The Life and Career of M. Lillian Burke, 1880-1852

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

“The Life and Career of M. Lillian Burke, 1880-1852”.

E. M. Langille, St. Francis Xavier University

Dr. Edward Langille, originally from Truro, teaches in the literature and philosophy of France area of the Modern Languages Department at St. Francis Xavier University and has been recognized as  a Chevalier in the L’Order des Palmes Academiques and also in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France.

A few years ago in a New Glasgow antique store Langille came across drawings which interested him, and upon research he discovered that they were from a museum in the Margaree Valley that had closed and whose collection had been dispersed.  The clue “return to Madame Winnie Aucoin” scrawled on the back of most of the drawings started Dr Langille on the hunt and his subsequent discovery that these were the drawings that acted as templates for hooked rugs produced in Cheticamp.

The original owner of the drawings was Lillian Burke.  Born in Washington in 1880, Burke attended Normal School in Washington.  Her connection with the Bell family began as a tutor to some of the grand-children of Alexander Graham Bell  and continued for many years.  Eventually she was included amongst those who worked for the family and who also made the trip to Baddeck.  She also had some training as an artist and in 1917 was employed in Europe as a reconstruction aide teaching handcrafts to injured soldiers as part of their rehabilitation.  Despite employment elsewhere her connection with the Bell family endured and indeed her studio was situated within their Washington home.

Mabel Hubbard Bell had attempted to enrich the economy of the women of rural Cape Breton through the organized manufacture and sale of hand crafted goods. In 1927, Lillian Burke was encouraged by Mabel’s daughter, Marian Fairchild, to continue this work with a focus on rug making.   Lillian Burke made patterns and found agents and rug makers to make them in Cheticamp.  She then marketed the products in New York and did so successfully for a number of years until 1940.  The demise of her connection to the industry may have been related both to the shortage of burlap which was a fundamental input to the rugs as well as to competition in the Cheticamp area as others attempted to duplicate her business model.

Langille then traced her to working in activities at a mental hospital in New York where she continued to be until her death in 1952.  That she was working so late into her life was suggestive that although she profited from the industry the profits were not that great.  In all Langille was able to construct a remarkable biographical narrative for a person who appears to have left few if any records and whose activities were unknown to her still living nephews.


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