Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Texas Home Demonstration Club, Rusk County, Texas, ca. 1940. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University Cushing Memorial Library and Archives.
Smithfield, Texas Home Demonstration Club, ca. 1940. From the Portal to Texas History, The University of North Texas Libraries’ Digital Projects Unit.
Last year marked the 150th birthday of the Morrill Act, a piece of legislation that granted federal land to each state in the United States to create land grant universities.
The Act’s purpose was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanical arts—as well as classical studies—so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on an abstract Liberal Arts curriculum.
A companion piece of legislation in 1914, known as the Smith-Lever Act, provided for mutual cooperation between the United States Department of Agriculture and the land-grant universities in conducting "practical demonstrations" in agriculture and home economics to persons not attending those schools.
This was how the Cooperative Extension Service got started. County agents from the Extension Service would call on farm communities to teach farmers the latest agricultural technology and female agents were hired to teach home economics to women and girls. Inadvertently, the Smith-Lever Act had a notable influence on quilting in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century.
Prior to the early 1940s, the lot of rural women in the U.S. was especially difficult. More than a few lived in isolated communities, most of which were without electricity, plumbing of any sort, telephones, or rural mail delivery.
Many women did not know about food preservation or nutrition, and in some cases, even knowledge of basic sanitation was lacking. The female agents were charged with bringing research-based information on such subjects to rural women. One of the ways they did this was through organizations known as Home Demonstration Clubs.
At their peak during the Depression and 1940s, there were thousands of Home Demonstration Clubs in rural areas throughout the U.S. In addition to their educational mission, the clubs also provided a social outlet for women, and encouraged the development of leadership skills and community involvement. Club members branched out from home-based improvement to perform service works, engage in community beautification projects, and raise money for charitable causes.
Quiltmaking was one of the activities frequently encouraged by the Extension Agents and in many cases, Home Demonstration Clubs evolved into quilting clubs that continued to meet in rural areas well into the 1970s and early 1980s.
These quilting clubs often served both as bees, in that members helped one another finish personal quilts, and as fundraiser groups, offering “quilting for the public” in order to raise money for community activities.
In a sense, Home Demonstration quilting clubs were the precursors of modern day quilt guilds, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for promoting the art and nurturing quilters through difficult times.
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