I recently sold a vibrant cotton skirt from the 1950s, and the label sent me searching for more information.


I don’t often see labels from Puerto Rico, and somehow the name Martha Sleeper seemed familiar.

Then I watched a favorite movie from 1945, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and there she was! Martha Sleeper, born in 1910, started acting in films in 1924. The Bells was her last movie, after having a very busy film career in the 20s and 30s. In the 1940s, Sleeper appeared on Broadway.

Image of the actress from The Bells of St. Mary’s
In 1949, Martha Sleeper visited Puerto Rico on a Caribbean cruise, and went no further. It was love at first sight, evidenced by her promptly selling her New York home and yacht over the phone. She started a business designing and creating clothing for her shop located at 101 Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan, a 300-year old building that she purchased and renovated. From Google Maps one can see that this is a very charming historic area—it’s quite easy to imagine falling in love.

If I were more involved in the world of vintage jewelry, I would no doubt have known of Martha Sleeper’s Bakelite, wood and metal creations, which she began making for herself in the 1930s. Others in Hollywood took note, and requested her work, and soon the actress had a major sideline profession. 

From the Milwaukee Sentinel 2/23/40
In the 1970s, Andy Warhol amassed a huge collection of Martha Sleeper’s Bakelite jewelry. His fondness for her creations helped raise interest in (and prices for) this Depression-era affordable plastic. (From Bakelite: A Revolutionary Early Plastic)

Attrib. Martha Sleeper Bakelite and wood poodle pin from deja-voodoo.com
Martha Sleeper matchsticks necklace and bracelet sold by Mod Bag on 1st dibs

To wear with her colorful Bakelite, how about her patchwork skirt, available from engbeav on eBay:


or her cotton shift dress from Belle à Coeur Treasure Trove Vintage:


I’ve certainly got my eye out for this multifaceted woman’s work now, whether on film, in Bakelite, or in brilliantly-colored cotton!


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