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Loneliness, Stanley Parties and Quilting Bees

The Washington Post commented recently on a new study about loneliness. Despite all the telephones, cell phones, e-mails, instant messages, "texting," even video cameras connected to home computers, more people say they are lonely today than 25 years ago. They have smaller social circles and fewer friends they are really close to.

Reasons vary from more work time, household responsibilities and fatigue, to less opportunities for socializing, even when there's time. Thinking back to my youth, I never thought of Stanley parties and quilting bees as socialization opportunities, but they were. They introduced people to their neighbors, cemented life-long friendships, and helped form the support systems we all depended on.

Stanley Home Products specialized in brooms, brushes and mops, dusting cloths and grease removers, but in the 1950's you couldn't walk into a store to buy them -- you had to be invited. A neighbor would issue the invitation, welcome you to bring along a friend or relative, and you could count on good food and fellowship along with a Home Demonstration.

Tonight's party might feature the latest slimline broom with artificial bristles and adjustable handle. Stanley's degreaser is still a best seller (you can buy it on the internet these days). The latest cookware and cleaning products were passed around to be examined. Vegetable brushes were interspersed with cookie cutters for home-made animal crackers, or single-strand metal kettle cleaners woven into a pad. Think pot scrubber. A kit of ever-sharp, no-rust sewing needles came complete with pin cushion and thimbles.

Pots and pans, carving knives, even a string holder complete with safety-razor blade for cutting string -- anything new and improved might be included in the demonstration. Orders would be taken, novelty items like plastic water glasses or potato peelers would be distributed as thank-you-for-coming gifts, and the hostess would receive a nice present for opening her home, maybe a new toaster or percolator.

I attended several Stanley parties during summer vacations with my grandmother Mimi. I wasn't too interested in Magnetic Cleaners, veggie brushes or pot scrubbers, but I enjoyed picking out a novelty gift to take home to mama. Mimi ordered new mop heads and bottles of floor cleaner, "toilet water" (cologne) and body lotion. She'd let me use up her half-empty cologne bottles in my bathwater and generously slather on her body lotion afterwards, saying she'd be getting a fresh supply when her order came in.

Stanley parties weren't the only occasions for socializing in the neighborhood. I accompanied Mimi to several quilting bees at her neighbor's house. All the ladies brought sacks of fabric cut from old skirts, aprons, dresses, curtains, even flannel or denim work shirts.

While they caught up on news -- who was marrying who and would need a kitchen shower, who was expecting a baby and would need a layette, whose crops hadn't "made" and would need help with groceries -- they combined their cloth and sorted it into neat stacks.

Each women chose an assortment of fabric squares and began piecing out a quilt top or two. I advised Mimi on her selections but mainly spent my time listening, laughing at funny stories and just observing the process of quilt making. Later there was a coffee and cake break, after which everyone gathered up their handiwork and departed for home.

After a few weeks or so, they had another bee. Sitting on kitchen chairs around a wooden quilting frame, they sandwiched a finished patch-work top with thick cotton batting and solid backing material, pinned everything into place, then started hand stitching and tying. It would take several bees to get it all done, Mimi said. The finished product would be presented to a newly married neighbor, or someone with a growing family, or just someone whose well-worn bed coverings were in need of replacement.

Amidst all the conversation we heard timely tips -- not just about quilts, but about cooking on a cantankerous wood stove and making home remedies for "what ails you." It was like having Heloise the Hint Lady there in person! Now I knew why Mimi used turpentine for strange things, like taking the itch out of redbug bites. There was a steady rhythm to their work as they stitched through gingham checks, flowered flannel, stripes and plaids. The end result was the size of a double bedspread. Those ladies didn't skimp!

For years I slept under one of those quilts. When she gave it to me mama pointed out various squares -- that one had been a school dress, that one Mimi's old flannel nightgown. I tried to imagine what mama looked like as a girl in that pale pink dress. One faded blue square had even been part of granddaddy's overalls! There was one little square of black velvet in the quilt. I never knew what its original garment had been, but I loved the peach-skin feel of it against my face as I fell asleep.

From Stanley home demonstration parties and quilting bees in the 1950's to Sarah Coventry jewelry, Tupperware, and Pampered Chef cookware parties, I've attended many such events in my life. You can buy most things online these days and not see a live human being, but I'm so glad these get-togethers haven't died out. Buy a new broom and build a lasting friendship; create a quilt and help solve the problem of loneliness in the 21st century.

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