A Peek at the Past

peek-at-the-past-aOld stereoviews have such intriguing sets. They show many articles of everyday life, such as you find today in antique stores or see artfully displayed in historic sites. But there’s nothing quite like seeing them surrounded by the people who originally used them.

I can get lost on Flickr or Pinterest, just playing voyeur. But of course it’s pictures that show sewing that are especially fascinating! The theme of this 1860s photo, an exasperated mother mending her child’s torn pants, was a favorite for humorous stereoviews and postcards for many decades.

What do we find here? Mother sits on a stool by the fire with her sleeves pushed up while she works, wearing one of those pretty headdresses that fill the pages of Godey’s and Peterson’s. She’s mending the pants which already have one patch (badly done to be obvious, since no neat seamstress would ever flaunt that), and glancing sternly at the culprit.

The little boy waits shame-faced on the table, wearing only his shirt, stockings and shoes. His little sister sits on the floor against a three-legged stool, playing with her doll. The older brother is wearing a suit and lying on the floor with a whirly wooden toy.

The image on other side of the card.

The image on other side of the card.

Clothes are drying over the fire, and the mantel holds candlesticks, plates and an unidentifiable object. Bowls are stacked on the table and the bellows hang below dippers and a frying pan.

But wait! There’s more! Why waste the carefully staged scene on a single card? A quick search turned up a superior version, which was also tinted. The photographer captures more of the props in this one.

Here the family has moved a bit. Now Mother’s pagoda sleeves are down (no visible undersleeves), little sister has recrossed her legs, and older brother is sitting on a crate. You can clearly see the saw by the door, and a lamp and dried vegetables (?) hanging from the ceiling. A wooden bucket waits under the table for slops (or perhaps a trip to the well), a colander hangs by the chimney, and a covered dish just shows behind the bowls.

What have I missed? Something, I’m sure. Or just my time-traveling self, peeking in the door to say hello!

peek-at-the-past-c

A version with more goodies and – yes – color! (Courtesy W. Wiggers)

Pin Money

Pin Money 3

PIN MONEY – money allowed by a man to his wife to spend for her own personal comforts. When pin money is given to, but not spent by the wife, on his death it belongs to his estate. ~A Law Dictionary: Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States, 1843. (You may detect some irony here.)

Pin Money 1Most of us are familiar with the important social justice issues of the 19th century, causes like abolition and child labor. But there was another one that became quite fashionable to champion: the plight of workers who fashioned fashions. Women who worked as seamstresses, dressmakers, and milliners were vulnerable to exploitation, and as the pathos and romance of their situation caught public fancy, there was a flurry of response in literature, art, “committees,” laws, private philanthropy and even investigative journalism.

The seamstress who sewed shirts was the poster-child for the cause; you can see one period image I used in a post a few years ago here. Shirt-making was tedious and poorly paid, but the pattern was simple and most of the women who could sew knew how to make one. There was also a steady market for the product, at least until the sewing machine and mass production made hand sewn shirts obsolete.

Dressmaking was different. It required greater skill and was more susceptible to the whim of the patron (and employer if a woman worked for a dressmaking establishment) and vagaries of the trade. But it retained some shreds of respectability as a way to earn a living for those women who were not born to the working class, and yet found themselves with no means of support.

The images here are from a set of stereoviews, the one above titled “Pin Money,” with the model carelessly displaying her wealth of finery. The other is called “Needle Money,” implying that the plainly dressed lady in shabby surroundings must be earning her bread with her needle.

Needle Money 3Needle Money 1

Apparently public sympathy didn’t quite translate into action – or not enough to bring about significant change. A decade or two after Thomas Hood’s famous poem The Song of the Shirt appeared, the image of the genteel but impoverished worker persisted. The poem below was by Francis Charles Weeden, c1860s. It was republished with the explanation:

* These two poems are printed, as written by the author, in juxtaposition, to make the contrast more striking.

Pin Money Poem 1

I haven’t copied the whole poem, since the point and tone are pretty obvious. Victoria was reigning, but so was sentimentality!

Many bloggers have covered the subject, so if you’re interested try a search for “song of the shirt” – it will get you started. If you prefer the old-fashioned-read-a-book way, try The Ghost in the Looking Glass, by Christina Walker – not recent, but fascinating!

Pin Money 2

Needle Money 2

Notice anything about the models?

Sadly, the days of sweatshops aren’t gone forever. If you want to help, here’s one place to start.

Helping Mama

Helping Mama 1

It’s time to jump forward a hundred years from the subject of my last post. Here’s a peek at a pleasing, albeit staged, scene of domestic happiness. I love these old stereoviews because the photographers often took such pains with the props, trying to tell a story. And if the subject is sewing or 19th century domestic life, that makes me very happy!

Helping Mama 2

The photo on the right side, because sometimes they’re slightly different.

In this picture, it looks like Mama is mending Papa’s pants. Her daughter seems barely old enough to hold a needle, but is earnestly attempting to help. Is Mama wearing an apron over her silk dress? It certainly looks like she’s sporting a fashionable chignon. (That late ’60s, early ’70s hairstyle was sometime over-the-top and subject to ridicule.)

She may be seated in a woven cane chair, and she definitely has a sewing basket beside her on the table. It looks like the kind with small pockets fixed to the sides. The little girl’s checked dress may be an apron or pinafore, though I can’t quite tell.

This card is dated 1872, but I’ve seen another version dated 1871. Mama sewing, daughter sewing: seeing double indeed!

Helping Mama 3

The stereoview card, full size.

All Dressed Up & Nowhere to Sew

Sewing in the Parlor

Sewing after dinner.

Except the parlor, perhaps? Well, it’s identified on the back as the boudoir, but the meaning of words changes according to time, place, and whim, so we’ll accept her terms. This is a charming stereoview image of two circa 1860s ladies in full dinner dress, sitting down to play with their new sewing machine.

I can’t identify the machine, but I see the seamstress has a music stand and harp close to hand, just in case she wearies of needlework. And a friend with a manual close by to instruct and advise. (Ok, it’s not a manual – what could it be?) A picture-perfect postprandial occupation while the gentlemen are smoking: a lamp, vases of flowers, elegant furnishings, and a congenial companion – what more could you ask?

Sewing in the Parlor Stereo

Full stereoview of the new sewing machine.

Featherweight Champion

Featherweight

I suspect I’ve got just as many ancestors as anyone else, but mine weren’t notable for leaving closets and attics full of heirlooms. The oldest thing I’ve got is my DNA. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some treasures! One of my dearest is my grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine. Yes, me. The hand sewing monomaniac loves a machine.

My grandmother, an amazing seamstress!

My grandmother, an amazing seamstress.

She (the machine) was born Christmas of 1948. My grandfather bought it as a present for my grandmother that year. I don’t suppose anyone knew that the featherweights would become classics.

She (the machine) had already earned retirement by the time I welcomed her into my home, but nope, I kept her going. She only does straight stitch, can you imagine? Why would anyone, some quilters excepted, want a machine that doesn’t do fancy stitches? Not even zigzag?

Weeell, just ask a featherweight fanatic. Simple, small, light, reliable, long-lived. What more could you ask? I wish the same could be said about me – well, maybe not the simple. If you have time, take a look at Singer Instructions for Art Embroidery & Lace. The possibilities using an older machine, even treadle, are dazzling. It’s hard to believe anyone could do such elaborate work without today’s technology. It was published (1911) and republished, and can be downloaded free  in a variety of formats. So don’t underestimate their potential, between the attachments and techniques, a seamstress could really do just about anything with an old Singer.

Notice I said “a seamstress”in that vague and distant not-me sort of way. Because just about all I’ve done is use the basic set up and a couple of attachments. Even the buttonhole kit remains in its sarcophagus, waiting for the day I’m brave enough to resurrect it. Although I do have Grandma’s buttonhole samples resting under the presser foot, like they always did.

For my birthday last year, I had the machine restored to her original condition. I found an expert who did a superb job and a talented friend who did the table. My little champion sewed beautifully before, but now she’s a dream to use. Even if only for plain (machine) sewing!

Shepherd of the Lambs

In 1863, a missionary named Emmanuel Boehringer was traveling north from Virginia when he passed through Sharpsburg in September. There he met with a scene of devastation and misery. He stayed to help tend the wounded of the Battle of Antietam and was haunted by the thought of so many new orphans, a forgotten casualty of war. Inspired to make a home for them, he founded the Orphan’s Home of the Shepherd of the Lambs.

The name was later changed to Bethany Orphans’ Home, and hundreds of children were cared for and educated over the years. Boys also learned farming and girls learned domestic arts. But wait! Sewing is not just for girls!

Bethany Orphanage Boys

Bethany Orphanage Boys

Apparently it was deemed practical for boys to learn to stitch, too. And although rare in those days of division of labor, it wasn’t unheard of – I occasionally come across references in old sewing manuals to boys being taught sewing. According to Emily Jones, who wrote a manual in 1884, “Every infant schoolmistress who has tried the teaching of needlework to boys, speaks most warmly in favor of it.”

And the skill can be so useful! She goes on to give one of my favorite quotes, spoken in a Winnie-the-Pooh-sort-of-way:

“A Waterloo veteran said to me the other day, “I don’t know much about sewing, except putting on buttons, and I don’t know whether you would consider mine the correct way, but they used to stick on, and that is a good point in a button.”

Picture This

Sewing Lesson 1934

The Sewing Lesson, 1934

I’m naturally drawn to images of sewing, and I come across a little treasure now and then. There’s something very touching about a pose like this. The scene is perfect in its way. The little girl with her tiny sewing basket and doll, little brother wearing suspenders and holding the thread, and mother carefully fixing the work! It makes me wonder about their lives – who were they?

Well, in this case I do know their names because they’re written on the back of the photo. Iva Fuller, Jean Ray and Charlie Ray. So I suppose she’s not their mother, maybe an aunt or grandmother? I guess it’s a lesson to me about creating stories around pictures and objects. But I doubt it will stop me from doing it!

A quick search did not help me identify the people or place. Do you know them? The year was “about 1934.” And I’d love to hear from someone who can identify the type of doll!