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.