Tuesday, May 05, 2015

A Stitch in Time

Some years ago, my husband and I were visiting my mother in Salem, Oregon, when a cousin-in-law called and asked us to stop by.  Wilma Moen had been widowed a few years earlier, and when we arrived at her  door she said, "I'm planning on selling the house soon, and I have something I thought you might want."  She took us to the master bedroom and pointed out an old rotary sewing machine sitting at the side of the bed.  The oak cabinet with three small drawers on each side was in near perfect shape, and opening the lid revealed a gleaming black machine with gold decals with the name "White" across the front.  The old treadle machine had belonged to one of my great aunts, Cora Johnson Moen, who passed away on 28 May 1975, at age 83.  I suspect that the machine had not been put to much use for a few years before that, since she suffered greatly from Altzheimers late in her life.

Fast forward to the present, and that same White Family Rotary sewing machine sits at the end of my upstairs hallway here in Snohomish County, Washington.  Although its history is much appreciated, it has continued to sit virtually untouched.  So, at this point, the machine has been been retired for about as many years as Cora made steady use of it:  some 44 years of productive use, followed by the same number of years of not much happening.  The present being a halfway point or anniversary of sorts for this important but silenced family tool and artifact,  I decided it was time to change all that.

"The 'Economy,' Sears Roebuck's first rotary model introduced about 1920. Manufactured by the Standard Sewing Machine of Cleveland, Ohio, it was replaced by the White 'Franklin [Family?] Rotary' about 1926."   Sears Roebuck:  The Company and Its Machines (ISMACS International--International Sewing Machine Collectors Society).

To start, I sent an e-mail to the company that holds the White manufacturing records.  The White Sewing Machine Company was founded in 1858, acquired by Electrolux in 1986, and finally, bought by Husqvarna.  Husqvarna Viking responded promptly after looking up the serial number FR 3209480:  "Your White Family Rotary was manufactured 1926 in Cleveland, OH."

Pleased to make your acquaintance, White Family Rotary from Cleveland!  It had traveled from Ohio to Minnesota to Oregon, and then to Washington.  My inherited sewing machine now also had a birth date and a birthplace, and the rest is... well, family history.

I was anxious to place the date of manufacture for Aunt Cora's sewing machine not just because I am appreciative of antiques, but because the information gives a little insight into how and why it was acquired in the first place.  The manufacture date of 1926 is a little too late for it to have been purchased as a wedding present for Cora.  I can only assume that as a young wife and new mother with few funds to spare, she must have saved up for this domestic "work horse" on her own.  Perhaps she tucked away a little cash under the mattress now and again, or dropped extra coins into an old canning jar with determined reverence after taking the eggs to market.  Finally the exciting day arrived when she ordered her brand new treadle sewing machine from the Sears Roebuck catalog, which was a treasure trove for farm wives east, west, and midwestern.

Cora (Johnson) Moen was born on 15 July 1891 in Granite Falls Township, Chippewa County, Minnesota.  She was one of ten siblings who grew up as part of an early 20th Century Norwegian-American farm.  As the eldest daughter, she must have had a daily chore list that would make your head spin.  Many photographs of her as a young woman show her either staring with grim resignation, or scowling.  Even so, when my mother was growing up, she counted Cora as a favorite aunt, because she was maternal and caring in spite of the serious attitude that served her best in her youth.

Cora Johnson Moen with her husband, Emil, and their son, Harvey; photo taken ca. 1930 on their farm in Dudley, Minnesota.

When Cora purchased her new White Family Rotary machine, she was living with her husband, Emil Moen.  Cora married Emil in 1923, and the couple had their only son, Harvey, the year following.  It was likely the challenge of keeping the family clothed that prompted the purchase--her farming husband, and in particular, their young lickety-split son, who was all rough and tumble boy.  Cora may have been replacing an older, worn machine, but in any case, a farm wife could hardly be without a means to make her own clothing, bedding, and household furnishings, especially during the Depression years. 

According to my mother, Aunt Cora made heavy use of her White Family Rotary.  She was always sewing something to use, to wear, or to give as gifts.  With a large extended family that included parents, six brothers and two sisters and their spouses, and a growing number of nieces and nephews, she probably used her sewing machine nearly every day for decades.  I like to think that the flowered dark dress she wears in the 1930 photo above was made on the very same sewing machine that sits in my home today.

Cora Johnson Moen in about 1960, posing with her son, Harvey, and daughter-in-law, Wilma, in Salem, Oregon.  See, Aunt Cora was indeed capable of smiling!

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