Sunday, March 17, 2013

Betty's Comfort

Elizabeth “Betty” (Philippi) Keller
about 1898
How many wearings would it take to wear a wool shawl thin?  To make it threadbare and yellowed where it lay again and again against the wearer’s neck, absorbing the oil from her skin and the cares of her soul?

Betty’s shawl bears scars of wear and time.[2]  No one knows when it was made or purchased.  Its plaid pattern, fabric, and size suggest it was a Bay State shawl, manufactured in the U.S. from the 1850s, when fashionable ladies wore them, through the 1890s, when they were mass produced, inexpensive, and available even to the lowest classes.[3] Betty’s shawl is thin and light, but not soft to the touch.  Likely a utilitarian accessory, she would have worn it daily for warmth rather than for special occasions.

She was a young woman in rural Pennsylvania when the shawls were first manufactured in the U. S.[4] By the 1880s, when mass production was at its height, she was a widowed farmer’s wife with five children ten years and younger.[5]  She survived and sustained her family on leasing her farm for shares of production and on making and selling butter.[6]  She would have folded the square on the diagonal and tossed it quickly over her shoulders before running outside on a cool spring or autumn day.  In winter she may even have worn it indoors, pulling it close around her as a surprise storm blew snow in through the front door’s keyhole.[7]

Day after day, season after season, for many years, this shawl, and maybe others like it, protected the young mother, the mature woman, the elderly grandmother.  She may have worn it until she died in 1902, certainly out of style by then, but comforting in its familiarity.[8]  Her children kept it.  To them it probably meant “mother.”

Update, 22 July 2013
Elizabeth's shawl has been donated to the Punxsutawney Area Historical and Genealogical Society, 400 & 401 West Mahoning Street, P. O. Box 286, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania 15767.

[1] Elizabeth Keller family photograph, detail, c. 1898, paper on cardstock, photo 8”x6”, card 10 1-4”x8 3-4”, no photographer’s imprint; privately held by the author.
[2] Bay State style plaid shawl, 54” x 54,” lightweight wool with twisted wool fringe, mass produced, probably 1870s-1880s; originally owned by Elizabeth “Betty” (Philippi) Keller (1842-1902), resident of Henderson Township, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania.  The shawl passed to her son John, then to his daughter Betty, and to her niece Judy Kellar Fox (2013).  Photo courtesy of Betty (Kellar) Lowdermilk.
[3] Thomas Leavitt, “Fashion, Commerce and Technology in the Nineteenth Century: The Shawl Trade,” Textile History 3 (December 1972): 61.
[4] Betty was born 2 July 1842.  See John D. Philippi-Margaret Smith Family Group Sheet, transcribed 4 February 1879 from originals in the German Bible of Henry Philippi (b. 1793) by an unidentified great grandchild, recopied by Nina Kellar, with additions made to 1909.  In 1990 the original pages of this transcription were held in a Kellar family Bible in possession of Florence (Madge) Kellar, North Bend, Oregon.  It is not known if they survive after her passing in January 2006.  Photocopies of the transcriptions are in possession of the author.
[5] The 1880 census lists the family: 1880 U.S. Census, Pennsylvania, Jefferson County, population schedule, Henderson Township, ED 191, p. 20 (penned), p. 95 (stamped), lines 46-50, p. 21 (penned), lines 1-2, dwelling 117, family 117, Charles F. Keller household; from National Archives microfilm T9, roll 1136.  Her husband last appears in the 1882 tax list: Charles Keller entry, Jefferson County 1882 Assessments, Henderson Township, "K" listings (unpaginated), Assessment Books, Courthouse (file drawer storage), Brookville, Pennsylvania.  For his death by 1882, see also Karl F. Kellar gravestone, Paradise Cemetery, Paradise, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania; photographed by Jack J. Kellar, July 1996.
[6] John M. Kellar and Mary “Idella” (Muth) Kellar interview by their daughter Betty (Kellar) Lowdermilk at her home in Modesto, California, 26 October 1963; portions transcribed by the author.  Original tape recording in possession of Betty (Kellar) Lowdermilk, Goleta, California.
[7] Betty’s grandson Harry Floyd Kellar (1918-2010) related to the author about 2000 his story of snow blowing through the keyhole of the front door in the house he also lived in on Paradise Road, Henderson Township, Jefferson County, Pennsylvania.
[8] Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, Record of Deaths, 2: 128, line 20, Elizabeth Keller entry; Clerk of Orphans' Court, Brookville; Family History Library microfilm 927,545.

© 2013 Judy Kellar Fox, 9395 SW 190th Ave., Aloha, OR 97007-6733;


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Judy. And your sources - priceless details. Mother, indeed!

  2. Beautifully written. And as Celia noted, your sources are amazing!

    1. Thanks, Jana, and Celia, for your kind comments. Its surprising to me that non-family-members are interested in this bit of family history. Great!


    2. Judy,

      I want to let you know that your blog is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

      Have a great weekend!

  3. Jana said it best, "Beautifully written." What a precious treasure to have.

    1. Thanks, Gini! With moth holes and rips, it doesn't look like a treasure, but the history raises it up.