Interview with Helene, former Editor at Reader Mail Pattern Company (Part 1)


In April this year I posted about the mail order pattern company Reader Mail. Following the purchase of a 'Marian Martin' pattern which came with its original postal envelope, I became interested in the company and did a bit of research online. You can read that post here. I was delighted to read a comment on the post from Helene, who worked as an Editor at Reader Mail from 1978 to 1983. She told me that my post was the first time she had read anything online about her former workplace, and intrigued, I contacted her to find out a little more. Helene kindly agreed to answer some questions about the company, and after a few emails back and forth she had given me a tonne of fascinating information about working at the company. I will feature the interview in 2 parts - the second part will be next Monday. So, get comfortable, read on and enjoy!

Reader Mail was the New York based parent company for a number of well-known pattern lines, including Marian Martin, Anne Adams and Claire Tilden garment patterns, plus needlework and craft patterns sold under the names of Laura Wheeler, Alice Brooks, Household Arts and Hearst Patterns Inc. The Reader Mail company was sold to Simplicity in the mid-1980s.

Helene, how did you come to work at Reader Mail?

It was my first job straight out of college, and the idea of being trapped 9-5 wasn't my idea of fun, but hey, it was a job! There was a recession like now, during the late 1970s when I got out of college, and jobs were scarce. The job itself was something I was perfectly suited to and my situation in NYC was what they were looking for – i.e. I didn't need a lot of money to survive.

My new husband and I had lucked into a scarce commodity in New York City - a rent stabilized apartment on the top floor of a Greenwich Village row house. The apartment had 2 skylights, and a fireplace. Rent-stabilized apartments in New York at that time were the most sought after because the rent rose only a relatively small, dictated percentage per year, and this job was only 10 blocks uptown -- I could walk to work. And I could use my art background, my sewing ability and my writing skills. It seemed meant to be.

My boss at Reader Mail was Ada Cone, and she is the one who interviewed me for the job that was advertised in the New York Times. Besides my ability to do paste-ups [what graphics programs do now, but without the rubber cement] and to write, she wanted to find out if I was going to be OK with choosing "a Glamorous career" over a monetarily fruitful one. She told me - "there's a future, and the money will come." She hinted that she wouldn't be around forever and I might, someday, have her job. By the way, Ada is still around. She was in her 60s then, and I believe she had worked there for 30 years when I got there. I see she's 94 now, living in New Jersey. She stayed at Reader Mail as the head designer of knit, crochet, quilts and crafts until the place closed.

What was it like working there?

I’m actually not sure how many people total worked at Reader Mail. There were several other floors in the building, which I never visited. There were 6, and eventually 8 women working in my own office, plus our supervisor/ boss, Ada. I was the one doing all the fabric crafts, and there were 6 - 7 women working on the knit and crochet patterns. The dress area had only 2 women that I knew, (there may have been a couple more at various times). As you can tell, it was a very spare operation at the creative side. As far as the printing, mailing and taking in of the mail (and money sent in envelopes), there were many more employees, but I had little contact with them, so I couldn’t tell you how many there were. I do know there was a room full of women who sat at supervised desks and opened the letters and removed cash and checks – payments for the patterns customers had ordered.

It was a very strange place to work in many ways. It seemed to me, to be a place that was destined to fail in the modern world. The average age of the employee, before I was hired, was about 72 - no joke! They had a 94 year old janitor who, if you called him to change a lightbulb [and we definitely delayed as long as we possibly could before calling him], all the ladies instinctively gathered around him to steady him on the ladder because he teetered so badly.


I think that the owner, Spencer Douglas, preferred to convey the image that Reader Mail was this humming, modern, efficient workshop of GLAMOROUS pattern design with well-paid designers wearing the latest fashion in a glitzy New York studio, when it was more the work of mostly elderly women who were throwbacks to an older era of handmade craft. It was a time when handmade just wasn't well appreciated - the era of the late 70s was decidedly MOD - the age of Pop-Art, Minimalism, and High Tech with bright plastic furnishings at Conran's. Mr Douglas seemed to employ only those who didn't object to being woefully underpaid, and who wouldn't mind working in a rather grubby loft office - before lofts became chic.

It wasn't all bad though, the ladies in my office had a lot of fun at work on a daily basis. We could talk all day because we were often either knitting, sewing or crocheting, which allowed us ability to work and talk. Ada would come out of her office when we got a little too boisterous, but generally she let us be, except when we gossiped, and Ada would come out and tell us Mr D didn't like gossiping.

What did your job there entail?

My job was to write and draw the fabric craft patterns for the designs that Ada came up with. Ada would get an idea from current events or magazines or advertisements, and have another young employee, a Yugoslavian refugee named Cornelia, sketch a design. The patterns were for a doll, a stuffed animal, a kitchen item like a potholder or a placemat and napkins set, or for a quilt. The designs were always based on a previous form in the archives – very little was ever truly new, unique or original – everything was based on what came before. And the archives were the source and basis for all. This archive-based design was true for the crochet items, knit items, and I presume also for the dressmaking side too. The beauty of the archive based design is that it is fast. One didn’t invent a design really, one re-invented it.

The fabric crafts archives were a single, 6 foot tall stack of metal flat files that held old pasted-up patterns from which more could always be printed, and a row of old metal filing cabinets that held old, printed patterns in small quantity each. Those were for my use when I needed to copy a pattern to create a new pattern. (More on this later...)

Their pattern archive was organized by number, and they never tossed any pattern unless it was a sewing fiasco – oh - wait, that’s not entirely true –

One of the first assignments of my job was to comb through the thousands of craft patterns the patterns and remove and throw out all of the non-politically correct crafts patterns. Remember – this was the late 1970s, a decade after Desegregation and Martin Luther King, so it was about time this was done.

So, I was told to comb through the archive and remove anything that could be construed as a racial stereotype - the Aunt Jemima dolls, Mammy dolls, Mexican dolls with over sized sombreros, and so-called ‘topsy-turvy’ dolls with two races used (dolls that flipped over with the dress covering the head of the other doll - turning from say, a Southern Belle into her African-American maid), were no longer to be kept in the archives, reprinted or sold.

This purge took me at least a week to do, but it gave me a good sense of what exactly were in those files, and since I have a pretty good memory, it was actually a really useful exercise. I found patterns that dated back to 1912. I don’t know if I’ve ever figured out how long the company had been in business, but there were some really old patterns there, which was really neat.

Bunny pattern created by Helene c.1978, with Polaroid of finished doll

My job settled into a routine as I became the one who wrote and illustrated all the small craft patterns and resurrected many others from their archives. The small crafts patterns consisted of quilts – baby quilts and adult quilts, transfer patterns for embroidery and cross-stitch onto any number of household linens – guest towels, napkins, placemats, ‘show’ towels, samplers, baby bibs and baby linens (towels, nappies, etc) as well as tablecloths, dish and tea towels, pillow cases and sheets. Mainly I was told by Ada what she wanted done, and I did it. Towards the end of my years there, I designed several items myself – one was a favorite stuffed animal from my own childhood. If you have a pattern for the Reader Mail Kangaroo with baby in pocket, you have my first design! Many years ago, I let my daughter cut and sew my only Kangaroo pattern copy, so I don’t have one to show you here. Alas.

As far as names go, Laura Wheeler, I believe was the name used for the small fabric crafts. This naming thing was much like ‘Betty Crocker’ – it was to put a rather generic human face on each pattern. We laughed about it in our office, and paid little attention to it. We were a diverse group, from a wide range of backgrounds. There was a Cuban woman who had escaped Cuba, two German women who had arrived post-war, and two Italian women who had come to this country as children, and Cornelia who was from Yugoslavia. Ada and Virginia who were US born ladies, And me, the only native New Yorker. 


I hope you enjoyed Part 1 - Part 2 of the interview with Helene will be featured next Monday, 18th July, when she explains more about how she created patterns, and how she managed to secretly put her own personal stamp on her designs.


K x

18 comments:

  1. So interesting. I'm already looking forward to part 2.

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  2. Absolutely fascinating, it's scary to think that's in my lifetime, it reads like another world. I'm sure I've got some of those patterns stowed away somewhere. x

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  3. Thanks for your comments ladies - it does indeed seem like an entirely different time.

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  4. LOVELY interview! Thank you so much!

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  5. Wow, I really enjoyed this! Helene is an amazing story-teller, and I love hearing real-life stories such as these. Thank you Kerry and Helene for this interview! I can't wait for the next bit!

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  6. I've been following your blog since MMJune's escapades, & am loving your makes (as you'll have gathered from my MMJ Flickr comments!) Haven't commented so far as have been struggling with technicalities - but in an evening catching up on blogs I had to comment on this - so interesting! It really takes me back to leafing through my Mum's file of craft patterns that she would have cut out from newspapers and magazines. Isn't this wonderful from taking the time to research a pattern you've ended up with a great interview with Helene. Thank you :-)

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  7. Loved this post and I'm looking forward to part 2. Big "hi" to Helene!

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  8. A big HI to all, and thanks for your great comments everyone! And thanks to Kerry for asking me to do this interview. Helene

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  9. Really interesting interview Kerry (and Helene), thank you. I just love stories like this and am already looking forward to part two. x

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  11. This is my first comment but don't see it. -- Oh, wow! I'm thrilled to read this. I've researched this company for years. You'll want to see my webpage at http://quilthistorytidbits--oldnewlydiscovered.yolasite.com/laura-wheeler-and-alice-brooks.php and see the photographs of both sides of the Reader Mail building on 17th and 18th, and the Old Chelsea Station post office right across the street on 18th. As far as I know, the last time I looked for him, Spencer Douglas is still living in Florida. He was born October 5, 1918, so would be age 96 now. Reader Mail's founder was George F. Goldsmith, Jr. The first four bylines were incorporated August 13, 1928. I will add a link on my webpage to your wonderful interview about this company. Can't wait to read Part 2.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, I'll have a look at your site too :-)

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  12. These interviews with Helene are wonderful! Witness2fashion blogged about Reader Mail patterns in 2014, and this week she was contacted by quilt historian Wilene Smith, who wrote a deeply researched article about the company's history several years ago at her quilting blog. The connections between those who quilt and do needlework and those who collect and study vintage dress patterns ought to be stronger! Witness2fashion discovered your blog, and was able to send the address to Wilene -- who was thrilled to find new information. I hope you'll be getting lots of new American readers for your excellent interviews. Witness2fashion linked to your interviews with Helene at http://witness2fashion.wordpress.com/2015/01/05/more-about-marian-martin-anne-adams-alice-brooks-and-their-sisters/; Wilene Smith blogged about Reader Mail's history at http://quilthistorytidbits--oldnewlydiscovered.yolasite.com/laura-wheeler-and-alice-brooks.php
    Being able to share like this is really marvelous -- thank you!

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  13. My mother, Marga Bachenheimer, designed both crocheted and knitted garments and patterns for Reader Mail for 50 years She arrived in New York City from Germany in 1934 to escape from Hitler's growing menace with a background in art and business and well-developed needlework skills. She continued to work after her marriage in 1937 and
    while raising a family which was highly unusual for a woman at that time.
    craft skills.

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  14. My Mother worked for Reader Mail for about 20 yrs. from about 1950 ? Michael Millstone millsto106@gmail.com

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  15. Ada said "One of the first assignments of my job was to comb through the thousands of craft patterns the patterns and remove and throw out all of the non-politically correct crafts patterns. Remember – this was the late 1970s, a decade after Desegregation and Martin Luther King, so it was about time this was done."

    Well, not sure if this will ever get read by many people, but I am sad at the patterns that were discarded- the "politically incorrect" (by the way, that is a Communist invented phrase, did you know this? it is well known, you can find the history of it on the internet) I do believe this is unfair to destroy the historical items, it is as if we are pretending it never existed, a la "1984". The authorities assume we are little children, who need rules and regulations that tell us what is "appropriate" and what is not. Adults can make decisions and opinions on their own, and need not a dictatorial Uncle Joe to destroy history, deeming it "distasteful" or not. To pretend these racist patterns did not exist is almost as bad as the patterns themselves, plus, let the offended races be the judge. This is too bad, so many pieces destroyed. I bet they'd be worth their weight in gold today simply for the rarity. There is an American black celebrity who collects items deemed "racist", he has quite a large collection. I could be very well mistaken but I think? it is Bill Cosby (I could be wrong, going by memory here) one of my old bosses also collected "darkie memorabilia" he was not at all a racist or anything of the sort.

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  16. This was an awesome read. I just found one of these patterns at a local goodwill store and became very intrigued about the company and I'm glad I found this article. The envelope has a womans name and address on it. I was trying to se if I could find the date stamp on the meter stamp but I can't find one. Its so nie owning a piece of history. =)

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  17. I loved reading this interview. I collect vintage transfer and crochet patterns. It is hard to find the history on some of my favorite patterns. So glad that there is still an interest in this area. Thanks again for the information.

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Thanks for reading and commenting - I love to hear what you have to say