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Whimsical Tammis Keefe Handkerchiefs

by Lynda Kolski (01/26/09).

By Lynda Kolski
WorthPoint Worthologist

If you’re a collector of handkerchiefs, scarves or printed kitchen textiles, then you’ve probably come across some of Tammis Keefe’s wonderful and whimsical designs. Keefe was an American textile print designer who produced a large number of designs that are characterized by her vivid colors, fun and innovative designs and unique perspective.

Although she was quite prolific during her short life, you have to wonder what other fabulous designs she would have created had she lived longer. She was born Margaret Thomas Keefe in Los Angeles on Dec. 27, 1913 (there are numerous incorrect references on the Internet that say she was born in 1920). She died in Ridgefield, Conn., on June 5, 1960, at the very young age of 47 and at the height of her career.

Tammis Keefe did a series of linen towels and handkerchiefs with dog and cat themes. This momma cat and her kittens came in several different color schemes.

Tammis Keefe did a series of linen towels and handkerchiefs with dog and cat themes. This momma cat and her kittens came in several different color schemes.

 

One of her more popular towel designs is Feed the Animals. Note the dancing monkey in a bell hop suite holding a tin cup with a parrot on his shoulder.

One of her more popular towel designs is Feed the Animals. Note the dancing monkey in a bell hop suite holding a tin cup with a parrot on his shoulder.

 

Keefe graduated from the Chouinard Art Institute (now part of the California Institute for the Arts) in Los Angeles and worked through the 1940s with Dorothy Wright Liebes in her San Francisco studio, which was well-known for its hand-woven fabrics. Liebes frequently used unusual, innovative materials, such as aluminum foil or Chinese grasses, in her weaving. Her fabrics were found in automobiles, bathing suits, lampshades, ships, airlines and hotels around the world. Considered one of the most successful textile designers in the world at the time, Liebes’ designs were often the basis for mass-produced machine woven fabrics. When Liebes opened a New York, studio in the late 1940s, Keefe moved east to work there.

 

Keefe designed many hankies with scenes from around the country, including San Francisco's Fisherman’s Wharf.

Keefe designed many hankies with scenes from around the country, including San Francisco's Fisherman’s Wharf.

 

 

Keefe’s Delaware hanky, also available in several color schemes, is fairly easy to find around Delaware.

Keefe’s Delaware hanky, also available in several color schemes, is fairly easy to find around Delaware.

 

 

She also made several hankies that depicted scenes from New York City. This one is of the New York Public Library.

She also made several hankies that depicted scenes from New York City. This one is of the New York Public Library.

 

This is another handkerchief from Keefe's New York series, this one showing a street scene in Greenwich Village.

This is another handkerchief from Keefe's New York series, this one showing a street scene in Greenwich Village.

 

By 1949, Keefe had begun doing freelance design for other companies, including Lord and Taylor, and Kimball scarves. Keefe’s designs are most commonly found on women’s handkerchiefs and scarves, linen kitchen towels, tablecloths and cocktail napkins. She produced more than 200 towel designs alone. Some of her most popular designs depict animals with great whimsical personalities. Her holiday themes are also popular. She did a number of designs for famous places throughout the country, such as Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. While in New York, she produced a New York series of handkerchiefs that is still very sought after today.

Keefe would sometimes use the pseudonym Peg Thomas on her designs. It’s not unusual to find pieces, particularly handkerchiefs, signed with this name.

 

Although harder to find, Keefe did a number of tablecloth designs. This one has Cattle on Parade, with the different beef cows sporting different hats and signs for cuts of beef.

Although harder to find, Keefe did a number of tablecloth designs. This one has Cattle on Parade, with the different beef cows sporting different hats and signs for cuts of beef.

One of the few quotes in which Keefe talks about her designs appeared in a 1948 issue of American Fabrics. “Whenever possible, I like to introduce the three-dimensional in prints. I like ‘depth’ in a fabric. I also like the introduction of current objects treated artistically. Warm colors are my favorites—beige, tan with the addition of some cool color for relief.”

Keefe's handkerchiefs and towels with holiday themes are the easiest to find.

Keefe's handkerchiefs and towels with holiday themes are the easiest to find.

 

Other holiday handkerchiefs featured reindeer and ornaments, like this one.

Other holiday handkerchiefs featured reindeer and ornaments, like this one.

 

Keefe spent the last four years of her life in Ridgefield, where she lived with her good friend Jane Trahey. As businesswoman, Trahey was also a maverick for her time. She owned and ran a well-known New York advertising agency, Jane Trahey and Associates, which was prominent in fashion and cosmetic advertising. Not only was her agency one of the first women-owned agencies in New York, but Trahey was the first woman to earn $1 million in advertising. She was very vocal and involved in women’s issues and was an early leader of the National Organization of Women.

 

This is one of several different handkerchiefs in Keefe’s Persian series.

This is one of several different handkerchiefs in Keefe’s Persian series.

Keefe’s signed linens command a high price, particularly items that are unused and still retain the original label. Animal, holiday and geographic designs tend to be the most collected. Look for examples in good condition and with good color. Often pieces signed Peg Thomas bring less, since few people realize this was Keefe’s pseudonym.

Lynda Kolski is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage textiles.

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5 Responses to “Whimsical Tammis Keefe Handkerchiefs”

  1. Kathy Norcutt says:

    This article is so interesting. I’ve collected over 400 hankies over the years with only 2 duplicates. I am fascinated by their imagined provenance. Are there any recommendations?

    KN

  2. Lynda Kolski Lynda Kolski says:

    Sounds like you’ve got a great collection! I would use the hankies and enjoy them. Some people make quilts from them, frame them, or just enjoy them as hankies.

  3. Char says:

    Look at http://www.hankiecouture.com for inspiration!

  4. I have some Tammis Keefe Christmas cocktail napkins that my parents had when I was a child. I always loved them. They have Santa and his reindeer in the bar car of a train drinking martinis and one reindeer holding a bottle of wine. The other ones are mostly of Santa on the engine car and running after it. There is also one of a reindeer with ornaments on this antlers driving the engine. I only have 5 out of the 6 cocktail napkins. I still treasure her work. It was nice reading about her. Thank you!

  5. Lori Hornell says:

    hey lynda,,,was idly checking ebay hankies last nite. found your name and article about tammis. I was her assistant from 1955-57 and created the art for the peg thomas line, for as long as I worked for her, before moving into other aspects of the textile industry. Her death was a terrible shock. For a short time I created a line under the lori king signature.I am still making art, but with found objects, recycled materials etc. Had a large piece at the Carngie museum last summer and just recently had a show at a local gallery.

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