Between 1890 and 1930, Americans experienced a cultural shift from a society built around production to one centered on consumption. Historian William Leach characterizes the results of this transformation as a new culture centered on “the quest for pleasure, security, comfort, and material well-being.” A culture of consumption became the means to the “good life.”
Quilts and the modern businesses that sold patterns, kits, and completed bedcovers were part of this shift toward modern consumer culture, emphasizing mass production, standardization, novelty, and branding. Mass consumer culture emerged along with the rise of big business, industrial advances, and the massive migration of Americans and new immigrants to the cities.
Large department stores, supported by the new field of advertising, promoted happiness through the consumption of products manufactured in American industries. Improved transportation networks sped mail order catalogs, slick magazines filled with ads, and mass-produced products—as well as the practices required of new consumers—to every remote corner of the country.
Because more women worked for wages by this time, but were still responsible for managing households, women of all classes became the primary consumers. Retail stores, magazines, and catalogs marketed fashion, cosmetics, home décor, and hobby items—including the knowledge and products required to quilt—to women.
In the midst of these great cultural changes, quilts and other manifestations of the Colonial Revival allowed women to recall a simpler, pre-industrial time through their home décor. Paradoxically, modern marketing and production processes made these Colonial Revival fashions possible. Savvy magazine needlework editors, many of them women, dictated tastes and sold the products necessary to realize the “look” in consumers’ homes.
Women were in the middle of quilt businesses, whether as magazine editors, small business owners, or workers in quilt cottage industries. Entrepreneurs created products to satisfy consumers’ desires, and used advertising, publishing, and the affordability of nationwide mail service to expand their reach. The success of some of these women made them household names.