A Western Deceiver.
Nora Perry writes of the centennial celebration at Lexington and Concord in a letter to the Chicago Tribune. Of the Concord ball she writes: And oh! What a pretty sight, as everybody unanimously voted. Such brocades, smelling of cedar and camphor-wood, as would now and then appear, plaited and puckered in the very stitches of the old-time—not a fold altered nor a ruffle changed. But there were not many of them. Those fair ones who rejoiced in these veritable old heirlooms walked about with their pretty chins aloft, lifted up above common modern clay by the sublime consciousness of a fine Mayflower ancestry, which these credentials would place beyond dispute.
But a woman’s wit will sometimes get the better of the stoutest credentials; and so a saucy, mischievous little damsel managed to array herself in a brand new gown, which she so plaited and puckered and betrimmed with coffee-dipped lace and scented with camphor-gum, in the very pink and pattern of the Continental dames, that all the little Mayflowers lowered their chins on her approach and whispered audibly, in her delighted hearing, “That is the real thing! Wonder who she is?”
And the little deceiver, with “a smile that was child-like and bland,” went on her way rejoicing, happy as all human nature must be at such a signal triumph. Boston is much too well-bred to ask outright questions of identity, so my fair one kept her secret with these fine Mayflowers; but after the ball she is perfectly willing to reveal her cunning guilt, and to let a faithful correspondent say that it was one of Chicago’s nearest neighbors who thus proved herself more than a match for Boston.
Daily Graphic [New York, NY] 7 May 1875: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: On this, the anniversary of the fateful day that the American Revolution began: the commemoration of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, it seems appropriate to record the sartorial conflict between the camphor-scented blue-bloods of the East and the parvenu of the West in her coffee-dipped lace.
1876 saw a revival of “Colonial” American costume, from antique lace ruffles at ladies’ elbows to daintily embroidered shoes to sack-back gowns of flowered brocades. Mrs Daffodil regrets to say that some enthusiasts actually remade historic 18th-century garments into fancy-dress costumes or pageant attire for “Lady Washington teas.”
Eighteenth-century costumes were proudly displayed as an emblem of pedigree by Americans who otherwise scorned England’s class system as un-democratic. An aged American lady of impeccable lineage was distressed to part with her historic quilted petticoat. And this improbably aged relic was described at a celebration of The Geauga County Historical Society, 30 September, 1875:
In the exhibit, first, I bring to your attention, the singular and costly specimens of work presented by Mrs. Polly Norton, of Troy, Ohio, in 1873, a widow lady, seventy-seven years of age, and an early settler in that township. Her husband was a farmer, and died some years ago. First, the waist of a dress; second, a portion of the skirt to another dress; third, a window curtain—all made of linen, the waist being striped with blue, the other two pieces white, all worked in flowers, made of woolen floss. In this floss may be found, at this date, twenty-three different shades of color, and upon the waist are forty-seven different kinds of buds and flowers. Upon the skirt, which is supposed to be about one width, there are one hundred and sixty kinds, and it is estimated that upon the whole skirt there must have been no less than eight hundred buds and flowers worked. Upon the curtain there are one hundred and thirteen kinds, no two of which are considered to be alike. The flax was carded, spun and wove for the fabric of these relics, and the wool was carded and spun for the floss, and it was colored into all the various shades, and then worked into the almost countless flowers upon the fabric. Then the dresses were made, and the curtains stitched and worked, all this having been done by one and the same person, the great-great-grandmother of Mrs. Polly Norton, thus running back, on the line of descent, four generations, or more than six generations of the average life of men. These garments, so skillfully made, must have cost more than twelve months of work to perfect them, including the full set of curtains. The dresses look like the completion of a “sensation” toilet upon the charming person of this great-great-grandmother, as she moved in society more that two hundred years ago, in the colony of Massachusetts. Indeed, they take us back to the threshold of the days of the Pilgrims, and it would almost seem that this dress had brushed against the sword at the side of Miles Standish, or touched the gallant arm of a Governor Carver or Bradford. It was made in the old Bay State, far back beyond the days of cotton mills and whizzing spindles. Pioneer and General History of Geauga County [Ohio] 1880: pp. 42-3
Mrs Daffodil fears that this little story perpetuates the myth of pioneer ladies who made clothing entirely from “scratch,” although, both before and during the Revolution, there was an active trade smuggling the English textiles, laces, and luxury goods the Colonies desired.
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.