services. The founders believed that the United States would surely enter the ever growing war, and thus they formed the American Women’s Voluntary Services as a way to prepare the country for the war. The formation of the group was believed to be premature, as the AWVS was originally thought of as suspicious and an alarmist group.
Nonetheless, when Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 the AWVS already had about 18,000 members. During the war years the number of AWVS members increased dramatically to 325,000. The members provided a variety of services and support; they sold war bonds, and delivered messages, they drove ambulances, trucks, cycle corps and dog-sleds, they also worked in navigation, aerial photography, aircraft spotting, and fire safety.
When the War ended in 1945, the American Women’s Voluntary Services was disbanded. It had accomplished its goal as a service and support provider throughout the war. Most of the members were normal women that spent large amounts of their time away from their homes and loved ones. However, some of these women had famous names, such as Hattie McDaniel, Joan Crawford, and Betty White. Regardless of who these women were, their part in the American Women’s Voluntary Services changed the face of the American home front.
Stay tuned for another blog about our conservation treatment of Wheaton College's AWVS collection.
by Tegan Kehoe
Apart from the familiar finds that I described in previous blog posts, and the fashions that are now vintage, the trove of old Needlecraft Magazines that Camille picked up contains some interesting parallels to the past. Since most of the issues we have copies of are from the early 1930’s, the concerns of the Great Depression are readily present. Much of it sounds familiar in our economically aware times – not just the concerns, but the way people turn to home crafts and do-it-yourself projects to save money or just to find new and affordable hobbies.
Old advertisements are an especially interesting window into the past, and the advertisements in Needlecraft during the Depression are very clearly targeted at money-conscious homemakers. One advertisement for baking powder starts off, “Getting married on $20 a week takes courage nowadays.” It lists the costs of the materials for a chocolate cake. The message? “It doesn’t pay to use a cheap, unreliable baking powder,” because you can’t risk a cake that doesn’t rise.
A series of advertisements for Lux brand cleaner shows teenage girls distressed over having to wear stockings with mended holes in them. The advertisements claim that their product is gentler than cake soap and saves stocking elasticity, prolonging the life of the stockings. Remember that in 1934, even women and girls who were not well-off wore silk stockings daily, as nylon stockings were not yet available.
In the January 1938 issue of Needlecraft, there’s an article you’d be unlikely to see in a magazine today. “Here Are Scotch Ways to be Thrifty: Economy and Good Looks Combine in Smart Scotch Designs and Fabrics” doesn’t make much sense to a modern ear, in fact, I had to look up the word Scotch to figure out what I was missing. As it turns out, calling someone “Scotch” is a now-obscure and offensive way to say they are thrifty. The article, which describes a number of crafts projects using plaid, thistle motifs, and green and purple scraps in home decorating, is based on punning two meanings of the word Scotch.
The magazine rarely references the economic condition of the times directly, but an exception is in the February 1934 issue. In an editor’s notes column titled “Our Rural Women Carry On,” the magazine quotes Dr. Warburton, director of extension work for the USDA. “Farm women have made a valiant effort to maintain a desirable standard of living for their families, in spite of the conditions during the last ten years.”
Dr. Warburton’s report describes women selling products from their gardens to supplement the main family income and reviving home industries to save money. “They make cheese and soap, can and cure meats, and can and dry vegetables and fruits.” The magazine also has a number of advertisements and some articles about canning and similar projects.
A lot has changed since the 1930’s, but considering that there’s been another resurgence of homemade products and canning in the last few years, not to mention in knitting and other crafts, it seems like people’s instinct to make something creative in the face of difficulty has not changed. While Museum Textile Services specializes in a different type of window into the past, the textiles themselves, these issues of Needlecraft Magazine have given us a lot to think about.
by Tegan Kehoe
In Part I of this series, I shared examples of crewel embroidery conserved at MTS and the early-20th-century Needlecraft Magazine article teaching needleworkers how to practice this craft. In Part II, we explore two more textile genres.
The July, 1934, issue of Needlecraft has an article about the timeless art of quilting. It features a quilt with a similarly geometric, symmetrical floral pattern, called “posies round the square.” The patchwork squares in both quilts are interspersed with sections of white quilted background.
The example above shows a quilt from this time period that was recently conserved by Museum Textile Services.The beautiful and intricate quilting pattern in the white section of this quilt is similar to some of the patterns used in the quilt shown in Needlecraft, and to patterns “J” and “G” at the bottom of the page. This quilt was wetcleaned and repaired by us in 2008 so that the owner could continue to gently use it on special occasions.
An article titled “Darning on a Filet Ground” appears in the February 1935 issue of Needlecraft, displaying work using the same technique as a set of place mats that MTS conserved, also in 2008. This craft is alternately called “filet darning,” “net darning” or “filet lace.” The article says that because the process is simple and quick, a set of curtains or placemats would be “by no means an over-ambitious undertaking even for the woman who has only a little time to give to needlework.”
The pieces that MTS conserved were a little more complex; instead of darning onto an existing net mesh, they were executed in filet crochet, which has a similar visual effect. One of the ways to tell the difference is to look at how the edges are done. Needlecraft Magazine explains how to finish the edges of the square mesh net that forms the base of the work by turning the edges under and hemming them. However, in the piece we treated, the edges have a crochet scalloped finish. Perhaps Needlecraft magazine would not have recommended crochet filet “for the woman who has only a little time,” but the effect is quite delicate.
These place mats were made by the owner’s grandmother. They came to us quite stained, and we washed them in Sodium Borohydride, an effective and gentle method of bleaching. At the completion of the project, the owner kept four of the place mats as they are, and had two of the place mats framed to give to her children.
Looking through Needlecraft Magazine is a blast from the past, and is also a reminder of the timelessness of so many of the textile arts that we are fortunate to conserve at MTS.
By Cara Jordan
In a time before “A League of Their Own” there were the Boston Olympets. The Olympets, or “Pets” as they were known, were a professional women’s softball team who played ball inside the Boston Garden.
The Olympets were created by Boston Garden owner, Walter Brown, to draw crowds to the Garden during the summer “off season.” Starting in the late 1930’s until 1943 the Olympets did just that. As team member Mary Pratt recalls about playing ball inside Boston Garden, “They took the diamond and put it on a diagonal and they put a post down by first base and as a lefty you could quite readily hit into the stands, but that would only go for a single, but to hit it to left field was a long, long distance at the Garden.”
Olympets uniform top. MTS study collection.
The Olympets uniform consisted of red satin shorts, a white and blue uniform top with red, white, and blue lettering. The team name "Olympets" was spelled out across the front of the uniform top and the player’s number was positioned on the back. The letter “B” was also positioned on one of the sleeves. Players footwear consisted of leather laced sneakers. The team also had yellow satin jackets that they wore for away games. The jackets had blue ribbing at the waist and cuffs and the team nickname “PETS” was spelled out in blue lettering across the back.
Olympets away jacket. MTS study collection.
Many of the women from the Olympets went on to play in the AAGPBL, the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, formed in 1943. Some of the teams that became part of the AAGPBL, such as the Racine Belles and Rockford Peaches, were portrayed in the film “A League of Their Own.” Several of the women featured in this film got their start as Boston Olympets.
Camille Breeze was fortunate enough to obtain four pieces of an Olympets uniform to add to the MTS study collection. We are now in possession of an away jacket with the number 6, a pair of red shorts with the number 6, a pair of red shorts with no number, and a jersey with the number 14. According to the seller, Martha Stickney, the uniform belonged to Virginia MacCarthy of Wakefield, Massachusetts. A photograph of Virginia is known to exist. Martha, who graduated from Wakefield High School in 1981, had made some baseball history of her own by being the first girl to play on the boy's baseball team.
Hopefully, further research will shed light on who Virginia McCarthy was and when she played for the Boston Olympets.
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