Alabama Folkways Articles

February, 1994

Extension Service Promoted Women's Home Industry Through Craft Activity

by Erin Kellen

Are there any readers, particularly those who lived in Alabama between the two World Wars, familiar with organizations such as the Clay County Basketmakers Association, the Bullock County Home Industry Association and the Simmsville Long Leaf Pine Needle Basket Club? Others may remember visiting the Home Industries department at Loveman, Joseph and Loeb, a department store in downtown Birmingham.

These enterprises developed out of United States Home Extension Service activities in Alabama. Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, establishing the Cooperative Extension Service, whereby county agents would call on farm communities to teach farmers the latest agricultural technology and, as well, to teach home economics to women and girls. Home Extension Agents made quite an impact on the often isolated communities they served, many of which were without electrical service, telephones, or even rural mail delivery.

In the South, the boll weevil and generations of agricultural practices that left much of the land eroded and unfertile had taken their toll. The Extension Service was a means by which the federal government hoped to transmit information that would help rural people upgrade their lives.

Women as well as men were targeted in the federal government's efforts to institute rural improvement programs. Female home demonstration agents became familiar figures in rural communities. The clubs they organized provided training not only in nutrition, hygiene, and child-rearing techniques but also in craft skills useful to home-making and developing home industries. In Alabama, there were some notable successes in the teaching and production, and ultimately the marketing, of home-produced crafts. Handmade baskets using native materials such as pine straw were popular. Many women made rag rugs. Not all crafts produced by home demonstration clubs were "folk" (representing a line of unbroken tradition) but many were. In fact, the home demonstration club functioned as a forum for the transmission of folk skills in many communities already deeply rooted in traditional activities. For example, a women in Cullman County who sold the hooked rag rugs she made for $5.00 each also assisted the home demonstration agent by teaching other club members. Many women preferred to produce craft forms, such as rugs and baskets, to which they were accustomed.

Home extension records from the 1920's report women from Barbour, Clay, Cullman, Escambia, Mobile and Perry counties making and selling rugs and baskets and earning, for those times, significant amounts of money. Women used these earnings in a number of ways. Mrs. Keller of Escambia County reported sending her daughter to high school with money earned from rug sale. A club leader who was employed to teach basketmaking to the Mobile camp bought a bathtub for her home.

Clay County was the site of a particularly successful basketmaking cooperative. In 1926, Mrs. J. B. Kelly introduced pine needle basketry to Clay County extension clubs. With the support of Mrs. Tempi Mayo, first president of County Council Clay County, and the leadership of Mrs. J. E. S. Rudd, home demonstration agent, women and girls in Clay County formed the Clay County Basket making Association. Promotion by state and local industries and organizations helped Mrs. Rudd sell several hundred baskets at the Tutwiler Hotel in Birmingham just before Christmas. Sales agents working for the cooperative expanded the market to major cities and arranged for women to demonstrate basketmaking as a means of promoting sales. In this way, the baskets made their way to Atlanta, Nashville, and, eventually, New York City. In time the Association received orders from over 30 states. Locally, baskets were sold out of the "The 4-H Basket Shop" in Ashland. Mrs. T. G. Hornsby reported that with her basketmaking earnings she had" bought three rugs, a few kitchen utensils, all the clothing for my baby daughter, one cow and one baby cow."

The state's home demonstration marketing specialist state, Mrs. Isadora Williams, was particularly aggressive in pursuing ways for farm women to market their products. In 1927 she established a Home Industries Department on the fourth floor of Loveman, Joseph, and Loeb in Birmingham.

Other cooperative efforts that developed in Alabama through home demonstration work included the Home Industries Association of Bullock County, organized around 1930, which produced tufted bedspreads, bath mats, and kimonos and the Simmsville Long Leaf Pine Needle Basket Club, which was organized in 1932 by Mrs. Roberts of Simmsville.

Home demonstration clubs continued to be engaged in crafts production in the decades following their establishment. Extension Service records fail to disclose in detail the fate of their efforts, though it is clear that the rate of craft productions and sales did drop off.

Did the Depression erode these efforts at collective enterprise? Did changes in home demonstration personnel affect the degree to which craft was emphasized in Alabama club work? Perhaps middle class tastes shifted so that the crafts became less marketable. It is possible that farm women were unable or unwilling to work at the pace required to keep markets supplied.

Alabama Folkways invites anyone who was involved with the craft making and marketing efforts of the home demonstration clubs in the years between the World Wars to share their experiences. Your remarks will contribute to the research of the Southeastern Crafts Revival Project based at the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.