Saturday, February 23, 2013

Peasants and Pioneers Inspiration

The cafe I work at is located in a rather ridiculously large business park that is of particular historical interest. Now called the Cummings Center, it was once the United Shoe Machinery Corporation built from 1902-1906. The United Shoe Machinery Corporation was of particular importance in the early 20th century. It was one of the first 3 international companies formed with branches in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, South America and Asia by 1905. They held a near monopoly over the shoe manufacturing industry. More complete information on The Shoe, as it was called, can be found here since the reason I bring it up is for the photos.

When Cummings Properties purchased the then-abandoned factory building in the 1990's they worked closely with the Beverly Historical Society to preserve the history of this important landmark. Many artifacts from the old factory are on display in the halls of the business center, along with enlargements of historical photographs. The photographs of course, are why I've brought this subject up.

A comparison of the old and the modern building

Every morning when I go in to work and every afternoon when I leave I get to walk by the gorgeous old photographs on the wall. There are a lot of pictures documenting the building of the factory, but the ones I am most interested in are of the people. The United Shoe Machinery Corporation employed nearly 4,500 employees in 1910. Of those thousands there were 100 female office workers and another 70-80 girls who worked in the factory itself. A company brochure claimed that the girls all "begin their work ten minutes later than the men and leave ten minutes earlier, so that a proper distance is maintained between the sexes as they enter and leave the factory."

My favorite photograph by far is one of the centerpieces of the Cummings Center. Located right next to the leasing office near one of the front entrances is the only dated photograph. It is an enlarged image of all of the United Shoe workers in front of the factory in 1911. The best part about it is that all the female workers are standing at the front, giving a clear view of their dresses! The photo is behind glass to protect it, but I did my best to get some detail shots of the workers to share.

A great shot of some full outfits

Some of the factory girls sitting along the bottom

I love these blouses!

And this woman's spunk!

Another of my favorite photographs is in the hallway I walk down every day.

I suspect this is a picture of the USM gun club, one of many clubs that the factory maintained for it's workers. One of the astonishing things is that they catered to both male and female employees, at least for a while. As the Cummings Center website explains "The new clubhouse was turned over to the men, however, "a few hours before the bells of the New Year tolled in 1911," by USM Vice President George W. Brown. "Inside are a theater, an auditorium, a library, locker rooms, bowling alleys and cozy little rooms for the women who may congregate with their sewing or other pleasant diversions so dear to the feminine heart," NEW ENGLAND Magazine reported (emphasis added)." 

This was one of the few images I found with any sort of description. The placard provided with this photo is titled "Last Day of Employment" and goes on the describe "Miss Lillian Anthony is shown at her desk here at USM on August 28, 1915 at her going away party. In those days it was customary for a young woman to stop working outside the home after marriage. At USM the celebration was akin to a modern-day bridal shower with gifts of tableware and dishes given by co-workers. Note the "shoe" and the twin dolls decorating her desk. Lillian Married Frank Boothroyd and seven years later on july 10, 1922 had twin boys named Harold & Howard." This photo was donated by one of those twin boys still living in the area, an old USM employee himself.

A close-up of Miss Lillian, loving those
buttons on her skirt!

Some ladies having tea in what I'm guessing is either a breakroom or one of the clubhouses. I really wish they had taken the time to label more of the photographs!! I found a couple more photographs on their website that I didn't find in my wandering of the main building that are at a better quality.

This one is undated and just labeled "USM Girls" but I love those striped skirts! I'm guessing this might be from the 19-teens though since the blouses still have that little pooch popular in Edwardian fashion. Can anyone better at dating fashion correct me? 

This is a great image of some probably immigrant workers building parts of the complex. The factory is built very close to the ocean and this is some sort of water-related thing I forgot the name of since I didn't take a picture of the placard it came with, but I do remember that it mentioned that this structure still stands today.

Here's an image of the thousands of workers employed to build the factory. I believe that this was one of the most architecturally advanced buildings of it's time using a new technique of reinforced concrete to build it. 

And here's an image of the factory in operation. I love the silhouette of that young gentleman in the front.

Now the reason that I bring this all up at this particular moment in time is because of the next challenge approaching in the Historical Sew Fortnightly, Peasants and Pioneers. I have decided that I want to recreate one of the pioneers of the workplace, the brave women at the turn of the Twentieth Century that paved the way for women to enter the workplace and eventually led to the women's rights movement. I also really like the idea of paying homage to the women who once walked the same halls I walk today. 

I actually threw together a quick and dirty version of one of the old USM workers for this past Halloween since our boss allows us to dress up at work. I used an old skirt of mine and bought a blouse from a store, but the blouse did not fit right making my chest look rather swollen and misshapen. Only a couple people understood the costume, but I had fun.

The thrown-together costume

To try and stick with the spirit of Peasants and Pioneers as best I can I want to make a very basic walking skirt and simple blouse. I want to keep the clothes practical and plain, something that a working-class girl would wear. I have a pattern from Folkwear to use for the skirt, #209 Walking Skirt and I was considering buying their Gibson Girl Blouse pattern before deciding that was probably too fancy for the challenge. Instead I'll do some more research on blouses of the time and hopefully either find a more practical pattern or be able to come up with one myself based on images.


  1. This is an awesome essay- I love the "working girl" idea for the Peasants and Pioneers challenge! Good luck with this- can't wait to see the results!

  2. Just discovered your blog while doing a search on embroidery,love your postings!

  3. My grandfather, Harold Boothroyd, is one of Lillian's twins and the one who donated the phot you shared. My Grampy passed away last night. I found this phot because I knew what to type into google, since I was looking for it specifically. Thanks for sharing this with the world, and making it easy for me to find. Grampy loved sharing his photographs with the world.