Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ruby Short McKim Revival

Ruby Short McKim, July 27, 1891- July 1976
by Karen B. Alexander*

 “What is the compelling fascination of quilts?” is a question I hear frequently once someone discovers my passion for quilt history. One of the reasons I give is because quilt history is a natural vehicle for learning about the changing theories of social history and, more specifically, the changing tides of women’s history.  But quilts also have an amazing thread linking them to the study of economics, trade and the industrial revolution.

After the 1880s, quilts also gradually began to reflect the shifts in Western attitudes about children and childhood, i.e. childhood as distinct from the world of adulthood, a trend that blossomed as we entered the 20th century.

Children, Art and Ruby Short McKim

"Love From Sarah". Art by Sarah Alexander (age 3-7) interpreted through needlework
by quilt-maker Wini Alexander, 1976.

Children and art naturally make me think of Ruby Short McKim, the 33rd Inductee of The Quilters Hall of Fame. McKim's first quilt designs focused uniquely on themes that would entertain children.

McKim's first series: Quaddie Quilties - 1916

Ruby Short was born into a time of great change for women, as was Marie Webster, in whose restored home TQHF is now headquartered. Marie was born in 1859, just as the American Civil War was about to fire its first shot. Ruby was born 1891, the year Marie turned 32 and the year Thomas Edison patented the motion picture camera.

Interestingly enough, both Ruby and Marie launched themselves into a quilt-related business just about the same time in the 2nd decade of the 20th century, only one was in her early 50s and the other not yet 20. They surely knew of each other at some point but I am not aware that they ever corresponded with one another. But I could be proven wrong. Historians are digging all the time for new material and information.**

McKim and Cottage Needlework Industries 

Cottage needlework industries were certainly not unheard of in the first quarter of the 20th century, but not all of them impacted the direction of quilt design to the degree that both Marie Webster and Ruby McKim did. An excellent paper by quilt historian Cuesta Benberry (1922-2007), “Quilt Cottage Industries: A Chronicle,” established groundbreaking research on this subject. You can find Benberry’s article in the 1994 hardback book, Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths, published by AQSG and edited by Laurel Horton. AQSG still has copies available.

Both Webster and McKim were forerunners of an explosion of similar quilt-related businesses that emerged during the late 20th century quilt revival. One only has to track the ads in the popular needlework and quilt magazines of the time to see this phenomena emerge. The Internet and other new technology has only added to women’s ability as well as opportunity to create and work from home at something they love.

Another version of Quaddie Quiltie as seen on eBay 2009

McKim's Early Life

Ruby’s father, Morris Trimble Short, was 47 when she was born and died when she was 10. Viola M. Vernon Short, her mother, was 24 years younger than her husband and a powerful role model in Ruby’s life. Viola had already proven herself quite capable as a teacher prior to her marriage and as a missionary’s wife following the family’s move from Illinois to Missouri two year’s before her husband’s death. She was an avid promoter of children’s education and believed that children should be allowed to make their own mistakes and then deal with the consequences. She had her own unique way of training her children how to manage their own meager resources that could well be used as a model today. I found this aspect of Ruby’s childhood as described in Jill Sutton Filo’s AQSG research paper particularly fascinating. (Click here to read more about Filo's research.)

McKim_Jolly Circus Quilt Series - 1921

Early Interest in Art

Ruby showed a very early interest in drawing and was known to carry a sketchbook with her everywhere to the point that some family and friends, Filo discovered, jokingly referred to it as part of her wardrobe. Her senior year of high school she served as art editor of the yearbook with twenty-five pages bearing her pen and ink sketches, harbinger of much artwork to come. At age 19 she headed for the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York City where she studied while rooming with her married sister.

The renowned Frank Alvah Parsons, pioneer in graphic design and commercial illustration, was joint administrator of the school the four years prior to Ruby’s arrival and became the director during her one year of study, 1910-1911. Without a doubt, Parsons’ philosophy had great impact on Ruby’s artistic and entrepreneurial development. Parsons’ influence was far reaching in American cultural history.

McKim_Jolly Circus Quilt Series - 1921

McKim Begins Teaching Art in Public Schools

Ruby returned home to Independence, MO, after one year in New York. Previous  researchers have written that Ruby did not graduate from Parsons. However, in 2013, I was informed by granddaughter Christina Jones that the family found Ruby Short's original diploma signed by Frank Alva Parsons himself. This original is now with the McKim collection at the Jackson County Historical Society in in Independence, MO.

Back home Ruby began to teach in the public schools and in 1912 became the Supervisor of Drawing for the Independence School system, overseeing all grades elementary through high school. Jill Sutton Filo’s ground breaking research on McKim published in AQSG’s  Uncoverings 1996 reveals a delightful interview Filo conducted of a 93 year old former student and neighbor of Ruby’s. Ruby was apparently an extremely popular teacher among her pupils.

AQSG Uncoverings1996

Designing Career Officially Launched 1916

“Bedtime Quilt”, or the “Quaddie Quiltie” series as it soon became known, launched Ruby’s “official” career on May 7, 1916 in the Kansas City Star. It was Ruby’s first published series. Barbara Brackman writes in Women of Design: Quilts in the Newspaper that “the ‘Quaddy Quilties’ … are thought to be the first syndicated pattern series” by a quilter, as well as Ruby’s first published series.

McKim_Quaddie Quiltie Series - 1916

The quilt from my collection whose blocks you see here bears only 9 of the 20 different patterns from this first series. A fabric tag on the back says: Carol Burr Baby quilt made for Richard born 1918. Although the red sashing is badly worn in places, especially across the top border, I was thrilled to stumble upon such an early copy of Ruby’s first series.

Ruby Short McKim's First Quilt Series

Ruby's opportunity to create a quilt pattern series for Thorton Burgess came about as a result of her winning a contest. The contest was jointly sponsored by the Kansas City Star newspaper and Burgess's publisher to advertise Burgess's new series of books. 

Thorton W. Burgess, who died in 1965 at the age of 91, was already a well known author at the time of the contest, writing over 170 books and 15,000 stories before the end of his life.  His characters, such as: Peter Rabbit, Joe Otter, Hooty the Owl, Jerry Muskrat, and Bobby Raccoon became famous worldwide. (For a list of his books, click here.) It was a red letter day in Ruby's life to win the contest and land this incredible opportunity.

Up to the time of winning the Kansas City Star contest, Ruby had been the director of art for the Independence School District and later taught at Manual Training School in Kansas City, Missouri. According to her granddaughter Christina, the 1916 contest win came at a fortuitous time because Ruby would have to retire from teaching once married. The wedding came about in August 1917. (At that time married women were not allowed to teach unless they were widowed or divorced!)

McKim_Quaddie Quiltie Series - 1916

As seen on eBay in 2010

Early Wife and Husband Team Hit the Road Together 
to Promote McKim's Business

After marriage and soon after the birth of her first child (Betty) in 1918, Ruby’s career quickly resumed. She and husband Arthur, a public relations man by profession, were often on the road visiting with publishers in an effort to build relationships that would help increase her syndication network. While away on business, Ruby often wrote home to the grandparents who were caring for Betty, and sketched delightful scenes of children busy at play or work as she had witnessed or imagined them while on her trips.  A second daughter (Marilyn) was born in 1923 and a son (Kim) in 1933. The family kept Ruby’s letters and sketches and treasure them today.

A Rare McKim Find
“The circus is coming to town!” 

In 1921, Woman’s World presented Ruby’s whimsical angular Jolly Circus Quilt and offered pre-stamped kits. I have inserted blocks thru-out the article from this pattern series.
McKim_Jolly Circus Quilt Series - 1921
I was very fortunate to stumble across a summer spread made from this pattern a few years ago. It is the only example of this pattern that I have seen in person, though I have seen photos of other examples. It had apparently hung in an antique shop for a good long while and its muslin background on which the embroidery is done is discolored, perhaps from tobacco smoke? But, fortunately, there are no holes.

In spite of all the modern forms of entertainment that have come along to distract all of us since my childhood, it is still the memory of the news “The circus is coming to town!” that stirs some of the most anticipatory memories of childhood. There was truly something magical about the circus in the late 1940s and early 50s before our culture had become so saturated with more sophisticated forms of entertainment.

McKim_Jolly Circus Quilt Series - 1921

Business Expands to Mail Order
In January 1922, Ruby became the Children’s Art Editor of a new publication, Child Life Magazine. This relationship, which included quilt patterns and needlework projects for children, continued into the 1930s. With the birth of their second child in 1923, the grandparents begged the couple to end their many road trips.

With the growing wide-spread exposure of her more distinctive designs, Ruby’s efforts soon evolved into a mail-order business. Their wide-spared traveling for the purpose of meeting businessmen and newspaper editors face-to-face had paid off. From her pen would flow a veritable flood of some 20 embroidery and quilt patterns that were syndicated in various publications as she competed for space with the Nancy Page Quilting Clubs during the 20s and 30s.

A Crayola version of McKim's Jolly Circus series as seen on eBay 2009.
Click here to see more about Crayola quilts.

McKim's 16-year association with Child Life began in 1922. 

March 1927 cover

Early Recorded Children's Quilt Contests

Nursery Rhymes series - 1922
The Nursery Rhymes series seen in Laura Fisher's on-line store in 2009.

According to Jill Filo's research, Ruby’s Nursery Rhyme series (examples above) was the vehicle of one of the earliest recorded children’s quilt contests as seen in Ohio’s Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1922. Filo also articulated in her nomination letter of Ruby to The Quilters Hall of Fame, “The 1926 Colonial History Quilt, an American Sesquicentennial celebration, instigated the January, 1927 “Old-Time Quilts” show and contest in Seattle, Washington sponsored by the Post-Intelligencer.

1926 Colonial History Series 

As seen on eBay 2011

1926 Colonial Series from collection of Karen Alexander

A few weeks before the stock market crash, the 1929 Flower Garden Quilt contest set the stage for the 1930 Indianapolis Star’s two and a half day quilt show which attracted 468 quilts and 14,004 visitors…”

1929 Flower Garden series.

In addition to the 1930 Indianapolis Star contest, the near-by Marion Chronicle in Grant County sponsored its first public quilt show. The show was judged by none other than Marie Webster, Indiana’s leading quilt history expert at the time, and a nationally known quilt designer and author in her own right 1911-1942.

Modern Merchandizing of Quilting

As the popularity of syndicated quilt pattern series grew, more and more newspapers held contests and exhibits of the best completed quilts, which in turn generated more and more publicity and business for quilting supplies and patterns. One could say that McKim helped begin the tradition of the modern merchandizing of quilting long before the late 20th century quilt revival emerged and took it to an even higher level with its seemingly endless array of patterns, new tools and gadgets.

McKim - The Audubon Bird Life Quilt - collection of Karen Alexander

The Audubon Bird Life Quilt from McKim's 1931 book

See more quilts made from the Audubon Bird of Life series by clicking here.  Quilt makers experimented with a variety of mediums with this pattern, it seems.

Successful Farming magazine ran five of Ruby’s features from 1922-1928 with Ruby selling transfer patterns for the first time in this publication in November 1928.

Farm Life first published in 1930

McKim Continues to Expand Venues of Publication

How much more could this amazingly productive woman juggle? For starters, she began writing her “Adventures in Home Beautifying” column January 1928 for Better Home and Gardens Magazine, focusing on a different room of the house each month. In that same year she and her husband Arthur founded McKim Studios in Independence, Missouri, which  soon became a successful mail-order needlework supply and pattern business.

Sketches of McKim's Peter Pan series as seen in McKim's 1931 book and now Rose Lea Alboum's 

Key Player in Launch of the Kansas City Star Newspaper Quilt Series

Although Ruby’s first patterns appeared in the Kansas City Star in 1916, it wasn’t until September 1928 that Ruby became a key player in the launch of the Kansas City Star’s on-going promotion of quilt patterns, beginning with her traditional Pine Tree pieced pattern. This was the beginning of a 33-year tradition by the KCS newspaper of offering full-size quilt patterns, although Ruby herself would stay involved only until September 20, 1930, at which time Eveline Foland took over.

McKim's Early Quilt Pattern Anthology

Ruby’s self-published 1931 book, 101 Patchwork Patterns, one of the earliest quilt pattern anthologies that had detailed instructions, was a natural next step in the progression of her career. It is still considered a classic and revised reprints are readily available, but it’s far more fun to track down a copy of the original hard back shown above.

McKim's Influence in Quilt World Compared to Tiffany's in Diamond World

The book cemented Ruby’s place as one of the giants of early 20th century quilt history. As the Dayton Daily News declared Oct 2, 1932, “wherever quilts and quilt patterns are known, the name of ‘McKim Studios’ is as famous as the name Tiffany is famous in the diamond world.”  Ruby was included in the second edition of Who’s Who Among American Women and her influence on American quilting continues unabated, as her patterns enjoy still another revival in the 21st century.

1932 McKim Studios Mail Order Catalogue

(page from mail order catalogue for the Toy Shop Window series)

I don't know the name of the little girl for whom the doll quilt (below) was made. Thanks to my quilt history friends, however, who pointed me to the above McKim catalogue, I do now know that if you ordered all 12 stamped blocks (each 9 inches square) of the Toy Shop Window series, you received a doll size pre-printed quilt top as a premium. The little doll blanket in my collection measures all of 19x14 inches and has a salt bag as its back.

If you ordered the complete series of this pattern from the catalogue, you were
given a free pre-printed doll quilt top.
(from the collection of Karen Alexander)

(back of the pre-printed doll quilt is an old salt sack)

Example of McKim's Toy Shop Window pattern series (below) 
carried in the newspaper.

McKim Steers a New Course

Doll collecting is considered in the top 5 collection topics in the world today. (See what they were in 1942 by clicking here.)  Arthur and Ruby McKim traveled through-out the US in the 20s and 30s drumming up business for Ruby's syndicated columns. In 1933 they visited Europe. One of the purposes of the trip was to see if they could interest European newspapers in Ruby's syndicated series. I have never heard of any success with the European newspapers but it seems to have been this same trip that they got interested in importing dolls, resulting in their Kimport Dolls business. By the late 1930s Ruby was focusing more and more on her doll business. Though Ruby and Arthur started Kimport Dolls by importing dolls from around the world, the company eventually began manufacturing dolls itself. Granddaughter Christina Jones wrote in her recent email,

"The dolls made at the Studio were composition, not porcelain. They were character dolls -- Presidents & First Ladies, famous 'real' people, and famous characters from books. They were called Kimcraft Dolls, made by American doll artists and sold by Kimport. The foreign dolls were called Kimport -- for the 'import' in the name."  

George and Martha Washington composition dolls made by Kimcraft Dolls.
By the late 1930s, the McKim Studio needlework business had fully transitioned into Kimport, a doll business. Together Ruby and Arthur once again worked as a team managing Kimport Dolls. They also published Doll Talk for Collectors for decades, a magazine for the Dolly Hobby Club.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Kimcraft Dolls, Ruby's new business.

Granddaughter Christina recently shared that eventually her Uncle Kim became owner of the business shortly before his father's (Arthur) death in 1967 and continued the doll business for many years. Ruby died in 1976. The Studio was finally closed in 1985. In 2006 the site of the old McKim Studios in Independence, Missouri became Woodstock Inn Bed & Breakfast.

The Third Generation Steps Up to the Plate to Revive McKim Studios

It has been exciting to see two of Ruby’s granddaughters, Christina and Merrily, take on the challenge of carrying on Ruby’s legacy by re-issuing her designs and even creating them in some new forms. Click here to go to their website. Then scroll to the bottom of their page and click on this phrase: VIEW THE PHOTOS of RSM featured at the Quilt Show in Ilwaco, WA (opens in a new window) to see some of the McKim quilt patterns being made today.

The family has also been encouraging and assisting the Jackson County Historical Society to begin the process of collecting any historic ephemera related to McKim Studios’ design and business history. 

If you have additional information about Ruby McKim or would like to share one of your quilts in this post, please feel free to contact me. Questions? You can reach me by clicking here. I don’t claim to have all the answers but I may be able to help point you in the right direction.

To see more vintage McKim quilts, click here to visit the blog Quilts-Vintage and Antique and see what one quilt collector has managed to find.

Meanwhile, keep those needles flying and the flame of curiosity burning,

Karen Alexander
Past President
The Quilters Hall of Fame

*This article was 1st published 27 July 2009 in the TQS Quilt Pioneer Series; updated in November 2011 for the TQHF blog; and updated again April 2013, thanks to new information shared with me by Christina Jones, a granddaughter of Ruby Short McKim.


(1) Rose Lea Alboum, Index To The Ruby Short McKim Quilt Blocks (no date but my guess is about 2005)

(2) Christine Bowman, “Jill Sutton File — One Researcher’s Road”, AQSG’s Blanket Statements, Winter 1996

(3) Barbara Brackman, Women of Design: Quilts in the Newspaper, Kansas City Star Books (2004)

(4) Chris Jones, “Ruby McKim” in The Quilters Hall of Fame, ed. Merikay Waldvogel and Rosalind Webster Perry (Marion, IN – The Quilters Hall of Fame, 2004)

(5) Heidi Kaisand, Better Homes and Gardens: Century of Quilt.  Meredith Corporation (2004), publishers of Better Homes and Gardens and American Patchwork and Quilting

(6) Jill Filo Sutton, “Ruby Short McKim: The Formative Years” in Uncoverings 1996, ed. Virginia Gunn (San Francisco, CA: American Quilt Study Group, 1996)

(7) Jill Sutton Filo, “Ruby short McKim’s Roly Poly Circus Quilt”, 75th anniversary Edition 1923-1998, Charlottes, Press, Akron, Ohio (1998)

(8)McKim nomination letters from the files of The Quilters Hall of Fame

(9) AQSG member Rose Marie Werner has been doing research on companies and designers of the quilt kits of the 20th century. McKim Studios has been included in her research. Watch for her website to go live sometime in the next 4-8 weeks at

(10) Jackson County Historical Society. Researchers are welcome to make an appointment and visit the Jackson County (Mo.) Historical Society's Archives to research into the Ruby Short McKim Collection. The collection is organized into three main categories: 1) Personal Papers (including those of Ruby’s parents/grandparents); 2) quilt and appliqué patterns (including both her syndicated materials in newspapers and magazines; and, those which her Independence-based business published); and 3) Doll Talk magazine, and doll-related materials of Kimport Dolls. JCHS welcomes donations, and are appreciative to the individuals who have kindly transferred selected materials to help build a more complete McKim collection.

11) Rose Lea Alboum's  The American Legacy Quilt Index Series

12) April 2013 email from Christina Jones, granddaughter of Ruby Short McKim and daughter of Ruby's first child, Betty, to Karen B. Alexander.

List of SERIES QUILTS by Ruby Short McKim

This is a “work in progress” list and input is greatly appreciated.

The QS code designates items from the new McKim Studios series as created by Ruby’s granddaughter, Merrily Tuohey. Merrily is a daughter of Ruby's only son.

1916 - QUADDY QUILTIE BOOK • Item #QS 204
Originally offered by Ruby Short Published in 1916


1921 – JOLLY CIRCUS series offered in Woman's World 

Originally offered by Ruby Short McKim Pub in 1922



Originally offered by Ruby Short McKim Published in 1923


1926 - PETER PAN QUILT BOOK • Item #QS 201
Originally offered by Ruby Short McKim Published in 1926


Originally offered by Ruby Short McKim Pub in 1927


1929-30 - FLOWER GARDEN QUILT BOOK • Item #401
NOTE: Includes patterns for alternate quilting block and border
Originally offered by Ruby Short McKim Published in 1929-30

1930 - FARM LIFE QUILT BOOK • Item #403
NOTE: Includes patterns for alternate quilting block and border
Originally offered by Ruby Short McKim Pub in 1930




Originally offered by McKim Studios Published in 1931


NOTE: Includes pattern for alternate quilting block
Originally offered by McKim Studios Published in 1932

NOTE: Includes pattern for alternate quilting block
Originally offered by McKim Studios Published in 1933

NOTE: Includes border pattern
Originally offered by McKim Studios Published in 1934


1935 - RHYMELAND QUILT BOOK • Item #QS 207
Originally offered by McKim Studios Published in 1935

Originally offered by McKim Studios Published in 1937

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