BOOK REVIEW: “Ladies First, Common Threads”

Bay Shore Hist Soc Debra Scala Giokas
“Ladies, First Common Threads,” by Debra Scala Giokas .

“Ladies, First

Common Threads”

By Debra Scala Giokas

Non-Fiction/Chandelier Street

For Readers 9 & up


Inspired by an article about Ida Saxton McKinley’s crocheted slippers (4000, all told), author Debra Scala Giokas set to researching other first ladies “who liked to count stitches… and [she] was hooked.”

Welcome to Stitchery and “Ladies, First, Common Threads,” (a misnomer by the way; there’s nothing common about it), a unique book about handcrafts and history that showcases the needlework of president’s wives from Martha Washington to Barbara Bush. Chapters on each First Lady include bios; interesting details about their lives in the White House; and suggested historic sites and museums where readers can see their handiwork firsthand. For staycationers, websites are only a click away from learning more about their favorite First Lady.

I would be hard-pressed to choose a favorite, the book is packed with so many fascinating women. Each has a distinct personality and background.

Dolley Madison sewed clothes for orphans and served as the directress of an orphanage for girls. In her spare time – whatever time she had to spare – she threw A-list parties called “squeezes,” offering unusual menus; and was first to serve ice cream at the White House, hence, the famous Dolly Madison cold confection named after her. A lover of French fashion, Dolley donned turbans at her soirees so she’d stand out and folks would know where to find her.

Folks might have found Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland on a magazine cover, a beauty product, a plate, or playing cards (often without her permission). She was a charmer, who Mark Twain described as “the young, the beautiful, the good-hearted, the sympathetic, the fascinating.” Frances was the darling of the press. “Men adored her and women wanted to be like her. Youth may have had something to do with it; she was 21 to Cleveland’s 49 when they married. Our tabloids would have had a field day with that. I can see the headlines: BACHELOR PREZ ROBS THE CRADLE. And it wouldn’t be far from the truth. Her father’s law partner and family friend before she was born, Cleveland bought Frances’ first baby carriage.

Grace Coolidge might have crocheted a baby blanket or two in her time, but she’s more known for a crocheted coverlet in the Lincoln bedroom. And less known for the animals and birds she tended to in the White House. An animal lover, Grace doted on her pet raccoon, Rebecca, who had the run of the house, chasing her up and down the halls, and taking long baths. Grace fed her shrimp and walked her on a leash.

Lou Henry Hoover (her father had wanted a son), also liked animals. She also enjoyed hunting, fishing, and camping. A tomboy growing up, she later championed physical education for girls. Heeding her father’s advice that she “could do anything she wanted to do,” she became the first woman at Stanford University, and the first in the country to graduate with a degree in geology (she met Hoover in a lab class.) Lou was a skilled needleworker and knitter.

“First, Ladies Common Threads” is a testament to handcraft and creativity and the lives of those women who invested their time and patience making something beautiful, functional and lasting, for generations to admire and reflect on. The easy language in the book will land just right on youngsters’ ears. And moms will enjoy it too. Even if they never picked up a stitch or let down a hem.

Images of their handwork in muted tones, old-timey photos of ball gowns and period dresses, bring readers back to times past and give the book a historical feel.

There’s also a First Lady Trivia page where readers can try to match a quote with a president’s wife. One quote that struck me in particular:

“I know what’s best for the president. I put him in the White House. He does well when he listens to me and poorly when he does not.”

Now, there’s a woman who knows her worth.