In my cloth of life
This small poem that is both simple and profound was written by one of my best friends in high school. It surfaces in my memory every so often and seems a fitting introduction to exploring bookmarks that advertise sewing thread. Some of the major companies supplying thread to tailors, seamstresses, and those who just needed to do a little mending include Clark’s, J & P Coats, Merrick and the lesser known Brainerd & Armstrong. These companies also produced numerous trade cards and other advertising ephemera, along with wonderful wooden spool cabinets that command high prices in antique stores. A selection from the John and Jane Adams Trade Card Collection at San Diego State University illustrates examples from Coats, Clark, Merrick and a few others. Bookmarks from these companies appear fairly often although I suspect there are some rare examples that are elusive.
Clark’s was the earliest company to form around 1812 in Paisley, Scotland by Patrick Clark who developed a technique for twisting cotton to produce a strong thread. His sons, James and Peter, purchased the factory in 1830 and expanded rapidly, sending another family member, Andrew Coats, to the U.S. James Clark’s grandsons, George and William, opened a cotton mill in Newark, NJ in 1864. Within five years, the Coats family opened a factory in Pawtucket, RI under the name, Spool Cotton Company. It’s not entirely clear from the history what happened with Andrew although presumably there was a break and the competition among the two firms began to increase. It wasn’t until 1952 that J & P Coats and the Clark company formally merged to form Coats and Clark. Another history by Gary N. Mock provides more details of the complex relationship between these companies.
Clark’s produced a charming series of four bookmarks in 1890 featuring little girls leaning over a wall, bridge, fence or window dangling spools of thread in front of curious ducks, surprised frogs, leaping bunnies or playful kittens. For their 200th anniversary, Clark’s created a virtual history museum timeline with a section featuring their trade cards, many of which have similar illustrations (navigate to the section on 1882 and view the gallery as well as the slideshow).
The examples I have for J & P Coats are more sophisticated and intriguing. One with an image of Pish-Tush, a character from The Mikado, has the verse:
Our great Mikado, virtuous man.
This card has been trimmed, so it is possible it was a trade card, but it has a border on the reverse that suggests it had the dimensions of a bookmark originally.
There are two examples of bookmarks featuring calendars for August and September 1892. They feature soft pastel illustrations in what is almost an Impressionist style of watercolor with one lady picking grapes and another standing in a windy field of grass. I don’t recall seeing other calendar months but surely they were produced.
The other tantalizing clue is that the illustrations are signed “H A Goodwin” with a rather distinctive signature. I tried in vain to confirm who the artist was, but cannot be certain I located the right person. I did find examples of other paintings and watercolors by H. A. Goodwin with similar signatures although there was no information about the artist. A watercolor titled French Woman carries the signature along with “Paris” and seems to be in a similar style. I located an entry in the American Art Annual, 1908, for a Helen Angel Goodwin who was born in New Castle, IN but was studying in Paris. The entry says she was a member of the American Women’s Art Association of Paris, an organization with an interesting history described in “The American Girls' Club in Paris: The Propriety and Imprudence of Art Students, 1890-1914” by Mariea Caudill Dennison, Woman's Art Journal , Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 2005), pp. 32-37. A New York Times article in 1910 describes their annual show, saying that it “speaks exceedingly well for the future of the artists” and goes on to describe in some detail a number of the entries. Helen Goodwin is mentioned but her work is not described. There is an entry in AskArt.com for Helen M. Goodwin with some of the same biographical information about birthplace and study in Paris. However, the sample works in which the signatures are visible are not the same as signatures on my bookmarks or the French Woman, so I suspect information about two different artists was conflated. I hope that more examples of this bookmark series appear and perhaps more information about the artist will surface as well.
As described in a history dated 1879, Merrick’s originated in Mansfield, Connecticut in 1865 from a partnership of Timothy Merrick, Austin Merrick, and Origen Hall. In 1898, the American Thread Company was incorporated in New Jersey, a combination of thirteen New England firms. The president was Lyman R. Hopkins, who had been on the first board of directors for Merrick and became its president soon thereafter. According to Gary N. Mock’s history, this consolidation of companies was financed by a company in England. The main rival, Coats, was also backed by the British. Between them, they dominated the market, producing two-thirds of the thread used in the U.S.
Merrick’s bookmarks favor cherubic girls with two examples dated 1891 on cards that mimic a fringed moiré ribbon. A third undated example surrounds the child with pansies (identical to this example) and the label from the end of the spool. The earliest example from 1886 is a charming illustration of a girl catching falling spools in her skirt and has an illustration of a box of sewing machine bobbins on the reverse. It also features the spool label which was the source of a lawsuit brought against them by Coats in 1893. The claim was that Merrick infringed on Coats’ copyright by “simulating certain labels and symbols used by the plaintiffs upon the ends of wooden spools upon which sewing thread is wound.” The charge went on to claim that Merrick was “in competition with the plaintiffs, the six-cord thread, it used labels upon the spools made in colorable imitation of the plaintiffs', and intended as a counterfeit of their designs and trade-mark, the object being to so imitate the general appearance of plaintiffs' thread that the same may pass into the hands of tailors, illiterate men, and others buying at retail, and using sewing thread, as the genuine thread of plaintiffs.” After a tedious set of testimonies, the suit was dismissed for lack of evidence. Ironically, the moiré ribbon and pansy bookmarks have on the reverse “Anti-Monopoly, Anti-Trust, Anti-Combination.”
Interestingly, Merrick and Coats used the same lithographer for some of their work, the G. E. Buek & Co. in New York. It was founded by Gustav E. Buek and F. H. Lindner in 1881 according to Illustrated New York: the Metropolis of To-Day, 1888, p. 123 which has an illustration of their impressive building. One of their specialties was facsimile reproduction of water color drawings, as with the Goodwin illustrations for Coats, and their color work is also showcased in the pansy bookmark for Merrick. In fact, the biography of Gustav E. Buek in Who’s Who in America, v. 4, 1906, p. 242-243 says that Buek was the first to introduce watercolor work into lithography.
Merrick also shared a lithographer with Clark, namely the Donaldson Brothers, formed by George W., Frank, John and Robert Donaldson in 1872. Their specialty was trade cards that were die-cut or had moving parts. In yet another connection, Gustav Buek was in charge of their art department before forming his own company. Donaldson Brothers printed the series by Clark and the other Merrick bookmarks (besides the pansy) mentioned above. Donaldson Brothers consolidated with the American Lithographic Co. in 1891, according to their entry on the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City’s website.
A lesser known thread manufacturer and a later entrant into the competition was Brainerd and Armstrong, organized in New London County, Connecticut in 1879 by James P. Brainerd, Benjamin A. Armstrong, and Leonard O. Smith. They “manufactured silk thread, and were also well known for their needlework books, particularly their ‘Embroidery Lessons’ series of books featuring colorful illustrations” according to Amy Solovay’s blog posting which also features postcards of their mill. A book titled Silk: the real versus the imitation produced by the company in 1909 explains why their silk thread is superior to cotton.
The company’s bookmarks, on the other hand, are very modest. The bookmark with birds is a stock card that is simply imprinted with their logo and name. The ruler bookmark is interesting in that it proclaims that the spool silk is known as the “Best in the World” and the same motto will be adopted for their Crown Braid, although the reverse ruler side says that it is merely “the Best.” Still, they are commended for combining a useful ruler as a functionally appropriate dual purpose for their bookmark.
Whether they were merely “holding the holes together” or adding finishing touches to fine garments, these threads were essential household staples. The manufacturers wove their own complex relationships and rivalries, and fortunately their competition produced some wonderful ephemera including bookmarks.
Bookmark specifications: Ask for Merrick Thread
Bookmark specifications: Clark's “Mile-End” Spool Cotton [kittens]
Bookmark specifications: Pish Tush
Bookmark specifications: Bookmark September
Bookmark specifications: Merrick’s Spool Cotton
Bookmark specifications: Brainerd & Armstrong’s Spool Silk
Laine Farley is a digital librarian who misses being around the look, feel and smell of real books. Her collection of over 3,000 bookmarks began with a serendipitous find while reviewing books donated to the library. Fortunately, her complementary collection of articles and books about bookmarks provides an excuse for her to get back to libraries and try her hand at writing about bookmarks. Contact Laine.