The Activist Home

Over the past century Americans have found new ways to use their homes, and their bodies, to display messages of allegiance and affiliation: to the nation, to a political or identity group, or to a cause. The word “activism” came into common use in the twentieth century, amid development of new media, a consumer revolution, many wars, and increasingly divided political parties. The objects in the Activist Home show how activism was, and is, often carried out through “campaigns,” whether political, military, social or cultural. Some of these campaigns represent governmental policy, such as the 1930s New Deal, which positioned the government as activist. Other campaigns reflect the ways in which individuals protested the government and inequalities that date back to The Federal Home. In these instances, textiles document dialogues around women’s rights, the environmental and civil rights movements, and youth culture around protest and the Vietnam War –dialogues that World War II fueled. Some textile artists used their medium as their voice when they could not participate in other kinds of civic engagement. While the word “activism” is associated with the later twentieth and twenty-first centuries, its spirit is present in the Federal and Progressive Homes through abolitionist and temperance objects, respectively.

New Deal Activism

In response to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of his activist approach to government. The program ran from 1935 to 1943, and a key local component was the Milwaukee Handicraft Project (MHP) where women and men learned block-printing, rug-making, bookbinding, and many other skills. Uniquely for WPA programs, the MHP was racially integrated, meaning that many objects were created by African Americans, working alongside members of a variety of Milwaukee’s ethnic communities. This complex wall hanging, designed by the head of the block printing department, Barbara Weisman, represents the highest skills of MHP makers as it required them to layer multiple complex patterns of both images and text to illustrate the poetry of Persian polymath Omar Khayyam. The block-printed urns and eagles illustrate this process, as sample prints of distinct designs were replicated to create much larger compositions. Eleanor Roosevelt visited MHP and displayed a version of this hanging at her cottage Val-Kill.

In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These two weavings come from the Indian Weaving Unit (IWU) on the Lac Du Flambeau Anishinaabe Reservation, Wisconsin. The goal of this program was not to train Anishinaabe women in textile work, but to anglicize their making methodologies. It aimed for Anishinaabe to adopt a European-American economic model, and for their goods to go to poorer areas in the state. While there are long traditions of twining (twisting one set of threads around another, typically on a two-stick loom) in Anishinaabe communities that IWU makers continued, all goods from the IWU were woven on an upright floor loom. These items were required to appear “authentically” Anishinaabe despite the manufacturing difference, and the designs were sourced from museums rather than the makers’ own knowledge. Nevertheless, this rug has patterning similar to Anishinaabe twined bags—an indication of the maker’s resistance.

Patriotism as Activism

Patriotism is a form of activism in support of a nation, its government, and its citizens. While this form of activism can raise challenging questions about belonging, allegiance, and political ideology, it can also bring comfort and consensus, especially in times of national crisis or profound social change. Handkerchiefs, as shown throughout this exhibit, mediate between the body and the body politic, often waved at parades or rallies. The top row of handkerchiefs shows the persistence of patriotic symbolism in the twentieth century, with stylized versions of the Great Seal of the United States, the United States map, iconic political figures, and founding documents. The remaining handkerchiefs date from World War II: they celebrate those on active military duty, and can be didactic, illustrating the insignia and badges of the armed services. As the military campaigns of World War II ended, they were replaced by social and political campaigns waged by identity groups who, having supported the United States through the war effort, now sought recognition from that nation for equal status within it.

Party Politics

While the tradition of using textiles to support particular campaigns dates to at least 1840 (as shown in The Federal Home), this material form of political activism occurred on a broader scale in the twentieth century, and extended from specific candidates to political parties. These machine-embroidered handkerchiefs from the 1940 presidential campaigns of Franklin Roosevelt (Democrat) and Wendall Willkie (Republican) were likely produced by the same manufacturer. As much as these personal textiles signaled political affiliation, producers increasingly used stock templates that could be adapted to all the candidates running in a given year.

The furnishing fabrics displayed here represent two stages of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s political career: candidate and President. The green “I Like Ike” lettering shaped as a loudspeaker was made for his campaigns in 1952 and 1956. The blue toile, which interior designer Elisabeth Draper created after designing several of Eisenhower’s houses including rooms at the White House, commemorates important places in his life. Many women, including the first lady Mary (Mamie) Eisenhower, transformed these furnishing fabrics into garments and accessories such as dresses, gloves, hats, and even umbrellas.

Pat Prichard was a prolific designer of handkerchiefs, scarves, tea towels and other domestic wares. These illustrations of donkeys and elephants are representative of a playful approach to political design that extended to the first televised political advertisement, which Disney animated for Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign.