Women in World War I "Bolling Crest" Dress Silks

On December 18, 1915, Edith Bolling Galt married President Woodrow Wilson in a ceremony at her home in Washington DC. To commemorate the wedding, the Sussex Print Works, of Newton, New Jersey created four printed dress silks, in black and white, titled “Bolling Crest.” The designs, variations on a theme of stylized swallows and ants, were based on the design of the coat of arms of the Bolling family in England. 

American Silk Journal 1915

Why black and white? Europe was then in the second year of what we now call World War I, and in March 1915 the British navy began to blockade German ports, preventing any exports of goods overseas. German firms manufactured most of the world’s dyes and colorants, so the blockade meant that textile and paper industries in the still-neutral United States suffered a serious shortage of good quality synthetic, or chemically based, dyes. “Sulfur black” was the one dye that American firms produced in quantity and of consistent quality. Fashion magazines from the period illustrate the efforts by many leading American textile and fashion manufacturers to create a fad for black and white clothing and accessories.

The Sussex Print Works began operating as a department of the Thomas W. Bentley Silk Company in 1885. Thomas Bentley was born in England, but his family moved to the US when he was 11 years old. He learned the silk business as an employee of Doherty & Wadsworth, a silk manufacturing company that had opened in Paterson, New Jersey – America’s “Silk City” – in 1879, before opening his own silk mill in 1885. The company name changed twice, to the Sterling Silk Mill and then Valentine & Bentley, before the Sussex Print Works was spun off in 1911 as an entity on its own, under the leadership of Bentley, his son, Herbert Bentley, and Harry T. Rounds. It specialized in dyeing, printing, and finishing all silk, silk and cotton, and silk and wool textiles, and was highly regarded within the industry for quality production. Valentine & Bentley became Bentley & Twohey in 1915, and continued in business as a manufacturer of silk fabrics until 1932.