Tammis Keefe, A Rockstar of Mid-century Whimsy

By Amanda Kramp, Guest Contributor

Editors Note: I’m thrilled to share this guest post by the Assistant Curator of Collections at Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum in Redding, California. Amanda was the curator of an exhibit of handkerchiefs, currently on view, and positioned directly across from the Iconic Fashion exhibit I curated at Turtle Bay. Just another reason to go and see what’s new and up on the walls!

Adventurous and career-minded, Tammis Keefe was a wildly successful Mid-century textile designer and colorist. Born in Los Angeles in 1913, she was on track to secure a degree in higher mathematics when her world was forever transformed during a visit to the Chicago World’s Fair and the Chicago Art Institute in 1933. Inspired to switch her major to painting, she enrolled in the Chouinard Art School, now California Institute of the Arts. From there, Keefe was recruited to Disney Studios, as was a common practice at the time. Later, Keefe moved to San Francisco and worked as Art Director for Arts & Architecture magazine, one of the leading periodicals of architecture, art, and music in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.

While in San Francisco, Keefe met Dorothy Leibes who was renowned for her innovative, custom-designed modern fabrics for architects and interior designers. Keefe obtained a position as colorist and print designer in Liebes’ San Francisco studio, and later in 1948, in her New York studio.

Keefe’s career skyrocketed as her work was featured in advertisements featuring trends in modern textiles. She went on to design home furnishing fabrics such as curtains, upholstery, and wallpaper, as well as kitchen linens like towels, tablecloths, cocktail napkins, and placemats with matching napkin sets.

She also designed shirts for men and women, Christmas cards, playing cards, glassware, dishware, and product advertising and packaging. As one of the first textile artists to sign her work, she became well-known for her creative and whimsical illustration style and her application of bright, bold, and contrasting colors. Her pieces have been featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and can be found in numerous collections, including Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Today she is best known for her highly collectible handkerchiefs, linen kitchen towels, and scarves.

Keefe’s designs are whimsical, witty, and vibrant, reflecting the post-WWII sentiments of relaxation, comfort, and prosperity while including a variety of aesthetic expressions that appeal to many personal tastes. She was often inspired by her travels around the globe and by her love of nature and animals, but she also implemented figural and ornamental motifs. Keefe had a sharp wit that came through in many of her imaginative designs. She is best known for her handkerchiefs and scarves. It is estimated she produced over 400 designs in her lifetime!

Sadly, Tammis Keefe passed away in 1960 from lung cancer. However, her prints were so popular and beloved that they were reprinted by Michael Miller Fabrics in 2013. The company donated all the royalties from the Tammis Keefe line to fund cancer research.


Amanda Kramp is the Assistant Curator of Collections and Exhibitions at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Having worked at about half a dozen museums, she’s produced an eclectic range of exhibition content relating to sugar plantations, shipwrecks, Pre-Columbian ceramics, Bigfoot, forestry products, textiles, and cocktail history, to name a few.

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A Curved Needle Sewing Machine

The Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum exhibit, “Staff Picks” (Through April 30, 2017) is a grouping of objects from the permanent collection, chosen by staff members from all backgrounds and positions within the organization. It includes a wide variety of objects including fashion: a fur coat, a flapper dress, a Victorian hat, ski’s and boots, ballet slippers. Not surprisingly, my ‘pick’ was clothing related. Since so many staff members choose garments, I decided to try something a little more technology related: a curved needle sewing machine.

Curved Needle Sewing Machine. c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum)
Curved Needle Sewing Machine. c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum)

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Wheeler and Wilson Ad from “California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences,” San Francisco, February 28, 1862.

Thomas Saint is credited with inventing the first sewing machine in England in 1790. Some years later, it was refined by Barthelemy Thimonnier in France, who patented a new version used by the Army in France in 1831. In the 1830s, a New York-based Quaker named Walter Hunt, continued to refine the sewing machine. He began selling machines in New York around 1832-1834.

Many manufacturers and inventors began to innovate and patent various mechanisms and sewing machine parts after this time, including the now-well-known Singer.

Ad from "Pacific Rural Press", Volume 8, Number 3, 18 July 1874.
Ad from “Pacific Rural Press,” Volume 8, Number 3, 18 July 1874.

The example at Turtle Bay is by Wheeler and Wilson, a direct competitor to Singer. Wheeler and Wilson’s first patent was registered on November 12, 1850, and they began selling machines in 1851 in Connecticut, producing machines up until about 1909. The curved needle sewing machine was favored over the straight needle machine as some thought it worked better for light fabrics, and was popular for shirt-making.

By 1864 Wheeler-Wilson’s had “Bridgeport factory was producing 40,000 machines a year, almost double that of Singer. Wheeler and Wilson would continue to lead or  match Singer in the rapidly growing sewing machine market for another five years, until the Singer marketing steamroller ran over them.” (Buckman, 67-68). Singer eventually took over the company in in 1905.

In Northern California, Wheeler-Wilson sewing machines were commonly used. Pioneer family Wills at Old Shasta had a beautiful, highly decorated Number 8 from 1872 (now on view at Old Shasta Historic Park). Advertisements appeared in the Pacific Rural Press and California Farmer, common resources for innovative farm and agricultural products, during this era as well.

Detail of Curved Needle Sewing Machine, c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum) Photo by Julia Cronin.
Detail of Curved Needle Sewing Machine, c1870s-1880s, Wheeler and Wilson Mfg, New York. 1964.4.2, Donor Gwyn Stalcup (Turtle Bay Exploration Park & Museum) Photo by Julia Cronin.

It is challenging to date this rusty machine in Turtle Bay’s Collection: no serial number or model number are present. A serial number would help determine the date, and the model number would tell us what it might have been used for.[i] For example, a model number 8 was intended for light family use, while a number 5 was intended for shirt-making and sewing sleeves.

The circular logo, however, provides clues. Logos were used on Wheeler & Wilson machines beginning in 1870. The address the label references is its sales center at 44 Union Square, in New York, suggesting a late 1870s to 1880s date. The base, a ‘slab’ style, was used between the 1860s and 1870s. Two illegible dates printed on the seal add to the mystery. These may be patent dates, international award dates, or office opening dates: 1867 or 1851 or 1862 (Londres[2]) and 1867 or 1887 (Paris).

Further Reading:

Buckman, Jack. Unraveling the Threads: The Life, Death and Resurrection of the Singer Company, America’s First Multi-National Corporation. Dog Ear Publishing: Indianapolis, IN. 2016.

Frederick Lewis Lewton. The Servant in the House: A Brief History of the Sewing Machine. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1930. Originally published in The Smithsonian Report for 1929: Publication 3056. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1930. pp. 559

Porter, William A. , Artist. Factories of the Wheeler & Wilson M’F’G. Co., Bridgeport, Conn. / Wils. Porter, del., 81. [1881] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004662453/. (Accessed December 18, 2016.)
Notes:

[1] Model number http://www.sewmuse.co.uk/w&w.htm “No. 5 machine. Specially designed for shirt making or other work involving sewing sleeves.  It was available with double motion at extra cost and only one style of table was available in either Black Walnut or Mahogany.” “No. 4 machine. Referred to as ‘Large’ it was only available in a standard table of either Black Walnut or Mahogany.”

[2] Londres, the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Filipino language name for London.

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