Needles to Say

Every book has the potential to play a number of roles in its life. It is a purveyor of information, but it is also an object which can be a work of art, paperweight, or table leg steadier. Further, it is not limited in the information it purveys to what the author and publisher intended. The Twilight books not only bring us the information put there by the author—vampires twinkle—they also tell us that there was a point in time when it mattered to us to know that vampires twinkle. (What future generations infer about us from this bit of data keeps me awake nights, but I suppose I’d have the same problem if I twinkled. Pity to think that vampires—a class of person who hardly need nightlights—come with their own built-in…where were we?)

The Cookbook Lady has done a number of talks on the things you can learn from aged cookbooks beyond just recipes for Snickers salad or tapioca meatloaf. The recipes that begin “Instruct your cook to purchase….” or “Start with one dozen eggs and a pound of butter.” tell you something about the people who used them. That’s not what the author intended: we pick up the information by observing what the author took for granted.

I was reminded of these things by, of all things, a load of crochet books which arrived. You would not think crochet books would change a whole lot, and in a way you would be right. The instructions and patterns they give you will produce the same objects today as in days of yore, and they will be just as attractive. But those objects!

Here I submit for your approval a crochet book of about 1905, which provides you with dozens of perfectly darling caps, booties, and aprons for infants. Aprons? Well, it was an era when aprons were worn a lot more often than we see today: an apron was a garment as well as a sort of kitchen bib. An apron for an infant might appear at first glance to be practical, but in today’s world, you would never dress an infant in crochet work except in out-of-the-way places. Mind you, in those days, they spent more time doing laundry: washing baby aprons would not have added much to the chore.

My next exhibit comes from about 1925. To some of us the Roaring Twenties suggest hip flasks, raccoon coats, and the Charleston. But to judge by this book, the decade was a golden age for crocheted edgework on tea towels. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was a golden age for tea towels. When was the last time you used a tea towel, much less an elegantly crocheted one? Ah yes, civilization has gone downhill since Coolidge left office.

We jump ahead to 1950 for this book on crocheting scarfs. Yes, I’m afraid that’s how they spell it here, but remember, the Postwar World was an era of experimentation, and that goes for spelling as well. What is especially fascinating is that these are not scarfs designed for human throats. No, this is a sixteen-page book of designs for Television and Radio Scarfs: crochetwork to put on top of the television or radio to give it that homey touch which reduces scary modern technology to the level of living room furniture. (Pictures illustrate how you can make matching scarfs for chairbacks and coffee tables, so everything matches. It’s all SO 1950: there’s even one showing how you can use these scarfs to coordinate your kitchen radio with the refrigerator. When was the last time you saw an icebox with a crocheted scarf on it? About as long since you saw a tea towel: thought so.)

My final example is undated, but appears to come from around 1965, to judge by the colors and the patterns. This is a beginner’s book, for young people who want the brightly-colored shawls and pullovers coming into fashion. Illustrations show models—nice, cleancut young ladies—wearing garments that would have suited Cher or a visitor to Woodstock. These young ladies, however, are doing very nice, cleancut 1965 things: playing bongos, listening to record albums, and sipping soft drinks through a straw in a bottle. And when was the last time you saw anyone drink Dr. Pepper by sticking a straw in a bottle? Got the bottle out of a fridge with a scarf on top, did you?

Each book brings you a moment in time. Then, too, the books together give you a vision of timelessness. Two World Wars, a Great Depression, a Sexual Revolution, and a War on Terror, and through it all, people have been winding wool and crocheting squares. Just shows there are some things that catch the interest through generations. All you need is the right hook.

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