Preserving Tradition, Creating Community

Kentucky native Constance Sheltman left her job as a school bookkeeper in 1920 to become the director of the industrial department for Near East Relief in Constantinople, Turkey. There she helped Armenian and Greek women preserve traditional embroidery and weaving techniques, and created a weaving department in Ismid, Turkey, that employed thousands of refugee women. Clothing and accessories such as purses, shawls, and handkerchiefs were popular items in the Near East Industries shop in Constantinople, as well as in a storefront in New York City, seasonal holiday shops, and one-day sales around the country—the precursor to today’s pop-up shops.

After a brief interval as a Near East Relief speaker back home in the United States, Miss Sheltman founded an industrial center for women in Salonika, Greece, that specialized in traditional rug-making and silk weaving. The women were able to make a living for themselves and their children through the sale of traditional handiwork. Some of the young women and girls at the center bore the vivid blue tattoos of slavery on their hands and faces—a sign they had been held captive in a Turkish harem. At first, these troubled women were not readily accepted by the other refugee s because of their perceived sexual impropriety. Fortunately, Miss Sheltman’s vocational programs made it possible for them to earn a living and gain a sense of community.

Miss Sheltman also shared her expertise with relief fellow workers in refugee communities at Near East Relief stations in Alexandropol, Armenia, and Tiflis, Georgia. In the 1950s, she married Charles Trumbull White—a relief worker who had also served in Tiflis. The couple continued to serve the Near East Foundation in Iran and Upper Volta, and remained actively involved in the organization until Charles’s death in 1983.

The story of Christopher Thurber, also a Near East Relief worker, can be found here.

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