An important piece of American textile history has found a home at ATHM, thanks to the talents of a Russian immigrant.
Ruth Terry Wolfson was born near Odessa, in what is now Ukraine. Seeking a better life, 10-year-old Ruth and her family immigrated to Springfield, Massachusetts, in the 1890s.
Young Ruth’s abilities in art and design led her high school teachers to encourage her in pursing a career as a teacher of art. Ruth had the good fortune of continuing her education at Pratt Institute in New York City at a time when relatively few women (especially those from immigrant families) were being trained for professions other than teaching and secretarial work.
By the end of the First World War and the beginning of the post-war depression, Ruth was married and a mother, living in New Jersey. Quietly and without fanfare, Ruth developed her own concept of what would be both rewarding for herself and a financial support for her family.
Recalling how much she’d enjoyed block printing fabrics, a skill she learned at Pratt, she began to design and carve linoleum to attach to wooden blocks. Ruth applied special paints, printed up samples on various textiles, and enlisted her husband to take them to clothing manufacturers in the burgeoning garment industry in New York City. He returned with bales of dresses to be adorned, dried, repacked, and returned to the eager fashion creators across the river.
The finished articles were displayed in some of the finest store windows along Fifth Avenue. After the Depression, Ruth’s beautiful blockprints continued to decorate bathing suits, bathrobes, pillows, table cloths, and curtains as her attic studio expanded and flourished.
Before Ruth’s death in 1984, her daughter, Anne Wangh, was able to salvage 400 original blocks, which she has generously donated to ATHM. The exquisitely carved blocks range in size from a tiny ¾ inch cube to a border design more than 15 inches long. Some are mirror images of others, some are elements of a repeat design, and some require various tones of color. There is also a box of assorted tools, including “dabbers” for laying on the paint and toothbrushes for cleaning the blocks.
ATHM is grateful to have these wonderful artifacts and Ruth’s story as part of our collection.