Mary McElwain: Road Trip!

Road trip!  Who wants to go to a lovely little quilt shop in Wisconsin? Well. at least virtually that is. 

But before we go, I’m sorry to report it, but I have Bloggers’ Block. I spent the time I should have been writing on Sunday in virtual study centers offered on Zoom by the American Quilt Study Group.  I learned a lot and got to see some old familiar faces, but now it’s hard to get down to work. So I’m going to reprise some information I have on hand about last year’s Heritage Honoree, Mary McElwain.  If you’ve been in one of my regional study groups and heard my Power Point already, or if you learned about Mary McElwain at Celebration 2019, then you can take a pass; but please come back next week.

So now let’s get on the bus and head to Walworth, Wisconsin, the site of the Mary McElwain Quilt Shop.  It’s just about an hour from Chicago going Northwest into an area of moraine hills, woods, and clear, deep lakes left by the last glaciers.  You would love this scenery even if it weren’t for the quilt shop. Nearby Lake Geneva has been a favorite tourist destination for Chicagoans since the wealthy travelled there to escape the 1871 Fire. In 1968, the late Hugh Hefner built his first Playboy resort at Lake Geneva, and there is still a resort on that site. On the left is a resort hotel from the days when Mary had her shop and on the right is the Lake today.

Mary opened her business in 1910 in a corner of her husband’s jewelry store on the town square in Walworth, but quilts soon took over. By 1933 (at the height of the Depression) the space was expanded with a double archway to access the shop next door. The expansion was marked with a two-day event where 500 people saw two new quilt designs, had tea, and were entertained by Miss Jean Radebough who sang old-fashioned songs to her own melodeon accompaniment. Here’s the shop in 1932 before the renovations and an interior view with some of the gift items offered in addition to the quilts.

It took a lot of work to develop the McElwain enterprise, and Mary was tireless in her efforts.  In the early days of her business, Mary would take quilts around to small towns in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, giving lectures and exhibiting her collection at local club shows, fairs and bazaars. She also took her show on the road to other cities such as Rochester, NY and St. Petersburg, FL. (I suspect she was combining business with pleasure; there are lots of McElwains in both areas, and maybe she was visiting family.) She promoted her business by writing an article for “Hobbies” magazine called “Heirlooms of Tomorrow”, and by speaking engagements, including one on WLS Radio. In March, 1933, Mary was invited to exhibit at Navy Pier for the Garden Club of Illinois, and later that year, she was one of the judges for the Sears contest at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Phew! Here’s Mary (on the right) with the other judges at the fair.

 Mary’s shop also became famous as a destination for groups as well as for individuals who enjoyed a drive in the country. She displayed quilts not only on the walls, but also had what may have been the original bed turnings. When she wasn’t having turnings, quilts were displayed on beds as well as on the walls of the shop. This is Mary and her husband, William, with a Daisy Chain quilt on a handsome spindle bed.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that there’s not much unused wall space. No wonder a trip to Mary’s shop was such a treat!

Some of Mary’s customers were society ladies who included the wife of an ex- governor of Illinois, a Rockefeller, the wife of the Norwegian Consul, and a visitor from Paris, France. But she also served the local women and shoppers who drove up from Illinois. Mary had connections with large department stores too. A store like Carson, Pirie & Scott in Chicago would have made her products available to the many Park District quilt clubs which were active in the 1930s and 1940s.

McElwain’s connections weren’t just local.  And her success in one tourist area led her to another.  In the late 1920s, St Petersburg, FL became a popular winter getaway, especially in 1929 when the city opened the “Million Dollar Pier”. Mary McElwain was right there with them, offering her goods in the McIntosh department store. The green benches on the sidewalk outside the store are still a tourist attraction. The upscale Wilson-Chase store also carried Mary’s products, but the chicest location for her line was the McElwain shop on Beach Drive.  It was located in the posh Ponce de Leon Hotel, just across from the yacht club. Here are some Florida shots—just to make this a real virtual road trip:

Million Dollar Pier. Mary’s shop is in the hotel to the left of the pier , just under the word “The” in “The Sunshine State”.

Green benches at McIntosh department store which carried Mary’s goods.

Ponce de Leon Hotel.  Mary’s shop occupied the street-level corner on the left side.

Yacht club directly across the street from Mary’s shop in St. Petersburg. I put this one in to give you a flavor of the trade she was catering to there.

So, what did Mary sell?  Mostly, other people’s products, but she did design one pattern called “Daisy Chain”. This may be her most-recognized pattern because it was on the cover of her catalog, which I’ll tell you about in a minute. “Daisy Chain” sold at 35 cents for a paper pattern, $12.50 for a stamped or cut kit, $25.00 for a basted top and $85.00 for a finished product.  The “Painted Daisy” crib quilt was available in pink or blue, stamped at $1.75 or finished at $7.50.

Other patterns and quilts sold by the McElwain shop were traditional designs like Drunkard’s Path, re-named “Gypsy Tears”. Mary wasn‘t shy about giving her own names to common blocks and settings; for example, what we know as Trip Around the World was sold as “American Tapestry”. Other patterns were based on old quilts in Mary’s collection, or came from well-known designers such as Marie Webster and Ruby Short McKim.

There is no evidence that McElwain took out ads for her patterns and kits, but the shop did provide little brochures of its offerings.  In 1934, Mary compiled a catalog-cum-commentary which she called “The Romance of the Village Quilts”. This 34 page booklet cost twenty five cents in the store. The catalog contained photos of finished quilts that could be purchased as a paper pattern, a kit which was either stamped or cut, a basted top, or a completed quilt.  Mixed in with these were a romantic essay on quilts written by Mary, a poem describing the bed turnings (written as a tribute to McElwain), interior shots of the shop, and an Edgar A. Guest poem in praise of the afghan. 

Mary used quality products for the finished quilts she sold and offered those same products through the catalog for those who were making the quilts themselves.  She carried fabric, rulers, stencils, batting and bias binding.

The quilt patterns and kits that McElwain sold were mostly traditional, but she had something for other tastes as well. Here’s a “Modern Rose” on the left (made by next year’s Heritage Honoree, Mary Gasperik) and a “Pines and Wreaths” on the right made by Esther Swingle Weter, who stored it with a note saying, “Pattern and material from the McElwain shop in Walworth, Wisconsin.”

McElwain not only sold directly, she also distributed her patterns indirectly through other companies.  Rock River batting from nearby Janesville, WI, was carried in the shop and catalog, and was used in the finished quilts that Mary sold; in exchange for this placement, she arranged for a McElwain pattern to be included on the batting wrapper. Rock River Cotton Company also purchased patterns from Mary, which they printed on tissue paper and sold as a set of eleven. Here’s a photo of a Rock River batting wrapper and the listing for the batting in the McElwain catalog.

 McElwain’s patterns were distributed on Mountain Mist labels as well, but there is no indication that their batting was sold by McElwain.  Mary also had a working relationship with the Boag Company of River Forest, IL.  Mary would sell Boag’s quilt and pillow kits at her store and through her catalog, and in return, Boag would slap a McElwain label on his Julia Fischer Force catalog.

This is from the inside of a Boag/ JFF catalog, and below is the cover with the McElwain label.  Look closely and you’ll see the glue outline from the original Boag label around McElwain’s name.

How’s that for marketing?

As you can imagine, the McElwain enterprise took a lot of workers.  Mary began with her own work and items made by local women; her husband helped with the accounts, and her daughter, DeEtte, was a mainstay.  Eventually, McElwain teamed with a Women’s Exchange of nearly 60 workers who made the completed quilts.  Mary’s granddaughter delivered projects to their homes and was paid a nickel per item (even if 3 items went to same house).  The local girls who helped with the large bed turnings were friends of the family and they were “paid” with a soda (or do you say pop?). One of Mary’s pattern designers, Lillian Walker, became famous in her own right.

Well, I’ve taken you on a virtual road trip and introduced you to a quilt entrepreneur of the highest order. Sadly, you can’t take a real trip to the McElwain Quilt Shop because it closed in 1960.  But the Walworth Historical Society has a permanent exhibit displaying quilts and giving information about the shop.  Not all of these items are McElwain’s, but I think I see a Webster kit which she would have sold in the first picture, and some of the patterns from her catalog in the second. Who knows what else they have?

That’s it for now.  I promise to be back on track next week.

Your quilting friend,