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Tools & Supplies

Needle Books From the Past

Threads #225, Spring 2024
Clockwise from top left: “Sewing Susan” needle book; ATC Superior needles, interior; Esso book, interior; Woolworth book; Rocket needles; Esso book, exterior. Photos: Mike Yamin

There was a time when packets of needles were plentiful and could be found in every home. Making and mending clothes were common activities, so there was always a use for hand-sewing needles. Starting in the late 19th century and throughout the first half of the 20th century, needles were distributed in small paper folders, usually called needle books. These diminutive bits of ephemera are reminders of the prevalence of hand-sewing skills in decades past. They also provide evidence of the culture in which sewing flourished.

Many needle books featured images of women and girls sewing together; multiple versions of similar groupings appear throughout the 1940s and ’50s, under the title “Sewing Susan.” The fashions, hairstyles, and background art change with the decade. This type of domestic imagery reinforces the notion of a woman’s primary role as homemaker.

Because everyone could use a new set of needles, these small and inexpensive folders were popular promotional gifts and marketing premiums, so you’ll find them with business logos from small, local stores to national chains. The Esso book, from the 1950s or 1960s, has a simple exterior, with a jaunty mid-century-modern interior illustration.

Other themes testify to an interest in contemporary culture and current events. Woolworth celebrated their namesake building in a rendering by the social realist artist Louis Wolchonok, in books dating from 1945 to 1955. And when space exploration was new and exciting, Rocket needles issued a needle book with an illustration of a man and woman riding a needle-shaped rocket.

Each book held assorted needles inserted into colorful foil paper swatches, from darning needles to finer, small-gauge options. A needle threader was typically included, too. The books, typically about 6 inches by 4 inches, were printed primarily in Germany and Japan.

It’s easy to see how these colorful needle books could bring extra fun and satisfaction each time you sat down to stitch.

From Threads #225

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