Family Story

Paisley Shawl

The connection between this exquisitely expensive shawl and its original family can be traced back to the year 1828 in upstate New York. Samuel Tompkins and his wife, Thankful Sarah, were expecting their first child, a boy to be named Isaac. It had been a remarkably mild winter through which Thankful’s pregnancy had culminated; temperatures, on average, across the East Coast exceeded four degrees Celsius through the early months of 1828. “No snow, or frost, and the plough enabled to cut the furrows!” wrote JF Watson, one diarist of the anomaly (qtd. in Mock et al. 96). Ice supplies to the Northeast states had faltered, if not completely failed, as Thankful prepared to give birth to her son. And, as if his impending arrival to this world was a signifier, the great calm broke in the opening weeks of April, bringing with it the Great Killing Freeze of 1828. In the weeks prior to Isaac’s birth, crops and gardens alike were destroyed, the ground frozen three or four inches deep beneath an inch of visible ice. But while the South was devastated, Thankful and Samuel welcomed a healthy baby boy in their lives in Springport, New York. And, as though the great freeze at his birth was a sign, he was lucky to have been afforded the life of a scholar and the avoidance of a future working the earth as a farmer.

In 1856, by the time Isaac was 28, he had married Maria North Wood and had successfully defended his way through university and medical school in order to become a registered physician and surgeon in Summer Hill, Cayuga County, New York. To be a physician was difficult in the nineteenth century. Medical practices were carried out in patients’ homes as opposed to centralized work places. This meant that Dr. Beach spent most of his time traveling in order to attend to his patients (“19th Century Doctors”). Now, whether or not Dr. Beach and his wife earned their wealth through practicing medicine or if they were gifted it through family ties remains unclear. What is clear is that they did acquire significant wealth to purchase exotic and expensive goods and, perhaps more importantly, to send their daughters and sons to school.

It was the winter of 1862 and, perhaps, on one of his many visits to a patient Dr. Beach stopped in at an auction market at the request of his wife. She was pregnant, soon to give birth to their second daughter, Ellen, and apprehensive about the well-being of her children. Across the United States, by the 1860s, the infant mortality rate was nearing 20 percent and still rising (Haines). Maria wanted something warm and soft for her babies, which is probably why Isaac placed his money down on this red- and cream-colored Paisley shawl, most likely newly arrived from Paisley, Scotland. What Isaac may not have known, at the time, was that the shawl was not only an exquisite piece of work but also that its history was turbulent, at best. Shawls of this quality and style were just beginning to gain popularity in Europe. At the time of the Beach’s acquisition, paisley shawls could cost upwards of €210, or $7,500 with current inflation (“Historical Exchange Rates”). While this particular shawl might have cost much less at an auction, it was still more expensive than other, thriftier options. This shawl, constructed from the fine Kashmir wools of the Middle East, weft and woven to the most specific instructions, was still second to one other shawl owned by Maria. It is in this knowledge that I presume to explain the shawl traveling down through the lineage of, not the first, but the second-born daughter, Ellen.

Whether Alice, Ellen’s older sister, kept her maiden name for academic purposes is unknown. It is probable that she never married, as she used her younger sister, Ellen, and Ellen’s husband’s address as an intermediary to her own. Alice Marie, the eldest of Isaac and Maria’s children, graduated from Iowa State College in 1892 with a Bachelor’s of Science in entomology. Two short years later, she received her Master’s of Science from the same institution (“Semi-Centennial” 843). It is assumed, because of the lack of a known dowry, that she received her mother’s first shawl in regard to her scholarly accomplishments. She went on to teach at both public and private schools across New York, and to work as an assistant in the Museum at Iowa State College and in the Lab of Natural History at the University of Illinois (Creese 70-71). While Alice was traveling and teaching, Ellen met her future husband, Willet Martin Hays. Though Ellen’s scholarly history is more obscure than her sibling’s, she was educated by the regulations of census—she could read, write, and attended school throughout her adolescence. Her husband, Willet, had the same interests as her elder brother, Spencer Ambrose Beach. Spencer also attended Iowa State College, later to do graduate work at Rutgers College. He earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science, akin to his elder sister, while going on to author two volumes of Apples of New York, alongside numerous technical papers and reports. He ultimately settled down in the position of Vice Dean of Agriculture and Professor of Horticulture at his alma mater (Lawrence 16).

Ellen became Willet Hays’ second wife in 1897. He obtained his master’s degree in agriculture from her siblings’ alma mater in 1885, shortly thereafter becoming the first faculty member of the freshly-founded Minnesota Agricultural Experimental Station at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul. There he did years of research with his first wife, Clara Shepperd, a fellow post-graduate student of domestic science. Willet was born to a laboring farm family in Union Hardin, Iowa. By the age of 20, Willet was earning his wages as a farmhand while chasing his academic pursuits. After Clara’s death and Willet’s subsequent marriage to our Ellen, the couple, his two children, and their firstborn daughter Doris (b. 1899) moved to Minnesota where Ellen worked hard in the home to support their family, cleaning and properly running their mortgaged home while Willet made a name for himself worldwide (McGrath and Stoddard). Willet was the founding father of systematic breeding; he produced new varieties of plant life by cross-breeding varieties of superior flax, wheat, barley, corn, oat, and discovered winter-resistant alfalfa. Hays was appointed the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture during the Roosevelt administration, founding the American Breeders’ Association (ABA) now known as the American Genetic Association. He was a draft writer for the Smith-Lever Act and the Smith-Hughes Act; the former was associated with establishing a system of cooperative extension services connected to land-grant universities, and the latter was an act that promoted agriculture as a basis to promote vocational education for people preparing to enter work on a farm (Troyer and Stoehr 435).

The eldest daughter of Ellen and Willet took after her father. Though the majority of her young life is unrecorded, Doris graduated from university, like most of her ancestors, at Iowa State College by 1925 with a degree in English. At that time, she had already married her spouse, Frederick C. Fenton and given birth to their first child, a son, Franklin. Barely a year later, they welcomed their first daughter, Ruth, the donator of our Paisley shawl. By 1945, both Doris and Frederick were professors of English/History and Agricultural Engineering, respectively. Although Doris chose a degree outside of the sciences, dissimilar to both her relatives and her husband, she used her degrees in English and History as a weapon by which she fought for the preservation of soil and water conservation in Kansas. She wrote and collected papers on the Big Blue River floods and the Tuttle Creek Dam, later donating her entire collection in 1962 to the Kansas State University Library (“Doris H. Fenton Collection”). She worked hard alongside her husband, who wrote two books discussing the importance of natural materials: The Use of Concrete on the Farm (Iowa. State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts: Agricultural Extension) 1916, and The Use of Earth as a Building Material (Kansas State College Bulletin) 1941.

For generations, the relatives of Isaac and Maria Beach experimented in the world of the sciences. From medicine to entomology to horticulture to agriculture, nearly all of them partook in the reclaiming and reuse of natural objects. This family lineage was not lost in Ruth, the final heiress of our Paisley shawl. Ruth spent her childhood in Manhattan, Kansas, where her parents both enjoyed professorial positions at the university. She met her future husband, John Bascom, there in the sixth grade; they married 13 years later in 1950. They spent stretches of time in Illinois, New York, and Minnesota, the lands of her forebears, before settling in Eugene, Oregon, in 1960. Her husband, John, and all six of her children followed in Ruth’s great-grandfather’s medical footsteps, four of whom (not including John) became doctors, one who became a nurse, and one a pharmacist. Ruth, however, took great care to revive Eugene’s reputation as a great city of the arts and outdoors (Baker D3). She was elected the first female mayor of Eugene in 1993, after spending years as a strong proponent of pursuing a paved 12-mile trail for bicyclists the along the Willamette Valley River which would later be named the Ruth Bascom Riverbank Trail System in her honor. She was likewise a member of the Alton Baker Park Committee, which birthed a park that included a tree garden. Thirty years later, in honor of her late mother Doris (d. 1992), she initiated the Hayes Memorial Tree Garden, whose main features are trees with brilliant seasonal blossoms and foliage that will provide a quiet place for contemplation and natural beauty. The beauty of this park in bloom is reminiscent of the arabesque patterns on the family’s Paisley shawl and, according to a news article, Ruth herself claimed that “the root of her convictions was her desire to create a nurturing community for children and families” (KVAL.com staff). Ruth was close with her mother, Doris, both of whom were diagnosed with, and beat, breast cancer at the age of 74 (Baker D3). Presumably because they were so close, she donated the family shawl back to the Historic Costume and Textile Museum at Kansas State University in her mother’s name where it now resides a few buildings away from Doris’ life research.

The lives of the Beach family are reflected in the artistry of the Paisley shawl. Country to country, coast to coast, it represented one family’s connection to nature and the interconnectedness of stories. Beginning as a small bud, representative of fertility and the continuance of life, the Paisley pattern was altered by every hand that touched it; it bears the mark of the Mughals, the Turks, the Persians, and the Europeans—it is the genetic byproduct of assimilation while still clinging to its origins. Even in its creation it was not intended to be folded neatly into one categorical use: fashion. This shawl, in its design and use, embodied not only its own uniqueness, but also the bodies of those who inculcated great changes in society and even the world.