This Week in History: Author, Chevalier, and Knitter Edith Wharton
April 18, 1916: France bestows its highest honor—Chevalier of the Legion of Honour—on Edith Wharton for her remarkable war-relief efforts in Paris during World War I (1914–1918). Here’s the needlework connection to this date:
Edith Wharton (1862–1937), one of America’s greatest author’s, was also a humanitarian and a knitter. References to knitting are sprinkled throughout her correspondence. And knitting plays a key role in her short story “Roman Fever,” published in 1934. Frequent PieceWork contributor Mimi Seyferth explores this in her article, “A Twist of Crimson Silk: Knitting in Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” in the September/October 2014 issue. For that article, Mimi included a sidebar, “Edith Wharton’s Wartime Ouvroir”:
In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, Edith Wharton created an ouvroir (workroom) in Paris, where she had lived since 1907, to provide employment for seamstresses, lingerie makers, secretaries, and other working women displaced by the war. According to a fundraising appeal that she published in The New York Times Magazine, Wharton had started her ouvroir “tentatively and on a small scale” to offer employment to a few seamstresses but quickly expanded it to fill a pressing need. She soon added a knitting room to produce sweaters, socks, and mittens.
Initially, Wharton raised funds to purchase supplies and pay workers, and the clothing produced by the ouvroir was donated to hospitals and other charities. When hope for a quick end to the war evaporated, however, Wharton decided to make the ouvroir self-supporting and sold garments made from purchased supplies for a small profit (at the same time, she continued to give garments made from donated supplies to needy hospitals and refugees). In its first year of operation, the ouvroir employed an average of sixty women, who made 15,200 garments.
Moreover, after the German bombardment of Belgium, Wharton founded the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee to care for juvenile and elderly refugees from western Flanders. Within seven months, the committee had opened five houses and was caring for nearly 900 people. Wharton also founded schools of lacemaking for the older girls among the Belgium refugees. As the war had ruined the lace industry in Belgium and northern France, Wharton’s lacemakers soon began receiving large orders for Valenciennes and other laces.
In recognition of her war-relief work, Wharton was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1916 and a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold (the Belgium equivalent of the French Legion of Honor) in 1919. She was also awarded the Prix de Vertu by L’Académie francaise and Médaille Reine Elisabth by the Belgium government.
Wow—I loved Edith Wharton’s writing, but I never knew she was so much more than a brilliant author. Read Mimi’s article on knitting and Edith Wharton’s short story “Roman Fever” in the September/October 2014 issue of PieceWork. And learn more about the trials and tribulations of Belgium lacemakers in Evelyn McMillan’s article, “Gratitude in Lace: World War I, Famine Relief, and Belgian Lacemakers,” in PieceWork’s May/June 2017 issue. Discover more about other influential needleworkers in our This Week in History blog series, including Eleanor Roosevelt.
Thank you Edith Wharton for being a champion, the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence), and a very worthy Chevalier.
Featured Image: The Mount, the house in Lenox, Massachusetts, designed by Edith Wharton. She wrote, “There for ten years I lived and gardened and wrote contentedly.” The estate is now a National Historic Landmark. Photo by Mahaux Charles/AGF/UIG via Getty Images.