Woman’s “Yellow Pages” paper dress (American, about 1966)

Woman’s “Yellow Pages” paper dress (American, about 1966). Cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric, printed; cotton plain weave (bias tape) trim. Label reads: “Waste Basket Boutique by Mars of Asheville, N.C.” Textile Income Purchase Fund (2003.136). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The disposable paper dress was an explosive, but fleeting fashion trend in the 1960s at a time when themes of advertising, mass-production, consumerism, and attitude shifts that favored ephemerality over durability were defining an ever-changing era. American pop art, embodied by the works of contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and other artists, made a splash on the ready-made canvas of the paper dress. The MFA’s paper “Souper Dress,” distributed by Campbell Soup Company, is a well-known example of fashion appropriating pop art—in this case, inspired by Warhol’s iconic “Campbell’s Soup Cans” paintings.

The“Yellow Pages” paper dress shown above, decorated with an all-over printed pastiche of Yellow Pages advertisements and sporting a tie collar—together with the MFA’s Souper Dress“—was part of a dual fashion acquisition in 2003, among the earliest of the MFA’s purchases by way of internet auction.

(Left): Advertisement for the “Yellow Pages” paper dress. (Upper right): Paper dress packaging. (Lower right): “Yellow Pages” dress on a vintage clothing rack. Click image for web source.

What’s black and yellow and read all over? The Yellow Pages dress! It’s wild, wacky and wonderful. A flashy paper put-on that’s just plain fun to wear. We’ll send your Yellow Pages Dress to you just about long enough to cover your knees—then with a pair of scissors you can cut it to any length you like.”

~ Teaser for the “Yellow Pages” paper dress advertisement

The first “throwaway” paper dresses originated with Scott Paper Company in 1966 as a promotional gimmick to advance its line of paper products (napkins, paper towels, paper plates, and more) and its development of new, improved paper-based technology. For the cost of $1.00 + 25 cents for shipping and handling, along with a coupon clipping, thousands of customers sent in their orders. Despite the phenomenal sales metrics (500,000 dresses sold within eight  months) Scott Paper had no intentions to diversify along the lines of fashion. This provided an opportune moment for other companies and designers to join the frenzy and capitalize on the high demand for this popular novelty item.

“Yellow Pages” paper dress label, “Waste Basket Boutique” by Mars of Asheville, N.C.

One such company was Mars of Asheville, NC, a hosiery manufacturer that went on to produce paper for fashion, becoming a giant in the disposable fashion industry. Mars produced the “Yellow Pages” dress in the MFA’s collection. The company’s tagline, “The Pioneer in Disposable Fashion,” along with its “Waste Basket Boutique” line, was a tangible expression of the pervasive throwaway culture of the 1960s—a way of engaging with the new “modern age” that valued unencumbered convenience and visions of the future.

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of the MFA’s textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Woman’s Paper “Souper Dress” (American, about 1967)

Woman’s paper “Souper Dress” (American, about 1967). Distributed by Campbell Soup Company (American, founded 1960s). Cellulose and cotton non-woven fabric, printed. Lucy A. Morse Fund in memory of Kate Morse (2003.135). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

During the 1960s—a time of societal flux and distinguished by many short-lived fashion trends and fads—this dress, inspired by Andy Warhol’s iconic work Campbell’s Soup Cans, was mass produced as part of a fashion phenomenon gone viral: the disposable dress.

Magazine advertisement for the “Souper Dress,” SEVENTEEN, June 1968

It all started with a marketing promotion by Scott Paper, an American company that produced toilet tissue, baby wipes, napkins, paper towels and other products. Scott marketed two styles of sleeveless shift dresses made with a new non-woven cellulose based material called Dura-Weve. For the cost of $1.00 + 25 cents for shipping and handling, along with a coupon clipping, anyone could receive a paper dress in the mail. Within eight months, Scott sold 500,000 dresses and soon other companies and designers jumped on the “throwaway” fashion train.

Campbell’s “Souper Dress” package enclosure

 

The March 17, 1967 issue of TIME Magazine printed Fashion: Real Live Paper Dolls with a running list of designers and manufacturers responding to the high demand for paper fashion with their own expressive lines. Many styles were made to encourage creative alterations and embellishments, easily achieved with a pair of scissors and glue. At an extremely reasonable price, anywhere from $1.00 for a simple A-line dress, to $15.00 for a bridal gown, disposable paper fashion was all the rage. By 1968, changes in fashion and an increasing awareness of environmental impact led to the obsolescence of yet another fashion trend.

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of the MFA’s textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Quilt: Pot of Flowers with Wild Geese (American, 1950s)

Quilt: Pot of Flowers with Wild Geese (American Early 1950s). Cotton plain weave, printed; appliquéd and quilted. By Florence Cowden Peto (American, 1881 – 1970, Tenafly, NJ). Gift of the Peto family (2017.3913). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Recent additions to our outstanding collection of quilts are nine very fine examples created during the 1950s by Florence Cowden Peto, gifted to the MFA by her family, and considered to be the best of the few quilts that she made.

“Florrie” Peto’s quilts are emblematic of the Colonial Revival movement, which had its roots in the late 19th century—a time when Americans waxed nostalgic for the simpler times of pre-industrialized colonial America. Peto maintained a personal interest in textile research, and used historic fabrics in her quilts, such as printed chintz. She made her first quilt in 1926 at age 45,  and continued to create into her 70s. Notwithstanding her creativity, her quilt making practice went hand-in-hand with her scholarship about historic quilts and her active engagement as a designer, teacher, author, historian and lecturer.

The “wild geese” that Peto appliquéd on the quilt shown above is a classic pattern inspired by the seasonal migrations of geese, one that lent itself to numerous variations, as evidenced in this pieced Civil War era quilt.

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of the MFA’s textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Child’s dress (boy’s or girl’s dress, American, about 1895)

Child’s dress (boy’s or girl’s dress), American, about 1825. Printed cotton plain weave, embroidered with cotton; mother of pearl buttons. Gift of Miss Frances Fowler and Professor Harold North Fowler (51.1978). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The pink child’s dress shown above was among a larger selection of children’s clothing brought out of storage by Assistant Curator Jennifer Swope, who recently hosted a study visit by Carey Hanson, a costume designer hailing from Oxford, Mississippi. The dress, in pristine condition, is an exquisite example of children’s fashion from the first quarter of the 19th century. I learned with great interest that during this time, dresses were worn by both male and female children. Bifurcated garments such as breeches were reserved for men and older boys; whereas female children and younger boys were dressed in skirted garments, blurring distinctions between gender.

Carey Hanson, a costume designer and university professor, takes careful measurements of a 19th century child’s dress in the MFA’s collection. Hanson’s goal is to achieve historic accuracy in her constructions.
Hanson pauses after shooting images to supplement her measurements and drawings. The David & Roberta Logie Textile and Fashion Arts department is available as a study center for specialists interested in textiles and dress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hanson, who heads the Design and Production program at University of Mississippi, came to the MFA to view a selection of 18th and 19th century children’s clothing over a period of three days—her first stop as part of a whirlwind tour of several New England-based collections. Hanson’s goal is to construct forms with faithful attention to historic accuracy. Her first-hand experience as a visiting researcher at the MFA is emblematic of how the department of Textile and Fashion Arts puts collections into action:

Being able to study such lovely historic garments in the collection was truly inspiring for my work as a costume designer and as a costume history professor. In the busy world of designing and producing costumes for theatrical events it is such an extraordinary experience to have the opportunity to examine beautifully crafted period clothing that has been so wonderfully conserved.”

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

This I Accomplish

Pictorial Quilt (American, Athens, GA), 1895–98. Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910). Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik (64.619). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Set apart as an iconic work in the encyclopedic collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a 19th century quilt. The world-renowned Pictorial Quilt, depicting Biblical themes with bold and graphically animated vignettes, including figures both human and animal, is one of only two known surviving quilts made by Harriet Powers, an African-American woman who was born into slavery in 1837. Her other quilt, made a decade earlier and known as the Bible Quilt, is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

What we know about Harriet Powers emanates from the earlier quilt that she stitched, so let’s begin at that place in the story. The Bible Quilt made its auspicious debut to the general public when Powers placed it on exhibit at the Cotton Fair of 1886 in Athens, GA (thought to be the Northeast Georgia Fair held November 9-13, 1886). Among the individuals who were touched by seeing the quilt for the first time were two white women who would go on to record, in written form, the stories behind each block of the Bible Quilt. Whether from first-hand verbal dictation by the artist, or through personal reflections about Power’s artistry penned into a journal, these texts have enriched our ability to enter both the Bible Quilt and the Pictorial Quilt more fully, where one can palpably sense the artist’s deeply-rooted spiritual core that breathes life into these precious textiles.

Bible Quilt (American, Athens, GA, 1885-1886). Harriet Powers, American (1837-1910). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H M. Heckman (283472). Photograph © Smithsonian National Museum of American History . Click image for Smithsonian web source.

The Bible Quilt’s presence at the Cotton Fair of 1886 captured the attention of Jennie Smith (1862—1946), a young artist and teacher. Smith approached Powers to buy the quilt, but the maker was unwilling at the time to part with it. At a later date, when her finances were tighter, Powers responded positively to another inquiry from Smith, who at the time was only able to pay one half of Power’s asking price of ten dollars:

She arrived one afternoon in front of my door in an ox-cart, with the precious burden in her lap encased in a clean flour sack, which was still further enveloped in a crocus sack…She offered it for ten dollars, but I only had five to give…After giving me a full description of each scene with great earnestness, and deep piety she departed, but has been back several times to visit the darling offspring of her brain. She was only in a measure consoled for its loss when I promised to save her all my scraps.”

~ Jennie Smith, Handwritten essay, c. 1891, Textile Department, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.

1n 1895, Smith placed the Bible Quilt on display at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, GA, where African-Americans were given a separate exhibition venue. It was here that Lorene Curtis Diver (1846—1922), another pivotal figure in this story, first laid eyes on the quilt, having traveled the long distance from Keokuk, IA to attend the fair. The quilt made a deep impression—she would later write about it as “A Sermon in Patchwork.” Diver’s pressing desire to own the quilt persisted even after she received the following note from its owner, presumably in response to an inquiry:

Received of Harriet Powers a Biblical Quilt for which I gave her five dollars and enough calico to make another quilt.”

Jennie Smith
September 1894

Copy of letter from Jennie Smith to Mrs. James B. Diver, Keokuk, IA in the Lorene C. Diver file, Lee County Historical Society

What we owe to Lorene Divers’ determined interest to own the Bible Quilt, now at the Smithsonian, is a gift of invaluable text that offers us important information about the quilt’s maker. It also provides proof that Powers created at least five quilts, leaving us to wonder what might have happened to the other fruits of her creative hands and mind. After tracking down her mailing address, Divers sent Powers a letter, to which the following reply was received:

Athens, GA
Jan 28th 1896

Photograph of Harriet Powers

The life of Harriet Powers. Born in Madison Co. 8 miles from Athens on the Elberton Road in the year Oct. 29, 1837. Her mistress was Nancy Lester. I commenced to learn at 11 years old and the white children learn me by sound on a popular leaf. On Sundays after that I __on books  and done my own studying. I was married to Armsted Powers 1855. When I was free I moved to Dondy, Ga. In 1872 I made a quilt of 4 thousand and 50 diamonds.

In 1886 we moved to Athens and in 1887 I represented the star quilt in the colored fair association of Athens – Mr. Madison Davis, Pres, E. W. Bridy, clerk. The quit of mine taken the premium.

In 1882 I became a member of the Mt. Zion Baptist church. Then I visited Sunday school and read the Bible more than ever. Then I composed a quilt of the Lord’s Supper from the New Testament. 2 thousand and 500 diamonds.

In the year 1888, I composed and completed the quilt of Adam And Eve in the Garden of Eden—afterward sold it to Miss. Jennie Smith, and it was represented by her at the Exposition in Atlanta. I was there at the Ex — Dec. 26, 1896.

I am the mother of 9 children—6 dead and 3 living. I am 58 years old.

After leaving Atlanta it was said that I was dead—it was not so, for I was at the Exposition because I present the Governor of the colored department a watermelon Christmas gift. I am enjoying good health in Athens, Ga.

This I accomplish
Harriet Powers

Copy of letter from Harriet A. Powers to Mrs. James B. Diver, Keokuk, IA in the Lorene C. Diver file, Lee County Historical Society. 

The above letter from Harriet Powers survives as a hand-written copy, possibly in the hand of Lorene Divers. There are inconsistencies on some of the dates. Nevertheless, the scarcity of personal records from African-American women in this period of history underscores the significance of Powers’ surviving quilts and their associated texts—and the potency they convey as physical embodiments of a person’s life, faith, and sensibility so exuberantly expressed. For me, these objects carry and transmit value beyond measure.

Looking at the Pictorial Quilt up close is to commune with the stitching hands of its creator while gazing into the eyes of history and bearing witness to moments in time that are remembered throughout generations. On this July 4, 2018, I’m inspired to include the image below of one quilt block in particular, situated squarely in the middle of the Pictorial Quilt:

Detail of Pictorial Quilt block (third row, middle) depicting the historic Leonid meteor shower on Alabama and other areas of the Northeast in 1833. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833. The people were frightened and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds.”

~ Harriet Powers, dictating the story illustrated in this Pictorial Quilt block

19th century woodcut depicting the 1833 Leonid meteor shower that streaked across Alabama. Click image for web source.

The “falling of the stars” as seen by those who witnessed the Leonid meteor storm of 1833 must have been a most amazing sight to behold! The storm was an unusually active display of meteors—specks of debris from a Halley-type comet, often as small as grains of sand—that briefly streak across the sky as they burn up in the atmosphere. It was a significant and memorable event, described as the sky “literally filled with fireworks.” People were said to be terrified, and that many believed it was the end of the world! The phrase “Stars Fell on Alabama” became a hit song in 1934, appeared as the title of a book published that same year, and graced Alabama license plates from 2002-2009.

The contents of this post about Harriet Powers and her quilts are greatly informed by Kyra E. Hicks’ book, This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (Black Threads Press, 2009). Hicks offers us a highly personal account of her research journey, and documents comprehensive resources pertaining to the quilts’ histories, annotated bibliographies, and timelines.

The MFA’s treasured quilt by Harriet Powers will continue to be the subject of future posts! In the meantime, I invite you to explore close-up images and descriptions of each of the fifteen quilt blocks, as told in the artists’ own words, on our collections page at mfa.org.


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.