The fifth annual Tidy Symposium, entitled "18th Century Working Women's Dress," took place at the University of Delaware on April 5th, 1997, and was held in conjunction with a two-day Living History Congress. Ken and Dianne Tidy, previously of "Tidy House" sutlery, have retired and been instrumental in putting together programs in order to bring to light the latest in research on the 18th century. The symposium was Saturday from 9 am to 5pm, but it really didn't end until after 6 pm. These are some of the highlights that I've put together, with the assistance of Linnea Bass, and Gerry Orvis.
Dr. De Pauw explained in some detail the social setting and restrictions in which 18th-century women found themselves. If a woman ran a shop she could earn as much as a man. Single women had the right to own property and, as landowners, they were eligible to vote. Most eligible small land owners, however, were satisfied to let the political actions of their province be dominated by the elite. When a woman married, she lost her rights, since she and her property then became the legal chattel of her husband. If the woman became a widow, or "declared single," she regained her rights, and for this reason many wealthy widows were unwilling to remarry. A smart woman, who wished to wed, could obtain a post-nuptial agreement from her betrothed, retaining her rights for all business decisions, property rights, and legal actions, without the interference of her husband. And this agreement was legally binding, in a court of law.
After the Revolutionary War years, women seemed to want, or were compelled to take, a more subservient, feminine role. Although the evidence during the War years shows women taking up arms to defend their homes, farms and businesses, proving them to be a hearty, competent lot, after the war their role was increasingly dependent on men. It became a matter of status for wives not to work, so they didn't learn the running of the farms or businesses. The division of masculine and feminine roles, and the changes in women's legal, civil, and business status were furthered by the increasing acceptance of the legal precepts of such writings as Sir William Blackstone's famous commentaries on English law.
Dr. De Pauw mentioned that she has spent 20 years collecting references to women during the American Revolution, and has found that there were many more women involved in the actual fighting, as well as following the troops, than previously believed. She suggested that there were two groups of women in the Continental Army, the "Women of the Army" and the camp followers.
The smaller group was the camp followers. They were civilians, either male or female, who followed the army to sell goods, or services, which may or may not have included prostitution. The key word is "civilian." Among European armies the camp followers were part of the logistical support apparatus, and their activities encouraged. They performed the functions of a quartermaster corps, such as sewing, laundry, supplied supplemental rations, as well as performed other services. But among Washington's troops the civilian camp followers had a hard time making a living, since the soldiers had little money.
The larger group was known as the "Women of the Army." These were "regulated wives," who were under military discipline, allotted half rations and paid about sixpence per day, and their children, who were given quarter rations.
When General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, (Oct. 1777) he had approximately 8,000 men, and 2,000 women, who were all taken prisoner.
Washington's army was not known to have as many women, but they were sufficient to encumber the army's marching. Washington realized that they were also essential to the support of the army. He wrote, "I was obliged to give Provisions to the extra women in these Regiments, or lose by Desertion, perhaps to the Enemy, some of the oldest and best Soldiers in the Service ... ." One might note that there was no quota placed on the number of women who could join the American army until 1802.
(Dr. De Pauw pointed out that some European armies of the 18th century sometimes allowed soldiers' wives to put on a uniform and to drill with the troops, or even to participate in combat.)
A smaller group of Army women consisted of those who actually succeeded in concealing their gender by enlisting as soldiers, as well as those who dressed as women, but still fought if needed. Those enlisted as soldiers received full rations. Later, some of these women even went so far as to petition Congress for pensions. Well known are Margaret Corbin, Maria Lane, Elizabeth Canning and Deborah Samson, to name a few.
One fallacy that Dr. De Pauw wished to disprove is that of "Molly Pitcher." The nick name is associated with Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley. In truth, however, the term "Molly Pitcher" cannot be traced any earlier than the mid-nineteenth century, and this was in the appearance of the words, "Captain Molly" in a patriotic print dated 1848. It is a fact that Mary McCauly made application for, and was granted, a pension as a "widow of a soldier of the Revolutionary War," but somewhere along the line, the words were switched to read, "for services rendered." It is thought that perhaps at the time of the Centennial celebration of the Revolution miraculous new evidence was brought to light proving Margaret's role in the Battle of Monmouth. It is thereby suggested that the image of Molly Pitcher is a Victorian myth.
In conclusion Dr. De Pauw pointed out that some people think of the era the Revolution as a "golden age" for women's rights. This, she points out, is misleading. The common people of the 18th century were not necessarily interested in democracy. That was a new concept for them. "The circumstances that permitted women equality of function, were conditions of extreme physical hardship." The restrictions of the times, were so profound, the difficulty of everyday living, and lack of comforts, were so strong, that people had to work, and work hard. The dependency of women was then pushed into the background, or ignored for the time, because of the situation, and hardships. With the coming of industrialization, however, security and physical comfort were chosen over continued personal and political liberty, and the women were once again pushed into the role of dependents.
Most paintings in the 18th century were commissioned by the wealthy nobility and merchant class to show a "better than life-like view." "Picturesque", rural scenes seemed to be in vogue at this time. In other words, the people and scenery depicted in these paintings were often made to look better and cleaner than would normally have been the situation in real life, and thus should be viewed with a critical eye. Since few working-class garments have survived, we must try to figure out what they were like from other sources, such as probate inventories, newspaper accounts, and advertisements.
Since seamstresses did not work for the poorer classes, the working women would have obtained clothing by home manufacture, cast-offs from family members or employers, or second-hand from street vendors. In addition they would have purchased ready-made garments. Locally woven materials and home manufacturing of clothing was declining during the later half of the 18th century in England. Even in rural areas there was still a thriving business in second-hand clothing. The theft of clothing was another way of obtaining it, which was much more common than one would imagine. The tradespeople would usually have a better dress than the laborers, and the very poor and beggars carried all their clothing and belongings with them in soft-sided baskets, or wrapped in sheets.
Ms. Ribeiro pointed out that the working classes used primarily wool and linen fabrics The blue apron was a symbol of manual labor, and was referred to much as we might say "blue collar" workers today. Servants might have had cottons, or even printed cottons or linens, with perhaps checked aprons. While doing work, it was not unseemly for women to have their sleeves rolled up over the elbow, or bare legs showing, since so many of the poor were barefoot anyway. The shift and stays, without a jacket can be seen in pictures of working women, even while out on the streets. If she were to go out other than while working, a women would probably put on a jacket of some kind over her shift and stays. The gowns of the poor were simple, usually of drab-colored fabrics.
A working women always wore a white cap even if they had a nice straw or felt hat over it. Ms. Ribeiro also noted that women's hats, caps, and hair were the most prone to fashion changes, since these are the features seen in a mirror (if the woman had one), or toward which the eyes of others are most drawn. This fact is certainly class-related, with regard to fabric and detail, but is generally true of women as a whole.
Shoes with pattens were commonly seen on working women and were considered essential to many professions. Patens elevated the wearers a few inches above the mud and rubbish of the streets to keep their shoes from being ruined.
Ms. Burnston examined the textiles, advertised in the Boston Gazette in 1763, and noted numerous printed linens. Examples of printed line appear in the colonies as early as 1712. Printed cottons and calicos began appearing about 1785 for the working class. An example at the Wadsworth Athaneum is dated 1785. She also showed a Chester County child's shortgown, dated 1750-75, from the Chester County Historical Museum. It is reversible with two cotton prints. Surviving woodblocks used in stamping patterns indicate it was a common printing method, along with the blue and white resist-printed textiles often seen in bed furnishings.
Linen takes natural dye poorly, and the pallet of colors used was limited. Dye stuffs could have included logwood, tannic-acid rich woodstuffs with metal salts, such as iron sulfate and copper sulfate, as well as indigo which was used in the blue and white resists. Some of these chemicals would burn the linen, and could have eventually left burn holes in the fabric.
Ms. Burston pointed out, in her examination of the Chester County gown, that a Quaker woman of the eighteenth century, would have worn a plain gown of simple but stylish cut, usually in a "sad" color, with brown being a typical color that was used.
The cut of the gown has two front panels, which appear to have been added to the dress later. This suggests that the bodice was made larger, probably for maternity use. The Quakers were known to lag ten to fifteen years behind the prevailing fashion, which would date this gown from 1750 to 1775. This helps to illustrate that knowledge of the religion, social class, and other personal traits of the wearer is a major factor in costume examination. Clothing, if studied carefully, can provide many clues about a person's life
Stays were worn by all classes of women, beginning at a very young age in order to form the conical upper body shape fashionable in the eighteenth century. Ms. Haugland made the point that stays were worn at all times, even while laboring in the fields or at the market, and not just with one's "Sunday Best." She added, "Moreover, as contemporary depictions frequently show, they wore stays not only as an undergarment covered by outer clothing, but as an ordinary part of clothing worn for all to see."
The stays that Ms. Haugland examined are not made of fancy silk or fine linens, but rather of a coarse bast fiber, possibly hemp, mottled with dark tan and brown blotches which could have resulted from deterioration of the hemp fabric and darkening with age. The backing fabric is two shades of paler tan, also of a coarse weave, possibly a linen or jute. The garment is sewn together with linen thread. It is noted that linen thread is a means of dating garments to the 18th century, as cotton thread very often dates items to the nineteenth century.
Cheaper stays, and those used by the middle to lower classes, seem to have been made with wood stiffeners, or a combinations of whale baleen and wood. Baleen, a byproduct of the North Atlantic whaling industry, was probably a more expensive means of stiffening than were wooden slats. The linen bindings have worn in many areas, and the wood is poking through. This is a familiar situation for many reenactors who wear stays, as well. The problem with using wood stiffeners is that they break, as seen illustrated in an original pair. The wood in these stays was identified as red or white oak, which is very strong and indigenous to the East coast.
One pair of stays were constructed of ten pieces, which were joined by butting them together and then whip-stitching them together with heavy thread. The raw edges were all turned to the inside, which suggests that this set of stays once had a lining. The second pair of stays were also constructed of bast fibers, made with three layers of fabric, and fully boned. Sometimes an extra piece of fabric was used for added stiffening across the stomach portion.
Both sets of stays have the lacing up the back, which was the usual method. The binding could be leather, as this helped prevent the stiffeners from poking through as easily, and the eyelets in the back where the stays are laced, have leather binding them, as well.
Stays are most often laced with one lace, starting at the bottom, and zig-zagging back and forth up the back, then tied off at the top. Stays exist both with and without shoulder straps. There seems to be no real indication as to which style was more popular, or in what situations they were worn. Some stays have a partial front opening. They are joined at the bottom point, and only unlace in the front three quarters of the way down.
Busks are pieces of wood, metal, or ivory, inserted down the front of the stays to provide extra stiffening. Some are beautifully carved. Someone asked if there was any evidence of a pocket constructed in the stays to hold these busks in place? Ms. Haugland answered, "No, just the pressure of the chest against the stays was all that held the busks in place." It was evident from the pictures shown, that the wearer of the stays usually had a kerchief tucked into the top of the stays if she was not wearing a jacket.
Leather stays were also worn. The leather was scored to help shape the desired curve, and to simulate the look of boning.
Pocket sizes range from 15 inches to almost 23 inches long. The reason for pockets was security from theft, and the need for women to carry items such as fans, money, and other personal effects. The size of pockets often depended on the things that were carried, such as letters, books, sewing implements, handkerchiefs, drinking cups, spoons, snuff boxes, etc. An advantage of the detachable pockets was that their weight didn't alter the dress lines by pulling down on the clothing.
Some pockets were decorated with crewel embroidery. The most common design was the vine. It followed the contours of the pocket, and was then embellished with flowers and leaves. Some pockets were decorated with pieced fabric, often colored cotton to make designs. The whole-cloth pockets used just a large piece of fabric, some with colorful prints, and others, called plain pockets, that were a solid color, or a white-on-white patterned fabric on the front with an ordinary weave on the back.
The reasons for decorating pockets varied. But over-all girls were taught from a young age that they should always stay busy, and about the wickedness of being idle. Sewing was a social activity which was favored and pockets were an easy portable project which showed off a girl's needle-work skills. Decorated pockets were also a popular gift item (as mentioned in Lady Eleanor Butler's diary), and clothing inventories often listed a person as owning many more pockets than could possibly be used.
The visibility of the pockets had a major impact on their decoration. It is now thought that pockets were glimpsed more often then previously believed. The split gowns enabled their pockets to be seen when worn over the petticoats but under the gown. (A split gown is one that is separated in the front allowing the under-petticoat to show. These open gowns are worn with a stomacher as well. As a closed gown is one that has no such separation, and joins together in the center front of the bodice.) Then when the fashion went to closed gowns, the pockets were worn over the gown but under the apron, which proved easy access, but retained some safety.
Many period paintings show women pulling aside their aprons to reach into pockets. Completely concealed pockets, were usually worn under hoops and tied over the shift, before any petticoats were put on.
In art of the period, pockets were often symbolic. The orderly and well-dressed woman would not show her pockets, whereas the showing of pockets could represent disorderly or immoral conduct. A disreputable women, as depicted in "The Lamentable Fall of Madam Geneva," by Hogarth, satirizes the Act of 1736 designed to suppress the sale of gin. Likewise, pockets that are overflowing with money may portray greed and miserliness. Artists would sometimes use the size and shape of pockets to symbolize female sexuality, such as in the picture "Rigging Out a Sailor" by Rowlandson.
Q: Have you ever seen maternity stays?
A: An emphatic, "No."
Q: Are ladies' shifts ever seen in stripes, checks or other colors than white?
Q: Are the caps that women wear ever a different color than white, and what about the black ones seen?
A: Caps are always white, with black being used for widows' headgear for mourning as an over-cap.
Q: Were knitted shawls worn at the time of the American Revolution?
A: No evidence of knitted shawls has been found. Knitted silk kerchiefs were just starting to be seen in the 1770's, but this was rare.
Q: Was it alright to show one's elbows?
A: The elbow was not thought of as an esthetically pleasing sight, though sleeves rolled above the elbow are seen in many period paintings and prints depicting working women. Rolling one's sleeves was done to protect the clothing during work, but afterward, women would have rolled down their sleeves and covered the elbows. Elbows didn't necessarily depict a prostitute or loose morals.
Q: Did women always wear their caps?
A: An emphatic "Yes" even under other hats of straw or felt. The cap is meant to cover the hair day and night, especially while cooking and around food. Lack of bathing would cause all kinds of creatures to inhabit the hair, and the hair would be covered whenever possible.
Q: What is the difference between bedjackets, and bedgowns?
A: The T-shaped, banyan-type gown is know as a bedgown, or bedjacket. The difference probably comes in the translations. But it is the same thing.
Q: Were buttons used as a closure on women's clothing?
A: No. Buttons may have been worn as a decoration, but women's clothing was almost always closed by pins, lacing, or hooks and eyes. Buttons were considered masculine, and therefore can be seen on riding habits that copy masculine clothing.
Q: How are aprons tied on when wearing a sack-back gown?
A: The sack-back gown is free falling in the back, so the strings of the apron are threaded through the pocket openings or slits on the sides of the gown, and continued around the women to tie at her back.
Q: The color purple can be seen in certain fabrics, does this mean that they had a way of making purple dye?
A: No evidence of purple dye has been found at this time period. It is thought that the purple that we now observe is from the fading of brown to that color.
These are just some of the highlights of the symposium. If you'd like more detail, please feel free to contact me personally.