Knitters of the World… It’s Time to Get Organized!

I have a button in my personal collection that I found for $.25 at a dive-y thrift store in late summer 2017. It was hidden on a shelf of out-of-date Chilton’s car manuals, scratched 45’s of one-hit-wonders from the 1950s, and maps of tourist locations on the East Coast. It was dirty but beneath the layer of grime, pink text shouted out: “Knitters of the World… It’s Time to Get Organized! The Boye Needle Company can help.” It’s a standard button, about an inch and a quarter in diameter, though instead of the pin and hook closure that attaches contemporary pins to backpacks and jean jackets, this button has a metal flap that its wearer can press into the collar of a top. Boye still exists today; they released the button between the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A small button with the text "KNITTERS OF THE WORLD...IT'S TIME TO GET ORGANIZED! The Boye Needle Company can help." Pink font on a cream background.

The pink font caught my eye.

I’m attracted to all-things-knitting, especially if the objects are pre-1950. That being said, I perk up at the sight of knitting patterns, needles, and  stitch markers that came from before the craft-wave of the 21stcentury, in general. When I saw this piece, I knew that it was special, and I was instantly curious about the word “organized”; was it a reference to labor? Or something simpler, like an advertisement for an organizing case for knitting needles? I had no idea, and I sought to figure it out.

Back of a metal button. Rather than a pin and hook closure, this has a metal tab that one can press around the collar of a shirt.

The unique closure, plus the LPIU stamp were interesting. Photographed upside down to show the union logo. (click to enlarge the image)

A closer inspection of the button at home revealed features that were invisible under the florescent lights that illuminated the thrift store. The metal flap of the button has a stamp that matches the font color on the front. It reads: Local number 745 Chicago, AFL-CIO LPIU. In plain speak, workers organized with the Lithographers and Photoengravers International Union produced the button. That union was the result of the merger of the Amalgamated Lithographers of America and the International Photo-Engravers Union in 1964. Later, in 1972, the LPIU combined with the International Brotherhood of Bookbinders to form the Graphic Arts International Union.

Three buttons, one has a red circle with a line across it, covering the word "SCABS"; one says "KNITTERS OF THE WORLD...IT'S TIME TO GET ORGANIZED! The Boye Needle Company can help"; and the last, in the shape of a stop sign, says "STOP scabs."

I found these anti-scab buttons on a different shopping day.

When I discovered this, I must admit that my hope for some imagined knitting labor union was dashed. I secretly wished there were some radical knitters in the mid-century, though I concede that the idea was  far-fetched from the start. Back on planet earth, this button probably advertised one of Boye’s many knitting needle cases. Nevertheless, from this information, I learned that Boye produced my button between 1964 and 1972. By my instinct (and the font of the button), I suspected that the actual date was closer to the late 1960s, maybe 1969 or even 1970.

It was the end of fall 2017, and I put the idea for radical knitters and the button away as I moved away from my knitting research. I half-heartedly stayed with the project; it reached something of a natural end due to lack of material culture sources and time. However, before I decided to put my project on hold, I found something of note in a collection of documents that I requested from the Harvard Baker Library.

Anne L. Macdonald, the late author of No Idle Hands: A Social History of Knitting, placed a call for knitters’ life stories in various magazines and newspapers across the country as she wrote her book. In a response to her survey, one Mrs. Margaret Parrish Dexter, an elderly woman from Connecticut, described the very button that I own, and sketched its shape. Her note was brief but stated that she received the button fourteen years prior, in a local yarn store. The documents that I requested were from 1986, which meant that Mrs. Dexter picked up the button in 1972, the very same year that the LPIU became the GAIU. Unfortunately, I have no idea if Macdonald requested the photo that Mrs. Dexter offered, nor do I know if her button matched mine entirely. The shape of her sketch suggests that they were nearly identical, but I am uncertain if the colors were the same. Some historical questions go unanswered, and that’s okay.

I didn’t anticipate that the button would be anything more than a fun piece on the edge of my bookshelf, inspiration to stay organized (in all definitions of the word). In truth, I don’t think I will do much else with my knitting research, maybe submit to a knitting journal or magazine, but I do know this little button breathed some excitement into it again,  an unexpected, but welcome, pleasure.

Reading Round-up 3/31-4/6

Academic articles and chapters:

Hoganson, Kristin, “Cosmopolitan Domesticity: Importing the American Dream, 1865-1920,” American Historical Review (2002), 55-83.
Oh, Arissa, “A New Kind of Missionary Work: Chrisitians, Christian Americanists, and The Adoption of Korean GI Babies, 1955-1961,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 33, No. 3/4, Gender and Culture in the 1950s (2005),  161-188
Wu, Judy Tzu-Chun, “‘Loveliest Daugher of Our Ancient Cathay!’: Representations of Ethnic and Gender Identity in the Miss Chinatown USA Beauty Pageant, Journal of Social History (1997), 5-31.

Books:

Berebitsky, Julie, Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire,
(New Haven: Yale University Press), 2011.
Canaday, Margot, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 2009.
Fitzgerald, Maureen, Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York’s Welfare System, 1830-1920 (Urbana: University of Illinois), 2006.

Essay, articles, think-pieces, etc:

Bergman, Emily and Nick Montgomery, “The Stifling Air of Rigid Radicalism,” The New Inquiry,  March 2, 2018.
Blakemore, Erin, “The Unbearable Sadness of Toast,” JStor Daily, April 1, 2018.
Day, Anastasia, “How the White House garden became a political football,” Made by History, Washington Post, April 3, 2018.
Lloyd, Annie, “When the Sexually Abusive Artist is a Woman,” The Establishment, February 28, 2018.
Patton, Stacey,” We can’t ignore race in the tragic story of Devonte Hart and his white adoptive mothers,” Washington Post, April 6, 2018.
Salesess, Matthew, “The Rules of the Asian Body in America,” Unruly Bodies, Medium, April 3, 2018.
Willmore, Allison, “Orientalism is alive and well in American Cinema,” Buzzfeed, April 4, 2018.
Yoshida, Emily, “What it’s like to watch Isle of Dogs as a Japanese speaker,” Vulture, March 29, 2018.

Overlooked but not forgotten: Women’s obituaries at the New York Times

Drowned in the moonlight, strangled by her own bra”. Perhaps one of the more famous takes on obituaries came from the late Carrie Fisher in her book Wishful Drinking. The humorous take on obituaries was funny, but also a critique of the sensationalized manner in which women’s lives tend to be immortalized in obituaries. Can women be taken seriously in the printed afterlife? The editors of the series from the New York Times, Overlooked,  seem to think so.

Overlooked exists to highlight the lives of women who were, as the title suggests, overlooked or under-celebrated after their deaths. The project was announced on March 8, International Women’s Day, to much praise across the Internet.  As part of the project, staff writers from the NYT compile the life histories of famous women in obituaries that highlight successes, while also acknowledging the difficulties that the women faced in their lives. Though still imperfect, the project is largely successful in its target of uplifting women in with an intersectional mindset.

The art of obituary writing has a long history. In recent years, interest in obituary writing has intersected with popular culture, a documentary about the New York Times’ Obituary section, Obit, came out in 2014, and interviews in such publications as the Paris Review have brought to the public’s attention the craft of creating life stories after death. William McDonald, an editor of the New York Times’ Obituary section, notes that the goal of an obituary is to focus on those who made a difference, while shying away from making judgements of ethics or morals. A journalist’s response to a journalistic form.

The Overlooked project came from Amisha Padnani and Jessica Bennett who discussed the absence of women in the Times’ obituaries. As one might imagine, the obituaries section was, and still tends to be, overwhelmingly white and male, because it is only a recent phenomenon that culture has shifted to accept non-white and non-male figures; McDonald acknowledges that the absence of women’s obituaries could have also been a problem with earlier editors’ conscious choice to ignore women’s deaths as they happened.

The series has its own platform, a sleek looking, infinitively scrolling page, with portraits and obituaries. One can click read more on each article, expanding the page. It’s an accessible format; visually it’s simple, and the template allows the focus to remain on the lives of women.

So far, the series tells the lives of well-known figures like Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) whose cells have been influential in modern medicine, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) whose muck racking journalism contributed to the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, and Diane Arbus (1923-1971) the photographer, as well as those who may be less familiar: Qui Jin (1875-1907), a Chinese radical for women’s liberation, and Margaret Abbott (1878-1955), the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal. What is significant about these obituaries is that in the attempt to recover these stories, the authors have not focused solely on white women nor solely on heterosexual women; they illuminate the lives of these women and they provide insights on history that might encourage a reader to do more digging. Did Arbus exploit her subjects? Were there other women like Qui Jin in China? Understanding women’s lives as history opens with this project.

What diminishes the project, if only slightly, is the cheeky bios of some of authors of the pieces. Although it’s surely fascinating to know that the authors are quirky characters with a relationship to the subject- experience with the game of tennis, an apartment near a suspension bridge- the insistence to insert oneself in the histories of these women takes away from the seriousness of the project overall. Similarly, there are attempts to connect contemporary writers with the subjects in ways that reflect the identities of the obituaries, but one wonders what richness would come from opening the project to non-NYT journalists, perhaps historians or other writers with experience interpreting complicated, nuanced stories.

Still, the attempt to highlight the lives of these women is indicative of the cultural movement toward Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, the idea that overlapping identities can intersect and inform us of the ways that sources of power can oppress individuals.When applied to historical study, it becomes an inclusionary way of understanding the past. There are many more stories to uncover (the series has a nomination form ready for suggestions) but the effort of a journalistic powerhouse like The New York Times to lift up the stories of women is one worth applauding. Other publications should take note.

The Cultural Historian in the Garden

Below is a response paper to Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964), written for a Historiography of Technology class that I took in the fall of 2017. I’m meditating upon my academic identity as a cultural historian, and present this as an insider look at that thought process.

It was one in the morning, and I heard a train whistle echo against the mountains. I rolled over in my sleep, accustomed to the temporary disturbance in the night; at that point, I almost welcomed the noise as a familiar comfort. Chooo, one am; Chooo, two am. The following morning, I trudged down the hall from my bedroom to the kitchen. My aunt, who was visiting, was irritated. I asked if she slept well. “No,” she replied, “the damn train whistle kept me up.” For me, a mountain child accustomed to the interruption of the garden by the machine, the train was normal, but for my aunt, a suburbanite who expected rural to be rural, was not amused by the quiet call of the train descending the hills in the middle of the night. In Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden, he weighs the idea of the pastoral in American literature and how it intersects with American industrialization.

Okay, I’ll out myself: I enjoy American Studies. I realize that many historians who are interested in culture might say the same, but when I say that I enjoy the discipline, I mean I really, really appreciate the ways that, in its earlier days, it combined history with literature. I waded into cultural history through American literature, and I worked at an indie bookstore before grad school. I can’t help but be wooed (or maybe I’m simply impressed and not wholly convinced) by the ways that Marx draws upon literary sources to juxtapose the American ideal of pastoralism with American appreciation for machinery and industrialization.

This text is a work of literary criticism, thought it does have a historic framework. It unravels the prose of writers like Emerson and Twain and pushes their musings about contemporary life against the progress of technology and industrialization. Is this history? Is it not? Although the work is not archives based (quite a few of the referenced books sit on the shelves in my office) it still takes readers into the past to consider the ways that literary figures, thinkers, observers, witnessed the impact of industrialization on their daily lives. Whether or not they realized what they witnessed is debatable, though, one would be remiss if one didn’t believe that they had some level of awareness about changes happening to their landscape and lives. Does Marx make sweeping claims about collective experiences? Yes. Can we learn something from his close-looking and interpretation of literary materials? Absolutely.

Marx considers the disruptions of trains to pastoral landscapes through sound. All the same, I wondered about other interruptions to the landscape; what about light? Certainly the creeping lights of developed towns and cities interfered with the pastoral ideal. Alternatively, what about the physical rattling that comes with train travel? Anyone who has stood upon a train platform knows the physical sensation of a passing locomotive at 120 miles per hour. I also wondered about the presence of determinism in this book, he references manifest destiny, but offers limited critiques of it. The drawing upon of Romanticism, the connections of nature and a higher order; an absence of awareness of this topic was noticeable. How would a more critical view shape the book?

Lastly, to paraphrase art historian Linda Nochlin: Why have there been no great women authors? If one were to write this book today, who would be included? Certainly not all white men (…right?). In a similar mode, I understand that “for its time” the book was influential, spawning American Studies, ecocriticism, and more. Nevertheless, that he did not mention women in the text as actors in their own right was disappointing. If I’m not mistaken, Thoreau’s mother did his laundry while he was in the woods. While he was penning Walden, there was more work for mother, indeed.

Despite limitations of the text, including a lack of intersectional perspectives and a tendency to feature high culture, Marx’s ability to analyze and probe literary sources for a universal theme is commendable.