May 2008
Alexandria Branch, Needlework Guild of America
Account Book and Minutes, 1898-1938

"Mrs. Baggett stressed the need for garments for the coming season, stressing the particular need for clothing for elderly people and layettes."

-- Needlework Guild Minutes, 1933

The Needlework Guild of America began as an offshoot of an organization that originated in England in 1882 in response to a Welsh mine disaster. The first branch of the guild in America was formed in Philadelphia in 1885, while the Alexandria Branch was active from 1898-1938. The organization’s mission was and remains to provide clothes for the needy.

This record book includes accounts and meeting minutes, and illustrates the guild’s Alexandria membership as well as the number and type of garments collected and distributed over the course of forty years by the Alexandria Branch. Each year the ladies met in the spring and fall, usually at Lee Camp Hall but sometimes at members’ homes. Each fall, a large number of garments were distributed to a variety of recipients such as churches, infirmaries and hospitals, and the Old Ladies' Home. Clothing for men, women, and children as well as some household linens were given out. A sampling of the types of items listed in the book includes: drawers, stockings, shirts and undershirts, union suits, visiting shirts, outing skirts, nightgowns, wrappers, and aprons.

Another of the interesting features of the book is the variety of handwriting styles and inks that are seen as different secretaries took over the recordkeeping. In the late nineteenth century the ink used was likely iron gall ink, which fades to a brown color (ballpoint pens were not introduced until the 1940s). The guild’s secretary in the 1890s produced small, close lettering with sharp vertical elements (above left). In 1908 a new hand appears; this writer has a noticeable and characteristic flourish to her letter “d” (above center). By 1933, the ink is blue and the minutes appear in a style with rounded lettering that is more familiar to the modern eye (above right).

Earlier Alexandria Needlework

Alexandria had a number of opportunities for girls to learn sewing and fancy needlework during the antebellum period (prior to 1830), as detailed in an article by Gloria Seaman Allen. The girls’ Lancasterian school had a course of instruction that included sewing and samplers. The city had several “dame schools” in which women gave instruction in their homes in various subjects including needlework. Teachers also advertised in the newspaper, often for advanced techniques such as work in chenille or metallics and the creation of maps, figures or landscapes. Only a small number of examples of this kind of needlework from Alexandria are known, but several are found at the Lyceum. In 1817, Ann Torrington Rudd worked a sampler that pays tribute to George Washington; although he died in 1799, Alexandria still celebrated his ties to the city. Mary Muir's sampler from 1818 shows characteristics shared by several other Alexandria samplers: a strawberry border and a large building with columns, flanked by trees.