Sewing was a part of the 19th century woman’s life. By the late 19th century, ready-to wear garments were available in local shops and through mail order catalogs, but many women still sewed many of the garments worn by themselves and their family members. In addition, most women made decorative items they embroidered.
The production of fancy work, as the decorative pieces were called, was considered part of a woman’s responsibility. According to historian Beverly Gordon, beautiful objects were considered morally uplifting, and a good home needed morally uplifting objects in order to “ennoble and uplift … both residents and visitors.” A woman’s job, therefore, was to “beautify the walls and enshrine … the kindly arts within them.”
Specialized schools taught fancy sewing to those women who wished to improve their skills. Creative women created their own designs for embroidered tablecloths, napkins, dresser scarves, pillow covers and table centerpieces. Ladies’ magazines provided patterns for fancywork, with floral designs being especially popular. The magazines also extolled the virtue of working-class women who worked to beautify their homes with modest pieces of fancywork and middle-class and upper class women who worked with their own hands to beautify their homes.
In 1901, the agents of the Belding Brothers and Company Silk Manufacturers offered $100 ($2,730 in today’s purchasing power) in prizes for the best embroidery done with Belding Silk Thread on white linen.
The Belding Company was a major manufacturer of silk thread and fabric. It had begun in 1860 when brothers Hiram and Alvah Belding, of Michigan, began selling silk thread provided by their brother Miles, of Massachusetts, from house to house. In 1866, the company expanded and began to manufacture the threads they sold. By 1890, the company had six mills, two in New England and four in Belding, Mich., and salesrooms throughout the United States and Canada.
Women from 15 states entered fancywork in the contest. Judges, described by the Sedalia Democrat as “experts” with no connection to the contest or the company, evaluated the work. The names of the contestants were not available to the judges, “insuring to each contestant absolute impartiality.”
Mrs. Lulu Human maintained a needlework school in Sedalia, and several of her students entered items in the contest. The Democrat described Human’s pupils as “preeminent for the exceeding beauty of their work.” The contest results demonstrated that the Democrat’s praise was warranted, as Pettis County women won three first prizes and one second prize.
The contest was divided into divisions of professional and amateur needle workers and by age into divisions for adults and for girls under 15.
Mrs. Charles Williams won first prize in the professional class for an embroidered centerpiece showing a basket of strawberries. She received a check for $25 ($682 today).
Pettis County women won both the first and second prizes in the amateur class. Mrs. Lute Reed of Georgetown won first prize of $15 ($409 today) for a luncheon tablecloth embroidered with strawberries and butterflies. Mrs. John Cunningham of South Grand Avenue merited second prize of $10 ($273 today) for a centerpiece featuring Marchal Neil roses.
Miss Elsie Heaton’s centerpiece embroidered with sweet peas won first prize for the best work done by a girl younger than 15. The Democrat did not identify the cash value of her prize.
The Democrat noted, “Sedalia has long had reason to be proud of the skill of her fair women with the needle.” The results of the contest showed “that Sedalians are not alone in the estimate of their work.”