It’s very fitting that the Oak Park Women’s Exchange (OPWE) is launching their fundraising campaign during March, Women’s History Month. The women’s exchange movement has been part of American history for almost 200 years. 

The OPWE, which is holding its Spring Market on May 5 at the Howard Mohr Community Center, 7640 Jackson Blvd. in Forest Park, has its own storied 44-year history.

But that history is at risk. The OPWE in early February started a GoFundMe drive to save the exchange. “The Power of 5 Bucks” campaign  asks supporters to donate the price of a cup of coffee to keep the doors of the nonprofit open. 

“Our goal is to raise $10,000 to meet operational expenses for the next two years,” said board member Deanne Alexander.

Through March 26, the online fundraising campaign had collected a little more than $1,000.

The funds are needed to pay rent, utilities and insurance at their Artisans & Crafters Unique Boutique storefront at 839 S. Oak Park Ave. in Oak Park. 

It’s no surprise that the OPWE is struggling financially. It is one of the last women’s exchanges surviving in the U.S. 

The women’s exchange movement started in Philadelphia in 1832. Its mission was to help women gain financial security by giving them the opportunity to sell their needlework and other handcrafted products in a retail setting. 

It allowed women to work from home, while caring for their families. They could avoid the danger and monotony of factory work. They also did charitable work. One of their first causes was to make blankets for soldiers and the poor.

The OPWE continues this tradition, partnering with Project Linus to provide quilts and blankets for veterans and children in need. 

“We have distributed 14,000 blankets to hospitals, Hephzibah and hurricane victims,” Alexander said. 

Members knit and sew these security blankets at monthly “Make a Blanket Days.” The OPWE also carries on the tradition of empowering women financially.

However, due to market forces, the exchange is caught in a downward spiral. The OPWE used have 200 members and could allow artists to keep 80 percent of their sales. 

Membership has dwindled to 37. To meet expenses, the OPWE can only offer the retailers 50 to 60 percent of their sales. This has been a deal-breaker for many of them. 

“Our membership declined,” Alexander noted, “But our operational expenses haven’t.”

There has also been a decline in sales that has hit all brick and mortar retailers. While consumers increasingly shop on-line, they will not find the one-of-a-kind handcrafted items the OPWE carries. These products include pottery, jewelry, stained glass, children’s clothes, women’s clothing, quilts, toys, soaps and candles. 

The candles are made by Alexander’s daughter, Mary Alexander, who produces a line that bears the scent and name of local communities, like Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. The soaps have been manufactured by Alexander out of her home for 20 years. Her beer soap would be a good fit for Forest Parkers.

Jsabelle Herdeg, a longtime former Forest Parker — her husband, Peter Herdeg, started Oktoberfest in Forest Park and both sing with the Harlem Mannerchor. Peter is also the organizer of German Fest — has been knitting doll clothes for the OPWE since 2002. 

A native of Switzerland, Herdeg’s specialty is creating ornate European costumes. Her traditional German outfits are especially popular. Like the other members, Herdeg works at the shop for eight hours each week. 

The OPWE is hoping to attract more members like Herdeg, who produce high-quality products. 

“New members bring in new customers,” Alexander said. “New art forms bring in new clientele.” 

Alexander sees some hopeful signs for the OPWE’s future. 

“We’re having a rebirth with young people, who appreciate handmade, one-of-a-kind products,” she said. “Our customers come from all over.” 

Another mission of the OPWE is to teach craft making. The exchange holds quarterly community functions to show residents how to do crafts. Herdeg will be working with kids and selling her wares at the OPWE’s Spring Market, on May 5.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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