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Kindle Me: Mary Brooks Picken

To dedicate a life, an entire life, to one hobby or career – that’s not common. The path of life these days seems ironically similar to a trip to an ice cream store. In front of the glass window with buckets of different flavors behind, we try different flavors before placing our final order. A teeny spoonful of moose tracks, mint chocolate chip, birthday cake, or just plain ole vanilla – we want to see how each one tastes before committing. The final order of some people is one flavor but many people walk out with a sundae full of many flavors.

Between the ages of 18 to 25-years-old, we work at one job or career. Bored, fed up, or wanting a change, we work at another job between the ages of 25-years-old to… oh let’s say mid thirtyish. This continues until we’re 60-years-old and we’re ready for retirement, at which point we have a report card that says we dabbled in many rather than excelling in one. That’s not a bad thing but I respect and look up to the person who sticks to one career or hobby their entire life rather than the one who tries many. When a career or hobby becomes boring or difficult, it’s harder to stay with it than hit the high road. It’s also hard to make a hobby fresh, new, and exciting when you get tired of it. This is what Mary Brooks Picken, an influential seamstress and international dressmaking authority of the early 1900s, did – she stuck to her guns like Annie Oakley and stitched her whole life.

Mary Brooks Picken was born on August 6, 1886 in Arcadia, Kansas. Not much of her early life was documented but what was known and apparent from an early age was that she had a knack for sewing. She moved to Kansas City to study fashion and after moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where she founded The Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in 1916. Similar to online schools of today, the institute was a correspondence school that used classroom instructions in dressmaking, millinery, cooking, fashion design, beauty and homemaking. The school’s enrollment reached 300,000 at one point, becoming the largest school in history solely dedicated to the education of women. The school was nothing short of amazing in that it was affordable and immediately generated income for women after graduation during a time when women couldn’t vote and less than 10 percent of women worked outside the home.

In 1925, Mary moved to New York City to be the editor of Pictorial Review, a popular magazine at the time. When she moved to the city, it was an era when fashion was roaring. Mary often traveled to Paris to cover fashion events and shows and she even met Chanel, describing her as “an amazing woman, full of ideas, of energy, of genius.” While in New York, Mary achieved many other accomplishments. She had a studio where she held classes and she taught at Columbia University. She was the first woman to be named a trustee of the Fashion Institute of Technology and she was one of the five original directors of the Costume Institute, which is now a part of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She became the first woman to publish a dictionary – The Language of Fashion, which was later renamed The Fashion Dictionary. In the same social circle as the fashion designer Eleanor Lambert, Mary was part of the group who started New York Fashion Week in 1943 (she faithfully attended fashion shows well into her 80s).

Mary also wrote close to 100 books on the subject of dressmaking, pattern making, hats, foundations, tailoring, aprons, embroidery stitches, remodeling, maternity and infant clothing, etc. Her books didn’t just provide information and knowledge on sewing, rather, her books provided timeless wisdom on the every day philosophy of life – how the home arts can prompt dignity, joy, meaning, and self esteem in a woman’s life. In her book Thimblefuls of Friendliness, Mary writes, “Knowledge of any constructive kind, any educational or human hobby, is a rainy day fund. It makes life interesting, develops appreciation and teaches us the virtues of fidelity to honest purpose.”

Mary’s pioneering also inspired woman to form ‘Institute Clubs’ around the world where women found one another, shared with one another, and taught one another through classified ads. A vintage form of Facebook, women wrote to newspapers asking editors to introduce them to other women of their type so that they could share and learn. Kind of like the online sewing community of today, right? And we thought we were ahead of our time!

Dedication. Dedication similar in taste and flavor to Mary’s isn’t seen much today and it inspires me. Mary didn’t walk out of this world with a sundae with one scoop moose tracks, one scoop dulce de leche, and one scoop rum raisin. When she was at the glass case with the buckets of ice cream in front of her, she said to the ice cream man, “I’ll have that flavor and LOTS OF IT.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

 

  • Amy Barickman’s book Vintage Notions is a compilation of inspirational essays, clever sewing patterns, cooking basics, and illustrations from the Institute’s newsletters
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  • Katharine Whistler writes a brief biography on Mary but she also downloadable PDF’s of Mary’s books House Aprons and Caps and Plain Undergarments
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  • Wikepedia provides a great timeline/list of her books and when each was published
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  • Cornell University’s library offers a downloadable PDF of Mary’s book Mary Brooks Picken Method of Modern Dressmaking
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  • The blog What I Found has some great images of Mary’s books

19 Comments

  1. Reply

    crystalpleats

    Interesting post to read, and spot on. I know I am fairly good at many things instead of excellent in one because I have so many interests. I think it fits my personality, but once in a while I wish I excelled in one specialty.

  2. Reply

    Beth

    I’ve been a BIG fan of Mary Brooks Picken ever since I found one of her books (yes, it was very old) at my local library. I continue to be amazed by her talent. Thank you for sharing more resources!

  3. Reply

    Brigid

    If I was to name one person who is my sewing icon from the past, Mary Brooks Picken would be the one. Her work is amazing, enough to be spread throughout the lifetime of ten women! I hope her work will never disappear, and will live on to inspire the next generation of young women.

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      I hope her legacy lives on too. I’m surprise how many people DON’T know about her

  4. Reply

    sallieforrer

    It is definitely admirable to spend your entire life in service of one passion. I think the key to doing this in life is to explore all the different ways that passion can manifest itself – like Mary Brooks Picken. She was a teacher, a writer, an entrepreneur… a business woman, but always in the pursuit of sewing and educating other women in the domestic arts. That’s what I find so inspiring about her life. She knew how to change with the times, and she was innovative in her approach.
    Thanks, Maddie, for another fun and informative post!

    • Reply

      Maddie Flanigan

      I love your comments. Every. single. time.

  5. Reply

    Ginger

    What an interesting lady! I love that she spent her life making her passion accessible to others and helping women to find economic independence. Very cool!

  6. Reply

    Angela

    Wow, such a prolific woman! She truly served her love of fashion and dress making to it’s fullest. Thank you for this informative post! I hope to find one of her books somewhere.

  7. Reply

    Natasha Estrada

    I definitely need to work on sitting up straight while I sew.

  8. Reply

    oonaballoona

    what a great read, maddie. i loved this!

  9. Reply

    Amy

    Great post, Maddie. Thanks for introducing her story! (I also need to work on my sitting. I think computer-sitting has turned me into hunchback at the sewing machine, too!)

  10. Reply

    dixie

    i remember reading about her somewhere before and then i read the vintage notions book, too. she seems like a really interesting woman and probably very inspiring to so many women of her time!

  11. Reply

    Betty Greenwood

    For some unknown reason I woke up this morning thinking about Mary Brooks Pickens Sumner and her influence on me many years ago. I was her private secretary in New York City in the late 1940s. She was an extraordinary woman and wonderful to be with but it was sad when her husband, Mr. Sumner, died, as she was devastated. I had left to get married and the last I heard from her was a tragic letter wondering how she could go on. I never received a reply from my letter back to her. Does anyone know when she died? She was so unique as an independent person because she was so gentle and caring. What a sweet person she was! She disliked writing letters so that was one of my primary duties. She would say “Write Tom (Thomas Dewey) and tell him thus and so,” but she trusted me to put it into words for her. What fun it was to “speak” for her! And we would go to her private home to work on scripts for a television program she was making. I am now 86, still married to a retired Naval Academy graduate who became a Navy pilot and then a Presbyterian Chaplain in the Navy, and living in a retirement home in Florida. Mary would be so happy for me….actually she wanted me to meet and marry her Nephew! but that’s another story! I am a retired professional ventriloquist and still doing shows here as a volunteer, but I credit Mrs. Sumner as inspiring me to be all that I can be. I have traveled around the world doing my shows including one in Japanese in Japan! I learned from her to keep growing. You can never tell what influence someone like she was can have on your life. I was so delighted to read the blogs from young women who are still being influenced by her. Thank you for writing about her Madalynne. She will always be in my heart.

    • Reply

      maddie

      Wow! What an incredible story – thank you for sharing. May I email you to continue the conversation? I’d love to hear more about Mary’s influence on you (and others). If so, please email me at Maddie964@aol.com

  12. Reply

    Linda Bennett

    This has been fascinating. I purchased at least 20 of the “Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, Inc.” instructional booklets that were written by Mary Brooks Picken at a yard sale. They are fascinating. I decided to Google her name and I am certainly glad I did. , I am going to print/type up all the information I can find about her to put with the booklets. The first booklet that I have is 1 A-2 “Essential Stitches and Seams”. 1915. Thank you for sharing all that you know about Mary.

  13. Reply

    Dwight Hutchins

    A friend of mine found among family possessions a ring, 14k gold, portraying a face and the inscribed words “Womans Institute” on the border of the face. She is intrigued by this ring and I have been trying to find information about it. I just assume it has something to do with Mary, her works, or the school in Scranton. Anyone who could enlighten us with more information would certainly make my friend happy. She turns 77 this August and is always bringing me objects she finds in her attic which came from her family. Thank you for any help you could give us. Dwight

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