The Women Who “Sewed Straw”
Updated: Dec 28, 2022
According to local newspaperman and historian Win Everett, this house at 47-49 Cottage Street was originally the home of South Dedham’s straw factory (the building was later converted into this double house). This cottage industry was a thriving business in South Dedham in the mid-19th century. Sources reported that loads of hay would be brought to this shop where it was braided into long strands. Later, women throughout the village would pick up both these braided strings and hat molds, return to their homes, and construct straw hats. Everett described the process in a 1933 Messenger article: “The braided straw was put in a bucket of water to soak. Then the mold was held in the lap and the hat started in the center of the crown on the top of the mold. The straw was, of course, sewed around in concentric circles, working it over the edge of the crown and tightly down the sides of the mold to get the shape. When the head of the bonnet was thus sewed, a separate piece was sewed on for the flaring edge and the outside edge neatly finished. Then the mold was set away to dry. When the dry straw was removed from the mold, the shape of the hat was fixed.”
There is no definitive list of home laborers so employed, but a perusal of the 1870 U.S. Census indicates almost two dozen village women (and girls) listed their occupation as “sewing straw.” Among these, are six who are buried in Old Parish Cemetery.
As might be expected, most were young. Two Dean sisters Frances, 21, and Mary, 18, identified themselves as sewing straw in 1870. Frances later married Willard Dean; she died in 1887 at the age of 39. Willard never remarried. Mary Dean married later in life. She became the wife of Thomas Fisk Lawrence, a farmer, on September 23, 1896. She was 44, he was 54. Mary died in 1926. The two sisters are interred alongside their husbands in Old Parish Cemetery. (lot 66 and lot 86 respectively).
Ella M. Talbot (1855-1905), the daughter of George and Elizabeth Talbot, was only 14 in 1870 but was making straw hats. On February 24, 1894, Ella married Eugene T. Ferrin. The couple was living in Chelsea when she died of a pulmonary hemorrhage and tuberculosis on October 15, 1905. She is buried in Old Parish beside her parents in lot 76.
Catherine Cuff Ellis (1844-1874) was already married to Sumner Ellis and had a 3-year-old son, Frank, when she too was “sewing straw.” Catherine died in 1874 of consumption. Her husband remained a widower until his own death in 1897. They were interred together along with their son, Henry, in lot 78.
Finally, siblings Clarissa and Lydia Guild, great-grandchildren of Aaron Guild and William Bacon, sewed straw as well. In 1870, Clarissa Guild (1834-1900) and Lydia Guild (1826-1903) were 36 and 44 respectively. Both were born in South Dedham and remained unmarried their entire lives. They died in Medfield, three years apart. Clarissa died of catarrhal jaundice on July 14, 1900 and Lydia died on January 10. 1903 of asphyxia from a fire at the age of 76. The sisters are buried in the Guild family lot 85.