|"Two Ladies Hand Tufting Spreads"|
photo courtesy of Shaw Industries, Inc. (1)
Looking back at some entries for the 1930 census, I learned that some of my husband's female relatives had been part of an important cottage industry in Northwest Georgia. The five ladies were all involved in the making of tufted or chenille bedspreads.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia has an interesting article relating how Catherine Evans Whitaker began working in this home craft in the 1890s.(2) The making of the chenille bedspreads became a way for many woman in the areas around Dalton and Calhoun, Georgia, to work at home and supplement the family income.
The bedspreads were made using a design stamped essentially upon a sheet, much like pillowcases with stamped designs that can be purchased at craft stores today. The threadwork (or tufting) was done by hand, stitching thick cotton thread onto the design. After the design had been completely stitched onto the sheet, the bedspread was returned to the spread house that had initially provided the workers with the sheet and thread. Back at the spread house the chenille bedspread would be heat set to fluff the thread. Then it was ready to sell.
It was interesting to look at the families of the five relatives who were home spreadmakers in the 1930s. My husband's aunts, Ozella Nelson and Aurelia Nelson, were both living with their parents near Calhoun, Georgia, at the time of the 1930 census. Both Ozella, age 30, and Aurelia, 16, were single, but the spread making enabled them to contribute to the family's income.
One cousin, Nancy Hughes Bohannon, age 65, had been widowed in 1928. By 1930, she was listed in the census as a spread maker, indicating that she was able to turn to spread making for income rather then having to rely solely on farming. At the time of the 1930 census, Nancy's daughter Marietta Bohannon Underwood and her husband Claud Underwood were living with Nancy. Marietta, 25 and the mother of two young children, was another home spread maker.
Another cousin, Minnie Caldwell Scott, 39, also turned to making the chenille spreads at home. With three young children, the income was sure to be important to the family, and spread making was work that could be done at home while looking after her growing family.
As for the term "Peacock Alley", it was used in the 1930s to 1950s and beyond. This was before the arrival of the interstate system when the main road between Atlanta and Chattanooga was the Dixie Highway, US Highway 41. Many of the local spread houses and individuals displayed their wares outdoors all along US Highway 41 in the areas around Dalton, Georgia. Peacocks were such a popular bedspread design that this strip of highway became known as "Peacock Alley".(3) The Bandy Heritage Center in Dalton, Georgia, has an informative online exhibition, "Homemade Industry - From Chenille to Carpet", which provides photographs of some of the tufters as well as pictures of peacock chenille bedspreads.
Prior to the 1930 census I had noticed almost no employment, other than farming, listed in census records for female relatives in this area of the South. Home tufters were paid at a rate of .25 to $2.50 per finished bedspread.(4) The work of these relatives brought money to the family as they were living in the years following the Depression. This cottage industry was one "work at home" plan that was legitimate.
Today chenille bedspreads can be purchased on ebay, through etsy.com shops, or found on vintage textile websites. Photos of vintage and repurposed chenille items have been pinned to Pinterest boards. Periodically the fabric even makes its way to the runway or clothing catalogs. The October 2014 Prater's Mill County Fair in Dalton, Georgia, will even feature a display of chenille work. I'm glad these relatives pointed me toward learning more about chenille making in Northwest Georgia and revived memories of the bedspreads and pillows I saw as a child.
Looking at these five ladies showed, once again, that where and when our ancestors lived were influencing factors on their lives.
(1) "Hand Tufting." New Georgia Encyclopedia. Web. 26 February 2014.
(2) Patton, Randall L. "Chenille Bedspreads." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 19 August 2013.
(3) "Chenille Bedspreads."
(4) "Hand Tufting."