America's National Parks celebrated on silk

Mallinson's Printed Pussywillow—This excellent quality is ideal for blouses, scarfs, and coat linings, offered in a large selection of gorgeous colorings and designs, yard $4.50.

So read an ad run by one of Chicago's leading department stores, Madigan Brothers, for a sale of silk fabrics and dress patterns in October 1926 in the Chicago Tribune. A variety of solid-colored silk fabrics not identified by manufacturer or tradename were for sale from $1.79 to $3.95 per yard. The average annual wage in 1926 was about $2,000, or slightly less than $39 per week. A seamstress in a small workshop might earn $20 in a 54-hour workweek. What could justify an expenditure of $4.50 for a yard of printed silk? The opportunity to wear scenic landscapes and sophisticated colorations inspired by our national parks.

Bright orange silk with white trees, lines of rust and white clusters of rock and blue peaks

In 1872, 2.2 million acres of land was designated as the first of America's National Parks—Yellowstone. In August 1916, Congress established the National Park Service, a federal agency whose role is "to maintain and preserve the landscapes and historical sites and monuments that embody the nation’s physical and cultural history."

In the autumn of 1926 one of the leading American silk textile manufacturers, H.R. Mallinson & Co., Inc. introduced a new series of printed dress silks for the Spring 1927 season. Inspiration for the series was drawn from the magnificent landscapes of several American national parks. Customers could choose from 12 different designs, each available in from eight to 12 colorways (combinations of colors) on three different fabrics (Mallinson’s trademarked fabrics: Pussy Willow, Khaki-Kool, and Indestructible Chiffon Voile). The silk fabrics were sold by the yard through specialty shops and department stores, and to custom dressmakers and ready-made clothing manufacturers. In the 1920s the ready-to-wear apparel industry was beginning to elbow aside the small dressmaker, tailor, and home sewer, but it had not yet taken over the market completely. Textile manufacturers still appealed to the ultimate consumer of their products through originality and quality, not just to the garment maker middlemen through price.

A patterned silk with teal and green pine trees, red flowers, and grey mountains. The illustration on the pattern is whispy and impressionistic; barely repeating if at all.

The genesis of the idea to create a National Parks themed set of printed silks likely stemmed from the tour of the Western parks that Mallinson's vice president, E. Irving Hanson, took with his family in 1923. Hanson's responsibilities included oversight of the firm's Design Department, the output of which ensured that the company set the trends for others to follow. Hiram Mallinson had hired Hanson away from another American silk manufacturer in 1913, with the goal of producing the nation's most innovative silks and competing successfully with the best European makers. Their first foray into silk designs inspired by American art and culture was a line called "Mexixe" in 1913, based on objects from Mexico and the American Southwest studied at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, and Brooklyn Museum. The company was at the forefront of the "Designed in America" campaign that swept the country during World War I, sponsored by industry and cultural institutions who felt that the U.S. had outgrown the need to follow European styles in consumer goods. By 1926 Mallinson's was a recognized leader in American design and in textile manufacturing.

A repeating silk pattern depicting Niagra Falls. The falls are a soft turquoise in color and a small rainbow hangs over the water basin below. Orange rocks with yellow flowers border the falling water

The company's publicity for the National Parks silks was characteristically flowery: "To transcribe to Silk the feeling of grandeur and splendor, of beauty and romance, with the glory and subtlety of the varied colorings, is an achievement that has been actually accomplished in The American National Parks Series. They are American in inspiration; they are American in conception; and they are American in execution." But these statements were not just grandiloquent public relations statements. The company's mills were in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; its workers made silk yarn and wove, dyed, and printed silk fabrics from raw materials imported from Japan, Italy, and China. And the company sold its products not only in the United States, but in Europe and South America, as well. Mallinson's inventive approach to creating new fabric qualities and designs, and the firm's insistence on challenging European supremacy in the textiles field, became a model for companies in many other design fields.

Silk with a pattern of the Grand Canyon. Bright orange, green, white and reds mimick the crags and dimensions of the famous natural canyon. The pattern goes in every direction to suggest rather than depict the Grand Canyon

Mallinson was a modern company in many respects, not just design and technology. The publicity booklet for the series, for example, recognized American women not merely as consumers of luxury goods, but as achievers and doers in society, contributors to our national community. The print series was dedicated, "Most respectfully and gratefully to the National Federation of Women's Clubs of America in recognition of their services in extending the growing system of the National Parks."

Silk patterned with thin ice blue waterfalls and rocky outcroppings in teal with butter yellow trees

The Textiles Department in the Division of Home & Community Life at this museum holds about 200 examples of silk textiles manufactured by H.R. Mallinson & Co and its predecessor firm, M.C. Migel & Co., between 1913 and 1936 and given by the firm at the time they were made, including several of the National Parks silks. Frederick Lewton, curator of the Division of Textiles in the early decades of the 20th century, recognized the company's importance in American textile design, manufacturing innovation, capital-labor relations, and marketing tactics. He corresponded regularly with the Mallinson executive team, soliciting donations of their products for display at the Smithsonian.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of America's National Parks and the 90th anniversary of these printed silks, the Smithsonian is reproducing some of these designs on a range of merchandise, available beginning in Fall 2016.

Madelyn Shaw is Curator of Textiles in the Division of Home and Community Life. She has also blogged about the history of khaki and a possible trend for black and white patterns during World War I.