Philena Moxley was an entrepreneur and a woman before her time. She spent her early childhood on a farm in Williamstown, Vermont, but when her parents were divorced in 1854, Philena, her mother and younger sister moved to Lowell, Massachusetts to find work. During the mid 1800’s, Lowell was a thriving center for textile production and trade, so many people were drawn to this area for work. Throughout her teenage years, Philena worked in a dry goods store, one of the few places a Victorian woman could find honest employment other than the textile mills. She sold fabric and learned the technique of stamping embroidery patterns. At age 20, Philena purchased 500 stamping blocks and opened her own store in Lowell. The year was 1865.
Fabric at that time, was woven in solid colors so homemade clothing was quite plain. Women of that era were no different than they are today in desiring stylish, individual fashion. So using brightly colored thread, ladies embroidered designs on their dresses, coats and shawls. Philena’s stamping blocks provided the actual pattern or guide for the embroidery stitches. Each block was handmade by soaking a piece of wood in water to soften it, so that thin metal strips could easily be tapped into the surface to create shapes such as flowers, leaves, or geometric forms. As the block dried, the wood shrank and anchored the metal strips in place. Most of the blocks were approximately 4 x 8 inches, although some were much larger for rug designs. To create a pattern the block was dipped into a solution of water and bluing (a cleaning compound), placed on the fabric and gently tapped with a wooden mallet. When the block was lifted, a blue design remained.
Before closing the P.C. Moxley Dry Goods Store in the early 1880’s due to family obligations, Philena had created over 2000 individual stamping blocks. The blocks remained in storage until the coal strikes of the 1890’s when unfortunately many of the larger blocks were burned for warmth. Those that survived- approximately 500- were placed in storage until 1927 when Philena brought them out for a historical demonstration on the stamping process. It is interesting to note that during this demonstration, Philena created a pattern for a hooked rug. She presented the finished rug to the Wenham Museum in Wenham, Massachusetts, the town where she lived with her daughter, Minnie Ashworth. Some of the blocks remained with the Ashworth family and some were donated to the Wenham Historical Society where they were again placed in storage until 1992 when Phileana's great-granddaughter, Stephanie, started using them to create designs for rug hooking.
Stamping blocks used to create rug design during Philena's historical demonstration.