It all began with one woman selling textiles from the trunk of her car. Her name was Edna Ruth Byler — wife, mother and unexpected entrepreneur.
As a volunteer living in Akron, Pennsylvania in the 1940s, Byler became known in the Mennonite community for her warm hospitality, creative spirit and cinnamon rolls.
In 1946, when Byler traveled with her husband to Puerto Rico, she met women in La Plata Valley who were struggling to feed their children. Having lived through hard times herself during the Depression, she knew the face of poverty. She also knew the importance of dignity and people wanting a way to help themselves.
Byler was moved to do something. She saw the pieces of fine embroidery the women of La Plata created, but had no place to sell. If she, an American, was so struck by these unique textiles, perhaps other Americans would also appreciate their beauty. With no clear plan but a sense of purpose, Byler brought the pieces home and began to sell to friends and neighbors.
Mennonite Central Committee, an aid and relief agency, saw the long-term value that sustainable income opportunities would bring to impoverished villages. They supported Byler’s endeavors and facilitated her travels abroad including to India and Jordan.
By the 1950s, she was driving her Chevy II packed with global needlework to women’s sewing circles and parties of interested friends across the country. She shared the stories of the makers, describing how each purchase meant that a woman gained economic independence and a chance to give her family a brighter future.
It was a simple idea. But a pioneering one that would launch Ten Thousand Villages and blossom into a global fair trade movement.