For the majority of American schools, this is the first week of the new school year. Most modern back-to-school wardrobes are of the jeans, sweats, and sneaker variety - clothing that's comfortable and easy-care.
These three dresses belonged to American girls in the mid-19th c., and were representative of what girls of that era were wearing as they trudged off to their local one-room schoolhouses. (They're all part of a current exhibition of the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester, PA; see here for an early 19th c. boy's skeleton suit from the same show.) While the printed cotton in the 1790s dress earlier this week was considered a luxury textile, the patented invention of the cotton gin in the early 19th c. combined with the burgeoning American cotton industry had made printed cotton calico affordable to all. Because it was sturdy and washable, it had quickly become a favorite for children's clothing.
One of the most popular colors for printed cotton was a brilliant, rich red called Turkey red. The color had nothing to do with turkeys (I have to admit I'd always wrongly assumed it was named for the male turkey's red wattle.) Instead the name comes from its origins, the root-based dye being imported from Turkey to Europe and America. The two cotton dresses here are Turkey red, as is the cotton patchwork quilt hanging behind them.
While the style of these three dresses might still be worn today by a little girl for a special occasion, the other garment displayed on the stand between them would likely bring howls of outrage from a 21st c. girl. It's a hooped petticoat, made of linen and reinforced with horsehair, and although it would have given a girl the same fashionable, bell-shaped silhouette as her mother, it must not have been comfortable for a young child.
Everyday children's garments such as these are rare in collections. Most children's clothing would have been worn and handed down to siblings, remodeled and repaired until it fell apart, with the scraps possibly ending up in a patchwork quilt. Too often the clothes that survive today were preserved as mementos by a grieving mother. The brown dress in the front belonged to little Lizzie Springer, born in 1850 and died in 1853: a sad reminder of how commonplace death could be for 19th c. children.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.