Saturday, October 18, 2014

Chicago World's Fair 1933: Century of Progress

The huge world's fair in Chicago, 1933, called  appropriately "Century of Progress", featured among much else, the enormous Sears quilt competition. Sears, the country's biggest mass merchandiser at the time, with it's stores all over the country and catalogs reaching even the most rural areas, offered $7500 in prizes for quilts. The grand prize was $1000 and the rest was for runners-up. Of course 1933, the depth of the Depression, meant those prizes were enough to make any quilter's heart beat faster. Directions said simply, "Quilt designed and made by you." And suggested quilts that echoed the fair's theme were wanted -- the one in the picture is a good example.

Some 24,000 women made quilts! They only had four months from the announcement until quilts were submitted to local stores for local judging. Winners there were sent for regional judging. Finally 33 were sent to the nationally known judges and all 33 were displayed at the fair. The judges happened to prefer traditional designs and did not award prizes to the "theme" quilts.  The winner was Margaret Caden, from Kentucky, a woman who had a shop that sold antiques including quilts (some she sold were not antiques but made by women she employed.) The winning quilt was presented at the end of the fair to Eleanor Roosevelt and now is in the White House collection of presidential gifts.  I have not been able to find a photo of it.

Not until sometime in the '50s did some of Margaret Caden's former employees speak up and tell the world that they, not Margaret, had sewn the quilt. At the time of the competition they were afraid of losing their jobs which would have been financial disaster for them.  Also one of the makers of theme quilts was so outraged that none were chosen she did speak up - in fact so loudly that when the Fair's  presenters decided to open it for several months the next summer (in order to increase their total income) they did display some of the theme quilts.

By the beginning of the '30s the pundits of the magazine world which had, for the past 20 years, featured quilt designs and information, had announced as the style critics are apt to do, that the quilt mania had had its day. (Especially crazy quilts.) They announced quilts were passe and emphasized the clean, new idea of art deco in home decor. The 24,000 quilts contradicted that assumption.  However, something far bigger than magazine editor's tastes was afoot:  first came WWII, and after that the burst of affluence of the '50s when, indeed, quilt making seemed (in the urban areas at least) truly passe. 

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