Tag Archives: Helen Randolph

Thimbles and Love Stitches

1 May

Four farthings and a thimble,
Make a tailor’s pocket jingle.
—Old English Proverb

During Isabella’s lifetime, sewing and needlework were part of a woman’s daily life.

In her novel Workers Together; An Endless Chain Joy Saunders’ workbasket includes a “small gold thimble and her own blue needle-case.”

A 14k rose gold thimble dated 1903.

Some of Isabella’s female characters, like Mrs. Bryant, sewed every day because that’s how they earned their living.

A sterling silver thimble decorated with Lily of the Valley.

Other characters, like wealthy Miss Sutherland, plied their needles to create fancy table linens and delicate trims, like ruffles and laces.

A sterling silver thimble and case from the 1890s.

In Isabella’s stories, thimbles were sometimes utilitarian—little more than tools to accomplish a task.

An example is in Ester Ried’s Namesake (Book 7 of the Ester Ried Series), when the president of the Ladies’ Aid Society called the meeting to order by “tapping with her silver thimble on the table.”

Other times, Isabella used thimbles help us understand how a character was feeling, as in this description of Helen Randolph in Household Puzzles:

Helen was in absolute ill humor. Some heavy trial had evidently crossed her path. She sewed industriously, but with that ominous click of the needle against her thimble, and an angry snipping of her thread by the pert little scissors, that plainly indicated a disturbed state of mind.

An antique thimble holder by Tiffany.

More often than not, though, thimbles appear in Isabella’s stories in very sweet ways. One example is in Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, when little Daisy Bryant’s mother surprises her with the gift of a sewing box on Christmas morning:

There had been intense excitement over that box; for, in addition to the spools, and the needle-book, gifts from mother, there had gleamed before Daisy’s astonished eyes a real truly silver thimble, of just the right size for her small finger.

A child-size thimble. The case is shaped like an iron; at its base is a tape measure (circa 1890).

Another example appears in the novel, Pauline, when Mr. Curtis shows his love for his fiancé Constance by preparing a sitting-room in his house just for her:

It all looked charming to him that evening, with the departing rays of the sun glinting the needle, Constance’s needle, and touching also his mother’s small gold thimble that lay waiting. He had taken steps toward the assurance that the thimble would fit. On the day after tomorrow, when they stood here beside his mother’s chair, he would tell Constance how he had brought the gold thimble to his mother one day, and she had said, with one of her tender smiles, “I will wear it, my son, whenever I am taking stitches for you; and someday you will give it to your wife, and tell her from me that it has taken love stitches for you all its life and must always be kept for such service.”

Filigree thimble over pink frosted glass.

Sometimes thimbles play a role in building bridges between Isabella’s characters, as in A New Graft on the Family Tree.

When Louise Morgan and her new husband move in with his family, she has difficulty winning over her resentful new mother-in-law, until she realizes they have a common interest: Needlework.

Presently she came, thimble and needle-case in hand, and established herself on one of the yellow wooden chairs to make button-holes in the dingy calico; and, with the delicate stitches in those button-holes, she worked an entrance-way into her mother-in- law’s heart.

18k gold thimble, from about 1860.

Rebecca Harlow Edwards finds herself in the same situation (in Links in Rebecca’s Life). She and her new husband live in the same house with her mother-in-law, and in the early days of marriage, Rebecca struggles to find a way to fit in. So, one afternoon . . .

. . . about the usual hour for calls, she went daintily dressed in a home dress for afternoon, and with a bit of sewing-work in hand, and tapped softly at the door of her mother’s room.

“Are you awake?” she asked, “and are you ready to receive calls, because I have come to call on you?”

“Really,” Mrs. Edwards said, half rising from her rocker, and looking bewildered, “this is an unexpected pleasure! Am I to take you to the parlor, where I usually receive my calls?”

“No,” Rebecca said, laughing, and trying to ignore the quick rush of color to her face. “I am to be a more privileged caller than that. I have brought my work, and intend to make a visit. I used to go to mother’s room and make a call very often.”

The elder Mrs. Edwards was almost embarrassed. It was very unusual for her to have any such feeling, and she did not know how to treat it.

Rebecca, however, had determined to pretend, at least, that she felt very much at home. She helped herself to a low chair and brought out her thimble, and challenged her mother-in-law at once to know whether her work was not pretty. As she did so, it gave her a strange sense of her unfilial life, as she remembered that that same bit of work had been the resort of her half-idle moments for some weeks, and that yet she had never shown it to Mrs. Edwards before.

It proved to be a lucky piece of work. It gave Mrs. Edwards an idea, and suggested a line of thought that was so natural to her that she forgot the embarrassment of the situation at once.

It’s a sure bet that Isabella Alden was herself a sewer. She may have plied her needle to hem an everyday handkerchief, or she may have used her talents to create fancywork items for her home. But it’s a testament to Isabella’s skill as a story-teller that she could make a simple, everyday item like a thimble figure so prominently in some of the most important scenes in her novels.

How about you? Do you enjoy sewing? Do you use a thimble when you sew? Is it plain and utilitarian, or decorative? Old or new?

Helen’s Alexandre Gloves

28 Oct

Helen Randolph loved the finer things in life. She measured almost every important life event—from her mother’s funeral, to the eligibility of the suitors who courted her—by the cost of the clothes she wore at the time. Throughout the book Household Puzzles, Helen’s material-girl-grade spending habits played a major part in her family’s descent into poverty.

For example, at her mother’s funeral, Helen’s eye for fashion detail required that she and her sisters dress in a way that was “very neat and plain and appropriate.” Isabella Alden believed that to be very neat and plain and appropriate at funerals means to pay somebody a good deal of money. She wrote that Helen and her three sisters “were shrouded in long crape veils, and about the details of their dress everything was appropriate also, from the perfect-fitting Alexandre kids to the wide black bordered cambric handkerchiefs.”

Advertisement for Traver Kid Gloves

The only problem was the family couldn’t afford the veils or the gloves. Helen’s insistence that they buy the items on credit anyway—knowing they could never repay the debt—reveals a lot about her character. And the fact that Helen got her way also shows the weakness of her family in standing up to her, because, in the end, Helen and her sisters wore the Alexandre Kid Gloves.

Panels of a folding trade card for Foster’s Kid Gloves

Alexandre Kid Gloves were no ordinary gloves. They were manufactured in the Grenoble region of France, an area that was home to the world’s finest glove-makers. Yet above all its competition, Alexandre Kid Gloves enjoyed a reputation for exceptional quality and fit.

Alexandre Kid Gloves ad

Alexandre kids were celebrated as the finest French-made gloves available, and they were hard to come by. In the late eighteenth century, only one American importing firm had exclusive rights to sell Alexandre gloves in America, which added to the merchandise’s cache.

Lady’s beaded Alexandre gloves, circa 1890

By nineteenth century standards, Alexandre gloves were quite expensive. While the average pair of American-made ladies’ kid gloves cost about $1.00 (as illustrated by this retailer’s price list), Alexandre gloves cost three or four times that amount.

Glove retailer’s price card. The number of buttons (2-button, 4-button, 6-button, etc.) denoted the length of the glove.

At the time Household Puzzles was published in 1875, the average urban family income was about $700 a year (or $58 a month); of that amount, two-thirds was spent on food and heating, leaving just $19 a month for housing, clothing, medical care, entertainment, and saving for old age.

The Randolph family’s income was far below that of the average family. Yet Helen schemed and planned in order to buy the gloves. She even reasoned that if three pairs of American-made gloves cost $6.75, it was still a better deal to buy one pair of Alexandre gloves for $3.75. It just made sense to her.

She may have learned about the cost of Alexandre gloves from her suitor, Horace Munroe, who was a merchant of “highly cultivated taste” who stocked gloves and ribbons and merinos and muslins in endless variety.

Horace himself wore Alexandre kids, “of a pale stone color” on the day he proposed marriage to Helen. Colored gloves were quite fashionable (except for evening wear). Fashion magazines like The Delineator, Metropolitan, The Muncy, and Holland’s kept ladies and gentlemen abreast of the newest colors and styles of gloves to be worn in the coming months.

Gloves weren’t just an accessory for men and women; they were essential articles of clothing. Ladies never left their homes during the day without their gloves. They wore them constantly while in public and didn’t remove them until they returned to the privacy of their own homes. Even while drinking tea or eating a meal, ladies kept their gloves on; they simply unfastened some buttons at their wrists in order to slip the fingers of their gloves off.

Drinking tea while wearing gloves.

Gloves were also essential for evening and at the end of the nineteenth century, white kids were absolutely required for evening occasions for both men and women.

Gloved young ladies enjoying a performance in George Elgar Hicks’ painting, “Fair Critics,” 1886

It’s not surprising, then, that white kid-skin gloves were often bought by the dozens, rather than by the individual pair, in order to ensure a supply of clean and pristine gloves for all occasions. With those quantities in mind, only wealthy individuals could afford to wear exceptional glove brands on a daily basis.

Many style-conscious women tried to pass their American-made kid gloves off as French-made Alexandres. And some unscrupulous retailers marketed lesser-quality kid gloves using the name “Alexandre.”

Advertisement from The Milwaukee Journal, December 1890

In fact, the exclusive importer for Alexandre gloves (A. T. Stewart) was constantly battling look-alike and knock-off merchandisers; and on several occasions, took out ads warning the public about imposters:

Notice published in The Roundtable Magazine, Nov. 30, 1867

All Alexandre merchandise was marked with the company’s distinctive logo. On gloves, the mark was stamped on the inside of the glove near the wrist:


Gentlemen and ladies who owned Alexandre gloves took care to ensure the label was visible when they unfastened their gloves at the wrist. And if the weather allowed, some women were known to carry one of their Alexandre gloves (in a way that the brand logo was visible, of course) while hiding their gloveless hand in a muff.

In the end, Helen got her pair of Alexandre Kid Gloves and she accepted Horace’s marriage proposal; but whether she found happiness with either remained to be seen.

 

Writer Jenny Berlin

Faith, romance, and a place to belong

The Hall in the Grove

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Isabella Alden

Author of Classic Christian Fiction

Britt Reads Fiction

Reviews and giveaways for Christian fiction and sweet, clean fiction. Bringing readers information on great stories and connecting authors with their readers.

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