A Tale of Two Edith’s
Apr 10, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
With the recent popularity in services such as ancestry.com or 23andme.com, more and more people are learning about their family history. For some the quest starts by learning about their name. Perhaps they are inspired by Shakespeare, who classically mused on the meaning of names by stating “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo and Juliet aside, allow me to present a tale of two Edith’s: Edith Head and Edith Heath. These two vintage design icons show us that names not only identify us to the world, but define and connect us. Firstly, let’s dive into what the name Edith means. A quick search reveals that common meanings include “riches” or “blessed,” with an alternative translation from Old English that states “rich in war.” In a nutshell – Edith represents a talented woman who’s not afraid to fight for what she believes in. If this were a retro film, Edith would be our heroine and billed as a gal with gumption. So do our two icons live up to their namesake?
We’ll start with Edith Head, brilliant Hollywood costume designer. Born in the late 1800s, she spent her early adult years engrossed in her studies, graduating with a Masters in Romance Languages from Stanford. After her marriage, she started teaching French and that’s the moment when her life changed. (You might say, destiny intervened.) Seeing her good teaching chops, the administrators at The Hollywood School for Girls asked if she could fill in and teach the art class. Eager to take on new challenges, she said yes (even though she wasn’t an artist herself)! Edith taught by day and attended art classes by night. I can only imagine how daunting that schedule was to maintain. Sadly, much like today, her meager teaching salary wasn’t exactly inspiring her to maintain this frantic pace.
Being in Hollywood, at the doorstep of the glamorous burgeoning cinema scene, she got a crazy idea: become a costume designer. This professional leap was not insignificant and, like any good general, Edith prepared for battle. She borrowed sketches from willing art students, turned on the Edith charm, and strolled into Paramount Studios. She got the job and film fashion would never be the same! Edith’s first mentor, Howard Greer, guided her through the early days of her nascent career and her rich, natural talent bloomed from there. Edith’s legacy lives on in countless classic films, but perhaps her most enduring legacy are the relationships that touched her life. In reading about Edith’s personality, it’s clear to see that she loved her job and the people she worked with. She was blessed with many true friendships, in a town perhaps known most for the glitz and superficial.
Next up is Edith Heath, an Iowa girl born shortly after the turn of the century. Much like her fashionable counterpart, young Edith excelled at her studies and graduated from Chicago Teachers College in 1934. But her passion for teaching soon found a new focus when, after enrolling in night courses at the Art Institute of Chicago, Edith fell in love with ceramics. A tour with the American Red Cross relocated Edith and her husband to San Francisco (by way of New Mexico where she was introduced to Native American pottery for the first time). Feeling inspired, she took the bay area by storm, auditing courses at the California School of Fine Arts (even as she started teaching at a nearby high school). Side note: don’t you love that the parallels between Head and Heath are pronounced when it comes to their desire to learn new things / follow their interests with reckless abandon?
Edith’s love of ceramics continued to grow, but she faced a simple obstacle: lack of proper equipment at home. Undaunted, she became an impromptu engineer and fashioned a pottery wheel out of a sewing machine. Talk about DIY! Clearly, much like Edith Head, Edith Heath was an unstoppable force when it came to creating. In fact, she personally petitioned the University of California, Berkeley to create a course on ceramic chemistry so she could learn more about glazing. (This love of experimenting with glaze would be a thread that defined her career.) Nearly ten years to the day after graduating college, Edith participated in her first ceramics show and again, destiny intervened. At one of her shows a buyer from San Fran luxury retailer Gump’s approached Edith, keen to sell her designs in their shop. Edith accepted and soon Heath Ceramics was born. With her husband Brian by her side, the couple began creating masterpieces in their home studio. Their vision of beautiful, useful, and quality-made pieces struck a chord with consumers everywhere. By 1949, a year after founding the company, their Sausalito-based factory was producing nearly 100,000 pieces annually! If Edith Head’s signature was costumes that conveyed the essence of a character on film, for Edith Heath it was blue glaze. Deep, lustrous, seductive blue tones, complemented by gently rounded edges, made her pieces a joy to behold and hold! Here I am saying “were” – when Edith’s tradition lives on thanks to a 2003 re-launch. The richness of Edith’s vision remains alive and well in kitchens across the world.
Reflecting on this tale of two Edith’s I’m struck by how much each woman individually lived up to the meaning of their name. When taken as a duo, distinct correlations bubble to the surface: a passion for learning, a determination to see things through, and a refusal to accept status quo. These two Edith’s didn’t just enter professions – they defined entire industries. Definitely the hallmark of someone blessed with a gift and rich with inspiration, wouldn’t you say?