Last year I wrote about my suspicions that many mail order patterns — sold under different names — were really all produced by one company. (Click here for Vintage Mail Order Patterns: One Big Family?)
Today I received a comment on that post from quilt historian Wilene Smith, whose research was quoted in a source I mentioned, although I had not found her original article. Today, she sent me a link. Her wonderfully thorough research on the company that created all these “competing” lines of quilt, needlework, and fashion patterns can be read at her blog, Quilt History Tidbits. Click here. It’s well worth reading, even if you don’t collect vintage patterns. If you do, it’s a goldmine of information.
Wilene gives starting dates for Anne Adams patterns (June 1931), Marian Martin patterns (July 1931), Alice Brooks patterns (November 1933), Laura Wheeler needlework patterns (April 1933) and one I hadn’t heard of, Claire Tilden garment patterns (April 1934.) They were all generated by one company with several mailing addresses in New York city.
All of these pattern companies — Anne Adams, Marian Martin, et al — were featured in newspapers, which sometimes sold them under their own name (see Becky Stott’s Pattern, at American Age Fashion. The pattern that belonged to Becky Stott was sold under the name of the journal “The Progressive Farmer.” ) The remarkable thing about these patterns is that, by creating different names for its many pattern lines, the company that produced them all was able to sell them through competing newspapers in the same cities; in the case of The Wisconsin State Journal, the same paper sold both Alice Brooks patterns and Marian Martin patterns. (See Wilene’s article, Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks.) The parent company was a major pattern producer, with hundreds of employees and two large buildings in New York. Wilene Smith located a 1976 interview which said a single newspaper ad could generate 58,000 orders!
Anne Adams patterns had a long run, beginning in the 1930s. The style dates the one above to the late 60s or early 70s. The 1940s Anne Adams pattern below might have suited Rosie the Riveter:
The Marian Martin brand began in the 1930s and was still selling patterns in 1963:
Now, thanks to painstaking research by Wilene Smith, we can trace all these pattern brands to their source, and follow them through the hands of the original Reader Mail company based in New York, to distribution by Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, Inc., to becoming a Hearst subsidiary as Hearst Patterns in 1980, and then becoming Reader Mail, Inc. later that year. It was eventually bought by Simplicity, and sold again in 2000.
“The Reader Mail name was first found on . . . mailer envelopes in 1984, around the time the company was sold to Simplicity Pattern Company and moved to Niles, Michigan,” writes Wilene Smith. She then traces the company through other changes; in 2005 the owners were PatternCentral, which bought it for the quilt and needlework patterns. At that point, they were trying to find a buyer for the unused 1960s and 70s fashion patterns included in their purchase from Simplicity! As I said, Wilene Smith’s article is well worth reading.
Wilene Smith has identified a couple of designers’ names, but this question remains: was there a difference in style between the various lines?
The Kestrel Makes blog has contacted a former Reader Mail editor and you can read her interviews and more about Reader Mail at kestrelmakes.com Click here for the second part of the interview with Helene, who discusses the Reader Mail illustration style and other surprising things about their operation. [edited 1/6/15 to add link.]