Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Women’s Exchange celebrates 160 years

September 30, 2014 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn Women’s Exchange President Sarah Jane Horton. Photo by Mary Frost

Handmade Brooklyn crafts are booming

Before Etsy, there was the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange.

The cozy shop, which houses the oldest continuously-operated women’s charitable organization in Brooklyn, celebrated its 160th Anniversary on Monday.

Volunteers, crafters and local dignitaries packed into the storefront at 55 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, snacked on hors d’oeuvres and applauded a proclamation from Borough President Eric Adams, who was unable to attend, which acknowledged the institution’s importance to the history of Brooklyn.

Founded in 1854, the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange – known as the Brooklyn Female Employment Society at that time — provides a venue for the sales of gifts made in the American hand-craft tradition. The shop, staffed by volunteers, assists those who are elderly, handicapped or of limited income by providing space to display and sell their handmade items.

According to the March 16, 1929 Brooklyn Eagle, past consigners sewed garments for soldiers in the Civil War, the Spanish American War and “the World War,” and worked on a flag after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Mrs. Nicholas Luquer was the first president of the society. Mrs. William S. Packer, the founder of the Packer Collegiate Institute, was one of the original members of the board.

“From little old ladies to Vietnam vets to hip Brooklyn moms making T-shirts,” today the exchange displays and sells items made by more 300 artisans from Brooklyn and beyond, said Brooklyn Women’s Exchange President Sarah Jane Horton.

Having an actual storefront, as opposed to just an online presence, provides community, Horton said. “The artisans help each other, they’re there for each other.” The shop returns 70 percent of the retail price to the works’ creators.

Liz Tedford, VP of the Women’s Exchange, said the store has done very well in the last couple of years. Crafts have come back into style, she said, “and Brooklyn is so hot. Tourists find us.” Tedford said the shop was considering re-starting knitting classes.

Consigner Danielle Donnelly, who lives in Bay Ridge, sells her handmde items at the exchange. She also teaches knitting, she told the Brooklyn Eagle. “All my students have a new appreciation for the blankets their moms made,” she said.

Jo Anne Simon, recent victor in the Democratic primary for the 52nd Assembly District, said she is “a big craft person.”

“I started knitting in the eighth grade,” she told the Eagle. “I wanted a fisherman’s sweater, but we couldn’t afford it.”

Simon said that she taught Liz Daly, former Democratic district leader for the 52nd AD, how to do the cross stitch for the 9-11 Quilt. “I also taught Caroline Gutman. The quilt is hanging in Methodist Medical Center.”

Now, she added, she doesn’t have time for big projects. “I’m restricted to baby clothes.”

The Brooklyn Women’s Exchange is part of a time-honored movement. In the 19th century, women began exchanges to help other women who had fallen on hard times. These women “discretely” placed their handmade items and home-cooked food up for sale, the exchange said.

 At the height of the exchange movement, in the early 1900’s, there were more than 200 exchanges across the U.S.Many disappeared, however, including the New York Women’s Exchange in Manhattan, which closed in 2003 — killed by rent hikes and a dip in interest in handmade items.

Today, the Women’s Exchange Federation consists of 20 exchanges in 12 states.

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