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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