Monday, June 9, 2014

Dear friends and neighbors,

When I was a kid, my parents spent a lot of time packing my brothers and sister and I up to make the obligatory rounds to see our family members. One of those people happened to be my Great Aunt Christine. Visiting my Aunt Chris as a child was almost like stepping back into an earlier era, though I didn't know it at the time.

Compared with all the toys that littered my room at home, when I visited my Aunt Chris, there was only one toy: a canister of Tinkertoys. Children were only allowed to play on the dining room floor, and we were made to promptly put away our toys as soon as we were done. After playing, I would sit in Aunt Chris's lap as she read me Amelia Bedelia, a series of children's books that originated in the 1960s.

Before I was old enough to spend the night at a friend's house, I was allowed to stay the night at my Aunt Chris's house. To me, these times were an adventure and rite of passage that proved I was independent from my parents. But as I look back on those times, I realize that my aunt was teaching me the customs and skills needed from when she was growing up. She would show me how to bake bread and cookies and teach me how to sew my own clothes.

Growing up on a farm in the mid-1900s, baking and sewing were essential skills to teach young girls. In fact, small toy sewing machines were commonly used to teach young girls how to sew.

Historic Wagner Farm is currently featuring a private collection of about 20 antique toy sewing machines in the display case at the Heritage Center. Most of them were made as working toys, but a few are just very small machines made for mending. The majority are from the early- to mid- 1900s. The sewing machine in the middle of the case belonged to one of the Wagner girls.

Though my aunt never gave me a toy sewing machine, seeing the new display  at the Farm reminds me of when  learning to sew seemed more like playing than working to me, and how important my aunt had felt it was for me to learn to sew as a young girl.

Being able to make your own clothes was a very important skill in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which is why sewing machines small enough for a young girl to use became popular toys. Most families made their clothing at home and made use of every resource they had.

In the mid-1850s, many goods started being shipped in cotton bags, including flour, sugar, and animal feed. These bags were considered nearly as valuable as the items they contained to many rural families, as they could be reused to make clothing, curtains, sheets and towels.

Company logos were printed on the sacks with water-soluble inks. Removing them was an arduous task of washing and soaking in mixtures of lye, lard, Fels-Naptha soap and bleach. Getting the fabric white was no easy task.

Over time, manufacturers caught on and began including instructions for removing labels right on the bags. Bags were stamped with stitching lines and embroidery patterns. In the mid-1920s, mills started producing sacks in printed fabrics in all kinds of varieties and changed their labels to printed paper, which could easily be removed. Making clothing out of flour, sugar or feed sacks continued to be popular until the 1950s.

In today's world, the majority of us buy our clothing from a store. However, a large number of people continue to make their own clothing. And though toy sewing machines may not be the most popular toy on the market, there are still young girls being taught the art of sewing by aunts who once wore flour sack dresses.

Stop by the farm and see our display of toy sewing machines, when you get the chance!

Until next time,