Thursday, April 28, 2011

America's Love of Royal Weddings is Nothing New

With our all day TV and messages flying across the Internet we might be inclined to think this interest in the royal wedding is a result of modern communications. But this is far from true. The fact we fought the Revolutionary War to gain freedom from the British Empire appeared to be soon forgotten.

Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840 wasn't just the talk of the town, it was the talk of the western world. "Thousands and thousands of newspapers and periodicals were shared, reaching women in remote new settlements hungering for fineries and romance. Queen Victoria's wedding was the talk."
(from To Love and to Cherish: Brides Remembered)

No wonder we were enchanted with Princess Diana and it is no surprise that all the major networks will be covering Kate's wedding beginning in the wee hours of the morning.

What fun to know we are a part of a long tradition in our fascination with William and Kate's wedding.

Read more about wedding dresses through history in my article The Fabric of Marriage: Wedding Dresses

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dresses With a Bustle - Fashion in the 1870s

It’s always fascinating to look at antique fashion photos taking note of the styles and the details embellishing the garments. These two ladies demonstrate the latest fashion worn in the latter part of the 1870s. The dresses had some fullness overall but the bustle in the back gave the dresses the typical shape of the day. Note that not only is the back of the dress fuller but that added decoration brings attention to that fullness.

You may wonder how the bustled dress stayed in place and draped so well. The illustration to the right shows the cage style that was made with materials like wire or cane. Other bustles consisted of muslin puffs boned to give the shape. Lighter bustles were simply be made of stiffened ruffles.

It’s a special treat to examine an actual dress to see how it was made and to enjoy each detail that makes the dress special. I had the chance to do this when I was visiting antique dealer Mary Babcock. This dress is a wedding dress probably worn in the mid to late 1870s. Although some women wore the white bridal dress made popular by Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840 many still opted for a dress that could be worn on other occasions as well. Dark colors like seen in this brown dress were in favor. The jacket made the dress even more versatile. This dress is made primarily of solid fabric while monochromatic damask is used to add interest.

To the right and below are some close ups of parts of the dress. You can see how many different elements were used to embellish this dress. Take a careful look and you will see pleats, fringe, ruching, cording and those fascinating fringed circles. It looks as if someone has pulled the threads around the edge to give that look but that seems impossible with the usual weaving grid. It might have been something pre made and bought by the yard but the fabric is the same as the rest of the dress. Might they have sold all the components together including the fabric in pleats, damask, solid, decorative fringe and the fringed circles? Perhaps the cording with the matching fabric was manufactured as well. The dress itself is all hand stitched. Each pictorial button is unique

The photo below is of the style of bustle that was in fashion in the 1880s It's fun to see the difference.

(fashion plate photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Just how did our foremothers do their cooking?

Most often when we visit a small town museum we see an iron cook stove. So we are inclined to imagine that folks had them since the first European settlers arrived in America.

But the truth of it is that people cooked in their fireplace long before cook stoves came along. Cooking and heating fireplaces had been used since the middle ages. It was a few centuries before any improvements were made.

Some of you may have seen a fireplace used for cooking in a photo or a museum display. Often several fireplace tools and several pieces of cookware are shown. But the truth of it is that most early Americans cooked with just a few items. Perhaps a pot hook, a kettle and a ladle. An area of embers might provide heat to a small bake oven or to a make shift oven made with an overturned kettle.
So when the cook did stove come along? It wasn’t until about 1820 that efficient stoves were available making it a useful appliance home use. Though we’d like to think that this invention came about to make life a bit easier for the women of the house but the real appeal of the cook stove was that it took far less wood than a fireplace. While wood was plentiful for many of the early settlers in America as time passed people had to go further and further from home to get enough wood to keep their family warm and to cook their food.

We make a big mistake if we think that this means everyone had a cook stove by the 1830s or 40s. New technology didn’t spread like it does now. First the wealthy had such improvements to their homes. Gradually more and more other people were able to afford them. Also things spread slowly in terms of distance. Transportation was slow so we find that the stove along with other inventions took time to spread from the northeast to the south and the west.

Especially in populated regions by the mid 1800s a cast iron stove was considered a necessity in a “modern” kitchen. These stoves burned either wood or coal. Even gas stoves were available but they lacked the safety features we have today so they were not that common yet.

In the 1900s more and more American obtained electricity and by 1915 most middle class homes had electric appliances. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of folks still using wood or coal stoves. Both means and availability still affected who had modern stoves.

So next time you pop dinner into the microwave think about your ancestors who would never have dreamed of such an invention.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Skirts, the Oldest Article of Clothing

I've been reading about early textiles and clothing in the book "Women's Work: The first 20.000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times" by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

I found it fascinating that the "string skirt" may well be the earliest form of textile clothing. The evidence is found in carved figures of women wearing decorative skirts made of string. One bone figure of a plump women wearing a apron like skirt had been dated to around 20.000 BC. But there is no way of knowing how much earlier such a garment was worn. The skirts of these figures varied, sometimes a front apron, sometimes back while others went around. As string or rope deteriorates in the elements without these little figures we wouldn't have known about these ancient garments.

The surviving examples of string skirts are dated to around 1500 BC but they seem much like those on the early carved figures. They don't appear to provide for either modesty or warmth. Instead they seem to be for decoration. They may display decorative knotting around the bottom as in the pictured skirt while others are decorated with tubes of bronze at the end of each string. It appears the love of adornment began a very long time ago!

In time weaving was developed to the point where woven clothing was worn. The earliest surviving woven piece dates around 3.000 BC but it was made with advanced weaving techniques so we have to assume weaving had already been done for a very long time. So there was a period when both string garments and woven garments were worn. We know that in time a woven tunic was worn under the skirt perhaps at first for warmth but eventually for modesty as well.

The author give us some perspective on the amazing longevity of a basic skirted outfit. "...the garments --- white tunic belt and oblong tubular overwrap --- remained the basis of the European peasant woman's costume from then until the present. Even the modern business woman who wears a white blouse, woolen skirt and belt to work dresses in a barely changed, later form of Bronze Age European clothing. After all, if it works well, why alter it? Fashionable details may come and go, but the fundamentals of how we clothe our body are remarkably conservative." p68

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Hints for Immigrants" by Carl De Haas 1848

We've just discovered that the book "North America Wisconsin Hints for Immigrants" by Carl De Haas is online at the Wisconsin Historical Society website.

What makes this so special is that Carl De Haas is my great-great-grandfather. He wrote this information to help friends from Germany who might wish to immigrate to America.

He begins with advice on passage to America and warnings on packing for the journey. Much of the book is about farming. He mentions the friendliness of the neighbors and how spread out the cities are in America. Having come from Berlin this was quite different.

You can go to the site and read the entire book which has been translated into English. It gives a great picture of the life of an immigrant farmer. De Haas was a well educated man and soon turned to journalism for the rest of his life.