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Margaret Powell '00

I was working on a paper for a 20th-Century literature course when I realized that my approach to the major was probably a bit different. It was late in the evening and I’d already spent two hours on the bound periodical floor of Du Bois. I was flipping through huge, dusty volumes of Ladies’ Home Journal, using a confusing passage in Ann Petry’s “The Street” as an excuse to stop everything until I could find a Congoleum rug. It was one of the few items the main character took to her father’s apartment in Harlem when she left her cheating husband in Queens. “The Street” was published in 1946. In 1995, I could picture everything else she took—bedroom set, radio, battered studio couch, easy chair—but never heard of a Congoleum rug.

I’m sure some procrastination was involved. But I couldn’t write about Lutie’s struggles without knowing more about an object that she found so precious. Was the rug so expensive that she wouldn’t be able to afford another one? Was it so heavy that it was an illogical object to take in a rush? 

What I found surprised me. Congoleum was the brand name of an alternative to linoleum. These thick, solid “rugs” came in a variety of colorful printed patterns. They covered stylish middle class floors in Ladies’ Home Journal. It made sense for someone like Lutie, who always aspired to create a better life for her young son, to bring the only pretty thing she owned to Harlem, even a large sheet of heavy asphalt-coated felt. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was attending to the impact of the material world on an individual life.  Years later, I now spend a great deal of time at work, doing the same thing. As a cataloguer in the curatorial department of Winterthur Museum in Delaware, I specialize in textile and costume history, but am currently responsible for researching the museum’s collection of several thousand hand tools—woodworking, blacksmithing, etc.—which date from 1720 to 1940. 

When not in storage spaces, cataloguers are usually found crawling under objects in the house or gallery to search for faded manufacturer’s marks, missing paint, broken components and rust, trying to gather information and write entries for the museum collection online database.

I also write independently about subjects related to American textile and costume history. My current project is the biography of Ann Lowe, an African American fashion designer who created debut and wedding gowns for New York City socialites from her salon on Madison Avenue. Although she designed Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown in 1953, her name is practically unknown.  Some of her former customers and business associates are still living, and it has been fascinating to follow Lowe’s career through their memories. This work has also given me an excuse to get back to the bound periodical floor of Du Bois from time to time. I’ve found fantastic information about the fashion industry and pictures of Lowe’s work just by browsing. I probably wouldn’t have realized that this resource was available at UMass if I hadn’t spent that evening in 1995, taking that long detour.