QUILT HISTORY STORIES
Book 1 and Book 2
Susan Wildemuth, Atkinson, IL
History of Collingbourne Mills, Inc. and Virginia Snow Studios
Department of Collingbourne Mills, Inc.,
Art Needlework Factory
The postwar years were productive ones at the mill and would bring about many changes in Albert Collingbourne’s company. The name Western Thread Company was retired and Collingbourne Mills was changed to Collingbourne Mills, Inc. when the company became incorporated on March 17, 1924. (55)
About 1924 – 1925 Collingbourne seized the opportunity to add pure silk thread to his product line by purchasing one of the oldest manufacturers of pure silk thread in the United States, the Berkshire and Becket Silk Company located in Becket, Massachusetts.(56) “Founded by Samuel K. Smith in the late 1800s, Berkshire and Becket Silk Company had been one of the leading manufacturers of silk thread for sewing, embroidery, and crochet, with a large portion of their product going to Gloversville, New York for use in the manufacture of gloves.” (57)
Retaining the name Berkshire and Becket Silk Company after the buyout, the mill remained in production at its present location in Massachusetts under manager A.E. Palmer. (58) A December 29, 1926 Elgin, Illinois, Courier-News article stated “A considerable addition has also been made to the mill of the Collingbourne Mills, Inc. located at Becket, Massachusetts - a building has been erected there to house the main offices, shipping department, and stock rooms of the Becket plant. The Becket plant is given over entirely to the manufacture of pure silk threads and under the management of A.E. Palmer has doubled its output during the past years.” (59) After the Collingbourne takeover, one hundred employees were employed at the Massachusetts mill with an output of approximately 60,000 spools a day. (60)
The Berkshire and Becket Silk Company would thrive under the ownership of Albert Collingbourne until the disastrous flood of 1927. Albert Collingbourne’s son Richard explains it this way, “The Berkshire and Becket purchase did not work out too well. My mother told me the Massachusetts plant was destroyed by floodwaters in 1927. None of the heavy equipment could be found or recovered and there was no insurance.” (61)
“Plans were made to restore operations in the relatively undamaged warehouse of the mill, but they were cut short when only a week after the flood, the warehouse was burned to the ground. The silk industry was never revived in that location, and all that remained for the passing visitor to see after the flood and subsequent fire was a portion of foundation of the mill, overgrown with shrubbery, along the edge of Route 8 near the village of Becket.” ( 62)
In 1926 the following companies were considered the leaders in thread manufacturing in the United States, producing 90 percent of the darning cotton manufactured in the United States:
Clark Thread Co., Newark, New Jersey
Howard Manufacturing Co., Boston, Massachusetts
Dexter Yarn Co., Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Blodgett & Orwell Co., Pawtucket, Rhode Island
American Thread Co., New York, New York
The Spool Cotton Co., New York, New York
Amherst Manufacturing Co., Amherst, Massachusetts
D. E. Howard’s Son & Co., New York, New York
J. & P. Coats (R. L.) (Inc.), Pawtucket, Rhode Island
Collingbourne Mills (Inc.), Elgin, Illinois” (63)
By December 1926 Collingbourne Mills, Inc. was “one of the largest “independent” manufacturers in this country of pure silk, rayon, and cotton threads for all sewing purposes.” ( 64) They had representatives selling to both wholesalers and retailers in the United States and abroad. “Collingbourne threads were distributed throughout America, Canada, Mexico, South America and abroad through offices maintained in New York, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, and Mexico City.” ( 65)
As stated earlier, “the success of the plant was attributed to the fact that there were five springs located in and about the mill proper, supplying a quality of water making it possible to develop boil proof colors (fast to boiling water under any and all conditions with no running when your items were washed) in the pastel and floral colorings such as are supplied from the European markets.” (66) Albert Collingbourne shared the following information with a newspaper reporter, “All thread and yarn manufacturers operate with the same machinery and use the same material,” said Mr. Collingbourne, “and anyone can compete with us successfully except in the color line. No one can produce the colors we can, or successfully match any desired shade, as we can, because of the quality of our water.” (67) His son Richard adds, “I remember my father talking about the threads the company produced and that he felt the big advantage he had over competing companies was that the colors held fast on his materials; he always attributed this to the water used at the factory. They had their own well.” (68)
Each step in the process of manufacturing Collingbourne threads was done at the Elgin plant. “The raw materials for the thread came in large skein form in its natural state and were dyed, twisted, stretched, treated, wound on spools, cut into skeins, and packed ready for the retailer. Spool winding machines wound the finished thread onto spools at the rate of 2,000 spools per hour. The wooden spools, millions of them, were shipped to Elgin from mills in Maine. Four Spools a second, 240 spools a minute 420,00 spools a day, 720,00 spools a week, and 40,000,000 spools a year, that’s the rate at which they turned out thread at the Collingbourne Mills, Inc..”(69)
On December 29, 1926, the Annual Meeting and Banquet for Collingbourne Mills, Inc. was held at the Albert Collingbourne home at 320 Watch Street in Elgin. The people in attendance were:
A. B. Collingbourne, President
J. M. Blackburn, Treasurer
C. E. Bowe, Secretary
C. W. Washburn, Vice President and Sales Manager
Mrs. E. M. Hammond, Manager of Virginia Snow Studios
D. E. Johnson, John Rovelstad, Vernon Cane, and Frank Koppen, Elgin, Illinois
W. J. Church, St. Louis Manager, St. Louis, Missouri
M. (Max) Schal, Vice President and New York Manager, New York, New York
Messrs. F. W. Baude and F. A. Bierman, San Francisco Managers, San Francisco, California
A. E. Palmer, Manager of Becket Plant, Becket, Massachusetts
Support Staff :
J. M. O’Malley, Chemist
F. Ralph Fisher, Certified Public Accountant
R. H. Shaughnesay, Auditor
Sidney Yaffe, Purchasing Agent
G. R. Beverly, Attorney and Director, Elgin, Illinois
F. C. White, Chicago, Illinois
D.W. Campbell, St. Paul, Minnesota
E. M. Stapelfedlt, Chicago, Illinois
V. C. Reed, Detroit Michigan
R. (Robert) W. Markiewitz, Chicago, Illinois
H. S. Moon, St. Paul, Minnesota
W. W. Waterman, Cleveland, Ohio
E. W. Neukranz, Chicago, Illinois
C. V. Jacobs, Fort Wayne, Indiana
C. J. Savage, Denver Colorado
S. J. Smith, Chicago, Illinois
F. Emmert, Minneapolis, Minnesota
E. W. Stepelfedlt, Chicago, Illinois
H. Hawkins, Elgin, Illinois
Charles E. Hartall, Elgin, Illinois
J. B. McDonald, San Francisco, California
Sam Owens, Los Angeles, California
O. V. Neilson, Seattle, Washington
C. R. Edmunds, Salt Lake City, Utah
L. A. Buck, San Francisco, California
H. C. Applegate, Kansas City, Missouri
C. M. Baldenweck, New Orleans, Louisiana
S. T. Sullivan, Dallas, Texas
H. N. Church, St. Louis, Missouri
L. F. Phenix, Ft Worth, Texas
R. E. Brown, St. Louis, Missouri
M. E. Haller, Memphis, Tennessee
H. W. Osborn, Brooklyn, New York
H. Rubenstein, Raleigh, North Carolina
Frank Caudle, Johnstown, Pennsylvania
L. G. Fraser, Syracuse, New York
Charles Haig, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
L. S. Adamson, Boston, Massachusetts
T. Takahasi, Miami, Florida
J. J. Werner, Marlboro, Massachusetts
J. B. Stoval, Augusta, Georgia (70)
Department of Collingbourne Mills, Inc.
Art Needlework Factory
The name Virginia Snow Studios first began to appear on Western Thread and Collingbourne Mills embroidery, crochet, and knitting instruction books around 1913, not long after Albert Collingbourne joined the firm. Sometime between 1915 and 1917, a mail order art needlework catalog department was started, once again utilizing the name Virginia Snow Studios, a name which had served them well in marketing their previous art needlework instruction books.
During the 1920s Collingbourne Mills, Inc was thriving, but they were always looking for new ways to promote their products. With their pure silk, rayon, wool, and cotton thread, the creative marketing team at the plant came up with a plan to produce a line of stamped goods and needlework products to stimulate the demand for their thread. Seeing the need to expand if they were going to accomplish this goal, plans were drawn up for a separate two-story building (a third story would be added later) to be built adjacent to the main plant in Elgin, Illinois. Completed by the fall of 1926, the factory became a department of Collingbourne Mills, Inc. and operated as an art needlework factory, known as Virginia Snow Studios. (71)
Who was Virginia Snow? There is no evidence, other than the name itself, that there ever was a flesh and blood Virginia Snow. Virginia Snow appears to be a fictional consumer friendly name Albert Collingbourne used to market his line of stamped goods, instruction books, art needlework catalogs, and needlework items; all products which would become known as the “Virginia Snow Line.” Albert Collingbourne was interviewed by a newspaper reporter in 1926 and shared, “Inauguration of the new line is in keeping with the progressive policy of the company, which now manufactures plain and mercerized cotton threads, artificial silk (rayon) threads, and pure silk threads for all sewing, embroidery, and knitting purposes.” (72)
Albert Collingbourne did another groundbreaking thing when he established Virginia Snow Studios; he chose Estella M. Hammond, a woman, to manage it. (73) In a September 28, 1926 Courier-News article a journalist elaborates, “No expense has been spared in the building of the organization as the woman who has been brought to head the studio unit is an acknowledged leader in the art of needlework designing field. She has had thirty years of experience as a designer and has also been the head of the needlework department of several of the largest department stores in the country. These experiences have fitted her in the best possible manner for work of this kind to the interest of Miss Snow.” ( 74)
Information about Estella M. Hammond is scarce. Believed to be a widow, she was listed in the 1927-1928 Elgin City Directory as an artist who lived at 378 St. Charles Street in Elgin, Illinois with her daughter Miss Margaret E. Hammond, an Elgin High School student. (75) She only remained manager of the studio for a short time beginning in 1926, but she does not appear to be in the Elgin, Illinois area under the name of Estella M. Hammond by the 1930 census. Extensive research was done, but where she came from and where she went after she left Virginia Snow Studios remains a mystery.
There is also an artist named George Hiram Brown who was listed in the Elgin City Directory as a commercial artist, lithographer, and an employee of Albert Collingbourne when Virginia Snow Studios first opened for business. (76) No information was available at the time of this writing about his work at Virginia Snow Studios or the length of time he actually worked for Collingbourne. It is important to mention him though, in the hopes new information will come to light. There is no doubt he made some type of contribution to the creation of some of the artwork and/or logos associated with Virginia Snow, but unfortunately none of his work with the studio is signed.
Background information on Mr. Brown was easier to find; he was born on November 6, 1903 in Carpentersville, Illinois, the son of Andrew and Maude Brown. (77) His first wife was Vera Mary Brown whom he married at Sycamore, Illinois on June 14, 1924. (78) The couple would divorce around 1946-1948 while he was working as an engraver or “high color man” for the Chicago Tribune. (79) He remarried Evelyn M. Leucht Keeker Brown in 1948. (80) There would to be no “living” children listed in his obituary by either wife and he would pass away on March 23, 1992 at the age of 88 years old. (81)
The brick and mortar Virginia Snow Studios factory was a success. A.B. Collingbourne told a newspaper reporter in a November 17, 1926 article that “the business of the new art needlework department had exceeded his anticipations six-fold.” ( 82) By February 1927 stamped goods for embroidering were designed, advertised, and shipped, and the retail department, which was transformed from planks on sawhorses to regular counters and display cases, was manned by employees like Miss Edith Miller and Miss Gertrude M. Watson. (83)
Virginia Snow: Stamped Goods. Fall and Winter Catalogue 1927-1928 catalog states, “All ‘Virginia Snow’ ideas are created in our own studios. That’s why the designs are always new, original, attractive, and absolutely the last work in style and beauty.” ( 84) The same catalog goes on to say that “Virginia Snow Art Needlework designs are created by a staff of artists in our own studios.” (85) There is no information to date about “who” these “staff of artists” were, so their beautiful work remains anonymous as of this writing.
The on-site retail store, Virginia Snow Shop at 403, Bluff City Blvd., sold a multitude of items available for gifts, or useful and decorative articles for home like bedspreads and “hot pan holders” selling for 3 for 5 cents. (86) The studio employed over 75 workers, whose “art needlework creations, including pillow covers, wearing apparel for the babies, coverings for furniture, and kindred articles were sent all over the United States.” ( 87) “In the mail order department from 2000 to 4000 dimes come in each day for one of the special orders, containing embroidery rings, a stamped piece, and the materials or instructions booklet with which to work it.” ( 88)
Dexter Yarn Company was established in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in the early 1800s by the Captain N. G. B. Dexter. One of the pioneers in thread manufacturing, this company was known throughout the United States for their knitting and crochet threads. DYC remained a family owned business until it was sold by a Dexter to Collingbourne Mills, Inc. on March 1, 1927. (89) The business came with their accounts, merchandise, excellent reputation, machinery, and supplies. The name Dexter Yarn Company was retired, but the prestigious Dexter name would be utilized in association with thread and other products in various Elgin, Illinois art needlework companies for years to come.
Unlike the Berkshire and Becket Silk Company, which remained at its pre-purchase location in Becket, Massachusetts, the DYC plant in Pawtucket, Rhode Island was shut down and the inventory moved to Elgin. According to a 1927 newspaper article Mr. Collingbourne shares, “Within the next month or so we will bring a whole train-load of machinery and property of the eastern mill to Elgin. We plan to install the machinery in a portion of our local plant, reserved for that purpose. Of course we will have to increase our employee capacity considerably to handle the manufacture and sale of the Dexter Company line. We now employ approximately 700 persons in our local plant and will, in time, increase this number to keep pace with our expansion program.” (90)
On April 1, 1927, J. L. Brennan, who had worked in various supervisory capacities at the former Dexter Yarn Company for over 25 years, came to Elgin to work for Collingbourne Mills Inc. as an assistant treasurer and manager. (91) The Dexter name was placed on the packaging of former DYC thread products incorporated into the Collingbourne line and the manufacture of the high quality Dexter line of threads remained unbroken.
By March of 1927, the Dexter Yarn Company acquisition was complete and Collingbourne Mills, Inc. daily capacity had increased to: “44,000 skeins of artificial silk and embroidery threads, 100,000 spools of sewing thread, 86,000 spools of darning cotton, 70,000 balls of embroidery and darning cotton, and 72,000 skeins of embroidery cotton.” (92)
One year old Virginia Snow Studios appeared for the first time in the Elgin City Directory in 1927-28. (93) The Berkshire and Becket Silk Company venture would be destroyed by the spring flood in 1927, but Albert Collingbourne was determined to press on and his firm survived the loss. (94)
Records show, 1917 through 1928 were the golden years for Collingbourne Mills Inc., but there was a dark cloud looming on the horizon. Change was coming and not just to Collingbourne Mills, but everyone in the business community and private sector would feel its impact.
With the purchase of Dexter Yarn Company and its assimilation into the Collingbourne Mills, Inc. family, the fictional market friendly persona of Grandma Dexter, featured in a new Collingbourne logo sitting in her rocker stitching on a project, began appearing on catalogs, instruction books, and a line of needle art projects in the 1930s.
A few quilt items can be found in earlier Virginia Snow Studios catalogs, but by the early 1930s, quilt blocks and items associated with quilt making were marketed under the name “Grandma Dexter.” It should be noted that the name “Grandma Dexter” was not reserved for quilt products only. Other needle arts such as weaving and rug making were part of the product line too, but quilt products became the staple of the Grandma Dexter Line.
Patchwork (pieced), embroidery, cross-stitch, or applique quilt blocks were part of the product line in the Virginia Snow retail store and in their mail-order catalogs. Popular sizes of quilt blocks were 9”, 12”, and 18”. The squares came 12 to a package which, according to Virginia Snow advertising, “is the correct amount to make a full size quilt.” (95) It should also be noted that consumers had to pay extra for items such as quilting thread, embroidery floss, or backing to complete the project.
Embroidery and cross-stitch blocks were stamped on the "highest quality bleached quilting cloth." Some of the embroidery and cross-stitch blocks stood alone (meaning either embroidery or cross-stitch), but some blocks were a combo of embroidery/cross-stitch or embroidery/applique.
The patchwork (pieced) and appliqued squares were stamped on a foundation piece of fabric with popular designs, so that all you had to do was cut your patches to fit the design and applique. The stamped foundation piece was made of a muslin "type" fabric - bleached cambric (quality A), genuine Indian Head cloth (quality B), best quality quilting cloth (quality C), or extra fine quality sateen (quality D), with quality D being the finest and the most expensive to purchase. When doing your squares, you could either use your own fabric, or purchase quilt patches or a quilt patch kit from Virginia Snow Studios.
Grandma Dexter Quilt Patch “Kits” were a unique item in the Grandma Dexter Line. They come in a box and are a bit of an oddity. They have been called a kit, but there is an ongoing debate as some don’t feel they fit the true definition of a quilt kit. Items included in this cellophane wrapped box are enough quilt material or patches (in an assortment of colorfast prints) to applique ten 12” blocks or six 18” blocks, an instruction sheet with actual-size pattern pieces, and the foundation piece of fabric stamped with the outline of a design.
In the 1930s Virginia Snow Studios published a series of undated booklets: Grandma Dexter’s Applique and Patchwork Quilt Designs Book No. 36, Grandma Dexter Applique and Patchwork Designs Book No. 36A, Grandma Dexter New Applique and Patchwork Designs Book No. 36B, and Virginia Snow Quilting Designs No. 41. Unlike the Virginia Snow Studio mail order catalogs where you could order “kits,” or actually better terms would be “quilt block packages or quilt patch packages,” these books gave consumers new options. Quilt makers could make templates of actual-size pattern pieces furnished in the booklet to either make a quilt block from their own supplies or send away to Virginia Snow Studios for their supplies.
There were also a series of Virginia Snow Studios mail-order catalogs, which began around 1917 and reached their heyday in the 1930s. Many of the 1930s ones featured quilt block packages and quilt-related items. Byssine Thread, featured in a 1932 catalog, was advertised as “strong as silk and won’t cut fabric.” Available in black, white, and all seasonable colors at the cost of two spools for 5 cents, this thread was considered suitable for piecing or appliquing the quilt patches on to the quilt blocks and for the actual quilting.
The Virginia Snow Studios Art Needlework Creations 1933-34 catalog featured the Virginia Snow Complete Quilt Offer, No. V. S. 66. for the first time. With this deal, a quilter would receive 12 yards of the best quality quilting cloth, 12 eighteen inch stamped blocks, sufficient stamped patches and applique materials to complete the blocks, a 1 1/2 pound batt (batting) of Virginia Snow’s finest quilt cotton, 2400 yards of Grandma Dexter quilting twist, 12 yards Dexter quilting binding, and 1 book of Virginia Snow quilting designs (most likely book No. 41) for the amazing price of $7.35. On page 6 of this same catalog, the Virginia Snow Quilt Patch Design Markers were advertised to “aid quilt makers in cutting uniform and accurate patches.” They were made of precision die-cut heavy metal nickel-plate, available in four popular shapes, and touted as “adaptable to the cutting of patches for several designs.” This catalog also featured the Virginia Snow Quilting Hoop, designed to make “quilting in your favorite chair easier.” Similar to their modern day counterparts, these hoops were 22 inches in size, but were made of metal instead of wood.
The stock market crash, bank failures, reduction in purchasing across the board, the American economic policy in Europe, and drought conditions all contributed to the worst economic depression in the history of the United States called the Great Depression, which began in the late 1920s and would last until the dawn of WWII. People lost their jobs, some who were lucky enough to retain their employment had their wages cut, and with no money for extras, spending in large and small communities slowed to a crawl, and people made do with what they had.
Very little has been written about the 1929-1934 time period at Collingbourne Mills, Inc except that Albert Collingbourne kept his company operating and retained as many of his employees as he could. Thread was manufactured, needle art kits were purchased, and more instruction books were created, but not in the massive quantities of the 1920s. He had once had 700 employees in his peak year of 1927, but by 1935 his plant crew was pared down to 400. (96)
The 1936 officers of the mill were Albert B. Collingbourne, President, Elmer R. Pahnke, Vice President, C. E. Bowe, Secretary, A. E. Palmer, Treasurer. (97)
Hoping to increase revenues and add some new products to his collection, Albert Collingbourne entered into talks with George Roak Boag of River Forest, Illinois in the fall of 1935. By February of 1936, the papers were signed and Collingbourne Mills, Inc. purchased Boag Company of River Forest, Illinois, manufacturers of ribbon, needlework novelties, quilt kits, and pillow tops. (98)
George Boag, the son of Ellen Boag Porter of Boag Ribboncraft fame, was asked to join the Collingbourne staff as a salesman and the director of the needlework department. (99) Like his mother’s River Forest, Illinois company Boag Ribboncraft, the name Boag Company was retired and the new Collingbourne line would be known as Boag Studios, with quilts and pillow tops the mainstay of this collection. Collingbourne would produce two of the four known Boag catalogs Quilts by Boag: The Most Authentic Quilt Line in America and From Boag Studio: Quilts Book 46. Unfortunately, neither catalog is dated.
Even with the addition of the prestigious Boag art needlework items, Albert Collingbourne could not save the company from the hard economic times of 1937 and 1938. Like many other firms, the Great Depression had taken its toll on Collingbourne Mills, leaving the company no other choice but to close its doors or sell to another company. There is no exact date listed on any corporation paperwork filed with the State of Illinois, but Albert Collingbourne retired, stepping away from his company some time in 1938-39.
There is a period between 1939 through 1942 when very little information could be found concerning the ownership status of Collingbourne Mills, Inc. In 1939 Daniel F. Byrnes, who worked in various management positions at the Bradley Knitting Company in Delavan, Wisconsin (Walworth County), became General Manager of Collingbourne Mills, Inc. (100) The 1939 Elgin City Directory lists the Virginia Snow Shoppe under the management of Mrs. Marguerite Case. It had moved from its 403 Bluff City Blvd address to 1025 Charles in Elgin. (101) Virginia Snow products were sold to the public during this time period, evidenced by a Virginia Snow Quilting Designs Book No. 41 in the author’s collection with a January 12, 1940 postmark. 1940 was the last year the name Virginia Snow appeared in any form in the Elgin City Directory, but the exact date the shop closed its doors is unknown. (102)
Parker F. McMahon’s name first appeared as President-Treasurer of Collingbourne Mills, Inc. in the 1941- 42 Elgin City Directory, Ralph R. Trimarco was Vice President, and James G. Culbertson was listed as secretary. (103) The Elgin address for the company was 363 Bluff City Blvd and they produced thread, yarn, and assorted products. (104) Parker McMahon left that position in the company sometime in 1943, when Rudolph Petzelt, President of Collingbourne Mills, Inc. changed the name of the company to Dexter Mills, Inc. on April 8, 1943. (105)