Collingbourne Mills and Virginia Snow Studios Story

Book 1 and Book 2

Susan Wildemuth, Atkinson, IL


History of Collingbourne Mills, Inc. and Virginia Snow Studios

Elgin, Illinois

Collingbourne Mills (1917-1923)

Elgin, Illinois


The 1917-1918 Elgin City Directory lists A.B. Collingbourne as President of Western Thread Company with W.R. Swartwout as Treasurer and the company is located at the S.E. Corner of Bluff City Blvd. and Raymond. (45)  This directory marks the first time the name Collingbourne Mills and Western Thread Company appear together on a document, and these names continued to be used interchangeably until 1924 when the company incorporated as Collingbourne Mills, Inc. (46) 


Collingbourne Mills entered its glory years in the mid 1910s and remained strong and successful until the early 1930s. The firm was flooded with orders with the outbreak of WW I in Europe. “Early in 1917, Western Thread employed 700 people on two shifts and was doing so well it had to call in its traveling salesmen because of the inability to keep up with the demand for thread during the war.” (47)


Even with business booming, Albert Collingbourne was always looking for ways to increase interest in his thread.  About 1917, Albert Collingbourne introduced a program through ads in newspapers throughout the United States called the “Collingbourne International Helpers League.”   An ad in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (Indiana) on March 11, 1917 states, “Be the first to organize a Collingbourne International Helpers League in your city. If you do not know how to crochet and embroider, you will be supplied with simple easy to understand instructions.  You will also receive a free booklet, “How to Form a Collingbourne International Helpers League,” which tells you how to start, organize and conduct a Helpers League and how to dispose of your finished pieces.  Write today for your free booklet.  Every needleworker is invited to enlist every woman and girl who would like to learn how to crochet and embroider.  Woman everywhere are invited to give a part of their spare time to raising money for the Red Cross, War Sufferers, Infant’s Welfare, Orphan or Blind Asylum for an American Flag, equip your home town Soldier Boys, Uniforms for your favorite baseball team – help any worthy or patriotic cause you and your League members may select.  Many times you and every other woman and girl have wished to enlist in some way to help others who are not so fortunately situated as you are.  The object of this great movement is for women everywhere to band themselves into Helpers Leagues, Crochet and Embroider, the finished pieces to be donated or sold and the money given to any worthy or patriotic cause the League Members themselves select. Crochet Book Free – To further popularize and prove the superiority of Texasilk, a hard twisted mercerized Cordoney, we will mail a complete book on General Crochet without cost to any lady sending only 10 cents silver or stamps for two full sized sample balls of Texasilk which come in size 70 only, white, black, medium green, rose, scarlet, light blue, delph, and light yellow.  The free Crochet Book contains rare and exclusive designs on various kinds of Crochet work and is so clearly illustrated they may be copied by any one.  We will also include in your package our Free Booklet, “How to Form a Collingbourne International Helpers League.”  Send at once. Collingbourne Mills Dept 51. Elgin, Illinois.” (48)


 Another ad placed in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette on March 25, 1917 is much briefer, “Wanted – Needle Helpers.  Send 10 cents for full outline of your work and needlework instructions book and two full size balls of Elgin Maid crochet cotton.  Write today. International Helpers League. Chicago, Illinois.” (49)



On May 5, 1917 in the Oneonta Daily Star (New York) another ad shares,  “You can help any patriotic or worthy cause and have a party at the same time.  Wanted Needleworkers.  You are invited to enlist in the Collingbourne International Helpers League.  Women everywhere are doing their share to raise money for various worthy and patriotic causes – Red Cross, War Sufferers, Infants Welfare, Home Town Soldier Boys, uniforms for their favorite Ball Team.  Here is your opportunity to help any cause you wish by giving only a little of your spare time.  Learn to Embroider and Crochet Free. Enlist in the International Helpers League.  Call at once for our FREE book.  “How to Form a Collingbourne International Helpers League” telling you how to dispose of your finished pieces.  Join the Helpers League and learn how to crochet and embroider Free.  Call at once – Get this FREE Booklet.  We are authorized representatives for the Collingbourne International Helpers League.  Buy Collingbourne Art Products here and get free Booklet, ‘How to Form a League.’  Oneonta Department Store, Inc.” (50)


The son of an advertising agent, Collingbourne understood the value of getting the word out about his product to the consumers who were interested in buying it, so he placed some small black and white and full page color ads in the major magazines catering to women’s interests.  His full page colored ads appeared in Needlecraft (October 1920) and Modern Priscilla (October 1920, November 1920, and March 1921). (51)



 Collingbourne placed small black and white ads in the back “classified” sections of major women’s magazines of the time such as Needlecraft, Modern Priscilla, The American Needlewoman


Shirley McElderry of Ottumwa, Iowa has done extensive research on ads for myriad thread and textile companies including Collingbourne and Virginia Snow Studios as they appeared in major women’s magazines from the 1910s through the 1940s. Utilizing these vintage magazines, Mrs. McElderry tracked the progression of thread, instruction booklets, quilt kits, stamped goods, and other textile artifacts these companies produced. Credit has to be given where credit is due and Shirley McElderry, Cuesta Benberry, and other pioneer pre- and post-computer quilt and textile history researchers were the first people to create “working” timelines for many of these thread and textile companies, including Collingbourne Mills and Virginia Snow Studios utilizing Round Robins and creative research sources like magazine ads. (52) 



Taking it one step further, these early researchers shared their initial research on a wide variety of quilt and textile topics with those of us who came after them, so we could pick up the baton where they left off and tell the rest of the story.


Collingbourne would also utilize the classified section of the newspapers like the Elgin Courier and surrounding Chicagoland newspapers to find potential employees.  In the Cook County Herald on February 13, 1920, he placed the following employment ad, “Western Thread Company – Collingbourne Mills, Elgin, Illinois.  We have several excellent openings in our coning, spooling and automatic balling Departments  - $2.00 a day for beginner – and a bonus worth while for all operators when ready to begin piece work.” (53)


Women did make up a large majority of the work force at Western Thread Company and Collingbourne Mill.   There might not have been a retirement package, but considering the norms of the business world at the time, many companies of that era did not have them. Collingbourne paid his female factory workers equal pay for equal work with their male counterparts in a time when that simply wasn’t done.  


Due to the severe housing shortage following the end of WWI, the company constructed the “Collingbourne Community House east of the mill at 403 Bluff City Blvd, which provided living accommodations for about 30 women employees around 1919-20.” (54)  It would remain a “boarding house” until the 1930s when it would have a second life as a warehouse and salesroom for the company.