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A Costumer’s Bookshelf: Woman’s Work: the First 20,000 Years

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 1994. ISBN 0-393-03506-0

My definition of a classic book is that the book seems to grow with you. Every time you read it, you notice things that seemed unimportant on your previous readings. Of course, the book doesn’t change; a classic is just so rich in ideas that, as you, the reader, learn and grow, more of what’s there becomes relevant to your new experiences.

I’ve just read Women’s Work for the fourth time. I had to use a library copy, because, although I’ve bought the paperback several times, I always end up giving it to another costumer, or a textile artist, or someone who’s interested in women’s studies or archeology or mythology or ethnic embroidery or…. This book covers a lot of ground.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a woman archeologist. She realized that the work women have done since pre-historic times usually involves textiles, but, because cloth is perishable, and looms made of wood are perishable, as are wooden distaffs and spindles, the huge contribution that textiles made to ancient economies has been overlooked by [mostly male] archeologists.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women's Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women’s Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Thousands and thousands of loom weights have been found at Troy and other ancient sites where vertical looms were used. (Loom weights are made of non-perishable clay or stone.) But when Troy  or Knossos or Kültepe burned, so did the looms and the textiles that were part of their treasures.

I am simplifying here, but Barber’s point is that half of the products, and at least half of the objects that determined the ancient world’s trade and economy, have disappeared from the historical record – the half that was women’s work.

Textiles: Traditionally Women’s Work

Barber explains that spinning and weaving were tasks compatible with child-minding, while hunting and herding large animals were not.

“Among the thousands of archeologists who have written about pottery or architecture, how many have actually tried to make a pot or build a building? Precious few….” she writes on page 24.

But Barber taught herself to spin and weave so that she could analyze ancient textiles – even reproducing some – to get insight into the differences in societies that lead to different kinds of looms and spindles, etc. A nomadic society, for instance, can’t use a loom that hangs on the wall and uses loom weights for tension on the warp, so archeological evidence of their textile work rarely survives. We know about horizontal Egyptian looms primarily because of wall paintings and models left in tombs; archeologists didn’t need to find piles of loom weights to know that the Egyptians produced vast amounts of cloth.

Things I never really thought about until I read this book:

1. Thread. Fiber. String.

"Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing." From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women's Work by Tamar Schick.)

“Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing.” From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women’s Work by Tamar Schick.) Click to enlarge.

On vacation years ago, I was hiking along the Welsh border. Small clumps of white stuff drifted across the road and were caught in the hedges. I stopped to read a map, alone – I thought – and a voice on the other side of the tall hedge cried, “Maa!”  There was a flock of sheep on the other side of the hawthorn bushes, and that white stuff caught on the branches was wool. I was in the position of some paleolithic woman or man who, more clever that I am, gathered some of the animal hair or plant fibers she found, twisted them in her fingers, added more, twisted them together, and invented string or thread.

Drawing from Women's Work by Barber, after Glory

Drawing from Women’s Work by Barber, after Glory

2. Textiles were necessary for trade.

Archeologists find non-perishable items like obsidian, pottery, tin, gold, ax-heads and knives, beads, beakers, and statuettes – trade items that show us how far pre-historic people traveled and how wide-spread and interlinked ancient societies were. But a pack animal can carry only so much metal or stone. Textiles are lighter; they can be used to wrap the precious metals and objects and then sold or traded at the end of the journey.  “The records tell us that one particular donkey [that left Assyria] carried twenty-six cloths of two sorts, sixty-five units of sealed tin, and nine units of loose tin [used to pay for expenses on the way.]”  An ancient letter written from a trader to his wife says, “If you don’t manage to make fine textiles [in time for the caravan], … Buy [them] for me and send [them] to me.” (pp. 170 -171)

3. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the ancient Greek plays confirm the economic importance of women’s textile work.

A Spinster. "Woman spinning with a drop spindle, depicted on a Greek vase of ca. 490 B.C." From Women's Work, by E. W. Barber

A Spinster. From Women’s Work, by E. W. Barber

At the end of a war, the losers were killed or enslaved.  Numerous female slaves were needed because it takes much longer to spin the thread for a garment than it does to weave the cloth – “as much as seven to ten times as long, using a hand spindle.” (P. 87) “Spinsters” were especially valuable prizes of war.

4. Textiles are part of our language and proverbs. “Spinster.” “On the Distaff side.” “Cut your coat to suit your cloth.” “Man must work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” That was literally true. A woman can spin thread while walking, while ‘resting,’ and even in the near-darkness of a fire-lit hut or cave. A woman would spin day and night for most of the year in order to have enough thread to weave cloth for her family: that was woman’s work.

You don’t have to know anything about textiles or archeology before reading Women’s Work. Barber’s writing is scholarly, but never stuffy or condescending. There are plenty of illustrations from Egyptian, early European, and Middle Eastern cultures, and a wealth of odd facts about everything from Egyptian eye makeup to “dragon’s blood” dye.

Every time I read Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, I enjoy it. I learn from it. It’s a classic.

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Flappers, Galoshes, and Zippers in the 1920s

Galoshes, 1922, from Everyday Fashions of the 1920s by Stella Blum

Galoshes, 1922, from Everyday Fashions of the 1920s by Stella Blum

There is a widespread belief that the term “flapper” was first applied to young women in the 1920s because of a fad among college girls for wearing their rubber galoshes unfastened (right).

By the late 1920s, two rubber companies were competing for the women’s waterproof boot market, with attractive, tight-fitting fashion boots and shoe covers.

Ad fo Gaytees overshoes, December 1928, Delineator

Ad for Gaytees overshoes, December 1928, Delineator

United States Rubber Company’s Gaytees Overshoes

Gaytees were made by the United States Rubber Company, and came in a range of styles including waterproofed fabric and even simulated reptile.

Gaytees Overshoes Ad, December 1928, Delineator

Gaytees Overshoes Ad, December 1928, Delineator

Gaytees advertised that their rainboots for 1929 had six new features:

New styles! Cross straps, turn-down cuffs, a new pointed back style.

New colors! The new rosy browns and tans; the tannish grays; black.

New Fabrics! Wools, Rayon-and-wool mixtures. All-rubber.

New lasts that fit the new Fall shoes! New heels – four different heights.

Lighter weight in every pair – yet full protection.

Fast color linings!

Gaytees Ad, November 1928, Delineator

Gaytees Ad, November 1928, Delineator

These are “Tailored Overshoes” because they are worn over your normal shoes. “See the style show of 1929 Gaytees at your own shoe store. Then, when you buy your Fall shoes, ask to have them fitted with the Gaytees that match your new Fall costume.”

Gaytees Ad, December 1928, Delineator

Gaytees Ad, December 1928, Delineator

The text next to Gaytees worn with a chiffon evening gown (right) says, “Fast color linings. Gaytees won’t rub off on the sheerest evening stockings or the lightest colored evening slippers. And the pointed back adds slimness as well as extra spatter protection….

“Your shoeman will be glad to show you the 1929 Gaytees. Let him fit a pair on your slim ankles. See how snugly they hug the new shoe styles; how well they harmonize with your Winter costumes.” Prices “from $2.50 to $6.” Gaytees usually fastened with snap fasteners, but even when they closed with a ‘slide fastener,’ the ads couldn’t call it a ‘zipper’ because of . . . .

B.F. Goodrich Company’s Zippers

B.F. Goodrich Zipper Ad, July 1928

B.F. Goodrich Zipper Ad, July 1928

In 1921, the B.F. Goodrich Company had quietly begun experimenting with rubber boots that closed with slide fasteners from the Hookless Fastener Company. There were problems to overcome, but by 1922 Goodrich had launched their “Mystik Boots,” which closed with Hookless slide fasteners instead of snaps or buckles. They were such an immediate success that B.F. Goodrich Company asked Hookless for exclusive rights to use their fasteners. In 1923, the Mystik Boot was renamed, to draw attention to the ease with which they were put on and taken off.

“What we need is an action word,” said company president Bertram G. Work, “something that will dramatize the way the thing zips.” He quickly added, “Why not call it the zipper?” – from The Evolution of Useful Things, by Henry Petroski, p. 111.

B.F. Goodrich Zipper Ad, July 1928

B.F. Goodrich Zipper Ad, July 1928

Goodrich trademarked the word ‘Zipper.’ At first, “Zipper” referred to a brand of overshoe, not to the gizmo that opened and closed it.

B.F. Goodrich Zipper Ad, December 1928, Delineator

B.F. Goodrich Zipper Ad, December 1928, Delineator

The text at left says, “But remember, all overshoes that close with a sliding fastener are not genuine Goodrich Zippers. Look for and find the name Goodrich on the shoe . . . only in this way can you be sure of authentic Goodrich style with the famous Hookless Fastener which cannot rust, stick, loosen or cause trouble. . . . Over fifty thousand stores are now ready to show you the correct new colors of genuine Zippers. . . in either snap or Zipper fastener.” The Goodrich ad doesn’t mention prices, and it’s not in color. Presumably, Gaytees had to try harder.

A New Word Enters the Language: Zipper

Goodrich sold half a million ‘Zippers’ in 1923 and bought a million Hookless Slide Fasteners every year after that until 1927. By the late 1920s, the novelty was wearing off (and three to four million women already had Zippers in their closets, not counting the women who bought Gaytees instead!)

The word ‘Zipper’ may have belonged to the B.F. Goodrich Company, but in common usage, Americans were calling any slide fastener a ‘zipper.’ The Hookless Fastener Company adopted an eagle’s talon as its company trademark in 1928, and changed the company’s name to Talon a decade later (Source: Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty, by Robert Freidel, page 169.)

Talon Zipper Advertisement from Delineator, March 1929

Talon Zipper Advertisement from Delineator, March 1929

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Filed under 1920s, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Shoes, Vintage Accessories, Zippers