WHAT A WOMAN SAW.
I thought I should die a-laughing, and yet I | didn’t dare let the pucker out of my lips. There were four of them, Mary, Martha, Maria and Margaret, all at home with their mother, and she a widow. Mehitable, the youngest girl, was married, and lived just “’cross lots.” Her two little boys nicknamed Mink and Monkey, were at grandma’s every day. They were so happy—that family away in Southern Ohio, where I was visiting. My cousins said I must visit there before I went home, because none of those girls had ever seen a live authoress, and they didn’t know but people who “writ for the papers” went on all fours, like quadrupeds.
These girls’ ages were all the way between thirty-five and forty-five. They were not handsome; they were dark, and stout, and had strongly-marked features, and bold, bright, courageous eyes, and their dear old hands were hard, and stained, and horny, and very, very handy at all kinds of work, from plowing down to all the pretty devices which make a woman’s nature so sweet, and tender, and womanly. Ah! how this pretty work, the cunning tricks of skillful fingers, so fascinating to the mind of woman, does stamp her as lovable and sensitive, and sweet souled. It is like the delicate vine of embroidery about a dainty garment.
This was three years ago. As soon as I sat down in the great rocking-chair, which gave me such a soft and gracious welcome, my eyes fell upon the carpet, which was of home manufacture. The colors were red, brown, green and purple, graduated shades, with a singular, little ribbony stripe of black, orange and pink, twisted together in a way that made the colors intermingle beautifully.
Practical working woman as I am, I did not long stand on ceremony, I can assure you. I was so taken with the carpet that I began asking questions right away, for in the two hundred and fifty yards which I had made, not one yard of it could compare with that rare and pretty piece.
The dear old girls! they all talked at once; they fired up with an enthusiasm, that really made them handsome. They told me it was all made at home, the warp spun and dyed, and the rags cut, sewed, colored and woven by themselves. Such colors! I took out my note-book to jot down the different names of the dyes, which I had never yet heard of; all bought in one package, and called Leamon’s Aniline Dyes, twelve kinds in one box, to be bought of any whole. sale druggist in the United States. The directions go with the dyes in full, so that any child can use them successfully.
Nature lets nothing in the world remain useless; she makes everything serve a purpose, live again, and do good in some form or other. Just so with these managing, planning, contriving girls, they let nothing go to loss, they turned everything to good account.
My note-book has a page well packed with items, picked up that day, which I am glad to give to the sisterhood. One of the prettiest things I saw, was a what-not made of wood, covered with a thin layer of putty, into which had been worked some of Leamon’s | Brown Aniline Dye until it was the shade of black walnut; this was permitted to dry well, then putties of different colors, dyed with red, green, purple, gray, and any shade required for vines, leaves, berries, grapes, etc., were made, and put on as nature and fancy dictated; this was likewise set aside to dry, and then varnished. It was marvelously beautiful, and these what-nots had sold readily for twenty and twenty-five dollars.
A cornucopia made after this style was elegant. They can be varied by coloring the groundwork putty different shades, and any girl, at all ingenious and tasteful, can make them. They were filled with grasses and mosses, dyed green, oats and nodding swamp-grasses were dyed red, and blue, and purple, and yellow; while flowers of the amaranth were intermingled. All kinds of parlor ornaments and winter bouquets were made this way.
I think handsome rugs adorn and make cozy one’s sitting-rooms, but these girls had made them too pretty to step on. I felt afraid of crushing some of the half-opened buds, and the fresh, crisp-looking, leaves. They had spun yarn out of lamb’s wool, dyed it with the Aniline Dyes, and worked them over a pattern taken out of a magazine. The chair and sofa-tidies wrought on black canvas, were perfect. The second-best rugs were made out of old white woolen stocking: legs, dyed bright colors, the strip, cut narrow, round and round, thus turning to a good and life-long account what some women would use for moth-feed.
But the table-mats! I tee-hee’d right out! I promised the dear old gals that I would not let it get into the papers ‘long-side of the felicitous names of Mary, Martha, “Marier and Marg’et;” nor will I. No one knows whether the last name is Smith or Jones. Those delectable mats were made out of old worn-out felt hats, such as the neighbor boys used to fight bumble-bees with! The girls washed them clean in hot soap-suds, dyed them dark slate, and peachy drab, and rich wine color, stretched them well, tacked them on a board to dry, out in the sunshine, and when ready, cut them in circular shape and bound with crimson braid, or maroon, or any color that contrasted pleasantly. Then in the centre of each they stitched with bright yarn the words “meat,” “coffee,” “potatoes”
Now many a woman situate like these were, would have mourned because she could not find her “sphere,” she would have sighed for a “mission” in this world. These four sisters had missions. They filled positions that women, gifted with wealth, and beauty, and intellect, never could have filled so gracefully, and so excellently and well. Opportunity was theirs for a wide usefulness, they could bless, and help, and teach, and cheer their unskillful sisters, and could develop the latent resources of theirs most admirably.
I was amused and delighted at one of them telling about selecting her sister’s wedding-dress.
“I got dark gray cashmere,” she said; “for I told Hitty it could be dyed into half a dozen new dresses before it was wore out. When she was tired of gray, she could take some of the Aniline Dye and make it slate color, then afterwhile a light brown, then dark brown, then plum, then navy blue, and finally she could turn it the third time and end with Leamon’s immaculate black.”
Now there is more sound truth in this than fun, and if a dress is honest goods, and all wool, Mary was correct; the wedding-dress would do to wear to all the births, and baptisms, and weddings, and funerals, and finally make a very respectable and no doubt comfortable burial robe. I respect the woman who is rich in resources, who can see her way out of a dungeon or over a wall, or through a hole.
They dyed a pink wool delaine dress a dark crimson for one of the neighbor’s girls—never a spot in it. They wet it thoroughly in warm soap-suds first, and then for a mordant used alum-water. For another they dyed a white zephyr shawl a deep scarlet to match the fringe; while ties, ribbons, sashes and all such things just bloomed out into new beauty, and usefulness, and renewed freshness.
Plumes of exceeding loveliness were made of white chicken-feathers, dyed all shades of pink, from deep rose down to pale blush and all colors of blue from graduated shades, fading away to the palest, daintiest int of a hue. In making the plumes, the under side of the feather was scraped away with a knife, and it was left pliant and flexible. Another way they made beautiful, long, waving plumes, was by dyeing the tips of feathers brown, or black, and sewing them on fine cap-wire, overlapping so that only the fine tips showed. These sold for four and five dollars. Any girl can make her own. Bird-wings they colored, and the girls said they could not be told from “boughten wings.”
They made old veils into new ones, stiffened by a weak solution of gum-arabic. With these magic dyes they colored blue ones green by dipping into yellow dye, drab and gray they dyed brown, and brown black, and dingy black ones culminated into jetty black.
Old dresses were made into any color desirable, care being taken to wet the goods well first; steep slowly, and set the color with a mordant of alumwater; dilute sugar of lead and water, or saleratus-water. Then drain instead of wring, and press under a paper while damp, until dry.
In the hands of these wonderful girls dyed turkey feathers made nice fans.
An old knit sacque, faded and dingy, they raveled out, dyed brown and crocheted into a new and modern one by following a paper pattern laid in the lap; for an edge or border some fine, soft yarn of an old nubia, [a knitted head-scarf] raveled and dyed maroon and royal purple, and the sacque was a marvel and a beauty, and will last a lifetime. The old sacque was sleeveless; the new one has sleeves knit seamless, and is so warm, and snug, and pretty. I tried it on, and it fit like the truth.
Something pretty, I don’t know what it was called, made out of snail-shells dyed different colors, stood on a wide window-shelf—looked like a mound somewhat, only it was irregular in form. Then I saw something else rare and new out on the cool, breezy porch. They had taken some large clam-shells, boiled them in lye, and all the rough, gray exterior had come off and left them white and fine; these had been boiled in dyes of three or four different colors, and they were beautiful. I never knew this kind of shells could be cleaned and made good for anything, and I asked how they learned it. Mary looked over at her sister affectionately, and said: “Oh, Marg’et thought of it herself!”
They had likewise taken a couple of old nubias— one they left white and the other they dyed a delicate salmon—ripped them apart, and they were left nearly square. Now you wouldn’t guess what they made of ’em. Nobody would. I told you they made everything live anew, and I should have said that often the second life was the better and more useful one. Why, they spread them over soft, white batting, with a white lining, and made wee baby cradle-spreads of them. The white one they knotted with blue, and the blue one with white, and bound the edges with ribbon to match. You can guess how sweet a baby would look with such a fleecy covering.
They said the Aniline blue made nice bluing for washing-day; and the black, with the directions given with the package of dyes, makes the best black ink they ever saw.
Coral baskets and pretty nicknacks were made out of raisin-stems by adding some of the red dye, while melting, to the white wax and bees wax. These girls made brackets of them, too, bright and glistening, and even prettier than the real coral or those of sealing-wax.
Burlap rugs, made with a rug-hook out of soft old coats, and trousers, and ladies’ cloth, they finished with a bright edge of fine old flannel or opera-cloth, dyed those shades that would harmonize or work in unison. Sometimes, you know, colors don’t agree, and will mutually swear at each other.
An old, dingy, merino shawl they colored a deep black with Leamon’s black dye for their pastor’s wife, then cut it over into a dolman, trimmed it with fringe that had been on their mother’s parasol, and finished with bias bands of black silk which had once been their grandmother’s “quarterly meetin’ apron.” Truly, I never saw such generalship since the days of the man who was willing to “fight it out on that line,” etc. I wish I could tell you all I learned that day, but space will not permit.
Last October I was visiting in that neighborhood again. The week before I went there, Marg’et was married to a widower, a merchant who lived in the village. Of course she sent for me to come and see her, and—who ever heard of the like!-Leamon’s Aniline Dyes had gotten that old gal a husband
He told her, and she told me, how it came about. He said she sat in range of his roving, searching eye one Sabbath, at church, and that she did look so sweet, and peaceful, and modest in her quiet brown dress, and little brown hat with its tossy, tilting feathers, and the rose-pink bow in her hair and on her bosom, that before he knew it he had elected her the queen of his heart, the gem he would wear henceforth–if he could get her. And he vowed he’d get her if he could. He watched her all the time, and bowed and smiled at the door, and walked down the lane as far as the big white hawthorn, and in the evening he called awhile, and kept on calling and calling, until he called her his wife, and bore her away to his own dear little home-nest among the cedars and the climbing-roses. She further told me that the dress he admired was a soft, drab-y cashmere, sun-faded, and she had dyed it a dark, rich, nutty brown, taking special pains with it. The hat she had worn for years, an old white one; but she colored, stiffened, pressed and trimmed it with a bit of seal-brown and a nodding bunch of the ends of bronze cock-feathers, pink face-trimming, never thinking her close economy was weaving a snare to catch the heart and hand of a lone, lorn “widdy man.”
The kind, mellow, married woman! she had saved me a generous slice of the wedding-cake. It was that delicious kind called watermelon-cake. I ate it that evening as we sat at tea, the willow trailing its lithe branches to and fro across the dining-room windows that opened out upon the prettiest, shadiest lawn and orchard I ever looked upon. Such cake! It really did resemble a cool, crisp slice of melon with the seeds in it. I will give you the recipe in its proper place sometime; will only say now that the red core of the melon-cake is made by adding a grain or two of red aniline to a few drops of cinnamon essence.
Among the wedding gifts that delighted me most was a pompous white rooster and a hen to match, the gifts of the little nephews, Mink and Monkey. Their tails had been dyed dark red with Aniline Dyes, and they did look too cute!. It was such a roguish present.
We went into the parlor to see some of the bridal gifts: they were nearly all the handiwork of the beloved sisters, Mary, Martha and Maria. One, I remember was a lovely picture-frame; and another was a beautiful lamb-skin mat, dyed light brown, very fine, and velvety, and exquisitely finished with a cardinal border. A flossy little Maltese kitten slipped into the parlor behind us, and nestled itself in the dazzling centre of the pretty rug. Before Marg’et closed the door, she called it out into the sitting-room, with a gentle “Come, Leamon ‘”
Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Volume 46, 1878: pp. 394-
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It sounds a perfect hell of fancy-work! And incidentally a puff-piece for Leamon Aniline Dyes…
We have met with the art of economy in dress–a dreary and thankless task–but these ladies seem to have been truly inspired to create articles they found beautiful and useful, and–happy accident!—a snare to catch the heart and hand of a lone, lorn “widdy man.”
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.