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Museum Musings

Memories That Bind: Lessons my Grandparents Taught Me

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Staff pick- Singer Sewing Machine (3rd Floor, Garment Industry Room) 3rd floor garment industry
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My mother’s parents worked in the garment industry here in Philadelphia. My grandfather, William Corley, was the head tailor at the Quartermasters building down in South Philadelphia. My grandmother, Alma Swann, was a new girl working in the factory. Where she was sitting on the factory floor just so happened to be right next to my grandfather’s sister who thought it would be a great idea to introduce her brother to this pretty new girl. They met, dated, and fell in love, and as the story goes, had my mother (Beverly Corley Shelton).

The reason I love the Singer sewing machine in the Museum’s collection is that I am reminded of my grandparents and the hard work they did and sacrifices they made in order to have a better life. The trade that they used to feed themselves and literally put clothes on their backs was the singular thing that brought them together. Through their love of fine tailoring and sewing they were able to build a life, support their families, and bring the joy of doing so to others in their neighborhood. Their story reminds me that life is unexpected—that we must make the most of every situation and that we can find happiness in the simplest of things. When I pass the sewing machine in our [name] Gallery I am brought back to Saturday mornings with me sitting on my Pop-pop’s knee as he teaches me how to correctly sew on a button. Or the many hours I spent at my Nana’s side as she stepped on the pedal of her own Singer sewing machine and whizzed though yards of fabric to make play clothes, church outfits, and magic capes.

It seems strange to find so many memories in an object that’s main function is work, but in that industrial frame I find all of the grace and elegance that my grandparents had in their lives, that they instilled in my mother’s life, and that was ultimately passed down to me. I remember that you must live your life the way to want to and resist having a station ascribed to you—that we are more than our ethnicity, gender, and economic status. You are what you put into this world—I thank my Nana and Pop-pop for teaching me that, and the Museum’s Singer sewing machine for reminding me.

By: Madison Shelton, Visitor Services and Volunteer Coordinator

Top photo:Sewing machine of Ruben Mazer, ca. 1905. Gift of Chidren of Ruben Mazer: Esther and Max Pollack, Frances and Simon Frank, Jack and Rose Mazer.  Bottom: Alma Ruth Swann-Corley and William McKinley Corley