At the dawn of Vogue, long before Oprah, Martha, or HGTV, there was Priscilla Publishing.
About 100 years after its heyday, Priscilla still has a fan base – not too shabby. I’m late to the Priscilla party, only having found out about it recently. It’s become a bucket list item for me to contribute to Ravelry’s gallery of Priscilla projects.
I do want to address the treasure trove that is the stitchery of Priscilla, and the projects themselves. I’ll do separate reviews of some of the individual books when I can. For now, here’s the List of Priscilla titles available from the Library of Congress – many of which can be downloaded in pdf format for free.
However, before I get into the stitching, I need to digress on the publisher specifically, and the impact of this body of work on my life. Priscilla illuminates the X indicating “you are here” on the map of my existence. Priscilla was about personal pride.
I’ve come to see Priscilla Helps for Housekeepers as the definitive statement of the Priscilla ethos. Let us pause, before judging the book, to review the cover.
Priscilla flaunts one of her more obvious charms, typography.
But it’s a ruse, to distract you. Sure, she’ll slather the typeface in red lipstick to lure you in. But that’s not who she is. Look at the edging.
That easily overlooked hand-drawn edging foreshadows the Priscilla endgame. It’s hidden in plain sight, like a Quaker supermodel.
The woman I’d never known I was born to be – this “Modern Priscilla” – is all about beautifying edges and corners. It’s what we do. Our deeds go unrewarded, unnoticed except possibly on occasion by other Modern Priscillas. We may even be scorned by society. Suck it up. Or don’t, your choice. The Modern Priscilla is a birthright – not a privilege – but you do have to fight for it.
The cover girl, in cameo:
Is she in her 20s? 30s? 40s? You really can’t tell. She is wearing a bonnet and cowl, though, which she probably made herself. This is not a red lipstick woman. This is a floor scrubbing, potato peeling, exhausted woman. I can’t quite decipher her expression. Is she sitting in church? Watching the Salem witch trials, trying to look inconspicuous? Both?
And yet within her – as within all of us – there is a Modern Priscilla. I can feel her. This must be my reward for clapping for Tinkerbell when I was little. Here’s a picture from the back of the book. So it did work out well. She apparently embroidered a tuffet, then sat down on it and did some needlework.
There’s further evidence that life got better for her over the years, however the photo below has obviously been Photoshopped. Thus credibility remains an issue here — and throughout this inspection of the sordid world of Priscilla, as further detailed below.
Don’t try to trap me in that incredibly sexy lettering, either. I know your … type.
Here’s my scenario on the above picture. The apron, relaxed boobies, and sensible shoes belong to the real Priscilla, the model from the earlier drawings. She posed in her rattan chair, still doing needlework at the nursing home. Then they photoshopped the face, hands, and ankles of a woman in her late 20s that kind of looks like she used to. She’ll never notice the difference, and she’ll love it. Much cheaper and less stressful than a face lift, or even glasses. What a considerate gift for an old lady in a nursing home. Somebody should write that in to Priscilla as a help.
Really though, the world would be a better place with a lot more of this sort of Priscilla momentum.
The household helps and/or problems often involve things like lard, charcoal, and mucilage. However, a lot of Priscilla’s helps remain just as relevant/irrelevant today.
Oh Priscilla, you had me at “the delicate child.” Seriously, though, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much good insight on caring for the emotional needs of elderly and sick people as I have in this book. Remarkable, really.
But all this comes at a cost. For one thing, there’s always a bottom line with Priscilla.
She’s here to let us know she defines fancy-work, first of all, and secondly, FYI, it’s a no-frivolity thing from here on out. As I read it, she’s proudly announcing that she’s the one who decided to take the fun out of it as much as possible. She expects gratitude in return.
Priscilla is the Phyllis Schlafly of fancy-work.
I guess it’s more like, we’ve given you a way to justify the cost of this to your old man. If you’re not too remedial, you’ll be able to make some cheap curtains that look store bought, and maybe get some privacy while you do it. If you have a little fun or relaxation along the way, just keep it to yourself. And don’t forget, Priscilla hooked you up here.
I don’t always like the way Priscilla makes me feel about myself.
Some of it is culture shock, I guess. For one thing, when these books came out, women were often known only by their husband’s names. So when the Priscilla Helps tipster gets credited with “Mrs. J.P.W.,” I think that stands for something like John Peter Wilson. No suggestion of the name she was born with at all, which I find kind of eerily modest.
And of course Mary, the whore.
And then out of nowhere, they throw this in:
What the actual hell? Who’s in charge here?
Says us, that’s who. The écru linen mafia isn’t here to be vetted by you. Now mind your own business. Your house looks like a refugee camp.
You have to take Priscilla with a grain of salt for other reasons, too. They set the bar crazily high. Part of the mission statement from The Priscilla Book of Needlework (emphasis added).
Step 1. Be all things to all people. Step 2. Know the trends.
The Priscilla Needlework book has no designer credited at all. It’s a catalog for kits, which are shown drawn, not worked. In other words, a lot of it has never been demonstrated having been completed by anyone, ever. Not that you couldn’t make it or their patterns necessarily wouldn’t work. But you’d have to already know what you were doing, and they take such an attitude.
Then there’s the Kirchmaiers.
Anna Wuerfel Brown is credited with “preface and instructions” in a Kirchmaier sandwich on the cover, but I believe she made most or all of the work in The New Filet Crochet Book herself. (Her book is definitely a go-to starting point for anyone interested in adapting this craft to their own uses.) Wuerfel Brown is a true master and this is a great book. She has a lovely fan page on Ravelry.
The book is “by” Hugo W. Kirchmaier. It’s published by Cora Kirchmaier. There is another book published by Cora Kirchmaier with no one else credited, and I believe a lot of completed work inside, but I haven’t looked at it. If anyone knows the story about the Kirchmaiers do tell. I don’t know if Mrs. Kirchmaier actually did any of the work in any of the books with her name on them or not. For that matter, maybe Hugo did.
I could be wrong, but it seems like if you took the entire body of Priscilla’s publications, printed out all of the patterns, instructions, and completed works, then tallied up the number of names you could count, it would look really off. I would think any time you have a book with that amount of patterns and lessons in it, there’s probably some collaboration.
In the Priscilla Book on Drawn Work we learn how women become intractably insane.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was saying an average worker should be able to read those three sentences of instructions, look at that picture, and make that.
The next picture has even more detail, so no excuses from you below average types.
Priscilla Publishing leaves me both excited and self-loathing. I need to work through it.
Speaking of excitement mixed with self-loathing –
Put your apron back on, missy.
About the aprons. The needlework designs in Priscilla’s world are captivating – to some of us misty-eyed fools. However, I understand that fancy-work might not fit in with every decor. I notice David Bromstad seldom uses matching commode and bureau scarves. I don’t take it personally. Fortunately completed doilies can safely be stapled to trees for long-term storage.
Frankly there’s no chance of me making a large percentage of the items in Priscilla. For one thing, they make things I’ve never heard of, like “portieres” and “nightingales.” Pretty sure I don’t need a “shirt-waist box.” Plus, you have to float over the kitchen table in a weird way while hammering, which I don’t feel is safe with my knee injury.
It should be noted, I saw almost the exact same thing about making a rug out of curtains on Pinterest last week. (We just don’t seem to have that kind of chenille laying around the way we used to, like what I think they’re talking about, the ones with the stripes. Those were awesome bedspreads, too, real comfort linens.)
I’m able to imagine a scenario where I feel like I need a veil case, sure. But for the life of me I can’t figure out how it works.
I could make some effort to be more of a Priscilla. I can imagine making, owning, and wearing what they’re calling a “corset cover.” Might be worth modifying the pattern to fit someone who doesn’t have extensive spinal and pulmonary issues. I actually kinda love it. Why wear wife-beaters around the house when I could be wearing these? Well, time and money.
Also the stitching for the one on the right would have to be modified. Worn without a corset, it would look like a droop table for your boob line, a way to keep track of where you’re at mentally throughout the day. I’m at half sag, better have some more coffee.
Really, what would prevent me from buying soft cotton and linens, sewing them into custom-fit jammies, embroidering them however the hell I want, and wearing them around the house? I could have all kinds of housewear. Aprons and bonnets still seem like a Halloween costume. But I could definitely rock homemade camis and bloomers, layerable for winter. Hell, I might crochet myself a snuggie.
The average worker would already have a similar system dialed in. I’ll just never catch up.
Which reminds me. Priscilla can only sit at one lunch table at a time, just remember that. There were some contenders. For example, Carmela Testa. No stranger to smashing typography herself, she wrote Variety Italian Cut Work and Filet Lace, reviewed separately.
Carmela Testa’s logo says it all.
There she is, happily working on needlepoint. She’s no cleaning lady, and neither is her daughter. “Carmela Testa & Daughter” would look weird, so she put “& Co.” and a picture of the girl, you get the idea. You know how she got where she is now? Italian industry, a/k/a work. Try it sometime. Your kids are barefoot in the streets. Go take a shower.
No, I’m not saying Carmela Testa would be such a mean and judgmental lady. She looks distinctly relaxed and happy, as does her daughter. But she commands much respect. She was no Malibu Stacy. She was a real boss as both artisan and business woman. She appears to have self-published without Priscilla or the Kirchmaiers.
At the end of the day, I heard authentic voices of different kooky women even within Priscilla, at least in the housekeeping one.
First point, note that she didn’t have the option of getting into her car and driving to a place that sells plant stands. Also note that she immediately perceived a need for skirting. And lastly, the detailed step-by-step instructions – have a carpenter build it.
In fairness, this tip may be about using scrap lumber when teaching yourself basic carpentry. It’s definitely not how to make the little table in the drawing, unless you already know how. Guess you could have the carpenter do it.
In other words, “Mrs. G”/” Mrs. P.G.” is dying to tell everybody about her situation with the carpenter. Message received, and congratulations! I”m sure the lady with the Scotch gardener situation got it, too.
And then there’s stuff like this:
So where does this leave me, the would-be Modern Priscilla? Say my prayers, make my bed, fix another cup of coffee, and log a few hours in the salt mines as an average worker.