Monday, November 3, 2008

Clothing on the Prairie in the Nineteenth Century

As families traveled West in covered wagons, women brought their current fashions with them safely stored in trunks. Thus women's clothing on the prairie varied with styles from the East and Europe blending with those of pioneer women. Dresses were out-of-style and made over to try to stay current with the trends seen in magazines and fashion plates.

Material was scarce so no scrap was wasted. Thus the patchwork quilt that is so much a part of our American heritage. When the seat of a skirt became shiny with wear, the panel was removed or turned so that the shiny surface wouldn't be so obvious. Or, when worn beyond repair, remnants were removed to make clothing for the children.

The image above is of my great-great grandmother, Lavinia Ann, born December 15, 1853. Lavinia's mother, Tennessee Caledonia, was full blood Cherokee. I love the name and plan to use it in a story one day soon. The dress Lavinia is wearing looks to be black serge which was popular and serviceable at the time. I imagine it was very hot. It would have been worn to church, funerals, and on special occasions.

During 1840-65 when skirts were full, it took ten yards of the wider bolt calico fabric or fourteen yards of silk to make a dress. That was a lot of fabric so women were lucky if they got two new dresses a year. They were reserved for special occasions and the old ones relegated to everyday use.

In the early 1850's bloomers, called knickerbockers by some were worn by a few, mostly women traveling. The bloomers reached just to the top of the boots and a knee length skirt was worn over them. For women with active lives on the prairie, they were useful attire but the style didn't hang around long. Split or riding skirts did, however.
Mother Hubbard dresses were popular in the 1880s. They had rounded fitted necklines with flowing skirts that caught in the breeze scaring horses and mules causing them to bolt. Men insisted while in town women wear belts to hold them in at the waist.
This picture is of my grandmother, Martha Comfort Pyburn Riley. She was in her thirties when she left Tennessee to visit cousins in Texas. There she met my grandfather, fell in love with his young son, and married Grandpa to give my uncle a mother. My mother, one of the middle children, was born in 1923 so I assume this photo was taken in the early 1900s. This was probably her one good dress.

Starting in the 1920s, feed companies in an effort to help those suffering during the depression, started storing feed, seeds, and grain in recyclable print fabric. Grandma Riley saved the sacks that chicken feed came in and used them to make her clothes. Since the print was different on each bag, the lengths were saved until there was enough matching material to make a dress. She also gave them to her granddaughters and nothing made me prouder than to wear a feed sack dress. Back then flour sacks made dish towels, were used to strain milk, and cover food to keep off the flies. Our ancestors knew how to avoid waste.
Thanks for reading.


Tanya Hanson said...

This was a fabulous post, Linda. Thank you!! I always wonder why folks in historic photographs always look so miserable LOL.

In the Depression, my grandma made a suit for my mom for her first job interview...out of one of my grampa's old suits! Gram was one woman who could make anything out of nothing. As you say, nothing went to waste.

Thanks again,

Lauri said...

Hey Linda, I just wrote my blog for Thursday last night (because I have meetings every night and won't have another chance to write one) it's on 19th century clothing as well!

At my great-grandfather's home they still have some of the old flour sack dish towels.

Paty Jager said...

Good information and great photos, Linda!

One of my birthdays when my family was short on money, my mom took one of her flannel nightgowns and made me one. I loved that garment. But year's later she told me now it tore her up that that was all she could give me for a present. And how excited I'd been over it.

Celia Yeary said...

Linda-such good stories about your ancestors. I wrote an article for TWRP on WARDROBES FOR THE HISTORICAL HERO AND HEROINE--It's in the "Greenhouse" under Blooming and Growing. I have several websites to use for ideas about clothing. I contacted every one of the owners and received permission. Take a look, if you haven't.
I think nothing describes Nineteenth Century clothing better than old photos of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. And yes, I had feed sack dresses when I was little, too. Celia

Linda LaRoque said...

Thanks guys for adding to my post. How awesome about your mom's suit, Tanya. Your grandmother must have been a gifted seamstress.

What a sweet story about the nightgown, Patty.

Lauri and Celia, I look forward to reading your posts about 19th century clothing.