By SALLY COWAN
I remember making potholders as a child. I loved the colors and I would try and match them to the colors in my mother’s kitchen. But where did potholders come from? They weren’t mentioned before the 1900’s. Potholders in surprising numbers have survived from the turn of the century, surfacing at flea markets, estate sales, and antiques shops.
They are more often found in the eastern part of the United States—in New England and in the Pennsylvania-German area of Pa. Patchwork dominates, testifying to its age by the use of fabrics typical of that era. Some are cotton while others are wool, with one surprise piece worked in the softly aged colors of needlepoint yarns. During the late 1930’s and early 1940’s when most women were primarily homemakers and attitudes were still influenced by memories of the Great Depression, women’s magazines featured numerous how-to-articles geared to making inexpensive gifts for others. Potholders were often featured as simple projects, taking the form of perky chickens, Cape Cod cottages in gingham or pieces of fruit often tucked into a basket-shaped container.
When were potholders first commercially produced? In an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalogue, potholders are not mentioned but by 1902, Sears Roebuck offers an asbestos flatiron potholder for handling flatirons and hot dishes at a price of five cents each. What was the first potholder like, do you suppose?
It might have been several layers of leaves bunched together or a small animal skin. Whatever it was, present day potholders are not very different. They are flexible, insulated, compact, utilitarian items. Almost every kitchen contains several: some battered and burned, hidden in a drawer and perhaps a few reserved for show, bright designers pieces hung above the stove for all to see, sophisticated versions of Eve’s creation. The potholder’s very name and definition would seem to limit its use to handling hot pots and dishes, but from the times of our grandmothers and before, it had served in other roles both utilitarian and frivolous. Perhaps a clue to this wider use is given by the single word ”holders” embroidered on decorative pieces made to house “holders” or, as we know them, potholders. For our mothers and grandmothers they dried the clothes outside, and then everything was sprinkled with water and rolled up tight to even dampness. These were treated to the hot pressure of a flatiron heated on the wood-burning stove. The handle needed protection so the potholder came to the rescue. But not all potholders have been used for practical reasons. Dee Hardie tells of sending house-shaped potholders as the invitations to a name-our-new-house party. She pinned the paper invitation to the potholder, but imaginative fiber artists should be able to print the invitation on the potholders, perhaps on the back. Either way, this is an invitation that could not be ignored.
Next week, I will share with you how to make various potholders. Who knew there was so much history to a potholder? Who knew?