The Progressive Home

The Progressive Era of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is characterized as an age of reform, but the impulse for change spanned the political spectrum. Reformers in the Progressive Era advocated for economic welfare, anti-monopolism, political ethics, and cultural morality, often with a strong prescriptive emphasis on the family as the primary social unit. At the same time, many of these policies structurally upheld white nationalism, erasure of Native Americans, and rigid ideas about family and gender. The home was central to these political stances, as efficient home management became both a template and a metaphor for addressing broader civic and national concerns such as the increasing disparity between labor and capital in the United States. This civic participation in a broad range of reform causes was reflected in home furnishings, including textiles. The overtly political mottos and symbols of the Federal Era were joined by new verbal and visual imagery that drew connections between the home and the nation. The Progressive Home also reveals the ways in which global politics were reflected on a domestic scale, with textiles documenting the Spanish-American War and World War I homefronts, as well as the complex cultural politics of world’s fairs and expositions.

During the Progressive Era, the “civic housekeeping” movement promoted the idea that politics was an extension of domestic concerns to community, municipal, or even national scale, and advocated for an increased role for women in the public sphere. The embroidered pillow cover from the early twentieth century borrows the line “I woke, and found that life was Duty” from an 1840 poem by Ellen Sturgis Hooper. While the needlework is a testament to the domestic skill of the maker, the sentiment suggests that these skills have an important place in the public arena. The image of a woman sweeping also would have resonated as a symbol of the suffragette movement. The political cartoon titled House Cleaning Day, appropriately created by the original illustrator of Wonder Woman, shows a woman cleaning away gambling and bookies with her broom titled “ballot.” Other key areas of civic reform included education, child welfare, sanitation, food safety, and moral concerns, such as temperance, as seen on the two quilt blocks and tea towel. The crazy quilt block documents involvement in the National Prohibition Convention, while the tea towel charts the numerous commemorations of Frances Willard, the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.


The bandanna—a larger type of handkerchief worn around the neck—became a common form of American political ephemera in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The “Progressive Battle Flag” bandanna, signaling the formation of the Progressive Party, was an apt presidential campaign tool for Theodore Roosevelt, who was known for wearing bandannas as part of the “Rough Riders” uniform, or 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, which he led during the Spanish-American War. Roosevelt is known as “the conservationist President” for his creation of national parks amounting to over two hundred million acres of land from which he forcibly removed Native Americans. He also extolled eugenics and was an architect of Jim Crow policies. Benjamin Harrison, the grandson of President William Henry Harrison (whose campaign handkerchief is featured in The Federal Home) ran for President in 1888. His motto of “Protection” referred to his economic policies designed to promote American manufacturing but resulting in controversial levels of government spending.

American Expositions

World’s Fairs and Expositions celebrated the idea of progress, but today raise questions about who defined what progress meant. They aimed to stimulate host areas’ economies, and to increase America’s soft power as well as its internationalism. The seal of the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition (Seattle, Washington), for example, represents the allegorical meeting of America and Japan.

Both the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition (Portland, Oregon) and the Alaska-Yukon Exposition handkerchiefs were printed at the United States Mint displays of the fairs. There, visitors could bring their own handkerchiefs and pay for them to be decorated with the same machines that printed money. Both expositions promoted American westward expansion, and positioned Native Americans as observers and facilitators of this expansion. The Alaska-Yukon Exposition design shows an Inuit figure beneath a swath of Native-occupied land on the left, which the United States seal metaphorically transforms into a city on the right. Another indigenous figure greets the exposition buildings while peacefully smoking.

The Home Front

These silk pillow cases are striking juxtapositions between the encampments of the United States military and the intimate surroundings of the home. For the Flag and You depicts the dual motivations of soldiers, fighting both in honor of their loved ones and in service to the nation, represented through the symbol of the American flag. Camp Mills was a military encampment on Long Island, New York, in which American soldiers prepared for deployment to Europe in World War I; the pillow case is both a souvenir for and a tribute to military families. The America First pillow case draws on rhetoric that began as early as the 1880s but was popularized in 1915 after President Woodrow Wilson used the phrase in a major speech. The phrase, along with martial imagery, betrays the tensions between isolationism and engagement in global politics during the Progressive Era, and documents how these debates entered the home.

The six objects below represent two home fronts: the Spanish American War, and World War I. After a US navy ship exploded in Cuban waters, American forces joined the Cuban War of Independence against Spanish colonists. Fighting lasted ten weeks, making the time between “the farewell” and “the return” surprisingly short, as represented on the top right handkerchief. Nevertheless, soldiers were celebrated by reproducing their images widely in popular culture such as on this boy’s shirt.

The four remaining textiles reflect soldiers’ ties to loved ones at home during World War I. Written in French, the handkerchiefs read “Souvenirs from France,” some with heart edging and American iconography, and others with the flags of allied countries. The apron represents a popular women’s practice of using soldiers’ uniform patches as decoration. These patches identified a machinist, a torpedo man, and a hospital corps member.

During World War I, Belgian makers produced “War Lace” throughout the German occupation of their nation. The Commission for Relief of Belgium, chaired by Herbert Hoover, imported supplies including thread, and exported doilies like these and other household textiles. This exemplary set depicts the heraldry of World War I allies. Clockwise from top left, these are the United States, France, Great Britain, Japan, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Russia. The unifying symbol of the globe sits in the middle. These doilies were later used in 1948 scarf designs as an American post-World War II accessory.