Friday, September 9, 2011

Busting Myths Series: "Circular No. 8" by Dorthea Dix

We’re contemplating a beloved myth today and trying to get to the bottom of why this myth went the direction it did.
Many female re-enactors/living historians of mid-19th century American history have considered portraying one of the many women who answered the call for female nurses/matrons in military hospitals during the (American) Civil War. The Dear Newbie is quickly informed by a Mentor that Dorthea Dix issued very strict guidelines on the physical and fashionable attributes of a female nurse… and one either goes with the dictates or fights valiantly against them. Some of the dictates are based in fact and have been taken a bit out of context.  Age restriction is an example. Some of the dictates are practical suggestions that have been written down as dictates in later memoirs. “No hoops” is one such example.  Some of the dictates are so much bunk, such as “must be ugly.”
In the following posting I will take Miss Dix’s “Circular No. 8” and address how the phrasing was interpreted and extrapolated…  giving birth to the myth of the attire and physical attributes of female nurses/matrons of the Civil War era.

Circular No. 8., by Dorothea Dix
Washington, D. C., July 14, 1862,
No candidate for service in the Women's Department for nursing in the Military Hospitals of the United States, will be received below the age of thirty-five years, nor above fifty.

This is frequently interpreted to mean that the efforts of young women aren’t worthy. In truth, she needed women who were  mature enough to handle the tasks they would be set with delicacy, tact, practicality, and sheer cussedness when needed, yet young and spry enough to handle hard, physical work in often primitive conditions. Miss Dix mentored a number of women who were younger than the requirement and saw to the placement of others. Several of our most beloved nurses/matrons were above the age requirement… but these spry elder women gave their all to serve. There are records of women who were denied admittance to the Women’s Dept. who went on to serve as nurses/matrons in different ways. We must remember that Miss Dix’s appointees account for only 6% of the females who served as nurses/matrons.

Only women of strong health, not subjects of chronic disease, nor liable to sudden illnesses, need apply. The duties of the station make large and continued demands on strength.

This passage is frequently forgotten when Miss Dix is quoted. Health is a very important prerequisite for ensuring the health of others. With frequent epidemics of childhood diseases and filth diseases running through hospitals and camps, finding candidates who are least susceptible to illnesses is critical for keeping the hospitals running efficiently and care coming consistently.

Matronly persons of experience, good conduct, or superior education and serious disposition, will always have preference; habits of neatness, order, sobriety, and industry, are prerequisites.

 With this phrase comes the reference to “matronly persons”… which has come to mean “old & ugly” or in other ways “not attractive.” One can see from the phrasing that it is not meant so here. “Matronly” simply meant “motherly” and in a culture that gave the highest forms of respect to a Mother, being considered “motherly” was the highest praise one could bestow. 

The likely reasoning the rest of the requirements were listed could have to do with the types of female persons employed in hospitals prior to this war.  Such women were given domestic and scutt work… such as cleaning up, removing refuse, and watching over patients for very long, boring periods of time. Women who had been convicted of crimes or forced to charity work-houses were seen as appropriate candidates for such positions. Many such women had a reputation for slovenly dress, apathy towards tasks, disruptive and belligerent behavior and a tendency toward alcoholism. With the creation of the Women’s Dept. being a sort of “grand experiment,” those in charge wanted to disassociate themselves from such reputations. 

All applicants must present certificates of qualification and good character from at least two persons of trust, testifying to morality, integrity, seriousness, and capacity for care of the sick.
Obedience to rules of the service, and conformity to special regulations, will be required and enforced.
Compensation, as regulated by act of Congress, forty cents a day and subsistence. Transportation furnished to and from the place of service.

This Circular is essentially an employment advertisement and much of this phrasing is simply that… detailing the job expectations. This is also often forgotten in quoting Miss Dix’s Circular.

Amount of luggage limited within small compass.
Dress plain, (colors brown, grey, or black,) and while connected with the service without ornaments of any sort.

This is the phrase that made the biggest impression to potential nurses/matrons… because almost all who set their experiences down on paper spent a bit of ink detailing what they took with them and what they thought practical to wear. From a practical standpoint, the hospitals to which the women would be assigned were primitive, with space at a premium and devoted mostly  to the patients… reminding potential nurses/matrons that it was prudent to pack light, small, and practical was simply good sense. Likewise was it good sense to remind the women that clothing needed to be sturdy and able to see hard use. 

In 1895, one former nurse detailed her interpretation of “Circular No. 8” in her memoirs and she has been much quoted since. Mary A. Gardener Holland writes in her book Our Army Nurses, Later, I procured one of Miss Dix's circulars, and read it again and again. It appeared to me a queer demand. It read like this : " No woman under thirty years need apply to serve in government hospitals.  All nurses are required to be very plain-looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, or jewelry, and no hoop-skirts." It was fashionable at that time to wear immense hoops. I had worn one for some time, and really felt it a sacrifice to leave it off. Other requirements were agreeable, but I felt I could not walk without a hoop. I said, " Well, if I can't walk without it, I will crawl ; for I must go, and I will do the best I can."

While many women serving as nurses/matrons may quickly have found the practicality of wearing layers of petticoats instead of a cage crinoline… Miss Dix’s “Circular No. 8” clearly leaves the decision to each individual applicant. Fellow researchers surmise that Mrs. Gardener Holland’s listing of ornaments that weren’t permitted may have been an author clarifying for contemporaries (the book was published 30 years after the events described) what would have constituted “ornaments” at the time the events were taking place. 

No applicants accepted for less than three months service; those for longer periods always have preference.
Approved, William A. Hammond, Surgeon General."

This passage is more “employment advertisement-speak” that is not often quoted. The preference for longer than three month availability probably comes from wanting a sufficient employment period from an employee to off-set the amount of training they needed. Many former nurses/matrons remember the first month as a type of “on the job training.”

With the approval of the military medical department, the Women’s Department for nursing paved the way for women to serve in military hospitals. Miss Dix’ s “Circular No. 8” provided the guidelines and helpful suggestions these women needed to evaluate if the service was an appropriate way for them to serve, prepare themselves to transition to this new lifestyle, and better understand what was to be expected of them.

Each former nurse/matron remembered her own interpretation of “Circular No. 8” and the impact it had on her employment. From looking at only a memoir or two, and those written many years after the issuance, modern re-enactors/living historians are only getting an interpretation of a document... and can easily perpetuate a myth if the actual document is not examined.

Read further memoirs by former nurses/matrons:

Read further on Female Nurses/Matrons of the American Civil War Army:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Everything...AND the kitchen sink...

A group of Dear Newbies are contemplating the kitchen today. They are bemoaning the hours the kitchen, or in military parlance "mess", takes to set up, the hours it takes to tear down, the space it takes to store and the hassle of transporting this much "stuff" to the average three day event.

Wouldn't it be nice to scale down... but how does one go about doing so?

With a few considerations, scaling down on the kitchen should be easy... if one is willing to commit to doing so and firm with their group that this is the "way to go."

Consideration 1) Refrigerated Items. Bringing fewer items that need refrigeration will eliminate the coolers, the ice, and the period justified containers to disguise the coolers.
     Practical Example: Please consult this simply wonderful article written by a friend, Elizabeth Stewart Clark. She has filled the article with common sense on why to do without refrigeration and some fabulous practical suggestions for doing so. No Refridgeration Required by Elizabeth Stewart Clark

Consideration 2) Cooked Items. Bringing fewer items that need cooking will eliminate some of the cookware and some of the firewood needed. Fewer items needing cooked will also get one away from the fire and out to enjoy the event. :-)
      Practical Example: Many items can be prepared at home... breads, baked goods, veggies, hard cheeses, hard meats like summer sausage...

Consideration 3) Ingredients. Coordinating a menu to make the most of left-overs can mean less ingredients need to be brought. Combining seasonings into pre-made packets ahead can eliminate the need for spice containers and measuring implements. Preparing chopped items ahead will eliminate the need to bring cutting surfaces and specialty knives.
     Practical Example: One meal we have ham slices... in a later meal, we have bean soup with ham pieces. One meal we have fried chicken... a later meal we have chicken salad. (think of the after-Thanksgiving parade of turkey dishes... turkey sandwich, turkey pie, turkey salad, stewed turkey, turkey broth soup... BLEH!! enough with the turkey already!!) ...and this is a period idea too, showing up in period housekeeping advice manuals. :-)

Consideration 4) Purpose. In addition to coordinating menu items to make the most of fewer ingredients, investing in cookware and serve-ware that will serve more than one purpose will allow one to scale down their kitchen. Choosing to go without dishes that require a specialty cookware piece or serve-ware piece will also scale down the kitchen.
     Practical Example: A dutch oven can be used for stews, baking, heating, and washing up... but.... much as we love ice cream, the ice cream churn can only be used for ice cream. (WAIT!!... ice cream is maybe WORTH bringing the specialty item :-p )

Consideration 4) SHARE! Coordinating meals with others means each person can bring less "stuff'" and also means the person buying the meal ingredients can buy in cheaper bulk quantity, keeping the cost down for all contributors.
     Practical Example: One family brings a skillet, one family brings a coffee kettle, one family brings wash basins... voila... your kitchen is shaping up fast and your family only had to pack one item. Same with ingredients.. one family brings an entree, one family brings potatoes, one family brings beverages... "pot luck" works!

Consideration 5) Keep it Period. Some dishes we traditionally enjoy at lunch and supper, the O.C. would have enjoyed at breakfast as left-overs. A series of small snacks throughout the day can mean the meals will be less involved. Less involved meals means less of just about everything.
     Practical Example: Left over cornbread and ham for breakfast... not as traditional as eggs, potatoes, and bacon... but it's hearty and filling, uses left-overs, didn't require extra cookware, and tides us over until apples and cheese at mid-morning, which tides us over until a more involved meal at lunch. 

     And a practical example of several considerations: Bringing dish-cloths to dry the dishes and clothesline to dry the cloths takes up less space than a bamboo dish drainer contraption.... and the dish-cloths can wrap delicate items in transport.

The "hard core" civilians go on a tactical:

Scenario: 3 people need to eat Supper on Friday, Breakfast, Lunch, Supper on Saturday, and Breakfast and Lunch on Sunday. We would be on the move the whole event, without refrigeration and limited cooking opportunities.

What we planned:
Friday Supper: Ham, Biscuits, Lemonade
Saturday Breakfast: Farina, Peaches, Tea, Sugar & Milk
Saturday Lunch: Sausage, Cheese, Biscuits, Lemonade
Saturday Supper: Ham, Sweet Biscuits, Tea, Sugar, Milk
Sunday Breakfast: Farina, Peaches,  Tea, Sugar, Milk
Sunday Lunch: Whatever is left
Snacks: Nuts, peppermint sticks, apples

How we packed:
Ham: pre-cooked and pre-sliced, wrapped in  paper
Biscuits: pre-baked, in a pasteboard box
Hard Sausage: in natural casing
Hard Cheese: wrapped in  paper
Sweet Biscuits: pre-baked, in pasteboard box
Farina: (actually instant Cream-Of-Wheat) in a "poke sack"
Peaches: tinned, with modern label replaced with period one
Tea: loose-leaf, in a "poke sack"
Sugar: in a tin container
Milk: Evaporated  Milk (not the sweetened kind) with the modern label replaced with a period reproduction
Lemonade: powdered, in single serving paper envelopes.
A Knife
A Can Punch
A Tin Tea Kettle
Matches in a Match-safe
Hatchet (for cutting firewood and fire breaks)

The boxes were placed in a pack-basket, with the sacks and tins nestled around them. We two ladies each carried a basket with bowl, ginger beer bottle, cutlery, and glass for ourselves covered with a napkin... I carried the gent's bowl, cutlery, glass, bottle and the tea kettle in a market wallet. The gent carried the pack basket on his back by the shoulder straps and the can punch and match-safe in his pocket. He used his handkerchief for a napkin. We took turns carrying the hatchet. (The other Dear Lady carried bedding for both herself and the gent; thus, she carried minimal of the kitchen things, but more than her share of "stuff.")

So... scaling down CAN be done. Perhaps you aren't quite ready to scale down as much as the "hard core" civilians yet, but you are now ready to give some serious consideration to your period kitchen at events. Soon you will have the zen of "Less really is more."

Friday, July 15, 2011

Are you HOT in that?

"Are you hot in that?"
Dear Newbie hears this several times during the average event. Persons hoping to have history shared with them use this phrase to open a dialogue so the sharing can begin.

Today I'll explore how living historians can prepare for the heat and humidity, so they can calmly reply, " Hot? Well, some g'hals/b'hoys think so. (*Wink)"

The first part of preparation is knowledge. Knowing the symptoms of heat emergencies and how your particular body chemistry reacts to heat extremes will allow you to asses how you will meet the challenges.

Some common issues associated with heat include:
Sunburn- Redness and pain in the skin. In severe cases there is also swelling, blisters, fever, and headaches.
Heat Cramps - Heavy sweating and painful spasms usually in the leg or abdomen muscles.
Heat Exhaustion - The person becomes weak and is sweating heavily. The skin is cold, pale and clammy. The pulse becomes thready. Fainting and vomiting accompanies heat exhaustion.
Heatstroke/Sunstroke - High body temperature (106 degrees or higher) along with hot dry skin and a rapid and strong pulse. Unconsciousness is possible.

Another important piece of information to know is weather advisories from the National Weather Service. Everyone has a favorite media outlet for weather advisories, but it's important to be aware when advisories are given.

Advice is given by health professionals on precautions to take in the heat. They include things like dressing properly, hydrating sufficiently, and monitoring active activities. We as living historians would prefer to do so in a period correct manner. Let's explore each of those thoughts further.

Dressing properly for hot weather, in a period correct manner.
     A head-covering with ample shade for the face and neck is a must.
           For women, girls, and toddler boys, a sunbonnet does a bully job. Sunbonnets come in many styles and for all "economic levels" of impressions. The "mailbox" slat bonnet is a classic choice, but shorter slat bonnets can be had with confidence. A variety of sunbonnets that use cording to stiffen the brim are quite appropriate and can look quite pretty. For young ladies,girls, and toddler boys, a wide brimmed straw hat may be used instead. Please use care to select a period correct base trimmed appropriately from a reputable vendor.
          For men and older boys, a wide brimmed straw hat will do wonders to keep sunburn at bay. A number of felt hats are offered in wide-brimmed options, but the wool felt may get warm. Again, a period appropriate style from a reputable vendor is a must.
      Women and young ladies who wear fashion bonnets will also want a parasol. When your amicable companions are assembled for the event, the ladies with parasols in your group should practice opening, closing, and moving their parasols to avoid endangering their companions.
     Wearing loose weave, light colored clothing is another good suggestion. Wearing clothing of all natural fibers is important too.
           Women, girls, and toddler boys have many sheer fabrics options. For those ladies who have issues with "chafing" in hot weather, I recommend that drawers are a must for you. Powder may help too. Using a cage crinoline will eliminate the need for a multitude of petticoats, eliminating a few layers for you. Just remember to do as the Original Cast did and wear at least one under and one over the cage. Fabric with some drape to it will create and move breezes, so don't skimp on the skirt fabric and consider pagoda or other open style sleeves. From an historic standpoint, under-sleeves are optional with "sheer" dresses. That is a way for adult women to have almost "bare arms" while still having full length sleeves on the dress. You might consider one of the v-neck fashion styles, or for young folks a bateau neckline. You'd be surprised how much cooler just that little bit of bareness feels.
          Men and older boys will need to use light layers. Linen was a popular "suit" choice for gents in hot areas and was almost universally seen with white or cream backgrounds. If you use linen for trousers, you'll want drawers too. (hey! it's a family hobby and we'd like to keep it that way.) You can use a firm-woven cotton or linen for summer-weight drawers. Don't be afraid to go without coat or vest when the situation lends itself to such casualness. "The Rules" say that men weren't seen without a vest, but the historic record shows us that The Rules bended in certain situations.
          I will caution that going barefoot in a re-enactment/living history camp is not a wise choice. There are many things on the ground that may be very dangerous to step on. Placing the bare feet in cool water temporarily can do wonders to cool a person off, though. Allowing young folks to "play" in water, such as a laundry display, precious metals prospecting, model boat races, or such, may help them keep cool and occupied.
          Your family will want an extra change of chemises, shirts, drawers, and stockings for hot weather events. Fresh underpinnings can do wonders in making you feel fresh and cool(er.)
           A kerchief can be worn wet along the neckline to help regulate body temperature. Period tales include wearing a large cabbage leaf on the head under the hat will help a person keep cool moisture close to the head and therefore, the person feels cooler.
          My final thought on "dressing" for hot weather is SUNSCREEN. While you probably wouldn't trust a period recipe for sunscreen, and they did have them, wearing sunscreen is a must for many living historians. My "usual" brand looks like many of the ointments used in period toilette. I choose a period looking container, have my buddies at Paw Print Productions create a period-esque label, and I can carry my sunscreen to events without breaking my fellow companions' period moments. (Links below)

Hydrating Sufficiently
DRINK YOUR WATER is heard every summer from every media outlet and mother. The mid-19th century was an era where the drinking of copious amounts of water was suspect. Who can really blame them, when their water was not filtered as ours is. With the advances in technology, we can be secure that our water is (mostly) safe to drink, so we have no excuse not to. Event organizers generally go to great lengths to make certain sufficient safe water is available for the use of participants. With the Mother Bonnet firmly in place, I say a resounding, "DRINK YOUR WATER."
     Period containers for water can be had relatively cheaply. The military gents have their canteens and tin cups. The citizens can choose from a variety of period appropriate containers. Some excellent options include: ginger beer bottles, un-labelled wine bottles, wicker covered bottles, pottery jugs, pitchers in options from stoneware and red-ware to fine china and silver, tumblers of glass, or china, tin cups, silver cups, glass or crystal goblets or in a pinch a tea cup or coffee mug will serve. I've even seen a beautiful transfer-ware china canteen.
     For those who choose to "live off the land" as part of their event, water purification tablets are available in the camping and world travel sections of your local store. Read the instructions carefully and use as instructed.
     For those with very young children or nursing mothers, bringing a container of water from home is a good idea. Children are very sensitive to taste and you want to be certain they have water that "tastes like water" to them. Some event organizers contract their water from wells, springs, and sources that may taste a bit different. ...and if the tot accustomed to a "sippy cup" is getting as much water down his/her front than down the gullet, s/he will be all the cooler for it as the water dries.
     Those who prefer other beverages to "plain water" might enjoy lemonade, either made with real lemons or lemonade powder, switchel, fruit vinegar water, or ices. Lemonade powder was available in the mid-19th century. Switchel and fruit vinegar water are variations of a drink mixture my group refers to as "period Gatorade." It includes equal parts honey or molasses and  vinegar (switchel= apple cider vinegar, fruit vinegar water= fruit flavored vinegar),  diluted in water. Ices include a variety of period drinks, most of which include fruit, sugar, and iced water. (see the cookbook link below for specifics.)
     You will want to start switching over to period drinks and drinking more water several weeks before the event and continue to drink lots of water for several days after the event to give your body enough time to adjust to a change in routine.

Monitoring Active Activities
     In period, folks knew to do the heavy work in the early morning and include a rest time at the end of a long day. Ladies knew that planning a companionable time to sit in the shade and visit was best planned for early afternoon. And boys have long touted the benefits of a convenient creek in the shady woods on a hot summer day. Some may smile at the "quaint" romantic ideas, but there is something to those ideas. They understood what their bodies needed in relation to hot weather. We can do the same at our events.
     It is important in this time of air conditioned buildings and vehicles to become accustomed to life without air conditioning slowly, in small doses, so as not to shock the system. Find a walking trail near where you are and plan progressively longer walks in the heat. Be sure to take plenty of water with you. Don't be embarrassed to rest and stop when you need to...and don't be frustrated if you can only do short bursts at first. You will be surprised how quickly you are able to go longer distances and remain out for longer time periods.
     At the event, try to locate your tent near shade if you can. A fly placed over the tent (military style) will add an extra layer of shade to your sleeping quarters. Under canvas may still be hot, but it beats the blazing heat. Locate those water distribution points and the professional EMTs. Plan to make use of the ice vendors if the event has them available.
     You will want to plan your most active activities for early in the day. You will want to plan your sedate visits or possibly a nap for mid-day and early afternoon. Early afternoon is a good time for the children to find the creek or water tub.
     A campfire will serve to keep insects away, so cooking a meal or snack in the evening is beneficial. Plan for a lunch that doesn't need cooking, so you don't need to be around the added heat of a fire at mid-day. Keep the cool drinks coming throughout the day. Monitor your food items that need to be kept cool regularly.
     Remember that it is very easy to forget to monitor your health in the excitement of the event. Try to plan your activities with plenty of flexibility, so you can allow yourself time to "do everything" safely. Check on children and "neighbors" who may not be monitoring themselves effectively.

Therefore if you plan ahead, check for advisories, dress properly, hydrate sufficiently, and monitor your active activities, you should be able to attend a hot event with confidence.

Am I hot in that?

Some b'hoys think so. :-p

The National Weather Service
Heat Safety from the National Weather Service
Heat Safety from the CDC

Dos and Don'ts for Hot Weather and Refreshing Summer Beverages by Virginia Mescher
An extensive site with many, Many wonderful period cookbooks
100+ Recipes from the 19th Century for Fruit Vinegar and Shrub compiled by Elaine Kessinger
China containers that work well for ointments and creams... like sunscreen
Wood containers that work well for powders... like talc
Glass bottles that work well for liquids... like insect repellent
Pottery bottles that work well for liquids... like insect repellent- (try the inkwell)
A passable water goblet for a period table
A passable glass tumbler for a period tavern
A passable white-ware china pitcher (others will pass too)

A passable transfer-ware pitcher (look at the others too)
A passable pottery jug - (scroll a bit)

Walking trails near you.
Another Walking trails near you

Water Purification Tablets

No Refrigeration Required by Elizabeth Stewart Clark

Photo of a fly over the tent, military style... thanks, Mr. PJM :-)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Finding the Zen in "Common"

     We live in a world where individuality is the key to success. Showing how you think, how creative you can be, how unique, how different from everyone else, has almost been elevated to "Cult Status."

     Is it any wonder that a Dear Newbie searches out the unique? That she cringes in horror at the compliment, "Oh! Where ever did you get that lovely fabric? I must have some too!" That she searches valiantly for styles that the other women haven't used before?

     Granted, one can search and find documentation for just about any "Re-enacting Fashion Rule."  From the 19th century: Garibaldi blouses were always white.... nope.. red and black were popular too. Hair was always parted in the center for women... nope, plenty of side parted hairstyles are seen, both intentional and unintentional. Women always had long hair.... nope, short hair was a fad for Southern young women and there is ample documentation for other reasons a woman might have shorter hair. Adult women never wore short sleeved dresses during the day... a few paintings say otherwise. From the 18th century: women always wore a cap... nope, wigs were popular with fashionable women too. Women always wore gowns... nope, plenty of extant jackets, caracos, and short gowns show the popularity of separates. Pioneer Women couldn't afford stays, shoes, or fashionable fabrics... plenty of extant store ledgers, account listings, and estate listings show how fast such items came to the frontier areas.

So why is the Dear Newbie pushed to "be common" anyways? What's the Big Deal if she can document it?

Let's consider a few reasons...

     You're telling the story of how every day, common women became extraordinary because of circumstance… and most would go back to being common, every day women when their extraordinary experiences were done. Diaries tell us that few women thought of themselves as the extraordinary women they are to us. Most felt they were similar to every other woman with similar experiences. They felt themselves representative of women of the era. We owe it to them to try to be representative of the common women of the era and interpret how the common woman met the extraordinary experiences that capture our imagination and spark the imagination of others.

     If everyone is unique, there is no common from which to measure unique. There is a time and place for a specialty impression, but context is everything. Without a common rural woman for comparison, a flamboyant urban woman will not be noticed in a sea of likewise flamboyant women. Without a common upper-working class woman for comparison, the finery of the wealthy woman pales in a sea of likewise finely dressed women. Without a common housewife for comparison, a businesswoman doesn’t seem such a pioneer of women’s rights. We owe the unique persons of the past the common, so their uniqueness can be seen in context.

     Much as we would like to think that the people we share history with will take home the "whole package" experience, they will gravitate to the one thing with which they can indentify or seems to match their perceptions and leave the rest of our well-intentioned efforts behind. We owe it to the persons of the past to share accurately their lives, both common and extraordinary, so that the pieces of the past that are taken away from our sharing are accurate, common, and a representation of the era.

So how do we move forward?     
     Start the opposite way than we are accustomed to. Instead of finding an extraordinary woman and trying to justify her presence; find a common woman and try to find what is extraordinary about her. Instead of taking a 21st century preference and trying to hide it or justify it; try to research how women of the era met the same sorts of challenges.

     When the census taker came to call, plenty of women listed "keeping house" as an occupation. Our research into 18th and 19th century history shows how much existence keeping house occupied. My Dear Mother had a favorite saying, "Mother-work IS work." Most mothers would agree with that statement. While the wool or cotton dress with minimal trim  and sunbonnet of the 19th cent. or the linen jacket, wool petticoat, and fustian pinner of the 18th cent. doesn't satisfy our urge to make art out of an everyday item, it was the blue jeans and white tee of the era. Spend awhile getting comfy in a common outfit... and then when an event comes that you can break out the silk gown and yards of trimmings, you will feel just as elegant as the Original Cast did in theirs... and just as willing to don a comfy wrapper and soft slippers when the socializing is done.

   When the passion for a particular unique impression comes to a Dear Newbie, I advise them to go forth with that research, but also to start researching the common skill-sets and common knowledge of the era's women. I do this myself. A tailor is not commonly a woman in the 19th century, but I can also portray a seamstress of mens' and boys' clothing. A hospital matron is not so common in the 18th century, but I can also portray a housewife mentioning the most recent epidemic. A single woman of 36 years is not so common in either era, but I can also portray a widowed auntie living with family because I have researched childcare practices. In this way, I am not portraying an extraordinary woman, I am showing how a common woman might have shared my uncommon skill-set. For me, this is finding "zen" in portraying a common woman.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

You simply MUST tell me where you got that lovely....

Lecture Stump topics are a topic or topics about which one is particularly passionate. Ones on which they are apt to lecture on at length at the merest hint of provocation. For me, it is the history of how persons of the past acquired their clothing. Dear Friends of mine will visibly cringe when a Gentle Visitor to one of my events dares to enter the verbal minefield with the question, "The women made all the clothes at home, right? ...only the rich could afford a dress-maker or tailor, right?" I set in to correct their dear-held misconceptions with as much gentleness as I can possibly muster. Well, since I want to be able to consider you all Dear Friends who would avoid such a verbal minefield, I put forth what I know of the many (and often subtle) ways people acquired their clothing.

In the 18th century, clothing acquisition fell into two categories, Custom-Made and Second-Hand. Beginning in the 1830s, another option Ready-To-Wear began to be an option to some folks. Each category can be further broken down into more specialized descriptions, each with specific customers and artisans.

Custom-Made (sometimes called Made-To-Measure) is just that... made to the customer's specifications. The owner of the garment will have chosen the pattern stylings, fabrics, trimmings, and details for the garment. The garment will be made with only their measurements in mind. Notice I said measurements, not sizes. In this time period, sizes as we know them are a thing of the near future.

The first category of Custom-Made garments are Draped Garments. Draped Garments are made by the artisan holding pieces of fabric up to the customer's form and pinning and basting them into place to achieve the desired fit. This was the earliest method of fitting a garment. By "our" time, dresses and gowns were the garments most commonly made by a draped pattern. The professional artisan hired to make such patterns was a Mantua-Maker (18th cent. term) or Dress-Maker (19th cent. term).

The second category of Custom-Made garments are Drafted Garments. Drafted Garments are made by the artisan using the measurements of the customer, with a knowledge of geometry and fabric physics, to draw the pattern pieces in flat form. The common garments made by such a pattern system in "our" time include overcoats, coats, waistcoats/vests, trousers, and breeches. The artisan responsible was a tailor.

Each level of society had dress-makers and tailors catering to their specific needs. Those catering to the wealthier folks naturally carried fancier fabrics and trimmings and were more familiar and practiced with the most up-to-date fashion needs. Those catering to the working folks naturally focused their stock on the sturdy fabrics and simple patterns needed by their clientele. Those catering to the "middlin' sort" would be practiced in achieving fashionable garments on limited budgets.

The final form of Custom-Made garments is the first practiced, Home-Made. Because most women were taught sewing basics in "our" time, many families were able to produce some garments at home. Most who did so focused on the simpler, less precisely fitted garments, such as shirts, drawers, underpinnings, and accessories and on the garments that would readily take fancy-work, such as slippers, caps, and handkerchiefs.

When the women of the household had more "plain sewing" than they could accomplish, they had the option of hiring a seamstress to help. Seamstresses were often young women needing to support themselves until something else came along or widows needing to get by.

One of the ways dress-makers, and less often tailors, would seek to get more-fashionable clothing into the hands of the less wealthy is by offering to make Partially-Made Garments. The artisan sell a garment where the more complex portions had been made-to-measure for the customer; the customer would then take it home and finish the easier parts themselves.  As recently as the 1920s, women's and children's garments were offered this way. Men's trousers are still often offered un-hemmed and the customer is expected to have them hemmed to measure by a seamstress or tailoress.

Another way to gain a pattern without paying for an entire garment was to take a pattern from an existing garment. Such projects were often referenced in diaries and memoirs, especially among those living a distance from a clothing artisan.

Second-Hand garments encompasses a broad range of situations for many economic levels. A practice that will be very common to most folks is for a younger family member to wear the clothing an older family member wore previously. This practice extended to all family members and often friends as well. Estate sales and Debtor's Auctions were another source of second-hand clothing in period. Documents of these sales are some of the best sources modern historians have for exploring the wardrobes of average persons of the past. In a time when most social action was done through a religious organization, another source of second-hand clothing came through religious charities. Clothing Artisan's Customers would often leave garments un-claimed for a variety of reasons, these would often be sold second-hand to a likely customer. Many vendors of second-hand clothing could be found in an average town as well.

One thing almost all second-hand clothing had in common was a need for the customer to make it their own. This was done in many ways.

A garment from a clothing artisan would be re-fit to the new owner. It also might be trimmed differently or re-made to include different style elements at this time.

A garment may need the services of a renovator. A renovator is a type of seamstress who makes garments over in several ways. They may handle complex projects such as "turning" or simple projects such as altering a hem or minor adjustments to fit. "Turning" a garment means taking the garment apart, turning the pieces either upside down or inside out, and stitching the garment back together. This was done to lessen the wear to parts of the garment that take abuse, such as hems. Often a renovator offered dyeing services as well.

A garment might be re-purposed, if the fabric was still good but the garment as a whole had past it's usefulness. The example we are most familiar with today is using fabric scraps for quilts. Another example is a garment being cut down to fit a much smaller person. The skirt of Mother's dress becoming Toddler's tunic or a worn as a protective petticoat when doing dirty chores are other examples. Fabric scraps also became bags, sacks, handkerchiefs, toys, and other useful household items and accessories. Many projects are included in Lady's Magazines and Children's Project Manuals.

The most recent addition to the ways persons of the past acquired clothing is Ready-To-Wear. Ready-To-Wear clothing began as the brain-child of tailors catering to the sea-going trades. They began to make up their most requested garments ahead, to the measurements they thought most useful. This concept caught on among other tailors catering to working class and then finally on up the social ladder. It certainly came into it's own with the Emigration West and the Industrial Revolution. Because it began with tailors, who handled menswear predominately, it was men and boys dressed in men's styles who first benefited from the Ready-to-Wear concept. Women's and Girls' underpinnings, coats, and inclimate weather garments followed.

Ready-To-Wear clothing was sold in a variety of places by the 1850s and 1860s. The most prominent were the Clothing Emporiums. These often started life as a tailor shop that expanded. They would offer the largest selection of men's and boys' garments and often imported furnishings as well. "Furnishings" is a term used to describe the accessories, toiletries, jewelry, headwear, footwear, and inclimate weather gear needed to augment a wardrobe. Because cutting to a variety of standard sizes was not usually a consideration, many Emporiums would have a tailor in shop to handle those customers who could not be accommodated by the offered "sizes."
  The Local General Merchandise Store would often stock ready-to-wear clothing, especially in some of the newly established towns in the expanding west. The Steamboat Arabia Museum is filled with examples of the ready-to-wear clothing that was being shipped for sale in the West.

Finally, a few Rental shops did exist, mostly catering to a specialized clientele. The most common would have been Mourning Warehouses. These shops would rent the trappings and attire associated with Mourning Tradition for those who couldn't afford to and those that didn't care to buy the trappings themselves. Rental Shops for Fancy Dress attire also can be found. Often these would be found in the larger cities and those known for costumed festivals.

Which method of garment acquisition persons used to acquire which pieces of their wardrobe will vary with the person and their situation. The average wardrobe would have garments acquired by Custom-made, Second-Hand, and Ready-To-Wear.

I prefer to read smooth prose, so I have not made direct quotes from my research materials. I will, however, list a few sources that one can read for further information on the subject.

The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution by Marla R. Miller
Ready Made Democracy: A History of Men's Dress in the American Republic, 1760-1860 by Michael Zakim
The Female Economy: The Millinery and Dressmaking Trades, 1860-1930   by Wendy Gamber
A Separate Sphere: Dressmakers in Cincinnati's Golden Age by Cynthia Amneus, Marla R. Miller, Anne Bissonnette, Shirley Teresa Wajda
Treasure in a Cornfield: The Discovery and Excavation of the Steamboat Arabia by  Greg Hawley, Debra Shouse, Dave Orf, Harry Barth
Modernity and the Second-Hand Trade: European Consumption Cultures and Practices, 1700-1900 by Jon Stobart, Ilja Van Damme
Historic Accounts by Virginia Mescher

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A "Best Bet" Wardrobe for Mid-19th Century Men and Older Boys

The “best” wardrobe will include several key garments suitable for all impressions.  It should include a few extra garments which can be used to augment the impression as needed. You should have a mix of garments from which to choose to complete an outfit, and the garments should be suitable for almost any impression a gent is called upon to do.

Shirts- The number of shirts a gent needs depends on how active he is during the average event, how prone to sweating he is, and how “neat and tidy” he needs to appear. The average gent will need one shirt per day for the longest event he expects to do, plus one extra.  Most gents should have at least one white shirt, (even the working class impressions). Research and surveys of photographs show that white was the most common choice at all social levels.

Socks- The number of pairs will depend on how often he feels the need to change them during the day. I’d recommend one change per day for the longest event you expect to attend plus extra. Most gents will prefer the rag wool socks.  They are fine for many impressions and occasions. Gents will want to own at least two pairs of dressier socks.  The dressier socks are typically made from fine cotton, very fine wool, or silk. A friend who is an expert in socks suggests that wool will make feet happiest for walking long distances and handling hard use.

Drawers- I’d recommend the “one per day plus one” suggestion for drawers as well.  I’d recommend a pair or two of canton flannel or fine wool for colder climates or for gents more susceptible to the cold weather. With so few extant examples to examine, a military-based pattern may be the only documented pattern he finds comfortable.

Trousers- The average gent should have at least two pairs of trousers.  The first pair should be solid, conservative color wool. The second pair could be linen, cotton canvas, corduroy, wool in a fun plaid or stripe, period jean, or even another solid wool. Consider the solid color wool to be middle of the scale, impression-wise. They can go either way, working or nicer.
 The second pair of trousers should reflect his main impressions. If he mostly does working impressions, then consider cotton canvas, corduroy, or jean.  If he has more occasions for “nicer” impressions, then a fashionable plaid, dandy linen, or formal black will be more useful.

Waistcoat/Vest- Two - one of a conservative patterned wool and one different. For the conservative pattern wool, one can choose a nice check, plaid, or stripe. Choose a color that compliments both pairs of trousers, but doesn’t necessarily need to match either.  I’ll share more on color in a bit. For the waistcoat/vest that’s “different”, some choices include cotton canvas, linen, silk, wool, corduroy, jean, and brocades.  Linen, silk, and wool were popular in checks, windowpane checks, plaids, stripes, and geometric fields of patterns.  All choices were seen in plain solids too. 
     I would recommend a moderately narrow shawl collar for most vests.  Notch or Step collars are becoming popular in this era.  In this era the shawl collar (in various widths) has been a fashion standard for several decades.  Remember that the collar goes completely around the neckline, not stopping at the shoulders.

Coat- Many situations require a coat of some kind, so the gent’s wardrobe would be incomplete without at least one.  The coat is an investment item.  It is also one of the “tells” of a decent wardrobe.
Several of the gents I re-enact with suggest a wool sack coat is a good “starter coat” for most gents. The wool sack is less expensive and is more likely to be offered ready-made from vendors of quality garments.  It also has the benefit of easy assembly by a novice home-crafter.  It serves to get the Newbie into an acceptable quality coat and into events faster.  A sack coat is an excellent choice for a young gentleman on the rise in the world. It was quickly becoming a standard for trade and working class gents and had been popular among the wealthy as sportswear for some time. Sack coats could be found in wool, linen, jean, corduroy, and cotton canvas.
     Once a gent has a coat to get him to events, he can work towards deciding which coat style will suit the most impressions he portrays. A frock coat of nice quality wool covers most situations. It has the benefits of having been a fashion standard for decades, the unqualified approval of politicians, business men, clergy and other conservative gentlemen of society. It is readily available on the second-hand markets of the era, and can even be found in the ready-to-wear clothing emporiums. It is a classic and very safe choice. A frock coat of linen or heavy cotton may prove an excellent choice for gents in the warmer areas most of the year.
 Other coat styles had some popularity, including the Cut-Away Frock, the Paletot, and in a few very choice situations the Tail Coat. These are under-represented in re-enacting, but they were popular with the Original Cast.  A very working class gent could even have a coat that defies our categories, with features common to several but falling distinctly into none.

Neckwear- A gent will need two or more cravats, owing to the fact they should appear freshly ironed and starched. A gent should have at least one cravat that can be tied in a traditional bow knot (Pre-tied “cheaters” were available in period, but were not as common as they are in The Hobby today. They are an excellent choice for getting the Newbie attired for an event before he learns to tie the “regular” ones).
     For gents doing working class impressions often, they may find a kerchief a more useful neckwear choice. Kerchiefs will be most useful in cotton, linen, or silk and are seen in both solid and patterned, in many colors.  They can be worn wet in hot weather as a means of body temperature regulation.
     Working class gents should not hesitate away from cravats all together, though. Surveys of photographs and paintings show many gents at work sporting cravats of all sorts. Cravats came in many colors and patterns. The gent will want to choose a thin fabric with a fair amount of crispness, such as a silk, cotton, or linen.

Shoes- are another investment item. Lots of attention should be given to getting shoes that fit well, made by a reputable cordwainer (that’s the technically proper term for a maker of shoes). I would recommend waiting to purchase shoes until the gent has an opportunity to try them on in person. If that is not possible, try to work with an internet company that has a fair return policy.
    Many of my re-enacting friends agree that an ideal situation is to have two pairs of shoes/boots… one pair for nice occasions and one for nastier weather. Boots are more commonly seen on gents who ride horses a great deal. Lower shoes and “bootees” are more common to the average man. Routine care and occasional visits to the local cobbler for fitting and fixes will help protect your investment and your feet.

Hats- gents are funny about their hats. They often start to feel “in character” for their impression once they don a hat they feel appropriate to the impression, no matter what else they may be wearing.  A gent should have at least one hat, of suitable quality from a reputable vendor.
Many gents will shy away from certain hat styles (such as a top hat) because they feel they are too formal. Informal surveys of original photos and paintings show gents of all socio-economic classes wearing hats of all types.  Thus we can conclude the top hat was simply another choice of hat a gent could make. Top hats came in wool felt with plush, wool felt with beaver pelt, plain wool felt, and plaited straw. They also came in several heights, from the tall straight stovepipe made famous by Lincoln, to the short “gambler” styles made famous in the movies.
    Another appropriate choice for many impressions is the “Mechanic’s Cap.”  They were especially popular among the working class and for boys of all ages. Even the wealthy might choose a cap for a sportive outing.
A variety of felt and straw hats make up the rest of the choices available.  And there are many. Looking at photos and paintings of gents will begin to train the eye to what hats are appropriate to what sorts of impressions and activities.

Accessories- A gent will want a number of accessories to augment his attire. Most gents agree that a number of hankies are very useful for a variety of purposes, from blowing one’s nose to protecting fragile items in a sack to cleaning up mess to cooling off in the heat.

Suspenders/Braces are another item most gents find useful for keeping the trousers up to their appropriate height. Belts are not worn to keep the pants from falling down.  They are worn to keep tools and ammunition handy.

Many gents find a pocket watch, with a chain and fob very useful.

 Glasses/Spectacles are a key component for many gents, and care should be given to finding period correct frames and having an optician fit them with his prescription.

 Jewelry -A gold band wedding ring is appropriate for many gents. Many married reenactors prefer to wear a gold wedding band even though men did not universally wear wedding bands in the period. Several friends of mine suggest getting a fairly inexpensive one to wear to events,  so your actual ring doesn’t risk loss or damage.

And finally, a gent will need a means of carrying the larger items he will need for the event. Often he can get by with the pockets in his garments for smaller items. Sometimes, though, he will need to carry a medium drawstring sack, market wallet, carpet bag, or valise. He should also carry a number of napkins and poke sacks to keep his bag organized and tidy and the contents somewhat protected.   
  He should also have some sort of a water container, both for his own safety in keeping hydrated and to comply with the event organizer’s safety instructions. A stoneware bottle, wine bottle, or large flask will serve nicely.  Avoid obvious military-style canteens.  They are typically not appropriate for a civilian impression.  If you have questions, contact the event’s organizer for details.

A quick word about period color and pattern:
A survey of fashion plates and tailor’s advertisements show that dittos (suits of clothes where all three or two of the three main components of trousers, waistcoat/vest, and coat are of the same fabric) were a distinct trend.
     You will find that linen is the most popular fabric choice for dittos.  But wool is also an acceptable option.  Dittos may seem a “safe” choice until a gent has more confidence in choosing complimentary colors.

     Some gents in period put several differently patterned garments together in the same ensemble. To us it may seem “busy” and “clashing”.  Remember that the Original Cast didn’t necessarily find it so.

     Owing to the nature of photography that only shows black, white, and gray-scale, researchers must depend on paintings and advertisements to show what colors were available and sales ledgers and personal remarks in memoirs and journals to show what colors were popular.

     Consider complimentary colors for all the pieces. Look at the produce aisle or natural world to find a palette of complimentary colors. For example: A coat of rusty brown, a waistcoat of light blue, a waistcoat of cocoa brown with a green stripe, a pair of dark blue trousers with a caramel check, a pair of green trousers, a white shirt, a white shirt printed with a navy printed geometric, and cravats of black, brown plaid, and navy stripe would put together a number of suitable combinations in complimentary, mostly conservative, colors.

For the Gent transferring from a set of Military Impressions:
Some items can make an easy transition from military impressions to civilian impressions.  They can stretch the wardrobe dollar and give a gent even more choices in the types of impressions he can appropriately do.
Shirts- Many military gents will have chosen a civilian style shirt for their military impression, likely these shirts will work equally well for many civilian impressions.

Socks- Military gents went through socks much faster than the military could issue them, so they augmented their issue with socks from home or private purchase. Likely this is the case with the gent, and his socks could work for some civilian impressions too.

Drawers- are another item that many military gents preferred sent from home or private purchase.  As I said above, often the patterns documented to military use are the only ones available.

Waistcoats/Vests- the military considered waistcoats/vests to be private purchase items, and many gents chose a civilian style comfortable to them. If the gent has a civilian style waistcoat/vest, then it can work for both sets of impressions

Trousers- if the gent is lucky enough to portray an officer, he may choose a style of trousers suitable for civilian impressions as well. Solid dark blue, grey and heathered kersey were popular choices among the civilian population. The working class sometimes favored jean as a sturdy fabric for garments expected to see heavy use.

Coats- a variety of coats suitable for Confederate military are also suitable for civilian wear, and most re-enactors make no issues of it. Browns, grays, and like colors were popular among the civilian populations and some working class southerners found jean a durable cloth to use for coats in civilian life.

Shoes- While there are differences between military bootees and civilian footwear, if military bootees mean the difference between attending the event or not… wear the bootees without qualm until a civilian style can be acquired.

Hats- Some of the more casual styles of hats were also popular with civilians, including the felt styles like the beehive and the slouch. They can transition between military use and some civilian impressions.

Accessories- Most accessories such as suspenders/braces, handkies, watches, and rings transition easily; however, military canteens and haversacks… those DON’T transition. In an event scenario, a civilian with a military item can be arrested on accusation of stealing from the dead. While this might make for an interesting encounter at an event, one can choose far more interesting encounters to make an issue of. It is far better to use canteens and haversacks for military impressions and choose a crockery bottle and hunting satchel for your civilian impression.

With the variety of choices available to gents, it is easy to see how they would be overwhelmed. By filling his period wardrobe with pieces that work for many impressions, he can be confident that he is prepared with attire for any occasion he is called upon to attend, from fancy supper to painting a springhouse. With care and repair, a gent can have a period wardrobe that will be the envy of his peers for years to come. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Soul's Society...

"The Soul selects it's own society, then.. shuts the door." ...or so a poet wrote.

A dear friend asked me, "Who do you hope to reach with your blog? Who's your "target audience"?" This took me quite by surprise as I was not able to give an answer. Some time later, after much deliberation, I would like to share the answer.

I hope to be helpful to re-enactors and living historians like myself. For whom a causal incidence of modern life will trigger a research spree into how the "Original Cast" (hereafter referred to as "O.C.") met similar incidences by sharing what I have researched about "Why?" and "How?"

I hope to be helpful to re-enactors and living historians who may have been involved for awhile but are making their first forays into delving deeper into 18th and 19th century citizen thought. Those willing to look beyond the clothing to the material culture, deportment, thought processes, and "portable first person" that truly bring a person of the past alive in the modern world for a bit.

I hope to be helpful to re-enactors and living historians who are preparing to attend immersion events, especially those for whom immersion or first person is a new experience, with practical advice on "delving deeper", research direction to material culture, and a few answers to "How did the O.C. do that?"

I hope to address a few of the commonly held myths about the past and provide research based and logical thought based "myth busting" of a sort. Occasionally friends who have done a considerable amount of research on a particular topic will be invited to share their knowledge as a guest blogger.

I will, from time to time, address questions that have been posed on various fora to which I subscribe in more depth and in a more public and easily referenced venue than a forum can provide. With common courtesy, I will never reference persons, fora, or the like directly in this respect. In posting a comment, please do likewise. (notice my use of "Dear Friend" and "A forum" as examples)

I would ask that if you are not one of these persons to please stick around anyway... my soul benefits from a varied society, in fact demands it... please share your research, questions, myths... for when we question, we learn... and a learned society is the backbone of civilization, or so the Founding Fathers professed.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Citizen Considers His Wardrobe...

Our Dear Newbie is considering his wardrobe today. He was accustomed to think of his re-enacting wardrobe in a certain way. He has one impression... an infantry soldier... and he acquired "kit" to do that one impression in pre-war militia, mid-war uniform changes, and late-war uniform rags. Since he would like to explore a civilian role, he is considering what wardrobe components he needs.

When I started, I was much like him. I was certain I was going to do one impression, a dress-maker, and I made my wardrobe suitable for that one impression (lots of eye-catching silk, fine wool, lush trimmings... we are, after all a walking advertisement for our business). I've since learned that thinking of wardrobe in that way may not work for all re-enactors/living historians.

One of the first considerations is... What types of events will you be most likely to attend?

If the answer is, you'll be volunteering at a museum, interpretation site, or giving a set selection of first person lectures... your impression will be somewhat fixed, and you may consider how a particular impression would choose dress for the day. By considering the time of year, occasion, activities to be engaged in, choices are made on "What to wear today.." You are free to think about your wardrobe as a person of the era would consider theirs.

If the answer is, you'll be attending whatever events meet your personal standards of "worth attending," then you will want to consider your wardrobe a bit differently. To be the most welcome at many events, you'll need to be flexible about your impression's occupation, social strata, and activities to be engaged in... and your wardrobe will need to acommodate that. You'll need to think, "What would this impression choose to wear today? What do I have that comes close to being suitable? Can anything in my wardrobe be dressed-up or dressed-down to fill the needs?"

For both methods, the "old hats" will recommend a core basic wardrobe. Consider the basics first. Things like basic undergarments and basic shirts can often be suitable for a variety of impressions and most re-enactors/living historians will want to have plenty on hand to change out.
If your impression is flexible, you will want to consider patterns and trimmings that will span many impressions. If your impression is fixed, you may consider things like where your impression got their garments, (home-made, seamstress-made, ready-to-wear, custom-made), are particular patterns or trimmings culturally specific to your impression, do your choices "jive" with the age, position, personality of your impression?

For main garments, for a fixed impression, again you will be considering things like social position, ability and desire to follow fashion, season of the year, activities to be engaged in, age apropriateness, personality... and adding in the little subtle clues to your impression's world view.

For main garments, for a flexible impression, flexibility is key. Choosing key wardrobe components that will be suitable for a variety of impressions. I'll give examples.. a pair of wool trousers of a moderately fashionable cut and good tailoring will work for a working class clerk, a middle class shop keeper, and a wealthy class sportsman on an outing, dependent on what he wears with them.. ...a wool day dress of moderate cut and minimal trimmings can work for a working class woman's "town best", a middle class woman's ordinary day dress, and a wealthy woman's "getting dirty clothes"... again dependent on what is worn with the dress.

Accessories are key to fleshing out the wardrobe in both methods. This is where the fixed impressions give the best subtle clues to how their impressions want to be viewed. (examples include.. the buttonhole shears slung through the buttonhole of the finisher's coat.. the set of keys jingling merrily from the housekeeper's apron... the hair-work watch chain, photo fob, and black armband of the widower.) This is where the flexible impressions can indulge in a few "impression specific" items that help establish the impression. (an example would be a white apron to establish a service position, or a fancy white-work collar to bring an ordinary dress into the wealthy realms, the kerchief of the working class, the quizzing glass or watch chain of the business-man, the cockade or ribbon of the campaigner).

So for me, I've moved into a flexible impression method. I have several impressions I can offer... but most of my wardrobe is suitable to all of them in certain instances. My friends interpreting at museums are able to use the fixed impression method. Which will be best for our Dear Newbie?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Fit Over Sizing

Our poor newbie is in tears today. She has always worn a size 12... always!! and she found the most lovely dress... but the horrible store clerk at the sutlers handed her a size 16 to try on... and OH HORRORS!!! it FIT! GASP!

Has Newbie gained weight? Are re-enactment garments sized differently than regular ones? Was the dress made in the wrong size? Are they trying to tell her she's fat (cheeky jerks!)?

No, Dearest Newbie... it's the long and scary history of standardized sizing of womens-wear to blame.


The first women's garment to be offered via a standard size system was corsets. They were based on the waist measurement of the corset. The measure didn't account for spring, just literally the measurement of the garment (more on corset myths in future postings). Cloaks, Mantles, etc. available ready- made were generally offered in one size.

As undergarments and eventually dresses became available via catalog mail order, a system of sizing was needed. Bottoms continued to be sized by the waist measurement of the garment. Dresses, Nightgowns, Dressing Gowns, Chemises, etc. started to be sized by the bust measure. Childrens-wear was sized by the age of the child the manufacturer thought it would fit.

Thus, for a dress in the 1890 National Cloak Co. Catolog, if it was meant to fit a child, the sizing would be... 6months, 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, 4 years, 5 years, 6-7 years, 8 years, 10 years, 12 years, 14 years, 16 years. Were it meant to fit a young, unmarried lady (termed Misses at the time) it would be offered in 28 bust, 30 bust, 32 bust. Were it meant to fit an adult woman it would be offered in 30 bust, 32 bust, 34 bust. At this time, 1890s, that would be about it for ready-made. The purchaser would be expected to finish the side seams, arm seams, sleeve hems, skirt hems, and closures for herself, too.

By the 1920s Sears Catalog, for childrens-wear, size system depended on the garment. Girls' dresses and Children's casual clothing was sized by "age" and tailored boys' suits were offered in chest measures of 31"-35". Women could purchase dresses (again, partially unfinished) by bust measures, 32"-44" with a proportional waist difference (IE: they expected a dress with a bust measure of 40" to have a waist measure of 34", 44"- 38").

By the 1940s Sears catalog, dresses came finished. Sizing was still much the same. For home sewing patterns, dresses were given a number size. 32" bust= 6, 34"=8, 36"=10... etc. on up to 44"=18, then "Stout" sizes by bust measure, 46 & 48. (48 is the largest I've seen or seen referenced.)

On dresses in department stores, they went by the system they felt would sell the most garments. Most probably created a number system similar to the ones for patterns. Vanity sizing was prevalent.

During WWII, because of the need for clothes and fabric rationing, and because of the number of women needing to be provided with uniforms, clothing manufacturers finally had a large enough sample of the female population to survey statistically what sizes women actually wore.

After WWII, Lane Bryant Co. began transferring their company from producing maternity wear to producing clothing for larger women, then made a move to exclusively clothing for larger women. Many department stores and catalog companies began offering token large size departments about this time. They were geared toward the "Graceful Lady", the gracious society dame who presided over charitable functions and church socials.

At this time, also, the "teen" market was becoming big-news. Called Juniors, and sized accordingly smaller, clothing manufacturers started marketing clothing specifically to young women. (garments were sized in odd numbers, 3, 5, 7, & 9, occasionally an 11).

To distinguish themselves from the Junior dept. womens-wear for adults was labeled Misses, and sizes were listed in even numbers, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, & 18. They measure mostly close to the commercial pattern sizes, 32" bust=4, 44" bust=18, etc.

The first time the sizes of womens-wear were actually evaluated for industry-wide standardizing was in the early 1980s. Industry-wide for a time, every store's and manufacturer's sizes were to the same measurements.

When buying ready-made clothing for costumes in the early to mid 2000s, I noticed the manufacturers were increasing the vanity sizing again through standard sizing. XS & XXS were being offered more often among the Juniors, and there was an emergence of sizes 00, 0, & 1. The Junior Plus departments were also introduced, offering sizes 13 & 15, and XXL was occasionally offered there. This allowed manufacturers to capture the prevalent fashion movements of the day effectively. It was at this time that "standard sizes" began getting more snug and smaller overall.

Currently, women's clothing in a department store is separated into 4 sections, Juniors/Junior Plus, Misses, Petites and Women's (aka: Plus). In Juniors you will usually find sizes 0-13 & XS-XL, in Misses one will usually find sizes, 2-18 & S-XL, in Women’s/Plus one will usually find sizes 18-26 (sometimes 28-32) & XL- 3XL. Specialty Plus Shops will generally have sizes 14-16 through 26-28, and XL through 3XL. Specialty Catalogs will often offer sizes 28, 30, 32, and 4XL. Depending on the store, Petites may mean sizes 0-5 scaled down for a person of an overall smaller stature, or it may mean sizes 2-18 scaled for shorter persons. Many Junior Plus departments have now extended the size range to include 13-27.

Petite (as a euphemism for short) and Tall sizes came in the early 1980s in jeans. In Misses sizes, petite sizes began to be offered in skirts, trousers, blouses, suits, jackets, etc. at this time too. Specialty plus catalogues often offered tall sizes. It has been only about 5 years that petite plus and tall plus trousers (not jeans) have been offered in specialty plus stores. In today's sizing Petite= 5'4" and under, 5'4"-5'9"= Average, and 5'9" + = Tall.

Although among the first items offered to women ready-made, undergarments also went through changes in standard sizing and how they could be bought.

The pieces that are worn in 1857 include:

chemise- often cut out and made at home, possibly with the help of a seamstress... the pattern, and therefore size would be taken from existing chemises. When bought ready-made, it would be whatever size the cutter felt like cutting that day.

drawers- often cut out and made at home, possibly with the help of a seamstress... there were patterns given in lady's magazines, which would have been taken to a dress-maker or talented seamstress for scaling up. When bought ready-made, size would be at the cutter's discretion.

petticoats- often made at home, trimmings could be bought from a dry goods or fancy goods store. Waist measure at the discretion of the cutter, when ready-made.

cage crinoline- bought from a dressmaker, dry goods, or fancy goods store. The bottom widths were available in many sizes... waistline often comes adjustable; though how much was included before the customer cut off the excess... that’s a research project for someone else. :-p

corset- bought by the waist measure of the corset... how much spring a woman left herself varied.. there were corsetieres in most large cities like NYC, D.C., Philly, etc... The "best" corsets were imported from Paris. For those affluent enough to take a Grand Tour through Europe, a stop at an English or French corsetiere was a must. The corset, whether imported from a large city or across the ocean, would need tweaking to the individual’s figure by a dress-maker or corsetiere. Many improvements in construction, design elements, and components were patented.

stockings- one size fits most (of my big toe)

These items, except corsets, were available at shops called a "Linen Warehouse"... for a trousseau, it was called "marriage and outfitting orders." (orders is sometimes used as a euphemism for a collection of undergarments)

By the 1890s, petticoats and skirt foundations were sold by waist measure, other garments were sold by bust measure; though there were a limited number of waist and bust measures available.

by the 1920s Sears catalog, drawers and bloomers (both terms used to denote different garments) were sold in small, medium, and large. Tops and Combos in bust measures 34" to 44" Corsets were sold by "size", sizes 19-26 were available. (They didn't reproduce page 279, so I can't read how their sizing worked :-p )

by the 1960s Sears catalog, bottoms were still sold by waist "size" or by S,M,L. Bras had developed distinct cup sizes. The sizes A & B had the most variety of styles. C had a few less choices. D had only one choice. Larger sizes weren't available in that catalog. (I suspect that larger sizes might have been available at specialty lingerie shops.)

Let me explain how cup size is determined... measure around the bust, at the fullest part... measure around the chest, under the bust... subtract the difference... a difference of 1"-2"=A cup, 3"-4"= B cup, 4"-5"= C cup, 5"-6"= D cup, 6"+ = DD cup.. Sizes do go up to EE, FF, G, H, &J through specialty mail order catalogs.


Sewing Patterns never did go through the Standard Sizing Revolution. They are still sized to the measurements of the 1940s, 6=32”, 18=44”... and plus sizes 46, 48, etc. are, unlike 1940s sizing, switched over to size 22, 24, 26... The measurements for a size 12 sewing pattern will fit a commercial Misses’ ready-to-wear size 4. Statistics show that the average woman in America today wears a size 22. That will fit a commercial sewing pattern size 32 (the largest available.)

Many of the garments offered ready-made for re-enacting are based on sewing patterns available from pattern companies using the standard *sewing pattern* sizes... these are different than standard *ready-to wear clothing* sizes.

So if the size difference bothers Poor Newbie that much, perhaps she would care to try custom-made clothing. We deal in measurements, not sizes. :-p


The Newbie in this case was a question posted on a forum. My response prompted an author friend of mine to ask me to elaborate... from that this article was born.

Much of my information is from:

Every Day Fashions of 1909-1920, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1920s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1930s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1940s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1950s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

Every Day Fashions of the 1960s, as pictured in Sears Catalogs

1890 Edition of the National Cloak and Suit Co. Catalog

US Current Standard Sizes for Ready-To Wear Clothing

Information on Size Zero

Simplicity Size Charts-Modern

A Variety of Vintage Sewing Patterns: the best way to get an idea of vintage sizing is to look at the measurement comparisons of many patterns