Archives for posts with tag: textiles

When thinking about the fashion of the women’s suffrage movement, people’s minds often naturally conjure images of women trading their long skirts for bloomers and vehemently casting aside their restrictive corsets. By this logic, one might easily dismiss the owner of this 1896 wedding dress as ambivalent, or even opposed, to suffrage and the sweeping changes to fashion associated with it. After all, the dress shows no evidence of the women’s clothing reform that began in the 19th century. Conforming to mainstream high fashion of the time, it has a high, stiff collar and would have been worn with a corset. Furthermore, the bride who wore it, Sarah Peters Hickok, was a homemaker and socialite from Oneonta, NY.[1] Yet, despite these facts, this dress is not sufficient grounds upon which to determine Sarah’s political position because suffragist dress and thoughts on the subject varied widely during the 19th and 20th centuries.

 

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Bodice and skirt, ca. 1896, patterned silk, satin, lace, H: 18 (bodice), 45 (skirt) x W: 22 in. (bodice waist). Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Hannah Hampe, N0041.1955a-b. Photograph by the author.

It is true that women’s rights activists had already donned bloomers by the mid-19th century. However, they soon largely returned to more traditional dress after realizing that the radical and shocking bloomers were actually more of a distraction than an asset in their fight for equality.[2] While bloomers reemerged by the time this wedding dress was made in the late 19th century, they were primarily used as bicycling outfits.[3]

Appropriate dress was a strategic and hotly debated topic among suffragists, dividing even those at the forefront of the movement. Some activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, equated the corsets and long skirts of contemporary female fashion with oppression, designed to keep women subservient. However, others followed the lead of Susan B. Anthony, who was stylish, aware of current fashion trends, and determined to maintain her femininity in dress.[4] Attempting to simultaneously challenge traditional ideas about both fashion and the right to vote was dangerous, with the former potentially jeopardizing the latter.

As in the U.S., suffragists in the U.K. also “married radical ideas with willfully conventional dress.”[5] Having observed the American bloomer debacle, British suffragist leader Lydia Becker took a conservative position on dress, advising women to “stick to your stays, ladies, and triumph over the other sex.”[6] Even Emmeline Pankhurst and the militant suffragists of the Women’s Political and Social Union, who were known for arson, window smashing, and picture slashing, exhibited elegance and refinement in their dress. Suffragists were advocating radical ideas and they had to choose their battles wisely: fashion or the ballot. Dressing in a conservative manner gave suffragists credibility and helped make the notion of women voting more palatable. It also prevented them from being seen as demanding too much change too quickly.[7]

So, was the owner of this wedding dress a suffragist? We may never know. However, what is certain is that the conservative and restrictive style of her dress does not preclude the possibility that she was. Indeed, suffragist Charlotte Hawkins Brown dressed very similar to Sarah Peters Hickok for her 1911 wedding. In short, one cannot judge a suffragist by her dress.

[1] “Delaware County News,” The Oneonta Star (Oneonta, NY), March 19, 1926, 7.

[2] Gayle V. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001), 104-107

[3] Ibid., 171-172.

[4] Jenny Cobb, “The Fashion of Suffrage: Women “Vote” with Their Clothes,” Bullock Museum, https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/discover/artifacts/suffrage-dress-shoes.

[5] Cally Blackman, “How the Suffragettes Used Fashion to Further the Cause,” The Guardian, Oct. 8, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2015/oct/08/suffragette-style-movement-embraced-fashion-branding.

[6] Christine Bayles Kortsch, Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism (New York: Routledge, 2016), 91-92.

[7] Ibid.

By Sarah Phillips

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By Brandon Emerson ’17

Understanding the lives of women in the 19th century is a difficult task. With little recorded information about their lives, much is left to speculation. At first glance samplers are simply stitchings of alphabets and shapes, often used to teach girls how to sew and embroider clothing at home, however, through the careful analysis much begins to be revealed about the lives of these seemingly obscure women.[1] The sampler crafted by Judith S. Mosher (N0140.1972) at the age of ten allows for a deeper understanding of the life she led and why she lived that way.

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Sampler, 1831, Judith S. Mosher, linen, silk, cotton, H:20.25in X W:18.25in, New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Ella M. Stoddard, N0140.1972. Photograph of Richard Walker.

At a time when women began working in textile factories and society was shifting to a more manufactured goods based economy, Judith was still being trained in a very specific set of skills that would serve her in a life based around a traditional view of women in the home.[2] The detail in her sampler is tremendous. She went the route of crafting a family record of her household, complete with full names, birthdates, a verse, and a motif of a building. The sampler is a linen background with high amounts of silk embroidery with sparse amounts of cotton on the motif. The materials coupled with the size (20.25in by 18.25in) demonstrate a level of wealth and a high amount of time dedication because she was able to complete this daunting task rather than doing housework, typically necessary of low income families of the time period.[3] The neatness of the stitching on the sampler is indicative of a high level of skill which would be desirable to a potential husband.

Judith eventually married Thomas Potter, a merchant and manufacturer, with whom she settled in Rensselaer, New York by the year 1850. The census of 1850 also indicates a household value $16,000, one of the highest in the area, and a family size of seven children.[4] She went from being born into a seemingly wealthy family to marrying a man of wealth. Her sampler is the starting point for the discovery of her story and with that a look into the lives of women in the 18th century. While roles were beginning to shift, sampler making demonstrates traditional values that persevered through this evolving time. The stories of women like Judith provide a much needed look into the lives of the obscure and voiceless. Through careful study of artifacts, such as samplers, their voices can be heard and the historical record expanded.

[1] Lynne Anderson, Samplers International: A World of Needlework, 2nd edition (Eugene: Sampler Consortium, 2011): 9.

[2] Aimee E. Newell, “Tattered to Pieces: Amy Fiske’s Sampler and the Changing Roles of Women in Antebellum New England,” in Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950. (Ashgate: Farnham, 2009): 51-52.

[3] Ibid, 55-56.

[4] 1850 Federal Census, Town of Moreau, Saratoga Co., pg. 122A, http://www.newyorkroots.org/saratoga/census/1850more/1850moreau122.htm

How do you show your political views? Do you have bumpers stickers on your car? Or maybe you put up lawn signs to support political candidates or ballot propositions? The act of expressing your views publically through objects is nothing new. The mediums through which we express ourselves, however, have changed over time.

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Coverlet, 1848, cotton and wool, 87″ x 76.5″. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, N0004.2001.

This coverlet from Beekman in Dutchess County, New York, has a surprise message woven into its design. Amongst the stylish Rococo Revival roses and floral arrangements, popular motifs at the time, is a political statement. If you direct your eyes to the coverlet’s border you will see the inscription “Mary Jones,” followed by “Victory in Beekman AD 1848.” The name most likely refers to the woman who commissioned the piece from a professional weaver and the date, 1848, when it was woven. The second portion of the inscription is a bit unusual though, and here’s where things get interesting!

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Coverlet, 1848, cotton and wool, 87″ x 76.5″. New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York, N0004.2001.

According to oral tradition that surrounds the coverlet, the phrase “Victory in Beekman” refers to events of the Anti-Rent War in New York State. After the American Revolution, inhabitants of the newly formed nation were looking to cash in on  promises of freedom and equality established by the Founding Fathers. They hoped to make the dream of owning their own land and profiting from their own labor a reality. They ran into resistance, however, when they attempted to free themselves of leases established long ago by wealthy landlords. This semi-Manorial system of land tenure went on until farmers began protesting in the late 1830s and 1840s. These Antirenters banded together and refused to pay rent. Some extreme members of the group even dressed in costume as Native Americans and terrorized landlords. In 1845 the state called in its militia, but public opinion sided with the protesters and in 1846 a new state constitution banned such feudal tenures.

Much of this activity took place in Delaware County, which neighbors Dutchess County where the coverlet was made. Protests took place throughout the Hudson Valley, however, and the group even formed its own Antirenters political party. It is not far fetched then to assume that Mary Jones of Beekman may have been somehow involved with the party and hoped to commemorate its victories in her own home by commissioning the coverlet.

All across the state, women like Mary Jones were ordering fancy and figured coverlets from an expanding network of weavers. The arrival of the jacquard mechanism from Europe two decades earlier allowed for weavers to incorporate more ornate and precise designs into woven coverlets. Many New York women commissioned pieces with patriotic imagery, including the widespread use of the American eagle. The phrase “Victory in Beekman” takes this generalized national pride a step further in referencing specific events and makes the coverlet unique. Jones clearly felt strong pride in not only her country, but in the political views she held. She used this coverlet as an outlet to show others just what side of the Anti-Rent fight she was on.

So the next time you state your opinion via a bumper sticker think of Mary Jones and her coverlet and remember that you are taking part in a long tradition of political expression!

-B. Schline, CGP’14

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For further reading on coverlets or the Anti-Rent War check out:

Anderson, Clarita. American Coverlets and their Weavers : Coverlets from the Collection of Foster and Muriel McCarl. Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002.

Heisey, John. A Checklist of American Coverlet Weavers. Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1978.

Kubik, Dorothy. A Free Soil — A Free People: The Anti-Rent War in Delaware County, New York. Fleischmanns, N.Y. : Purple Mountain Press, 1997.

McCurdy, Charles W. The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839–1865.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.