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At the Priscilla

Priscilla sewing tables were extremely popular with ladies, especially in the 1920s. After reading this, you may wonder, as I do, why they haven't had a resurgence in this era of hobby craft popularity.
Named in honor of a popular sewing magazine of the time, entitled Modern Priscilla, or perhaps Priscilla sewing machines themselves, Priscillas were economical small wood cabinets, usually made of red gum or walnut woods. They were stained dark, in order to resemble mahogany wood. Though somewhat reminiscent of tables, the tops slanted, so that the furniture pieces themselves could not really be used practically as work surfaces.
Perhaps the best way to imagine a Priscilla sewing stand, cabinet, or table would be to think of an old-fashioned birdhouse that does not come to a peak, but instead flattens at the top center.
This top center often had a handle on it, so the piece of furniture could be toted about the house. The unit's main body was typically made of thinner than normal widths of wood, creating an easily-portable, lighter piece of furniture.
The flaps resembled a slanted birdhouse roof. Each half would lift up on hinges, so that project supplies could be stashed inside from the top. There were two legs going down, ending in widespread feet, with a center support bar between, connecting the two legs. The legs could be turned wood, as could the center bar and top handle, but there were also much plainer, and even homemade versions.
Not all styles were on legs. The February 1928 issue of Popular Science contained an advertisement for a book that told how to make a version, seen at right, that could be created without legs. It was called a Priscilla sewing box.
Inside the Priscilla sat a sectioned tray for storing various implements above the handiwork contents stashed below. The most basic tray might contain only a few sectioned-off compartments for sorting and storing necessities like buttons and thread, but they could be more elaborate with extra cubbies. The tray was much shorter, and filled up only half the dimensions of the box, and thus could be slid out of the way to either side. Some Priscillas have the trays going from front to back, but some fit going from side to side.
The September 1929 issue of Popular Science declares, "Of all sewing cabinets the Priscilla is perhaps the favorite because of its Colonial grace." Perchance it is for this old-fashioned nostalgia that when the magazine Popular Mechanic included a plan in their October 1927 issue for making a Priscilla, the seamstress in the accompanying illustration (seen at left) looked quite a bit more old-fashioned than her 1920s contemporaries!
Undoubtedly, the Priscilla did more than simply look "graceful."
Prior to knowing about a Priscilla, what image came to your mind when you thought of a woman of yesteryear sewing? What did she use to store her sewing or other handiwork supplies? If you are like me, or like Kate Greenaway (as demonstrated in her watercolor below), you probably imagined a woman sitting near a table, with a basket holding her things. This would have really limited where a woman might work on what she needed to do.
A Priscilla, then, was like a woman's toolbox. It could be carried anywhere and propped near any chair, providing a caddy to hold her things at a convenient level alongside her, in any place she wished to be. A Priscilla was almost like a basket with legs. The ability to close off the top and hide the work from the thought of having to do it, as well as from companies' eyes, could not have hurt, either!
An advertisement in Popular Science's January 1925 issue declared that a Priscilla was for women's accumulation of "odd jobs of needlework" to be completed "most comfortably and conveniently."
What "odd jobs" might have been tossed inside? Perhaps a lady would have placed in embroidery and an embroidery hoop, as seen in the illustration. (The illustration on page 13, sadly, does not provide many clues!) Small knitting projects and needles, crochet hooks, or tatting supplies could also have fit inside a Priscilla, ready and waiting for their mistress to tote them to wherever she wished to be.
Though these images sound appealing, it's important to take a closer look at the era in which the Priscilla was popular, which will perhaps erase the picture of quaint crafts that we may envision today.
The Priscilla was at the height of its popularity just prior to The Great Depression. During the Depression, families were resourceful in an effort to save money. It's nice to imagine that Priscillas became friends for mending and other utilitarian tasks. Perhaps a woman would have placed a darning egg and supplies in her box, working to extend the life of footwear.
Women made plenty of homemade clothing during the Depression. Many families owned chickens. When they purchased feed, women would look carefully for their favorite bags, which were fabric and printed with designs. This is where the term "feedsack fabric" came from.
It's possible that a Priscilla owner would have kept supplies like pins in the tray, ready for a bit of pinning when checking for the correct length of feedsack dress hems. Or perhaps she would have kept patches in it, prepared to extend the life of her husband's pants! Undoubtedly, buttons and thread would have been stored in the tray for needed repairs.
Still, it is sentimental to imagine the sewing stand being used to stash other than everyday tasks, both before and during a difficult time in American history. Whatever tasks or hobbies a Priscilla's keeper would have used her little piece of furniture for, no doubt it was a companion that fully served its purpose, while being appreciated by its owner for its usefulness, simplicity, and charm.

Says:

I have a Priscilla, and I think these ladies had it right. I like to think it was really used, loved, and enjoyed into the cracked and rickety state it's in by the woman who previously owned it. The tray had just a tiny little piece of red thread in it, so I wonder what she was sewing. Or, was she darning red socks? I have it not as a curiosity on display, but am continuing to use and love it into its future state.

Have fun!

Providing crafts since October 2011. Copyright 2012. Aside from Kate Greenaway's, the images used in this article were obtained from the magazines Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. These images are listed by perceived-reliable sources to be in public domain.