When I first spotted this assortment of simple little bags made from 19th c. printed cotton in A Colorful Folk: Pennsylvania Germans and the Art of Everyday Life, an exhibition currently on display at Winterthur Museum, I'd no idea what treasures they might once have held. Jewelry? Hairpins? Handkerchiefs? Or were they reticules, the small drawstring handbags popular at the time?
I should have guessed their purpose would be more prosaic, given the exhibition's theme. The Germans who settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th-19th c. had an exuberant design sense, and often decorated the most everyday items - from kitchen towels to bread boxes and even the bag that held rags in the outhouse - with fanciful colors and motifs. Scraps of fabric from clothing was transformed into patchwork quilts, or stitched into humble little bags like these.
A closer look at the bags tells their purpose. Two of them, right, have neatly stitched tags with inked labels: Radish says one in careful penmanship, while the other is marked Pink dbl. Hollyhock. They're bags for collecting seeds from the garden and storing them over the winter for planting in the spring, an annual ritual (and an important one) for gardeners.
I like to imagine the housewife who prized her hollyhocks, and perhaps shared the blossoms and seeds only with dearest friends or family members. Perhaps she'd brought the original seeds with her when she'd emigrated to America, or they'd been specially purchased from a seed merchant during a rare trip to Philadelphia. She didn't just write "hollyhocks" on the label. They were "Pink Double Hollyhocks", if you please, and well worth their own special bag, as well as her pride.
Above: Seed bags, cotton and linen, Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1820-80. Winterthur Museum.