The Story of Lillian Burke is a must-read for any arts-health practitioner or anyone with an interest in the history of occupational therapy (OT) and the burgeoning arts-in-medicine movement. Through the lens of this one remarkable woman, Edward Langille traces the history of these movements, which will serve as an important addition to the reading list/curriculum for professional accreditation in these fields, as well as in the therapies that focus on the arts, including music, visual arts, drama, and dance.

Adolph Meyer (1866-1950) is recognized as a founder of OT. Under his direction, the Institute was one of the first hospitals in the United States to advocate for “recreational therapy” to treat physical and mental illnesses.  He was also at the forefront of changing the negative names of hospitals from insane asylums or lunatic hospitals to mental hospitals. This ground breaking step to recognize patients as whole persons is reflected in the programs that Lillian created at the Institute when OT was in its infancy.  Under her care, patients were not their illness, not their disability; she drew on their artistic talents, providing workshops in singing and piano, and in-house recitals of dance, pantomime and puppet shows.

Edward  Langille provides a stellar model for conducting arts-based historical research as he tenaciously pursues every trail that might  yield yet another clue. He is ever on the lookout for yet another rug to match Lillian Burke’s hand-painted sketches of the rugs from the 1930s. In 2011 Edward found 125 of her sketches in an antique shop in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and so began his research journey into Lillian Burke’s life and her contributions to Cape Breton Home Industries during the Depression years—the hungry ‘30s. His four pages of acknowledgements are a formidable testimony to the breadth and scope of his inquiry, which took him from his home base at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, to family, professional, and government archives, as well as interviews throughout North America and beyond, as he followed Lillian’s peripatetic sponsors from among the Bell-Grosvenor-Fairchild families .

Dorothy Lander, HARP

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The Bell Governess who Brought Chéticamp Hooking to the World

Mary Lillian Burke (1879-1952) is fortunate in her biographer. Few people born of obscure Irish/Polish immigrant parentage into working class post-Civil War America could have hoped to have their lives reconstructed so painstakingly and so ably, even if they were, like Lillian Burke, both talented and energetic. But Lillian Burke had the good luck to excite the curiosity of Dr. Edward Langille, professor at St. Francis Xavier University.

Dr. Langille’s interest in Lillian Burke began with a chance find in a New Glasgow antique store. The introduction to The Story of Lillian Burke tells of his coming across a cardboard box filled with what turned out to be patterns for hand-hooked rugs, along with watercolour sketches of the finished rugs. Many of the patterns were initialed “MLB.”  This discovery began a sleuthing job that stretched into years, culminating in this story of an individual life which yet has so much to tell us about social and educational trends and developments in the early to mid-20th century, both in our own corner of the world and on a larger stage.

During her lifetime Lillian became a close associate of the extended Alexander Graham Bell family, both in Washington, DC, where she was born, educated, and spent her early teaching career, and in Baddeck, Cape Breton, where for many years she accompanied the family on its summer sojourns to the Beinn Bhreagh estate. The connection began with her being hired to teach art to the Bell grandchildren in both Washington and Baddeck and then to become an instructor in the first Montessori school in Canada, set up in Beinn Bhreagh in the summers for the Bell offspring as well as some local children (just one of many astonishing details revealed as the story unfolds).  Lillian was a trained artist and teacher, a pianist of a caliber that allowed her to be active as an accompanist on the semi-professional circuit in Washington, a willing chaperone and travel companion as the Grosvenor and Fairchild children got older, and finally a courageous, if naive, business woman.

The Arts and Crafts movement was in full swing in America in the 1920s and with it a growing interest in various forms of traditional handicraft. There was, as Dr. Langille notes, a veritable craze for hand-hooked rugs to complement the new Craftsman style in architecture. Marion Fairchild, having seen for sale in the States hooked rugs which she considered inferior in workmanship to the ones she knew to be on floors and stored in attics across Cape Breton Island, enlisted Lillian Burke to help her bring these rugs to market. They started with a sale of local rugs at the Baddeck Library. They went on to source rugs from all over the island, and in time  shifted the centre of production  from the Baddeck area to Chéticamp where there was an abundance of available wool, an industrious workforce, and a communal spirit that encouraged the creation of large rugs that could be hooked by a dozen or more women working together.

The glory days of Lillian Burke’s involvement with Chéticamp hooking began when she left Washington and established herself in New York City to become a full-time businesswoman. For 10 years, starting in 1928, Lillian designed rugs, sought commissions from newly minted professional interior decorators, communicated orders and designs to the workers back in Chéticamp, and arranged shipping and delivering of the finished products.  But finally the realities of communication and shipping over such distances together with ever-increasing protectionist tariffs, resulting from the Depression, became insurmountable. The outbreak of World War II was the final blow.

The years of  Lillian’s involvement with the rug-hookers of Chéticamp are not without controversy. Dr .Langille does not avoid accusations that she, on the one hand, imposed an urban and foreign aesthetic onto a traditional local craft, and, on the other, made a fortune by underpaying her workers and marketing the rugs at high prices to rich Americans.

Dr. Langille defends Lillian Burke against both charges. The latter seems to have no basis in fact. There is no evidence that Burke made large profits on the rug sales. She lived modestly and, when the rug business folded, worked into her 70s at a second career as an occupational therapist. The first charge is harder to allay because it is largely a matter of personal taste. Dr. Langille’s defense is spirited and he at least establishes beyond question that the standard of hooking as well as the subtlety of colour and shading greatly improved under Burke’s tutelage.

Lillian’s second career began towards the end of the First World War when she volunteered to be part of a new corps set up by the American military to assist men disabled in the fighting.  She spent six years doing this rehabilitative work, four years of it in Germany before and after the armistice, working in military hospitals with veterans. In the late thirties, after the rug business had failed, she took up this work again, this time working with mental patients at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan.

This is a recurring theme in Lillian Burke’s story: her life exemplifies time and again the optimistic, progressive liberalism that made the 20th century, for all its horrors, a period when life in the west really did become better for many people and when societies really did become fairer. She herself benefitted from a free public education, and she more than justified the opportunities given her. In all her subsequent activities she embodied that optimistic, can-do attitude to bettering lives. Some of her motivation was probably the simple desire for new experiences and part was undoubtedly the necessity of making a living as a rare, economically independent woman, but she sought both experience and employment in socially useful work.

The Story of Lillian Burke is anything but a political tract, but it allows us to see the broad trends of an historical period in the minutiae of an individual life. It is Edward Langille’s considerable accomplishment to have given us both a neglected piece of our own history and also a wider context in which to view it. This book is without a doubt worthy of our attention and Dr. Langille is greatly deserving of our gratitude for having authored it.

Fran Baldner

The Casket

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I would never have thought that I would have enjoyed reading a book about rug-making cottage industry in Nova Scotia, but I have. Recently, a Canadian friend brought me a book that focusses on hooked rugs and their promotion by a lady called Lillian Burke (1879-1952), who was born in the USA.

Just in case you (like me before reading the book) have no idea what comprises a hooked rug, let me explain by quoting from Wikipedia: “Rug hooking is … where rugs are made by pulling loops of  yarn or fabric through a stiff woven base such as burlap, linen, or rug warp. The loops are pulled through the backing material by using a crotchet-type hook mounted in a handle (usually wood) for leverage.”

Edward Langille’s book discusses in detail Lillian Burke’s significant involvement with the hooked rug manufacture carried out by housewives in small settlements in the remote Cape Breton district of Nova Scotia. Ms Burke, who was born in Washington DC, was  highly accomplished in teaching, music, and art. During both world wars, she helped pioneer what is now known as ‘occupational therapy’. She was a highly-regarded teacher. It was this skill that brought her into contact with the family of Alexander Graham Bell, the scientist and inventor of telephony. The Bells employed Lilian Burke as a tutor for their offspring. She developed a lasting friendship with the extended family, who owned a country retreat in the region of Nova Scotia where hooked rug making was a prevalent occupation of the local housewives.

Langille describes how Ms Burke helped to develop what had been a local craft into a viable money-making venture. Using her highly developed artistic skills, she helped the housewives produce rugs with artistically sophisticated designs that made them appealing to fashionable interior decorators in the USA (mainly).

Traditionally, the housewives of Cape Breton wove their rugs with scraps of  coloured material. Ms Burke designed the patterns and the housewives did the ‘hooking’. She encouraged them to begin using locally-produced wool which they had dyed. One thing that particularly interested me was that Ms Burke showed the ladies how to use knots and paper masking to dye a skein of wool in varying colours, so that a single thread of wool would vary in colour along its length. This technique is used in Patan in Gujarat (Western India) to produce the silk threads with patterns of varying colour, which are used to produce the highly valuable woven Patola textiles. I would be curious to know whether Ms Burke had been aware of this century’s old method of dyeing.

Langille’s book is a remarkable, well-written, and readable biography of a remarkable woman, who is probably hardly known outside of Nova Scotia and beyond a few enthusiasts of hooked rug making. She deserves to be better known, especially in the light of what Langille’s book reveals about her dedication to the development of rehabilitation and occupational therapy. Professor Langille’s detailed and carefully researched book may well help give Lilian Burke the wider recognition she deserves.”


Adam YAMEY, London (UK)

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from Adult Education Quarterly

Being a field that draws on many disciplines, adult education researchers make links in the unlikeliest places. With this new book, adult education establishes a relationship with French literature scholar Edward Langille and his biography of Lillian Burke, a U.S. occupational therapist who helped fortify a fledgling rug hooking industry in the Acadian village of Chéticamp in Nova Scotia in the early 20th century  …  There is no doubt this is a local book with international themes. Burke was a social entrepreneur before we heard that term and before community development came to embrace it. For adult education researchers with an interest in the history of community development, this book is a goldmine. The Story of Lillian Burke, with its meticulous documentation and scholarship, helps flesh out what was happening in this period, and it also helps show women’s involvement in promoting craft and education at the local level  …  Burke took her occupational therapy training and applied it to a cottage industry, teaching the rug hookers and helping them become self-supporting in a when rural Nova Scotia was struggling  …  The links between occupational health and adult education and community development have not been well explored before now. This book suggests a new field of research for adult education scholars, especially given the many ways occupational therapists contributed to the teaching of art and craft in hospitals in the early and mid- 20th century. Langille has done a commendable job of deepening our knowledge of this field and its workers who healed through promoting craft during the Depression. We need more studies like this in adult education  …  Langille’s text is rich in detail and it stays close to the subject of Lillian Burke’s life. Adult education readers looking to make wider links to other social and eco- nomic development movements and theories will have to go further afield to works on the Antigonish Movement (Dodaro & Pluta, 2012) and Highlander Centre. Yet Langille does what he says he will do: He brings us up close to one of the women who led a time of cultural and artistic revival—I recommend this book heartily to colleagues wanting to deepen their knowledge of the unwritten stories of women’s lives and work.

Leona M. English , St. Francis Xavier University

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