The world had a false picture of Mormon women at the turn of the century. They presumed these pioneers were slave women, oppressed by their husbands, dirty, overworked, over burdened and unhappy. Little did they know that these women were among the happiest, most vocal and “free” women in the world. As I have shown you in my various posts, Mormon women had countless ideas that were supported by the brethren, and one another. Many of these ideas were proven very successful and life building. These women were far from oppressed. In fact, they were encouraged by their leader Brigham Young, and all other brethren in the Church, to act on their inspirations.
It is true that men weren’t always available, having spread themselves thin amongst their duties, missionary work and their families. It was left to the women to manage large households, farms, and often enough, provide a necessary income, to maintain their families, when their husbands were away. Many of you are familiar with Winder Dairy. It was started by a woman who sold her butter to support her children. If you look in the histories of local Utah businesses, many of them were started by these pioneering women, and maintained by their children over the years, and are still going strong.
Co-op stores were set up in Relief Society halls, where women could make various items and sell them. These were run by individual Relief Societies until, in 1876, President Brigham Young recommended a centrally located store. The Women’s Commission House sold everything from shawls to butter, all handmade by women who were trying to earn an income.
Another store, the women’s Co-operative Mercantile and Manufacturing Institution, operated from 1890 to 1912. This business was to promote home industry and help “forward the cause of equal rights” (most likely for the women to maintain their independence and self-sufficiency). This store sold dress goods, family articles and burial suits among other handwork items.
The idea of home industry dwindled over time, but was started again in 1937 under Pres. Louise Y. Robison, General RS President. During the Depression, many women suffered from want of basic needs. The idea of a consignment shop was developed where women could make and sell handwork. Mormon Handicraft began as a nonprofit organization under the direction of the Relief Society. The store encouraged home industry and allowed women to earn money while still tending to the home and family.
The first shop was inside the old Bureau of Information and Museum building, inside Temple Square. Over the years, the shop has moved several times needing more room to expand. At one time it was on 21 West South Temple. It moved to Eagle Gate corner for a while, then again to 105 North Main Street. This last place was a building built especially for Mormon Handicraft and they thought they would be there forever. During this time the store sold quilts, dolls, baby clothes, rugs, many handmade items. At this time it was a combination retail store and consignment shop. It also became the resource center for the homemaking department Work Day. Women could attend classes on quilting and embroidery. Items needed for various ward projects could be easily found at the store.
In January 1986, the Relief Society announced that Mormon Handicraft would be closing its doors permanently. The Relief Society felt the store was no longer meeting the needs of the worldwide Church. As the awful rumor spread among the women, they charged into action and demanded the store stay open. Deseret Book, at the last minute, stepped in and took over Mormon Handicraft. Today, we can see a corner, at some Deseret Book stores, set up to display some items being sold under the name Mormon Handicraft. As well, a large store is at This Is The Place State Park. You can still sign up for quilt classes there.
As I learned about this interesting history of Mormon Handicraft, it was clear where our urge for craft mania came from. Sadly, within the store I walk through, I see nothing of what it was originally purposed for. Now, it is full of overpriced, kitchy, “Mormonisms”.
I’ve said this before. We are in need of home industry again. There are micro businesses being formed daily, all over the world, to help women feed their families. Mostly in America, we need home industry to help us earn enough money to get out of debt, and give us more security in our country’s economic upheaval.