I don’t remember where I first came across the term “lap-bag.” It was used in the infuriatingly casual way that long-dead authors have of assuming we know what they’re talking about, and I didn’t give it much thought. But when I recently came across the illustration below, c.1860, my reaction was – in the words of my 4-year-old grandson – “what is the heck of that?”
Of course I pursued the elusive lap-bag, only to discover it wasn’t so peculiar after all. It has a respectable history, especially if you consider it’s only a variation on a very useful, very humble, and very common garment. I think this young emigrant to Australia summed it up perfectly in 1850:
The ladies gave me a nice piece of print to make a lap-bag, which will be very handy on board ship, as it ties round the waist, and has little pockets to hold one’s thimble and scissors.
It’s simply a type of pocketed apron that was used for keeping sewing items handy, something especially helpful for girls’ sewing classes. The pinafore was another variation, recommended as early as the 1810s for plain needlework lessons, both in England and America.
Each girl should be provided with a pin-afore, or slip … taken in at the conclusion of school time…. The pin-afores are marked 1, 2, 3, &c. up to the number of girls that the desk contains: the number of the desk is also marked upon them, thus – 5/3, which would signify that the pin-afore belongs to the 5th girl in the third desk.
In 1858, when Alice Neal penned her reminiscences of Eliza Leslie for Godey’s Lady’s Book, she remembered her own school days.
As long ago as sewing was made a special branch of female education – and we leave our readers to infer the date [she was born in 1828] – the Wednesday afternoons at the school which I attended in Boston were enlivened by reading aloud. The circle of little people, with their pink and blue chintz “lap-bags,” a style of sewing receptacle entirely unique, stitched away on their sheets and patchwork, while the older girls read in turn.
A children’s story from 1871 tells how “The girls all had to be provided with lap-bags, worn like aprons, with the ends brought up and stitched together. These were to keep the work from getting soiled, and hold the thimble, cotton, needles, scissors, etc.” School inventories included lap-bags, and one teacher explained,
These little lap-bags,” remarked the teacher, are the very first articles I teach the children in the Primary class to make; and they use them through all the grades until they graduate from the cutting department. Each bag is labelled, and at the close of the sewing hour the work is neatly rolled up, put inside, then collected in these large baskets.
Some later sources called them sewing aprons, but these matched the description as being aprons “made of extra length to allow the turning up of a quarter yard or so for a pocket.” After reading all about these receptacles, I decided to attempt my own. It’s quicker and cheaper to make things in miniature, so doll size it would be!
But what to use? I found references to brown holland (unbleached linen), calico prints, Scotch gingham (a better quality gingham), and pink and blue chintz. My obsession with charity sewing schools inclined me toward the brown holland, since that was the utility fabric they suggested. I just happily happened to have a bit of it with the original glaze (a glossy sizing) remaining, so the next step was to make sense of the directions that accompanied the illustration. Simple. For most people.
Next came the marking. As much as I wanted to follow advice and place the numbers where they’d show when the work was folded, I couldn’t make it work. But my doll will still take her place as the “fifth girl in the third row.”
Trust writers of the era to impart moral virtue into anything that would hold it. I don’t mind, at least not when they’re praising hand sewing.
If it is best to train the child along aesthetic lines in any phase of art, then let him be trained to appreciate and prefer a piece of true art in needle-work, even plain sewing, over a wholesale manufactured article which may be bought at cheap rates.
Let me illustrate by a school girl’s sewing apron, neatly though plainly made, hand-sewed by herself, and appreciated because she wove into its very stitches her own power and love of doing a thing for herself, and, too, having done it the best she could, over a very elaborate one selected from a whole boxful in a store marked “your choice for 10c.”
As aesthetic development and culture help to make a person a better person, so sewing can be made to help a girl to become a better girl and a more powerful and valuable woman to society.
Why not turn up your nose at that 10¢ store-bought apron, make your own, and become a powerful woman! You’ll be glad you did.
To have to sew your own punishment! Although I suppose to some people sewing is punishment.
Above is my attempt at making a 19th century punishment badge. These were meant to be worn around the head of a schoolchild who was guilty of the named crime, probably made by another pupil. I copied the lettering exactly and have to confess I was torn between the pathos and humor. Inattention?
Public humiliation as a form of discipline is as old as history, but it takes on a particular poignancy when you think of little children wearing a label proclaiming their crime, for all their small world to see.
Remember Jane Eyre?
On reaching the bedroom, we heard the voice of Miss Scatcherd: she was examining drawers; she had just pulled out Helen Burns’s, and when we entered Helen was greeted with a sharp reprimand, and told that to-morrow she should have half-a-dozen of untidily folded articles pinned to her shoulder.
“My things were indeed in shameful disorder,” murmured Helen to me, in a low voice: “I intended to have arranged them, but I forgot.”
Next morning, Miss Scatcherd wrote in conspicuous characters on a piece of pasteboard the word “Slattern,” and bound it like a phylactery round Helen’s large, mild, intelligent, and benign-looking forehead. She wore it till evening, patient, unresentful, regarding it as a deserved punishment. The moment Miss Scatcherd withdrew after afternoon school, I ran to Helen, tore it off, and thrust it into the fire: the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart.
Helen wore a paper sign, but it seems some children were made to spell out the crimes by stitching their own badges. The next excerpt is from The Sunday School Teacher’s Magazine and Journal of Education, 1855. The author recalled attending a free school as a small girl. It was taught by Miss Middleton, a lady of independent means who had devoted her life, rather ineffectually it seems, to good works.
Our governess considered it needful to govern by at least a mixture of severity with kindness. Her modes of punishment were various. A rather formidable one was binding a label with a specific crime marked upon it around the forehead, and placing the culprit on a form as an object for the deliberate gaze of the whole school. Most likely these expressive tokens of guilt were originally manufactured by the children’s own hands, and remind one of a murderer erecting his own gibbet.
Once a long row of delinquents was ranged on a form, who had committed some kind of treason during our mistress’s absence; and absent she frequently was from her post. We had then a scholar who was notorious for her unconquerable love of fun… She being amongst the mounted ones, contrived to overbalance the form, and bring all to the ground, producing a scene which very naturally excited the mirth of all who beheld it, and turned our punishment into a frolic.
That must have been a sight! I wonder if they were all wearing their labels when they tumbled to the floor? The author goes on to describe what happened when she was falsely accused of tearing a pinafore and made to “wear her crime.”
But the question with my governess was, ” Who rent [tore] the pinafore?” Somebody must have; though having been perpetrated in the dark, it was probably rather difficult to determine the author. Now I was one of the least, and therefore as likely to be guilty as any one. I suppose by this reasoning Ann brought her mind to the conviction that I was the guilty party, and she unhesitatingly accused me of the crime. I very naturally denied the charge. But I was compelled to wear the most detestable of all the bandages, and mount the form with the word LIAR branded on my brow. Can I ever forget that moment? No! the scar of that wound will not be effaced by time, however long a space be allotted me; and though I have long ceased to bear malice, the memory of this painful circumstance will be for ever connected with the name of Ann W. Surely nothing chafes the soul of a child so much as an unjust accusation, and unmerited punishment. – Maidstone. Christiana Elizabeth.
If you’ve read the Plain Needlework page on this blog, you know about Joseph Lancaster’s contribution to needlework education. However, some of his early comments on class discipline are rather hard to take – at least for modern sensibilities, even when allowing for the times in which he wrote. He also used labels to shame children who offended. From his 1807 manual,
When a boy is disobedient to his parents, profane in his language, or has committed any offence against morality, or is remarkable for slovenliness, it is usual for him to be dressed up with labels, describing his offence, and a tin or paper Crown on his head. In that manner he walks round the school, two boys preceding him, and proclaiming his fault; varying the proclamation according to the different offences.
And another reference,
Labels of Disgrace. When boys are in habits of talking, or being idle in school time, it is common in the free schools under my direction, as variety in punishment, to make an offender stand up and suck his fingers, with the label ‘Idle’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘suck-finger baby.”
These methods were mild compared to others he recommended. Although to be fair, I can’t imagine the task of managing – much less teaching – a single class of over a hundred unruly street children.
What sort of offenses warranted this fate? Thanks to generous help from Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, we can see some of the unacceptable behaviors marked on bands from their museum collection.
I’m probably guilty of all, but the one that caught my attention was INATTENTIOn. That had my name written all over it (ha) so that’s the one I wanted to make. Although from respect – and exhaustion – I left out ‘DURING PRAYERS.’
The bands reminded me of the tiny sewing samples made for needlework lessons, illustrating plain sewing techniques.
The first one needed was marking. Cross-stitch is the basic marking stitch, but these are marked with “oylet” or “eye-let-hole” stitch, which is
quite a fancy stitch, and rarely employed. The oylet holes are formed by working in small stitches round each square, about four stitches in the four corners, and four intermediate stitches between, are necessary to form each oylet hole. -Workwoman’s Guide, 1838
or as directed here, in 1853:
Eye-let-hole Marking is done by making a stitch across two threads from the centre as a fixed point, above, below, on each side, and at each of the four angles.
Well OK, no problem, I could do that. Or so I thought until I tried it on a scrap of old linen. Enter 5 diopter magnification with 60 little LEDs, and voila! Of course my eyes were crossed and my head tilted sideways for a week.
I hadn’t even done the first letter before I realized that the stitches that resembled little stars on the original looked like lumpy knots on mine. Even worse at reading distance than in the close-up photo. Hint: use the right thread. Finer silk worked much better. I also learned that it takes twice as long to unpick an “oy-let” as it does to stitch it!
Finishing the badge was a little easier. I folded the linen back onto itself, and then “seamed” the other three sides. Seaming (also called sewing, oversewing, overhanding in the 19th century) is my favorite stitch to do, and you can see a beautiful example of it around the edges of this tiny specimen from 1820.
The label needed ties, too. I’m amazed that nineteenth century classes even included a “proper” way to do something as simple as sewing on ties or tapes. In the illustration below, the tape has the raw end tucked under and three sides are hemmed to the fabric. Then the tape is folded back against the fabric and the fourth edge is seamed to the fabric. Neat, sturdy, and strong as super glue. Well, theirs were anyway.
I don’t have a purpose for the band I made; I’m not even sure why I felt compelled to make one. Perhaps it was just a way to almost touch the past. It would be a shame to lose its lessons.
If you have a nose for rabbit trails, even the simplest search can make you lose your way – if not your head! I was trying to pinpoint a date for the common use of machine-made pins, but ended up following the trail from factories to inventories to short stories. The stories were the most fun, and I thought I’d share this (edited for length!) one.
THE HISTORY OF A PIN. (The Portland Transcript, 1863)
BY EDWARD P. WILSON.
“Est natura hominum novitalis avida.” [People crave new stuff.]
While walking down the street other day, something bright, embedded in the dirt between the bricks, attracted my attention; and stooping I extracted from the sand an old headless pin. It was not one of the family of pins with which we are now familiar – pins never lose their heads now a days – but one of the old style, whose head was originally formed of fine coiled brass wire; but now it was headless, crooked, rusty and worn: one of those sort of pins which in my school-boy days we were wont to call “old maids’ pins,” and which every single lady felt in duty bound, on the penalty of endless celibacy, to throw over her left shoulder.
As I sat in my arm-chair after dinner enjoying my cigar, I drew it leisurely from the lapel of my coat – a bachelor’s invariable pin cushion – and examined it more minutely. What would I give to hear the history of this old pin!
As I continued to smoke, the pin seemed to grow strangely bright, as seen through the incense which curled around me; and then it seemed to increase in size until it resembled some old, sallow man, whose back was bent by the cares and sorrows of three-score years, who stood twinkling at me through the smoky vapor; and at length I became so accustomed to regard it as human, that I was not surprised when it addressed me as follows:
“Many years have passed away since I was young and bright. I remember the day, when by a clip of a huge pair of shears, I first received a distinctive existence. Pins were worth something in those days, and were not turned out upon the world by machinery, as they are now in Connecticut, at the rate of ten tons per week. We were all made elaborately by hand, going through fourteen different processes in our construction. It was in the old Greenwich Prison, New York, where the first pins were made on this continent. We were all nicely arranged by hand in our papers, like files of soldiers. Fortunately for me, I occupied the position of captain in the first row of my paper, and stood the best chance of being soonest called into the active duties of life. After being duly packed, we were removed to a little store on Broadway, near Castle Garden. I well remember the looks of my first master. He was a little wizen-faced man, who kept a small variety store in those days.
Many long months I laid upon his dark shelves, fearing that I should spend my days in rest and inaction. But at length my days of imprisonment were over. One day a young woman came into my master’s store and made several small purchases of ribbon and edging, and just as she had started to go out, she turned back and asked for a paper of pins. How I thrilled with joy as my master placed the paper in which I had been so long imprisoned in her hand.
My young mistress took me to her home on one of the short streets in the vicinity of the East River. I had scarcely entered the house, which was a neat tenement of the Dutch style, before I became convinced that preparations were being made for some great event in the household. Judge of my surprise when I ascertained by the gossip of the servants that it was the marriage of my young mistress.
All day the household was in commotion, in baking, dusting, and arranging for the happy occasion; and when in the evening my mistress came to her room where I had been lying upon her dressing table, to put on her wedding dress, I was made happy by being called into service. Having otherwise completed her attire, which was elaborate for those days, although it might provoke the mirth of the fashionable belle of the present day, she took from her drawer a beautiful silk zone or belt, which she clasped around her waist, and fastened it with me.
As she stood before her glass to adjust her dress before making her appearance in the drawing room below, I could not help feeling a silent pride in her beauty. I had not thought her pretty when I had first seen her, but as she stood there, I could not but pronounce her beautiful. When the guests had all retired, and my master and mistress were left alone, I listened, as I stuck in a pin-cushion upon her dressing-table, to all their plans of life and happiness.
It was indeed a bright and beautiful scheme; but I am sorry to say that I lived to see many of their pretty plans fade away, and smiles give place to tears. I remained in this family nearly twenty years, occupying various places in the attire of the different members of the family; sometimes idly dropped upon the floor, and then again picked up to fasten some article of clothing.
When at length there were little ones around the hearth, I fastened their tiny garments, and sometimes, unwillingly, scratched their little chubby bodies [!!!], causing many a kick and scream, which were attributed either to colic or anger, according to the disposition of the person who had them in keeping.
One day as their eldest daughter was out shopping, I fell noiselessly from the bosom of her dress, where I had been carelessly stuck, upon the sidewalk of Broadway. It may be thought that a pin is incapable of feeling, but I felt the deepest regret when by this unlucky accident, I was severed from this family in whose service I had spent so many days; and I could not but feel a silent resentment against my mistress for fastening me so carelessly, as I had been a faithful and uncomplaining servant of hers from the very day of her birth.
I remained many weary days lying upon the sidewalk unseen, although thousands of people walked over me daily; and I sadly feared that I should be trodden into the dirt, and thus remain entombed the remainder of my days. But my fears proved groundless.
One day, after I had almost given up hope of being discovered, a little, short, dried up old man came along with his eyes upon the sidewalk, as though in search of pins, and deliberately picked me up and placed me in the lapel of his rusty coat.
I soon discovered that my new master was an old bachelor, of most eccentric manners and mode of living, who lodged in an attic on the Bowery. Once I heard him say mournfully, that he should not have been there alone, aimless in life, if it had not been for her, from which I inferred that some unhappy attachment in early life had made him misanthropic.
I remained in his service many years, sometimes fastening ugly rents in his garments; and at length he removed to Boston, where he naturally enough became more morose than ever. [!!!]
One day as he was walking upon the Common, he attempted to fasten his collar, which had an ugly habit of creeping up over his ears, when he pricked his finger with me, and threw me spitefully upon the ground, where I remained about one week.
One day a little girl on her way to school, came along and picked me up, repeating to herself the childish couplet—
‘Tis a sin to steal a pin But ‘tis a greater to steal a tater
and took me to her home where I remained several years, being used principally to fasten the clothing of her doll.
One day in summer, her brother was sent off on a vacation to a little town in the State of Maine, and I was brought into requisition to fasten his collar. I remained in his service but a few weeks, but this was the most trying period of my life. Sometimes I soared to enormous heights in the tail of his kite, sometimes I was used to pierce flies and other innocent insects, and at length he used me to fish for minnows in a beautiful bay which indents the town where he was stopping.
There I received that ugly bend which you see in my back, being bent to resemble a fish-hook. After he had thus cruelly treated me, my young master threw me carelessly upon the beach, with a piece of cotton thread which he had used as a fishing line, tied around my throat. Here I lay in the sun many long days, and as the place was not frequented, I well-nigh despaired of ever attracting the attention of any living being. But I was not doomed to spend the remainder of my days in inactivity.
One moonlight night in autumn, a lady and gentleman came upon the beach to court the cool breeze, engaged in earnest conversation, over the sand where I was lying. The lady was young and pretty, and dressed in weeds which betokened widowhood. Her drapery was long and flowing, and at length as she passed over me, I, being bent, caught in some point-lace on her skirt, and was taken along with her. Her companion was a large, well-formed man, whom she called Judge Jones.
They walked together a long time, arm in arm, but at length the Judge, very much to my surprise, withdrew his arm, and placed it around the widow’s waist, who very properly remonstrated against such a proceeding; but I observed that she made no effort to remove it, although she stated very emphatically that it should not remain there. Just then the couple approached a large rock embedded in the sand, and the widow complaining of being fatigued, they sat down there to rest.
Here the Judge not only retained his arm in the position which was so offensive to his companion, but even ventured to kiss her, an impropriety which I cannot but condemn, although I must confess that I have been an unwilling spectator to many such a scene.
At this moment his companion grew very indignant, shedding tears and declaring that she was certain that the Judge meant to offend her, which imputation he very warmly denied, although I observed that he repeated the offense.
At this, my mistress grew still more indignant, and dropping her head upon her companion’s shoulder, emphatically demanded the meaning of such conduct. Here the Judge drew her still more closely to him, and said in a subdued and tremulous voice, “My dear madame I have long wished for an opportunity to tell you that — ”
Here the writer’s head fell heavily upon an adjoining table, and gathering himself up he found that his cigar had gone out, and that he himself had been idly napping, with the old rusty pin between his fingers.
It has ever since been a question of great interest to him, what it really was that the Judge was going to tell to his companion, and how the old pin lost its head—and finally came to be lying in the streets of Cambridge, but he has vainly striven to solve them, as the old pin has ever since maintained a most unbroken silence.
Should these facts ever come to the knowledge of the writer, however, they will be duly chronicled in the columns of the Transcript.
What an original idea: a story written by a pin! Well … not exactly. See this snippet from an 1835 English composition manual on suggested topics.
As for pinning down a date for the common use of machine-made pins, there is good information out there – if you want to stick to the subject and not wander around. Here is a good place to start for a more serious approach.
So when might I have found machine-made pins in a sewing basket or on a dressing table? It seems that by the late 1830s technology and economics combined to phase out skilled labor in favor of automation. Pins were no longer likely to lose their heads. And if I could just stay focused, I might not either. But where’s the fun in that?
Tiny pin cushions have a special charm, particularly the disk shape, with pins inserted around the perimeter. I always considered it an impractical design though, for sewing. Then one day I came across Mrs. Child’s comment in The Girl’s Own Book (1833) and my dim light bulb clicked on:
What are called “bachelor’s pin-cushions” are made very thin so that gentlemen can carry them in their pockets…. Two round pieces of paste-board are covered with silk, and neatly sewed together, with one or two thin pieces of flannel between them. Of course only one circle of pins can be put in.
Well, of course! They were meant to be portable and keep pins securely tucked away, likely for use in one’s toilette, and not necessarily handy for needlework.
Maybe I fixated on this design because it’s extremely pretty, or maybe because it’s unusual to find that many of the same homemade craft surviving. However, according to a knowledgeable source, this particular one is not uncommon. Even a rare mutation – pink beaded! – has been sighted.
Hmm. Were they made by a single crafty lady? Several crafty sisters? A craft class? Who knows. But I did feel like there was probably a pattern that they all followed; the resemblance was quite striking. So I did what any good researcher does these days and hit Googlebooks.
Aha! It looked like Godey’s Lady’s Book could have been the source. But wait. As you know if you read the history of this sewing machine ad (or maybe you knew it anyway), if it was published once, it was quite likely “borrowed” by – or from – someone else, too.
Sure enough, it seems that Mrs. Jane Weaver of Peterson’s Magazine provided the same pattern the year before! Yep, word for word. Did Sarah borrow from Jane? Or did they both copy another pattern?
Even though I’d found American patterns for the pin cushions, it was unlikely that they were the source for the antique ones. Notice the numbers? Roman vs. Arabic numerals. The antique pin cushions I saw had Arabic; the published American patterns used Roman.
Perhaps they thought a little change would deflect any accusation of plagiarism. With almost everything in print copied by somebody,somewhere, who would even notice? The surviving examples were English – I think – so perhaps the original pattern was also.
Back to Googlebooks for an English source. And indeed, I located another pattern published earlier, in England. The Boys’ and Girls’ Companion featured the watch pin cushion, this time credited to Madame Eugenie, in 1857. And that’s where I met a dead end.
Madame Eugenie? I haven’t been able to locate a needlework author by that name, so maybe it was a pseudonym. There were quite a few frantically creative women trying to survive by publishing needlework books and magazines during those years, so she may remain anonymous.
For now anyway, the pattern for the antique “watches” with numbers and star design remains unidentified. Well then, back to creating my own (economy) version. Since I couldn’t find materials exactly like the originals, I had to do some contriving.
Silk satin > silk taffeta
India ink and pen > Micron 005 pen
Tiny gold and turquoise beads > the smallest Hobby Lobby carried
Card-board > cardboard (yay!)
Wool flannel > wool flannel (yay again!)
Compasses for drawing circles > washers from my husband’s toolbox
Gold cord > embroidery floss + threads pulled from the fabric + upholstery braid unwound
Silk ribbon > a strip of fabric
As per usual, the whole project turned out to be an excruciating exercise in “making things up as you go along.” What I learned:
Compromise when it comes to materials.
Make a pattern first. MAKE A PATTERN FIRST.
Line the silk.
Practice writing on paper. Then on fabric. Then give up and use a font on the computer and trace it.
Press gathers flat.
Use tinier stitches than seem necessary.
Beads unpick faster than expected.
The result will be bigger than expected.
Beads roll over no matter how carefully anchored. It’s their nature.
Did I mention make a pattern FIRST?
It was actually a lot of fun doing everything but the pen work since I’m not good with handwriting, and I couldn’t “ask an older brother or a papa.” Even unpicking beads (when they didn’t fit because I didn’t draw a pattern FIRST) was rather enjoyable; hearing the tiny taps when they fell off and hit the tray was ridiculously entertaining.
And just about the time I was finishing the little ring on the top, I chanced upon an even earlier pattern – and I wasn’t even looking for it!
Sadly, there were no pictures. And it was for the needle-book/pin cushion version. But it gives me hope that another pattern is out there, just waiting to be discovered. I’ll keep a watch.
It’s a delight to follow the evolution of hand sewing instruction from its earliest days up to more modern times – at least if you consider the 1930s modern!
Thanks to a friend who wanted to share her mother’s dress, I’ve had another chance to peek into a Domestic Economy class, this time in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. The teacher was Miss Gimbel, and she must have been a wonderful sewing teacher – she was certainly very good at understanding what kind of project would please a girl of 13. Fluffy ruffles in dainty white, in a lesson she could wear to her graduation!
The dress needed a little TLC before it could show off. Although in excellent condition for its age, a bath was in order.
I’ve laundered a lot of cotton and linen over the years, and was hopeful that Anna’s dress could be restored. It was made of embroidered organdy and (of course) had been starched. Starch does not age well, in case you haven’t noticed! But a few days of soaking and a lot of water changes, and the frilly frock was refreshed.
Once again I was surprised to see how simple it could be to sew a garment by hand. I’m so accustomed to modern clothing with all the double-stitched and felled seams, finished inside and out, that anything else is startling. I’ve got sportswear so heavily reinforced that the stitches could stand alone if all the fabric were to melt away!
But not here. Anna used very simple basting, running, hemming, and gathering on plain and French seams. The ruffle edge was overcast.
You can see the neatly turned hem, and where she took greater pains with the collar binding than the much longer narrow hem, which I’ve folded up to show.
The armholes have a self-fabric binding, and the dress closes on one side with snaps. The basting thread is still present, perhaps serving to hold the placket in place.
Weekly sewing lessons from the first through the eighth grade were part of a public school education for Anna. Her work was neat and elegant, a skill to be proud of. I think she learned well and wore her reward for a very special occasion!
It seems like even hobbies go through seasons, and mine has certainly been in a slow one. However, there’s nothing like a new book to start things stirring again.
Ever since seeing the online Pockets of History exhibit, I’ve been wishing for a book with more on the subject. So of course I was delighted when I learned about this one! The Pocket – A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900, by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, was published in May by Yale University Press. I’ve just started to explore it. How could I resist? It touches on all my favorite subjects, not only textiles, costume, and needlework, but fascinating little bits of material culture and stories (sadly too brief) associated with them.
Who knew that a pocket could have a “heart-bit” too? But it makes good sense because the stitching was a decorative way to reinforce an opening.
There’s also discussion of marking and learning to mark, and the importance to women of claiming ownership. The Pocket even touches on needlework education, which thrills my plain sewing pedagogical heart no end!
The book is full of beautiful photos that reveal the diversity of pockets. I even got a patchwork fix, thanks to these made with colorful prints. Other illustrations include period art, engravings, advertising, and some splendid close-ups of the textiles and embroidery. And wonder of wonders: doll pockets!
I think the most delightful part of the book is learning about the little treasures and scraps that were pocketed. Or wait – maybe it’s the stories? The authors’ research reveals fascinating bits of women’s lives, and the pocket contents added to their stories as well. The list is extensive: money, gloves, books, pencils, medicine, “characters” (an employment reference), food, jewelry, handkerchiefs, clothing, charms, combs, cosmetics, tickets, snuff boxes, cutlery, letters, and even pilfered goods. Hmm… barring the last mentioned (one would hope), it’s really the same as you might find in a handbag today. Ok, maybe not the snuffbox.
The only pocket I’ve made is a miniature one for Pharaby. I’ve never made a people-sized one. I rather like the idea of sewing a pocket for myself. No particular purpose, just fun. It would be a terrific way to practice plain sewing skills and experiment with some fancywork as well.
If you find these topics as fascinating too, I highly recommend The Pocket. It provides such a wealth of information that you won’t actually find yourself … out of pocket.
Knotting was indispensable to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman…and kept her fair self out of mischief….
“Heyday! cousin, ” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
I don’t know what Lord Castlemaine thought about French ladies, but he obviously had issues with knotting – and so do I! All right, he was talking about a different kind of knotting, but I do think thread should behave with propriety, always willing and able to oblige. However, in my search for how thread was “packaged” in the early 19th century, it was behaving knottily.
A few years ago I was trying to assemble a collection of sewing supplies c.1820 for an exhibit, and it occurred to me that the ordinary wooden spools (reels) in my basket were an anachronism. Would a lady of that era have popped into a haberdashery shop for a spool of thread to hem a gown? Or would she have bought a skein? A ball? A length wrapped in paper or wound around a card?
How should I store my thread? It ought to be simple to settle, just ask around or try Google to learn how sewing thread was packaged, sold, and stored in the early 1800s. Nope. It was a knotty problem and I was baffled.
Period merchant accounts mentioned skeins, weights, and quantities of sewing thread, but that didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. What would the thread actually look like when Some Lady brought it home from shopping or stuffed it in her workbag at the end of the day? (No, don’t say tangled!) After years of drooling over images of antique sewing boxes, you’d think I’d have spotted quite a few that still had the undoubtedly original working thread stashed inside. But I didn’t. A little more fruitless searching, and I decided to shelve the question.
Until recently. I once saw some lovely antique painted “thread papers” for sale which I always regretted not buying (although I’d have had to sell a body part to do it). These long strips of paper with delicate watercolor floral designs were obviously homemade, perhaps meant for a gift. They contained embroidery silks, not plain sewing thread, but I never forgot their charm. So when I came across some very old, although homelier, thread papers for sale, I couldn’t resist – and that revitalized my quest for thread packaging!
The first mention I came across (in my admittedly limited resources) was in connection with the tragic and mysterious poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Not only was he a literary prodigy, but apparently quite a clever forger as well. He invented a 15th century monk and wrote poetry in his name, then claimed to have discovered these writings on his mother’s parchment thread papers.
…one day his eye was caught by one of these thread papers; that he found not only the writing to be very old and the character very different from common characters; but the subject therein treated was different from common subjects; – that he began to question his mother what these thread papers were; how she got them; and from whence they came; and upon further enquiry was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained. [The rest, according to him, unfortunately having been used by his father to cover students’ books.]
There were other references to thread papers as well.
A witty bit from 1769:
A waggish correspondant informs us, that the Mile-End P—n is to be cut into slips to make thread-papers for the maids-of-honor.
Some self-deprecation from 1775:
…a small number of young ladies do me the inexpressible honour to smooth their tuckers and their ribbands in my book; to make thread papers of it; or to tear it into pieces, or papillots [curl papers], or to make their thimbles fit.
In 1795, a scathing rejection for Miss Sparkes from the Monthly Mirror:
“A Tale of Times past,” would never be read in times present. Would not Letitia Sparkes (who says she works for the shops) have been much better employed in making a dozen shirts, and getting the money for them, than in groping her way through “long galleries and dismal vaults;” and listening to “tales prophetic, from shadowy forms.” However, Letitia, you may send for your “forty leaves:” they’ll make excellent thread-papers.
Court testimony from 1804:
What was in the drawer in which he appeared to expect to find it? There were Five or Six Hens Eggs, Thread Papers, and Things of that Sort Belonging to his Wife.
From Sir Walter Scott in 1815:
…my uncle, the alderman, proposed to me the only daughter of old Sloethorn, the great wine-merchant, rich enough to play at spancounter [old English game] with moidores [Portugese coins], and make threadpapers of bank notes.
A bit of satire in 1815:
Woe unto literature in these days of degeneracy! woe unto the Nine Muses and their suitors! how many epics have stood between the candle and candlestick? how many histories have been employed in twist tobacco? and how many philosophers have been made into thread papers, their arguments into paper kites, and their conclusions into three-penny crackers on a birthday?
A lament from 1838:
Cooks and sedentary ladies addicted to needlework have been Thalabas in this kind of destroying. Your thread-papers have been the very devil! If our old friend Mr. Brunel had invented his pretty little process of putting sewing-thread up in reels and balls a hundred years ago, many a family manuscript, many an interesting scrap, might have escaped the pitiless shears. But it is vain to regret the past! [Ain’t it though?]
Humorous fiction in 1844:
Lady Betty was mightily pleased to see Lord Castlemaine so soon back again, and glanced at Barbara, who was knotting fringe, a species of work about as useless as the tatting, tapetrimming, herring-boning, and, with respect be it hinted, lambs-wooling, which from time to time have employed civilised society with almost as much regularity as the spinning jennies do the poorer classes. (And when we talk of the labours of factory girls, how we overlook those of modern ladies under the banners of Miss Lambert¹!) And knotting was indispensible to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman, who, when not tambouring, knotting, or embroidering, amused her leisure, and kept her fair self out of mischief, by drawing a bandalore [yo-yo] up and down.
“Heyday! cousin,” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
“‘Tis the ton, surely, or Bab would not do it,” said Lady Betty, wishing to set off the dowdy Barbara; “and see the thread papers she paints,” added the old lady, showing up a volume of those useful, discarded, ever to be lamented article, with a bird with a scarlet beak and a blue breast at one end, and a flower, orange, red and purple, at the other, all varnished with a glaze of gum arabic.
Lord Castlemaine praised the as very neat, and saw some sense in those – the knotting he condemned as an extravagant waste of time. But he was so complimentary to the thread papers, that Barbara, with a little persuasion, was induced to show her cousin her collection of…” [of…? If you’re curious, you can always look it up!]
More specifics on these papers from fiction, 1868:
She is able to divert herself most days with her thread-papers, as Madam, her mother, will be mighty glad to hear, for the head and the heart ain’t none of them over-bad when a miss can settle to make thread-papers…. Milly was in the act of making her thread-papers – cutting down strips of gaudy card-board, painted with staring flowers, birds, butterflies, and pasting them together in the requisite shape.
Well, enough of thread papers. They were around before, during, and after my period of interest; whether artsy or functional, they were probably used most often for embroidery threads, although I could certainly add some to my workbox display. What about sewing thread for plain work or dressmaking?
An Encyclopædia of Domestic Econcomy, 1815, states, “Cotton sewing thread, usually called sewing cotton, has of late been made so beautiful by machinery, and its utility and cheapness are so well known, that it has, in a measure, superseded the use of linen thread formerly used. It is used in every house, and in the making of almost every kind of clothing.”
That was helpful in affirming what textile historians tell us, that the change from linen to cotton for sewing thread happened in the late 18th-early 19th century. But how would you find it in a shop?
Now let’s see whether you were just skimming the quotes to be a polite blog reader, or were paying attention. Did you catch the reference to Brunel²?
His biography informs us that, “A machine for twisting cotton-thread and forming it into balls was also amongst the earliest of Brunel’s inventions in this country. The impulse given by this machine to the employment of cotton can now scarcely be credited. The little balls were very elegant in form; and from the manner in which the thread was wound, they presented the appearance of net-work, or ribbons of lace. The Machine measured the length of the thread which it wound, and proportioned the size of the ball to its weight and fineness.”
They must have been awfully pretty, those little balls of thread, to merit so much acclaim. Rees’s 1819 Cyclopædia agreed, “cotton thread for sewing, mending, and domestic use, is wound into balls of a figure resembling a cask, and the many intersection of the thread are so managed as to produce a very beautiful appearance.”
If the illustration below is an example, I do think they’re lovely! Illustrated ads for sewing cotton wound in a fancier lattice design appeared in periodicals from 1819 to 1827. Here’s one from La Belle Assemblée, 1819. The inventor was Edmund Naish, Quaker, who patented his method in 1818.
I didn’t hold out much hope of ever seeing one of these lacy little balls, so maybe you can understand my delight when I saw these!
So it appears that sewing thread, long sold in skeins (or hand-wound balls), was available for purchase as machine-wound balls sometime after 1802, and the fancy patterns in the next decade. But what about wooden spools?
In The Paisley Thread Industry (1907), the author says, “The year 1812 may be taken as the earliest date upon which Clark’s sewing thread was placed upon the market.” He goes on to state
The James Clark of Messrs. J. & J. Clark was the first to introduce spool cotton sewing thread. We are indebted to his son, Mr. James Clark, of Chapel House, for an explanation of the circumstances of this very important and interesting development. Mr. Clark says: – “Originally the cotton thread was sold in hanks or skeins, and then ladies had to wind it into little balls, as they generally wind a cut of wool yarn at the present day. Wishing to convenience his fair customers, James would, on selling a skein of cotton thread, sit down at a weaver’s pirn wheel, and wind the thread upon a spool, for which he charged a half-penny, but that half-penny he refunded when the empty spool was returned to him.
“The spools cost sixpence a dozen, and were ordered by James, to the extent of half a gross at a time, from a wood turner name Robert Paul, which he carried home in his coat pocket, to wind thread thereon by his own hand, if desired, after the sale of a skein had been effected by him.”
So I suppose you could have retail-wound wooden spools shortly after 1812 – if you lived in Paisley, Scotland! However, writing in 1861, William Weild gives a slightly different history.
Previous to the present century, sewing thread was made up for sale in hanks, and it was not till about 1814, that the plan of winding thread on spools or reels, technically called “spooling” was introduced by Mr. James Carlile, of Paisley….The spools commonly used are made of wood, more or less ornamented, and some also of metal, bone, ivory, and other materials. Wood spools were first turned by hand; but the immense demand for them called attention to the necessity for self-acting machinery for producing them in a rapid manner, and this was invented in 1846 by Mr. John Clark of Glasgow.
Here is another (mind-boggling) account of how was thread was made into balls and spools, the greatest problem being constantly breaking thread. From an 1846 SPCK publication:
The writer visited a sewing thread factory at Manchester…. The process of forming the thread into balls or reels is, performed by young women with an almost magical celerity. Each young woman is seated at a kind of turning-lathe; she seizes the end of the thread, and attaches it to a rod of steel, sets this spinning, and in an instant a ball of cotton appears at the end of the rod; the rotation is stopped, a blue ticket is inserted at the end, a further quantity of thread wound to secure the ticket, and the ball is finished. The size of the ball is regulated with extreme accuracy by the eye. The number of balls to the pound varies from 16 to 600; and the young woman being told to produce a certain number to the pound, makes a few, weighs them until she has got the exact size by weight; after this she relies entirely upon her eye, and so accurate is her judgement, that the variation of the balls in weight is very trifling. The cotton is wound on reels with the same surprising celerity…. Reeling is not such rapid work as balling.
Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Can you imagine what that must have been like, eye-balling 600 balls of thread? All. Day. Long. Perhaps they could also do it in their sleep. God bless them.
And now, if you’ve made it this far into an excruciatingly arcane subject, I will share my last two discoveries. If I had found them earlier, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all the rest.
The first is an excerpt from Our Village, by Mary Russell Mitford.
Everything in the one store which it boasts, kept by Martha Deane, linen-draper and haberdasher, is dear and good, as things were wont to be. You may actually get there thread made of flax, from the gouty, uneven, clumsy, shiny fabric, yclept whited-brown, to the delicate commodity of Lisle, used for darning muslin. I think I was never more astonished than when, on asking, from the mere force of habit, for thread, I was presented, instead of the pretty lattice-wound balls or snowy reels of cotton, with which that demand is usually answered, with a whole drawerful of skeins, peeping from their blue papers – such skeins as in my youth a thrifty maiden would draw into the nicely-stitched compartments of that silken repository, a housewife, or fold into a congeries of graduated thread-papers, “fine by degrees, and beautifully less.”
Well, well. She covered it all: paper-wrapped skeins, balls, reels, thread papers, and one I didn’t explore (since they are so well-known already), the silken repository, or housewife (hussif). See Sarah’s charming “repository” of blue and cream below, with matching blue threads all ready for use!
And the accompanying little bag with her name embroidered on the front:
But the last is an image, c.1810-1815. From the V&A, it’s the picture I’d always hoped to find: a thread-stocked workbox. The little “tickets” are pink, with the thread size stamped on them.
To wrap it all up, I now have a better idea of how to keep thread in my workbox or basket if I want to stay true (sort of) to the times. It’s a relief to untangle the knotty problem – and know that I can sleep peacefully at night.
¹ Miss Lambert was a prolific and popular author of needlework books such as this one.
² For some stranger-than-fiction history, read about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the gold sovereign magic trick – and how it could have killed him!
The first part of the book is the reference section, 400+ pages of information on textiles, right down to illustrations of the looms used to manufacture them. But the last sections are the most fun to read.
Appendix “A” has charts with sizes: home linens, gloves, buttons, corset covers, thimbles, and whalebones. There’s even a chart with yardage suggestions for most garments, rather like the back of pattern envelopes today. “B” has yardage, weight, and thread count. “C” is an appendix of tariffs, not particularly interesting except that it’s really cool to see what was being imported: human hair (unmanufactured), cotton quilts, artificial flowers, and hair of hogs for mattresses! “D” was, of all things, a German pronouncing dictionary – included because sales clerks who spoke German could command a higher salary!
But the best was last: Window Trimming (or How to Attract Women). The author sizes up his target.
“There are two classes of feminine buyers to whom the trimmed window appeals most strongly: the lady who has nothing to do looks round at the store windows through mere womanly curiosity; the lady who wants a dress or other article looks round for something to take her fancy: both are certain to be attracted by goods prettily displayed.”
I feel like I should feel offended. But I’m not. Sometimes I really do shop the first way, and sometimes the second! Cole advises on basic design elements and techniques, starting with conventional color theory. His comments are practical and pithy, “Red and orange are not pleasant companions.” Perfectly tasteful when arranging a shop window in 1890, right? However… “Divorce blue and violet forever.” Seriously? This time I am offended!
He continues with advice on the background of the window, and then goes on to arrangement. Time for some puffery! Did you know that heavy silk makes lovely displays when puffed just right? Window artists are directed to move their arms like exuberant conductors, raising armfuls of fabric and hammering down on the counter, jerking the selvedges outward and hitting the floating folds a sharp cut with the hand. But woe unto the artist who attempts to puff a flimsy silk “as it generally caves in, and so discloses the poverty of the fabric!” I hate it when that happens.
That reminds me, did I mention the free gifts with every purchase? Well, these extras (see left) are “usually given away with dress patterns of expensive materials.” I don’t suppose there are any new marketing tricks left. However, there are some old ones that have been forgotten. When was the last time you saw a Canning Apron Window? What, never?
Well, that was one suggestion for a theme window. “Many a lady who seldom finds time to enter into the hardships of housekeeping, just ‘pitches in’ during the canning season. It is taking time by the forelock simply to suggest that in this feature there is a grand opportunity for a realistic window display… A display of aprons, which are proper for such a time, and the arrangement of fruit in baskets and about the floor will be a change from old ways.” It certainly will.
But what about special events? This one’s a kicker: A Grand Army Window. “For occasions of Grand Army encampments or re-unions a window devoted to a representation of camp life is very appropriate.” By the time you’ve sodded the floor, added a tent complete with faux legs encased in army boots sticking out from it, knapsacks, and a coffee kettle over the fire, well, there you are in the good old days. But the description ends there, and I’m still trying to figure out – how the heck are you supposed to display any dress goods with that?
Wait, there’s more! Here are some illustrations of themes used to decorate windows. Let’s start with handkerchiefs.
And if you only want to do a few Easter lilies instead of a whole window, try this one.
What about something a little more creative, something to inspire thoughts of dressing children? Try a Loaded Cannon for infant’s wear. (If you’ve ever tried to dress a resistant toddler, this might not be so inappropriate.)
Now if you have a whole lot of prints that you want to showcase, here’s the perfect solution. Quilt shops, take note of these columns. This one “can be carried out with no more expense than that of a few hours labor.”
We all need reminding that it’s time to brush our teeth and comb our hair. And blow our noses.
And now to wind it all down, we have a spool display of gargantuan proportions. I want one.
More ideas include a May-pole, Toboggan Slide, Button Wheel, Parasol, Lace Fountain, and – are you ready? – a Bridge made of cuffs, 5-plaited shirts, canes and umbrellas, narrow black ties and white ones, carded cuff buttons, and pongee handkerchiefs. Mr. Cole would have loved decorating floats for parades!
He finishes with some excellent advice for the sales clerk, just as applicable today as it was then.
1. Be ready to receive customers with a gracious, cordial, and friendly address.
2. Never, under any circumstances, assume to know the business of your customers better than they do.
3. Treat your customer with respect, in fact, honor him in every way possible, since he has honored you by calling.
4. Use diligence and perseverance in showing goods and their merits in a scientific manner.
5. The crowning point is to fill the bill with a true artist’s eye, and sober, candid judgment… for future sales are at stake.
Thus with frankness, honesty and uprightness in every particular… the ambitious salesman will have lasting, satisfied customers, and have sold far more than anticipated.
Always remember that you needn’t be big to excel. “Don’t be discouraged if your window is small or badly constructed. Make the best of it, and carefully think out what kind of display will best suit the circumstances. You need a very small space to prove your taste and originality, and to make a show which people will cross the street to look at.”
I think we could apply that moral to a lot more than a shop window.
I’ll be sewing in Captain Nichols’ room, which will be outfitted for the 1910s with a 1914 hand crank machine, Miss Leah (a 1916 dress form), and an early garment drafting system that looks like a torture device, as well as all the hand sewing accoutrements necessary for a visiting seamstress.
I’ll be making doll clothes from patterns in the Mary Frances Sewing Book. Or at least fudgeling. I’m better at that than sewing!
“Marking, as the name implies, is the art of putting some distinguishing sign or mark on body and household linen, so that it may not be lost, especially in the laundry. It is therefore necessary that all washing things are clearly and distinctly marked.”
OK, let’s mark some linen. Find a chart or a sampler for a pattern (see left). Take a sheet or a towel, a shirt or a shift, and a ball of red or blue marking cotton or silk.
Make a cross-stitch, taking the first diagonal stitch over two threads of the fabric, and then another for the other side of the X. Your letters and numbers must each be finished off separately and not connected by a thread on the back. They will be about seven X’s in height.
Depending on how fine your fabric is, that means your A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 might be (gulp) 3/8 of an inch tall! Yes, seven little stacked crosses making your initials only 3/8″ high. I think good eyes and a sunny window would help.
Is it any wonder that marking was considered painfully tedious? Any wonder that any alternative method of defending your linen was highly desirable?
As a student of plain work, I’m in awe of the blindingly tiny stitches that were used for marking. I’ve blogged about it some here and here. But anyone who studies plain sewing will notice that during the 19th century, a new solution was the solution: indelible ink!
Here’s a recipe (one of several) from The New Family Receipt-Book, 1811:
Apparently the new and easier way caught on quickly. By 1833, Lydia Maria Child states in The Girl’s Own Book, “Indelible ink is now so much in use, that the general habit of marking samplers is almost done away.” Letters marked with ink could be very neat and elegant, such as this example on a lady’s chemisette, dated 1860.
Or indelible ink could be somewhat … disappointing. Unlike stitches made with thread, you can’t pick out an uh-oh. Miss Colby probably cringed when she saw how this one turned out – an untidy finish to her corded stays.
But wait! As we move from marking with needle and thread to marking with pen and ink, we’re moving into the decades of innovation: those glorious years celebrated by Great Exhibitions and more new patents than you could shake a stick at. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your cloth held taut while you wrote? A cloth stretcher could handle that.
And if the ink got too messy, well, someone had an answer for that, too. An indelible marking pencil could solve all your linen identity crises. Housekeeper, is your “brain feeling considerably bothered” by directions for using ink? An indelible marking pencil can relieve it!
Indelible ink, cloth stretchers, and marking pencils weren’t the only advances on cross-stitch. Stencils were available from stationers or engravers, and could be had by mail order. Mr. Congdon of Worcester, Massachusetts offered such aids, as seen in his ad from 1856:
But would stencils work with small letters and numbers on linen? Fortunately, we have surviving examples to show that they worked quite well.
And if thread, ink, pencil, and stencil didn’t suit, along came another option: ready-made. The machine embroidered letters came on a length of tape. They even came in Traditional Turkey Red.
The pursuit of convenience was just as fervent in the 19th century as it is in ours today, but there have always been a few voices arguing the superiority of the old ways. They certainly kept marking in the needlework curriculum until the early 1900s. While requiring more skill and more time, marking with needle and thread rendered articles “ornamental, tidy, and finished.” I suppose the tiny marking stitches are the nicest way to make your mark – for all time!
Old 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.
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!
Beulah Hosley did indeed land a job as a sewing instructor – for $30 a month! Her date of assignment was June 17, 1912. But she resigned three days later. What happened to Miss Hosley and why am I curious?
It’s because I found her name inside the cover of a sewing manual from 1911. The textbook is a neat little edition, with all her samples carefully worked and attached to the pages. Most versions of this book that I’ve come across are larger with more samples, but it appears that Beulah learned all that was necessary to become a sewing teacher.
She was, if not exactly ahead of her time, at least up with the times. At age 21, her graduation in Domestic Science from the State School of Agriculture in Canton, New York qualified her to teach or to … keep house very nicely!
“The fourth annual commencement exercises of the State School of Agriculture were held at the opera house yesterday afternoon, and proved intensely interesting. The State School of Agriculture and the Domestic Science department are advancing by leaps and bounds, and the entering class is expected to largely exceed any prior one.” – The Ogdensburg Journal, June 12, 1912.
Beulah Hosley learned how to hem, tuck, herring-bone, darn, mend, gather, and do all the other stitches required for handwork. I would guess that she also learned to use a machine and perhaps some basic garment cutting, but I didn’t find any further information on those classes.
But why so short a tenure at her first job? Homesickness? It was far from her home in St. Lawrence County. Or perhaps it was where she was teaching: the Rome State Custodial Asylum in Oneida County New York. The name conjures Dickensian images of miserable people living in wretched conditions. But when I read more about the early years of the home, I realized that Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly had prejudiced me somewhat. Somewhat.
The institution was founded in 1827 as the Oneida County Poorhouse, and it remained in existence until 1989. As I scanned circa 1910 reports from the Board of Managers, it was evident that much care and effort went into the enormous task of providing for and educating the people who lived there.
They had a dairy, a hennery, a piggery; an orchestra, a baseball team, a choir; a menagerie, fairs, and concerts. Everything was recorded and reported, from the number of cases of tuberculosis to pink eye to syphilis, as well as how many quarts of blackberries and currants were consumed. And of course, sewing classes! Still, to read the reports is to glimpse the struggles, the suffering, and the shame found even in an “enlightened” institution in the early 1900s.
But back to Beulah’s story. I haven’t learned why she didn’t stay there, nor whether she found another teaching job. I do know that she went on to live a comfortable life; she married a couple of years later and had children. Her name appeared in the college alumni publications for many decades after. Did she use her sewing skills at home? Quite possibly. She certainly left a lovely record of the skills she acquired, beautifully preserved for our admiration!
Yesterday a friend sent me a link to the most exciting news I’ve seen all year. Mr. Darcy’s Shirt is coming to the U.S.! Yes, you can forget Tutankhamun’s treasures or the Beauty of Xiaohe. Mr. Darcy’s shirt outranks them all.
Who can forget the (totally not in the book) scene from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice film where Mr. Darcy rises from the lake at Pemberley after his swim, only to run into the startled and stunned Miss Elizabeth Bennett? Be still my heart.
Unfortunately I won’t get to see the celebrity shirt on display, so I’ll have to content myself with a miniature version. This is a tiny “sampler” shirt dated 1838, very much like the square-cut linen one that embarrassed the soggy Colin Firth and melted the rest of us.
It measures 7 inches from the top of the tall collar to the hem. The cuff is 1 and 3/8 by 1/2 inch. The backstitches per inch are so small that I cannot count them. There are microscopic gussets on the collar, the sleeve openings at the wrists, and the side flaps. Oh, and of course there are the underarm gussets that are a whopping 1 inch long.
Colin Firth in a wet linen shirt, or a sampler made by tiny fingers in days long gone? I don’t know which one makes my heart beat faster: the man-sized or the miniature. But who would shrink from a closer examination of either?
Most 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.
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.
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!
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!
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!