Women’s History Month: Margaret C. Whiting and Ellen Miller, Entrepreneurial Embroiderers

Colonial embroidery continued to evolve after the Revolutionary War. Color palettes became more vivid as new dye techniques were created and materials were more accessible. Cotton thread manufactured for embroidery was available by the end of the eighteenth century, allowing for finer work at a lower cost. Samplers continued to be a common form of needlework and a teaching tool well into the nineteenth century. The popularity of needlework did begin to wane in the mid 1800’s only to be revived by two women in Deerfield, Massachusetts…Margaret Whiting and Ellen Miller.

She and Ellen Miller met at the National Academy of Design. The summer of 1884, they were both students of Robert Crannell Minor, part of the Barbizon school of painters. In 1895, Whiting and Miller together wrote and illustrated Wild Flowers of the Northeastern States. The book contains about 300 drawings, about half of which were signed by Whiting with a “W.”

Miller and Whiting were influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, which originated in Britain in the 1860s and encouraged a return to hand craftsmanship, simplicity in design, and integrity of materials. The Royal School of Needlework encouraged women to embroider using forms and colors popular in the 1600s and 1700s. The school’s display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition raised awareness of and interest in art embroidery in America.

Miller’s mother was interested in the colonial embroideries in the collection at the Deerfield Museum. She copied the patterns so that others could then reproduce the colonial designs. When her mother died in 1896, Miller continued to copy the colonial patterns, as did Margaret Whiting and their friend Mary Allen. Soon, the project inspired them to plan their own business enterprise.

In 1895, Whiting and Miller moved both of their families to Deerfield, Massachusetts. It was here that they drew upon the influences of the Arts and Crafts movement and Miller’s mother to create the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework. Their idea: create a village industry closely associated with Deerfield’s colonial heritage and inspired by the colonial embroideries they’d been drawing. 

In August 1896, Miller and Whiting founded the Deerfield Society of Blue and White Needlework. They were joined by Miller’s sister, Margaret, and Mary Allen. The society embroidered doilies, counterpanes, bed curtains, and dresser scarves. Allen designed the society’s seal: a “D” for Deerfield, centered in a flax wheel.

The society sold its work at an annual summer exhibition and at Arts and Crafts exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Chicago. Deerfield enjoyed an influx of tourists in the summer, who in turn helped to spread the word about the society’s products. In time, the society expanded its wares beyond copies of colonial American needlework and offered new designs in contemporary styles and colors.

An embroiderer could earn up to 20 cents per hour, with the rate varying depending on skill and speed. A “Deerfield girl told her friends here that she could make more money [embroidering] than at school teaching,” reported a local paper, the Gazette and Courier, in 1904. “On the other hand, other workers say that they cannot earn over 10 cents an hour.”

The Deerfield women set high standards for their work . . . which commanded high prices. As part of their business plan, the full price was divided: 50% went to the embroiderer, 20% to the designer, 20% to a fund used to pay the running expenses of the society, and the remaining 10% went to covering the expense of materials used.

The society dissolved in 1926 when the health of its founders was failing—they did not trust anyone to keep up their standard of excellence. Today, needlework by the society is valued not only for its intrinsic beauty and quality, but for its contributions to the decorative arts in both the Colonial Revival and the Arts and Crafts movements and for the entrepreneurial spirit of its founders.

Sources

Ellen Miller, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Miller_(artist), obtained March 29, 2023.

Ehow, https://www.ehow.com/about_4567225_embroidery-colonial-times.html, obtained March 29, 2023.

National Museum of American History, https://americanhistory.si.edu/blog/entrepreneurial-embroiderers, obtained March 29, 2023.

Margaret C. Whiting-Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_C._Whiting, obtained March 29, 2023.

One thought on “Women’s History Month: Margaret C. Whiting and Ellen Miller, Entrepreneurial Embroiderers

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