Mecca for folk art
As far back as a hundred years ago, there was a longing for simpler times and handmade wares. It was this longing and a cadre of industrious craftswomen that helped transform the town of Deerfield in Western Massachusetts. Beginning in the late 1890s, needlework, baskets, pottery and other home furnishings made in Deerfield were sold via mail order and at exhibitions across the country. In fact, within two decades a community of women reshaped the town from an agricultural village to a cultural destination that embraced the Arts and Crafts Movement.
In 1898, the Chicago Sunday Times-Herald hailed the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework as “a national product of our awakened interest in things colonial and in handsome things rather than in those turned out by the dozens from machines.” The following year needlework, rag rugs (which became one of Deerfield’s signature crafts), and wrought iron as well as silver, copper and wood wares were sold at Deerfield’s first Arts and Crafts exhibition. By the early 1900s, an electric trolley line brought unprecedented crowds to the town.
In “Poetry to the Earth: The Arts & Crafts Movement in Deerfield” (Hard), Suzanne L. Flynt, curator of the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, discusses the fine handwork as well as the lives of the women behind the transformation. They were a hardworking bunch. Madeline Yale Wynne, a founding member in 1897 of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society, organized the Deerfield Society of Arts and Crafts in 1901 and remained its president for 17 years. At one time, Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller, Deerfield newcomers who founded the local needlework society, employed up to 30 village women as embroiderers.
“Perfection was the unbending rule, and the consequence was that something very like it was obtained,” the Christian Science Monitor noted in July 1911 under the headline, “Deerfield Wins by Little Things.” The article went on to note that experienced needleworkers sometimes ripped up and re-stitched an item rather than risk discouraging a beginner by asking her to redo the work.
By the time the Depression hit, the craft business in Deerfield was winding down. Yet the preservation of many buildings associated with its heyday has helped keep those memories alive.
One city, many stories
What a ride New Bedford has had. “A Picture History of New Bedford: Volume One 1602-1925” (Spinner) traces the city’s trajectory from native Wampanoag hunting ground to Quaker enclave, whaling powerhouse, stronghold of the Underground Railroad, and a center of textile manufacturing. One of the most amusing stories it tells concerns a statue of a naked Narcissus. Claiming that it was indecent, city inspectors in 1873 ordered an art dealer to remove it from his shop window. The case attracted national attention before a judge threw it out of court.
■ “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense”edited by Sarah Weinman (Penguin)
■ “The Road from Gap Creek”by Robert Morgan (Algonquin)
■ “Children of Fire”by Drew Karpyshyn (Del Rey)
Pick of the Week
Susan K. McCann of Essex Books in Essex, Conn., recommends “Paris Was the Place” (Knopf) by Susan Conley: “The author of the acclaimed memoir ‘The Foremost Good Fortune’ has written an exquisite debut novel. American Willow Pears lives and teaches in Paris at a center for immigrant girls who have requested asylum in France. The culture, flavor, keen detail, and literature of Paris, India, and the US are lyrically interwoven in a story about hope, love, family, forgiveness, expectation, risk, loss, and letting go.”
Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.