All’s Fair

S.C., R., O. & B. Agricultural Society Fair 1860
S.C., R., O. & B. Agricultural Society Fair 1860

Once upon a time, folks from all over would gather, bringing their best work to show off, to compete for prizes, and to sell. These were the agricultural fairs, a tradition whose roots go back many centuries and places. Nineteenth century America saw their development as a way to encourage innovation. By mid-century, agricultural societies were flourishing.

Today their records are a rich source of information on agricultural and domestic history of the era.  The premiums, which ranged from a few cents (female enterprise) to substantial sums (men’s categories!) must have been the source of great pride, outrage, bickering and boasting – oh to have been there to hear the drama! I spent a happy afternoon several years ago in a university library poring over the books full of juicy details. Yes, that was before google books.

“An embroidered map of Savannah… best collection of fall peaches … beautiful specimens of sewing silk … second best profane landscape … woolen counterpane, maker’s name unknown … from the crowded state of the room, and the great number of articles present, several paintings could not be found …  second best cow “Eloise” … the committee exhibited a marked partiality for apple pies, and awarded with singular unanimity fifty cents each to Mrs. … a basket of superb wax flowers, which the chairman of the committee on flowers pronounced superior to any in his department of natural ones … S. D., 7 years of age, worsted work executed while lying on his back with a broken thigh, .50 … worsted quilt, said to contain 9765 pieces; ingenuity and labor … lemons of enormous size, preserved in alcohol…” – the list fills volumes.

Crackers, lightning rods, stoves, plows, false teeth, butter, Muscovy ducks, headstones, cologne, down tippets, dog’s hair socks, essays, fishing boots, parsnips, daguerreotypes, golden pippins, rocking chairs, canaries, grain bags, gold pens, baby-tender. Was there anything they didn’t show?

To paraphrase one report, I am greatly embarrassed on account of the limited means placed at my disposal to mention such a large number of exhibits, and I wish to say, that I doubt not there are many articles not noticed which are as well worthy of premium or gratuity as some which have been thus honored. I am reluctantly compelled to pass them over.

Fair Chemise 2
Hand Sewn Chemise

One category is especially interesting to me: plain sewing (surprise!). Here are some examples from the Sandy Creek, Richland, Orwell, & Boylston Agricultural Society of New York, c1860.

The chemises are exquisite, and it’s easy to see why their maker entered them in competition. I regret to say that I don’t know if they won a prize or not. There was no record of one with them. Nonetheless, they are fine work and perhaps the maker would be even more pleased if she knew how much, and how long, they would be admired!

By the way, check the calendar and visit your own state or local fair. If you’ve never toured the exhibits before, you’ll be amazed!

A Grief Preserved

Because most plain sewing items (at least those I study and collect) are white, I confess I sometimes get weary of plain white! I love the variety of early cotton prints, the charming patterns and colors. Children’s dresses from the early 1800s are a good example of garments that could be very simple to make with only plain sewing skills. In fact, there is a very early book called Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor; Principally Intended for the Assistance of Patronesses of Sunday Schools and Other Charitable Institutions, but Useful in All Families that describes the process.

For those who would like more detail and patterns that they can easily use today, there is another book, The Lady’s Economical Assistant, which has been reproduced after the 1808 edition, available from Kannick’s Korner.

I came across this one day while surfing for children’s print dresses.

John Marsden Dress

It is a simple child’s gown dating to 1803 that has a story, one I could never imagine. Made of a shabby, sweet calico print, it is typical for its day: simple in cut, with a little frill around the high collar. The tragedy lies in the last day it was worn. John Marsden was two years old when he died after being scalded in an accident at home.

The Marsden family were among the earliest to arrive from England to live in New South Wales and the Powerhouse Museum website has more information on the family and this collection.

I don’t need to create imaginary stories for this dress, since his mother said enough, “The loss of those I have parted from weighs so much on my mind that at times I am as miserable as it is possible to be – outwardly I may appear cheerful but I am very far from being happy – indeed happiness and me seem long since to have parted and I have a presentiment that peace will never more be an inhabitant of my bosom.”

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.”



I am referring to an Unidentified Fabric Object. From eBay to flea markets, mystery objects abound, and this one is often misidentified. No wonder, it’s not something that is used today, and it was probably a bit of a nuisance to the wearer in its own time!

Take a small rectangle of cotton or flannel, and gather or pleat a much longer rectangle to it, neatly finish the edges and there you have it: a tiny apron/skirt/slip/unfinished sleeve for a skinny short person! Or not. What you really have is a barrow, barrie-coat, barra-coat, barrar coat, pinning blanket, night flannel, or petticoat.

These skirts were worn by babies in days gone by, layered somewhere between the shirt and diaper (clout or napkin) and outer petticoats or gowns.

UFO Catalog Illustration
From an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalog

According to The Nursery Basket, published in 1854, the night petticoats

“are nothing more nor less than the old-fashioned open pinning blanket, or the English barrar coat. In the simplest form, a night petticoat has a skirt of one breadth, three quarters of a yard in length. Turn a hem as shown above, of two inches, at the bottom, less than half an inch or the sides, and cross-stitch, as on the bands, with white silk. Gather it slightly into a double linen waist (waistband fashion), 22 inches in width, and 6 in length, which will allow for seams.

Choose the same quality as for the bands, finer rather than coarser, as it comes next to the shirt and at first completely wraps the delicate limbs of the infant. The real flannel petticoat is not usually put on until the child is six weeks old. The pinner is then used for the night, six weeks longer, when most babies of spirit kick themselves fairly out of its narrow limits.

We have found this sufficient for all ordinary purposes. There is another style, now in use, where the band and skirt are made to lap at the side, and the skirt is tied over by tape strings, instead of being pinned up, as in the first instance. This will require two breadths, of flannel, a yard in length, to keep the child’s feet and limbs sufficiently warm, and is more cumbersome to infant and nurse. The waist can be made in the same fashion as the second band, to tie over.”

The author, Sarah Hale, goes on to describe possible trimmings and ornamentation, but suggests that “as the garment is only for transient use, it would seem a waste to expend much time or labor upon it.” And after all, most “babies of spirit” wouldn’t appreciate it.

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!

20,000 Stitches: You Do the Math

Exhausted from an all-night binge of shirt-making.

Just when I get complacent, thinking I’ve found a bit of information and can safely pack it away, something comes along to surprise me. As Seen on TV advertising is not new to our generation. Well, maybe the TV part, but not the advertising!  About 150 years ago readers of Godey’s Lady’s Book were told how much easier their lives would be if they only had that new invention, The Sewing Machine.

Old Sewing MachineValue Of A Sewing-machine.—The following curious calculation of the number of stitches required in making a man’s shirt, gives us a realizing idea, as a Yankee would say, of the value of the sewing-machine in one single branch of needlework. As a household aid this invention is invaluable to women. Is it not pitiful that more than twenty thousand stitches have often been required to make one single shirt, for which the poor seamstress received, probably, not over seventy-five cents or one dollar:—

“Stitching the collar, four rows, 3,000; sewing the ends, 500; button-holes, and sewing on buttons, 150; sewing the collar and gathering the neck, 1,204; stitching wristbands, 1,228;  sewing the ends, 68; button-holes, 148; hemming the slits, 264; gathering the sleeves, 840 ; setting on wristbands. 1.468; stitching on shoulder-straps, three rows each. 1880; hemming the bosom, 393; sewing the sleeves, 2,532; setting in sleeves and gussets, 3,050; tappiug the sleeves, 1,526; sewing the seams, 841; setting side gussets in, 424; hemming the bottom, 1,104. Total number of stitches, 20,620.”

In true journalistic tradition, Harper’s presented, almost word for word, the same thing in 1869. Only their math was a little different.

Shirt FoldedThe following curious calculation of the number of stitches in a shirt, which somebody has had the patience to make, we mean the calculation, not the shirt, by any means, may induce some gentleman to present his wife with a good sewing machine.  Stitching the collar, four rows, 3000; sewing the ends, 500; buttonholes and sewing on buttons, 150; sewing the collar and gathering the neck, 1204; stitching wristbands, 1228; sewing the ends, 68; buttonholes, 48; hemming the slits, 264; gathering the sleeves, 840; setting on wristbands, 1468; stitching on shoulder straps, three rows each, 1880; hemming the bosom, 393; sewing the sleeves 2335; setting in sleeves and gussets, 3050; tapping the sleeves, 1526; sewing the seams, 848; setting side gussets in, 424; hemming the bottom, 1104. Total number of stitches 20,530.

Apparently this “curious calculation” didn’t begin life as a sewing machine ad. It appeared in the years after, but also in the years before the sewing machine.  Note how the article was borrowed and adapted (just like the blogs we’re writing now – ha!)

Now come the long evenings with devices for amusing them. In the intervals of recreation there is “work to do.” This word “work” is significant of an employment which astonishes men, and seems never to tire the fingers of their industrious helpmates and daughters; except that, with an expression which we are at a loss to take for either jest or earnest, because it partakes of each, they now and then exclaim, “women’s work is never done!” The assertion is not exactly the fact, but it is not a great way from it. What  “man of woman born” ever considered the quantity of stitches in a shirt without fear that a general mutiny among females might leave him” without a shirt to his back?” Cannot an ingenious spinner devise a seamless shirt, with its gussets, and wristbands, and collar, and selvages as durable as hemming? These inquiries are occasioned by the following Letter from a Lady:— “To the Editor of the Every Day Book.—

Sir, I assure you the Every Day Book is a great favourite among the ladies, and therefore I send for insertion a calculation, furnished me by a maiden aunt, of the number of stitches in a plain shirt made for her grandfather: —Stitching the collar, four rows, 3,000; sewing the ends, 500; button-holes, and sewing on buttons, 150; sewing on the collar and gathering the neck, 1,204; attaching wristbands, 1,228; sewing the ends, 68; button-holes, 148; hemming the slits, 264; gathering the sleeves, 840; setting on wristbands, 1,468; stitching shoulder-straps, three rows each, 1880; hemming the neck, 390; sewing the sleeves, 2,554; setting in sleeves and gussets, 3,050; taping the sleeves, 1,526; sewing the seams, 848; setting side gussets, 424; hemming the bottom, 1,104—Total number of stitches 20,646 in my aunt’s grandfather’s plain shirt, as witness my hand, —Gertrude Grizenhoofe.—Cottenham, near Cambridge, Sept. 1825.”

It was great fun tracing the path of these “curious and significant” calculations, although a bit confusing because sometimes a publisher would acknowledge the source (quite helpful), sometimes not (greater challenge), and sometimes it was a reprint from their own magazine (I got lost).  Not to mention, their math could be as wobbly as mine! The trail of the tale was pretty typical for 19th century publishing.

However, I was astonished to finally come across the same calculation in another magazine – from 1782! So this stitchery factoid was much older than I had supposed, even more exciting!

As a plain-sewing-square-cut-shirt devotee, I’m fairly familiar with the terms used in their construction. I know about the “nineteen pieces in a shirt, twenty in a trimmed one.” But I was puzzled by “tapping the sleeves.”  After finding the other versions I assumed it was a typo for “taping.” And behold! In The Lady’s Magazine, the word was clearly ‘taping’ – but what did it mean? Tapes in the early garments were usually what we call drawstrings today. Hmm… Ideas, anyone?


The Ubiquitous Cuff

Cuff 1820
Sample of a cuff from an 1820 sewing manual.

The little wristband  appears in English, European, and American school samplers throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. Girls were first taught the basic stitches and expected to master each one. But of course the purpose of learning stitches is to make something!

Cuff IH
Illustration of a pattern for a sample cuff, 1850.

When they were accomplished in running, stitching, and seaming,  the time had come to assemble parts of a garment. This was often how they learned to stroke and gather tiny pleats into a band – each side gathered and the pleats attached separately on both sides. The ends of the band were seamed (overcast) with very tiny stitches. What could be more suitable than a little cuff? It only required a scrap of fabric and was easy to handle.

This method of inserting and fixing the sleeve in the band is also a clue when examining a garment to determine its age (or whether it’s a good reproduction!). I’ve noticed that almost all early pieces of plain sewing use this method for cuffs, collars, and waistbands, anything gathered and set into a band.

After the sewing machine became common later in the century, construction methods adapted to its use. Even though some plain work was still taught using the old method, the new way became standard – to the point where today we rarely know any other.

Another sample of a cuff from a mid-19th century manual – see how tiny the stitches are!