Odd Scraps For the Economical

February 25, 2010

America Frugal Housewife

Woollens should be washed in very hot suds, and not rinsed. Lukewarm water shrinks them.

…presented to you from The American Frugal Housewife – Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy, by Mrs. Child…


Winner of Randall Platt’s Book!

February 22, 2010

Dangnabbit, but our winner of Hellie Jondoe is Maria!  Please send your mailing address to damselsinregress [at] gmail [dot] com so we can get you your new signed book!

The Hard Work of Cleanliness

February 22, 2010

From accounts of the Babylonians in 2800 BC to the famous bath houses of the Roman Empire, soap has a rich history.  We can read of the ancient Egyptians’ regular bathing habits, the Bible’s detailed laws governing personal cleanliness, and the blocks of clay, stone, pumice and ash used for washing by the Greeks.  The fall of the Roman Empire led to the loss of bathing habits, a loss that would lead to over a thousand years of filth.  The lack of cleanliness contributed to the great plagues of the Middle Ages and the Black Death in the 14th century.  It wasn’t until the 17th century that ideas of cleanliness and bathing began to reemerge.

18th century America was smelly.  Towns and cities both lacked the cleanliness we are used to today.  Farm yards were strewn with animal waste, outhouses were common, and they smelled, especially on hot summer days.  City sidewalks weren’t any better.  They were covered with animal manure and waste tossed out windows.  The markets dumped their rotted vegetables, meat and fish in the streets and harbor.  On top of that, the lack of bathing and infrequency of which laundry was done left clothes dirty and people smelly.

At the beginning of the 19th century, families washed in the kitchen, an open public space.  Time wasn’t taken to heat water so baths were cold.  In the winter a layer of ice had to be broken through to even reach the water in the basin.  Washing wasn’t easy or comfortable.  This was slowly starting to change, though.  By the early 1800s, New Englanders were becoming more conscious about bathing and the importance of soap.  One of the first steps that led to more frequent bathing was the moving of the washing equipment—washstand, basin and ewer—from the kitchen to the bed chamber.  This increase in privacy for the bather led to more frequent baths.

There was also the issue of soap.  Most families couldn’t afford to purchase soap, which meant they had to make their own, not a simple process in the 1800s and one that was undertaken only once a year.  Two key ingredients were needed to make soap: potassium hydroxide (or lye) and fat oils.  Both of these items could be procured at home, but making the lye was a five day process.  First, a wooden barrel with holes bored into the bottom would be filled with wood ash saved from the fireplace.  The barrel would then be placed on top of bricks so that a pail or tub could be placed beneath.  Warm water was poured over the ashes, saturating them just enough so no water leached through to the pail.  The wet ashes would then be left to sit for five days while the water reacted with the wood ash.  After five days, boiling water would be poured over the ashes, letting it run through.  This leached out the lye.  At this point, the lye mixture had to be tested.  An egg would be placed in the mixture.  If it sank to the bottom, the mixture was too weak and the leaching process had to be repeated.  If the egg floated on top it was too strong and water had to be added to dilute it.  If the egg floated halfway in the mixture the concentration was perfect.  For every gallon of lye water, a pound of lard was added, followed by salt to help the mixture solidify.  The mix was then poured into rectangular wooden containers and left to harden.  Family members would cut off chunks as needed throughout the year.

Unlike the variety of fancy colored and scented soaps in stores today, soap in the 1800s was plain and purely functional.  Two types of soap existed—soft soap and hard soap.   Soft soap was created by omitting the salt from the mixing process.  By not adding salt, the mixture maintained a jelly like state, which foamed more easily when mixed with water.  Families stored soft soap in a wooden barrel and spooned it out as needed.  Soft soap was used for dishes and washing the floors, while hard soap was used for bathing and laundry.

Soap making was a chore for families.  Hard living conditions in the 1800s didn’t make bathing easy.  However, the American people on the whole were becoming more and more conscientious about cleanliness in general.  This awareness, along with advancing technology, slowly led to a cleaner society—in both person and town.  By the mid-1800s sewers were being introduced to cities, which aided greatly in cleaning up their dirt and stench.  Indoor plumbing made an appearance in the late-1800s, which also led to a drastic improvement in personal hygiene.  While the standards of cleanliness still left much to be desired in the early 1800s, awareness was slowly changing society for the better.

Women: From Shoulder to Ankle

February 20, 2010

As I mentioned in Thursday’s post, I’m concentrating on fashions worn in Europe.

Women’s Fashion: 1850-1899

Women’s clothing for the last fifty years of the 19th century went through a myriad of changes and I can only give an overview here. But those changes can be summed up for the most part by silhouette. These varying shapes were brought about by use of the caged crinoline or hooped petticoat, the half-crinoline, the cuirasse bodice, the bustle, and leg o’ mutton sleeves.

1850s Bloomer style

Before I discuss those, I want to talk about the first attempt at changing women’s fashion into something less confining—Amelia Bloomer’s efforts in 1851. Her suggested outfit included a simplified bodice with a skirt that reached below the knee. Ankle-length baggy trousers with a lace frill were worn underneath. This costume gained hostility and ridicule with many thinking it an attack on a man’s position in life. In Costume & Fashion, British clothing historian James Laver calls the Bloomer movement a complete failure. “A few ‘advanced’ ladies adopted the costume, but the upper classes refused to have anything to do with it, and Mrs. Bloomer had to wait for almost fifty years before she had her revenge in the adoption of ‘bloomers’ for cycling.”

Caged crinoline. Punch Magazine, 1856

Caged crinoline. In the 1850s, women wore flounced skirts that had to be supported by wearing several petticoats. With the invention in 1856 of the caged crinoline, women had more freedom of movement. They could do away with the volumes of petticoats and wear the crinoline, a garment of flexible steel hoops worn alone or sewn into a petticoat. There were drawbacks, of course. Pantaloons had to be worn underneath in case of a high wind. Skirts became so wide, Laver says, that it wasn’t possible for two women to enter a room together or sit on the same sofa. “A woman was now a majestic ship, sailing proudly ahead, while a small tender—her male escort—sailed along behind,” Laver writes.

Wide skirts courtesy of caged crinoline, 1860

Gowns framed by half-crinoline, Godey's, 1869

Half-crinoline. After about 1862, the silhouette of the crinoline began to change, becoming straighter in the front until finally in 1868, the support was totally in the back. Skirts were long in the back with a train and were looped up and draped across the rear, a bustle being necessary to support it all. This style last only a few years, evolving into a style with the fullness lower on the legs and no bustle.

Punch Magazine, late 1870s, by George du Maurier

Cuirasse bodice. The 1870s saw the introduction of several different types of dresses.  The “Princess” style was a dress of all one piece, while another style consisted of a separate bodice and jacket. Corsets had been used all along, but with the advent of the cuirasse bodice in 1874, which

Dolly Varden dress

was tight and molded to the hips, women had to wear long corsets. The sleeves were also tight fitting. These gowns limited movement and became the subject of satire as the cartoon above depicts. Other styles of the 1870s included the “Dolly Varden” dress, thought of as a throw-back to the 18th century, and the tea gown, a loose-fitting (no corset!) gown for entertaining at home.

"Back shelf" bustle, 1885

Bustle. By the mid 1880s, the bustle came back in fashion. Sometimes referred to as the “back shelf” bustle, it stuck out horizontally from the small of the back. Technology had advanced the bustle from the very warm horsehair products to those of braided wire.  James Laver describes the Langtry bustle:

“There was also the ‘Langtry’ bustle, an arrangement of metal bands working on a pivot. It could be raised when sitting down and sprang back automatically into place when the lady rose to her feet!” (Laver, 198)

The Rational Dress movement began in 1881 by those concerned about the rigid, deforming corset and the many layers of drapery in current fashion. It brought about loosely fitting gowns, sometimes belted at the waist. The movement was, of course, ridiculed, but was successful over time “as women began to lead more active lives and rigid corsets thus became unfashionable.” (Laver, 200)

Walking suits with leg o' mutton sleeves, 1894

Leg o’ mutton sleeves. Still, the use of corsets prevailed into the 1890s when bodices were narrow and skirts long and bell-shaped. By 1894, sleeves had grown enormously to the style known as leg o’ mutton. “Some sleeves were so large,” Laver writes, “that cushions were necessary to keep them in place.” This style faded after a couple of years and tighter sleeves were adopted.

By the end of the century, the corset was elongated, bringing about the S-curve shape that remained popular for years.  Working class women wore simpler styles and sportswear became popular as attitudes changed about

Bike dress, 1896

women being involved in sports. The tennis dress and the bicycling outfit are two examples.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our miniseries on fashion in the 1800s. There’s more to be explored than we were able to touch on here. Following are our references in case you’d like to do a bit of research on your own.

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Men: From Shoulder to Ankle

February 18, 2010

For today’s post I decided to concentrate on the clothing being worn in Europe.  I have, however, included a tidbit of Americana that the astute observer can easily find.  I’ve used images from each decade, beginning with the 1850s.  Several of these are paintings.  I so enjoy the work of artists depicting their own culture and society.  So, here we go.

Men’s Fashion: 1850-1899

1856 fashion plate showing the morning coat (left) and two versions of the frock coat.

As Jennifer said in Tuesday’s post, men’s fashion changed little during the 19th century. From 1850 to the turn of the century, the basic coats prevailed.  The morning coat, which curved over the hips toward the back; the frock coat, which hit at mid-thigh or knee-length; and formal evening tails were standard wear. The short jacket, also called the box coat or the sack coat, was similar in length to today’s suit coats and popular among young men.

Parisian composers: The Circle of the Rue Royale, 1868 by James Jacques Tissot. Note the morning coats buttoned high up on the chest.

Gentleman in a Railway Carriage, 1872, James Jacques Tissot. The fur on this man's coat was most likely a complete lining, not merely the trim. At this point, usually only males wore fur. It wasn't fashionable for women until the 1890s.

Bat Masterson in a sack coat. 1879

Sketch of John Delacouur in formal evening tails, 1885, for Vanity Fair magazine by Sir Leslie Ward (Spy).

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Women and Children: From Shoulder to Ankle

February 17, 2010

Women and Children’s Fashion: 1800-1849

Fashion Plate example from Ackerman’s Repository - BALL DRESS

Now on the other hand, women’s fashion was constantly changing during the 19th century.  The beginning of the century saw the popularity of the Empire style, which took its name from the Empire of Napoleon, who ruled France from 1799 to 1815.  Women’s gowns had high waistlines and long straight skirts that fell to the ankles.  The dress was typically made of a nearly transparent fabric with a solid petticoat and brassiere worn underneath.  Sleeves could be either short or long.  The style was said to resemble an architectural column.  The Empire style freed women from tight corsets and hoop skirts.  However, by 1820 the skirts were once again widening and their waistlines dropping, bringing the corset and hoopskirt back into fashion where they would stick around until the 1870s.

Rural winter attire

By the middle of the century lace dresses with tight bodices and long flounced skirts were very popular for formal occasions.  Silk, velvet and satin were other popular fabric choices for formal wear.  The basic outfit, though, for women living in towns or cities was a combination of the hooped skirt, blouse and bodice, typically made of linen, wool or cotton.  The “leg-of-mutton”-sleeve,which got its name from its resemblance to a leg of lamb, was popular throughout the 19th century and could be seen on gowns of all styles.  Women wore overcoats made of flannel, cotton, tweed or water repellent cloth.  Many coats had a cape collar that draped over the shoulders.

Summer attire for the rural women and children

Rural women wore a much simpler dress made of wool or linen.  Corsets and hoop skirts were not a part of their attire.  The dress usually had very little adornment, maybe a simple collar, but that was the extent.  An apron would be worn over the dress to protect it from the grime of housework. On Sunday, a woman would dress up her apparel with a shawl and clean apron.

Throughout the first half of the 1800s, children’s clothing was made at home and typically mimicked the pattern and style of the adult clothing with small variations that symbolized childhood.  Infants in the early 19th century were as heavily clothed as young boys and girls.  Their garments included diapers (known as napkins, secured by pins), bands, shirts, and petticoats.  Over all of this the child wore a long, typically white, gown that usually extended a distance below the feet.  The gown was not just for his christening ceremony, but for everyday wear.  A cap, which could expand as a baby grew, and stockings completed the outfit.  These items were typically fairly large and used drawstrings, all so that they would fit rapidly growing infants for several months.  Toddlers, of both sexes, wore cotton or linen dresses—also called shifts—over pantalets until they were three or four years of age, when they would then start wearing clothing that differentiated their sex.

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Men: From Shoulder to Ankle

February 16, 2010

As already mentioned, clothing and fashion is a huge topic so I’ll just cover the basics of shirt, pants and dresses or as the title says from shoulder to ankle.  I’ll cover from head to toe or “Hats, Shoes and Undergarments” in the near future.

One aspect I’d like to point out is when we look at the 1800s we have two distinct social classes: the upper class (who mainly lived in the city, though many lived in country towns) and the working class (including the rural farmers, servants, mill girls, shop owners…).  While the rural working class’s fashions mimicked much of the upper class, work and situation in large part determined their style of clothing.  The tailored outfits of the city men were impractical for the farmer, just as the farmer’s wife had no use for tight corsets.  As I write today’s article I will talk about both rural and city fashion and hopefully provide you with a good idea of how they were both similar and different.

Men’s Fashion: 1800-1849

Farmer Attire

Farmer Attire

America adapted the latest fashions of England and France, which within months arrived in American cities.  French and English magazines, such as Ackerman’s Repository, which featured fashion plates illustrating the newest style found their way to America and were the main sources for adapting new fashions.  As the popularity of fashion plates grew American magazines adopted them.  In 1828 the Cotton’s Athenaeum would publish the first American fashion plate.  The latest styles would quickly make their way to the country side through letters from city friends and local dressmakers and tailors.  Rural women then adapted these fashions to their own needs and tastes, combing city fashion with countryside sensibility.

Fashion, whether you were rich or working class, was extremely important in the 1800s society.  “Dress” had a different connotation behind it in the 19th century.  Fashion wasn’t just about sporting the latest styles, but an attitude toward how one perceived oneself and wished others to appraise them.  The importance of this mindset is demonstrated by the many books published offering advice to both men and women on all means of proper etiquette and dress.  Mrs. Farra’s The Young Lady’s Friend dedicates an entire chapter to dress, covering topics ranging from the “Standard of Beauty”, “Effects of Good Taste,” “Appropriateness Essential to Beauty,” to “Neat Habits.”  Books such as the Laws of Etiquette and The Cannon of Good Breeding , the latter of which offered advice to men, were full of guidance:

There should be an adaptation of costume to the occasion, season, place and hour.  There should be harmony between the stiffness of the coat and the company; a buckram’d collar at a pic-nic would be as much out of place as starchless linen in a drawingroom.

Fashion divided the rich from the working class, but both took pride, whether in silks or wool, in how they dressed and all that their attire implied.

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