Isadora Williams: An Early Guild Leader And Educator

Isadora Williams at the October 1965 Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands
Isadora Williams at the October 1965 Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands

Isadora Williams

Born in 1884, Isadora Williams lived at her grandfather Benajah Williams farm in Pickens County, SC, near Easley.  She attended a public pay school three to seven months per year in Liberty Township and attended high school through the ninth grade.  Typical for teachers of the times, her first teaching job from 1903 - 1904 was in a two-teacher school in Anderson County while she lived on the family farm.  Between 1904 and 1908 she attended Winthrop College in Rock Hill, SC.  After college, Williams continued to teach in southern Carolina primary and secondary schools until 1918.
Following a decade of Populist pressure, the Smith-Lever Extension Act passed in 1914 creating a national Agricultural Extension Service for rural residents.  Federally sponsored state colleges of agriculture extended programs into the countyside educating men in farming and women in home economics and housekeeping.  The Act funded 2000 Home Demonstration Agents to train housewives.  In 1919 Isadora Williams became one of the first Home Demonstration Agents and served Geneva County, Alabama.  Williams continued her work with women through Agricultural Extension at various sites in Alabama and Kentucky until 1930 when she became a Home Marketing Specialist through the  Extension office at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Williams' new position as a Home Marketing Specialist, which continued until 1954, inspired her to experiment with the new concept of curbside and roadside markets.  This new outlet for farm women stimulated them to create a wide range of crafts for selling at these markets.  Rural women were prepared to sell their garden produce and home canned preserves, jams and jellies, but crafts offered the opportunity to increase their income.  To fill this need, Williams taught classes in natural materials crafts, block printing, rug hooking and braiding, and tufting.  She wrote numerous agency bulletins and circulars on various "how-to" processes in native materials, home furnishings, and apparel.
Williams joined the Southern Highland Craft Guild in 1943 after attending meetings since 1932.  She was elected to the Board and served from 1944 through 1947 as Secretary.  She coordinated publicity for the first Guild Fair in 1948 and exhibited many of her rugs at the shows.  Williams was awarded Life Membership in 1964.  She continued as an active member doing numerous workshops and classes until her death in 1976.
While exposing rural women to income producing crafts, Williams explored her own interest in crafts.  Through her Home Demonstration work, she taught outdoor workshops where women gathered natural dyeing materials and boiled yarn in huge metal kettles.  She experimented with rug making through weaving, hooking, tufting, and braiding.  She worked with corn shucks, pine cones, nuts, and seeds creating boutonnieres, natural ornamental arrangements,and "Woods Pretties" of which she sold thousands.  She helped establish the "Woodsy Pretties" workshop when two farm women wanted to decorate shuck hats they had made.  They gathered beech nuts, hickory nuts and peanuts, bored holes in them, and strung them into bouquets to adorn the hats.
When a rural farm woman nostalgically recalled her grandmother's shuck doll that she had played with as a child, Williams aided her in recreating it.  That doll was sold as "Mollie." In the first year "Mollie" sold in 23 states and three foreign countries.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.