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Relief Society History: The Jefferson Ward Bedding Project

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 21, 2011

One beauty of the Relief Society’s efforts to provide temporal services is that projects can be tailored to the individual needs of families and communities – there is no requirement that one size fit all. The efforts of the Jefferson Ward of Wells Stake to provide for its ward’s particular needs is an illustration of that flexibility.

In 1940, the Relief Society of the Jefferson Ward, located in one of the then-poorest neighborhoods of Salt Lake City, about three miles due south of Temple Square, discovered that a pressing need was an adequate supply of bedding for the health and comfort of ward members. The Relief Society presidency, under the leadership of President Alice Morris Graves (1893-1977), met privately with each woman in the ward and determined what bedding was required to outfit the family for the following two years.

Some families were able to take care of their own needs with little or no help – either they had adequate bedding, or they had the means to purchase it themselves. The Relief Society assisted these women with advice on sources and prices, and on taking advantage of merchants’ layaway plans if the women could complete their purchases with no more than two installment payments. Although they would receive no further direct benefit from the project, these families were asked to sustain the project with contributions of funds and labor.

The remainder of the ward – 52 families! – needed help in outfitting themselves with even basic bedding supplies. These included families who could make occasional small payments to help with the purchase of materials; those who had no way to make even modest payments but who could contribute labor; and those who were unable to make any contribution whatsoever either to costs or labor. These were the ward members that the Relief Society organized their project to assist.

Sister Graves and her sisters began their project with no funding from the ward budget or from the Church – they were on their own. They raised the money by working together and individually:

As Relief Society members canned their fruit that summer, they donated one bottle of each kind of fruit they canned. The collected fruit was offered for sale and the money went into the bedding fund.

The visiting teachers of the ward held a bake sale – more money into the kitty.

In those days, when visiting teachers made their rounds they asked for charitable donations (we’ve seen that illustrated in some of the fiction from that era, where sisters donated 25 or 50 cents as they were able). For the duration of the bedding project, those monthly collections went into this fund.

Proceeds from the Relief Society bazaar that year were earmarked for blankets and sheeting and quilt batts.

The bulk of the money, though, was raised by individual women who devised personal projects to suit their time and talents.  Sister Graves reported that the sisters engaged in “making and selling of bread, bread rolls, cakes, crocheted articles, a quilt, hand lotion, aprons, and baby shoes. A luncheon was given, while other women did dressmaking, housecleaning, laundry work, [and] donated materials.”

A widow in the ward, with several children, raised potatoes. She dug the ground, planted her crop, and tended the garden herself. At the end of the summer she had both enough potatoes for her own family’s winter needs and a surplus to sell for the bedding fund.

Bedding was not purchased ready-made, but in the form of raw fabric. Enormous rolls of cotton sheeting were purchased and cut, and delivered to women who could hem and sew pillowcases and sheets in their homes (this was before fitted bottom sheets were the norm, so the sewing was easy, if tedious).  In this way a number of women who could not purchase materials themselves were able to work toward their needs by sewing for themselves and other ward members.

Relief Society work day meetings were held throughout the summer, with sisters quilting, binding blankets, and sewing.

Materials, purchased at least in part from the Church’s own welfare suppliers, had to be paid for in monthly installments. Despite all the fund-raising activities, sometimes due dates came before the month’s payment was raised. In August 1940, for instance, the bill was $156.36, but only $150.00 had been collected. On the day it was due, Sister Graves answered a knock at her door and found a sister standing there with a $2 contribution. Other sisters telephoned with promises of small amounts if Sister Graves could stop by their homes that morning. On her way to pay the bill, Sister Graves delivered pillowcases to a few homes, and each woman contributed a few cents to her purse. By the time she reached the regional welfare offices, Sister Graves not only had the full $156.36, but more than three dollars extra to apply to the following month’s bill. (Really, can you appreciate the poverty of a ward where $6 could be raised only by the donations of multiple families?!)

In all, some 65 women worked on the ward’s bedding project, producing 91 quilts, 202 blankets, 301 sheets, and 272 pillowcases, “many of [the sisters],” according to Sister Graves, “expressing their happiness at having for the first time in years enough bedding to face the winter ahead.”

The physical comfort of ward members was not the only benefit of the project, though. In reporting her ward’s activity to the general Relief Society, Sister Graves said:

This project has created among our women a beautiful spirit of unity, security, and love. Women whose circumstances have made them persons with an inferiority complex now are developing into happy participating people, able and willing to stand on their own feet and face their associates.

In two or three instances, people who seldom were seen at the ward, are now coming out to sacrament meetings.

One brother came to the bishop, paid his overdue ward maintenance [i.e., budget assessment] and expressed his happiness at being permitted to partake of the bedding program.

One sister said our work days had proven a haven to her. Because of her association with fine women she was able to stand on her feet and bear her testimony for the first time since she left her native Sweden nearly twenty years ago.

It is no easy matter to raise money in our community, but each month through the help of the Lord we have paid our bill.

Even greater than all the service that has been rendered through this project, are the testimonies we have gained as to the divinity of this great Welfare work. At times it has seemed almost impossible to meet our monthly obligations, but the Lord has surely been good to us and made it possible for us to carry on.



9 Comments »

  1. What a wonderful project! I would love to be involved in something like that. I’m also humbled to realize how much I take for granted my multiple sheets and blankets.

    Comment by HokieKate — November 21, 2011 @ 8:17 am

  2. Me, too, Kate. It feels so real and basic; nothing froufrou or first-world-problem about it. And I like the long-term element of it, too, the sense that it was important enough to require a commitment, something that is lacking in the 40-minute done-and-over kind of service project.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 21, 2011 @ 11:37 am

  3. Pretty cool story. I also fear that we have grown accustomed to one-off, a few hours on a Saturday kind of service, and look for the easy packaged opportunities. I’d be curious to see if there are many of these kinds of projects still going in around the church. I am aware of a long running program in our area to provide fleece caps, scarves, and items for children, but even that is pretty small compared to the scope of this program. This should have been in Daughters of Light, if you ask me. Good find. (ps – I’ve not yet read Daughers of Light, so forgive me if there are many other examples like this there.)

    Comment by kevinf — November 21, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

  4. Kevin, DIMK hints at major projects like this without telling any stories or giving any illustrative examples. From p. 73, for example:

    Relief Societies were well positioned to take a prominent role in ward welfare efforts. Under the direction of bishops, they appraised the needs of families and then provided dried and preserved fruits and vegetables, clothing, and bedding as needed. For a time, sisters who bottled fruit were asked to give up every tenth jar to the welfare program.

    There are also several photographs of groups of Relief Society women in this era that look like they were taken during RS service or work projects.

    But there isn’t enough detail to appreciate how the sisters went about it, or who was served, or what was the participation of the recipients of assistance, or how such projects affected their lives. I’m hoping to flesh out DIMK’s hints with stories that help readers better understand — and even have an emotional response to — the Church’s past. If there is value in reading about the history of Relief Society, I think it comes from knowing the stories in enough detail to be inspired to “go and do likewise.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 21, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

  5. What an inspirational post. Reading about the shared sacrifice of these sisters makes me wish (well almost) that a similar project could be found in my ward.

    The days when it was cheaper to make than buy the made-in-China import, when home-bottled fruit could be sold, and basic needs of members couldn’t be met immediately from a general Church warehouse is such a different era.

    …but I bet similar projects might happen today in less developed countries, and similar basic needs are going unmet much closer to home than I’m aware of.

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 21, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  6. That’s it, TOClark — the particular flavor of this project is very different for exactly the reasons you state, but the impetus to identify needs, find a way to solve them, and work together ought to be available in some adapted form today. Even if the most practical way of meeting needs is simply paying fast offerings, I think many of us would like to feel the connectedness and commitment of a project, like this in spirit but adapted to the realities of our day.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 21, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  7. Believe me, if I could figure it out, I’d be on it.

    Comment by Coffinberry — November 21, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

  8. Yeah, I can’t think of anything analogous that I could suggest to my ward, either, Coffinberry. It’s unrealistic to think that in the past every ward was doing anything like this all the time. It’s just nice to know that when a need is identified, we have the precedent to draw on to encourage us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. It’s also encouraging to see responses from readers that they would like to be involved in such a meaningful project.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 21, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

  9. I really really enjoyed reading this one. I am glad to not live in such a state of poverty, but what a blessing the entire process would have been.

    Comment by Dovie — November 22, 2011 @ 6:43 am

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