Tag Archives: Victorian seamstress

What Came of a Valentine: 1865

On the evening of the 13th of February, 1850, two young men sat in a comfortably furnished room in a large New York boarding-house. A bright fire glowed in the grate, well-chosen engravings adorned the walls, and a bright light was diffused about the room from an Argand burner.

Let us introduce the occupants of the apartments as Tom Stacy and John Wilbur, young men of twenty-five or thereabouts, who were known in business circles as Stacy & Wilbur, retail dry goods dealers, No.— Broadway. They had not been in business long, but were already doing unusually well. They had taken apartments together, one of which is now presented to the reader.

“Has it occurred to you, Wilbur,” asked his partner, removing his cigar, and knocking away the ashes, “to-morrow is St. Valentine’ s day?”

“Yes I thought of it this afternoon, as I was walking up from the store.”

“So did I, and to some purpose, too, as I will show you.”

Tom Stacy went to the drawer, and drew out a gorgeous valentine, an elaborate combination of hearts, doves, &c.

“What do you think I gave for that?” he asked.

“I don’t know, I’m sure. It appears to be very elegant?”

“It cost me ten dollars.”

“Whew!” whistled Wilbur. “it strikes me you are either very extravagant or very devoted. May I know what fair damsel is to be made glad by the receipt of this elegant missive?”

“That’s my secret,” said Tom, laughing. “I don’t mind telling you, however. It’s to go to Edith Castleton.”

“I presume you feel particularly interested in the young lady?”

“Not at all. But I told her I would send her a valentine, et la voila! Shan’t you conform to the custom of the day?”

“I had not thought of it,” said John, thoughtfully, “but I believe I will.”

“And what fair lady will you select as the recipient?”

“You remember the poor seamstress who occupies an attic in the house.”

“Yes, I have met her on the steps two or three times.”

“She looks as if times were hard with her. I think I’ll send her a valentine.”

“And what good do you think it will do her?” asked Stacy, in surprise.

“Wait till you see the kind of valentine I will send.”

Wilbur went to his desk and taking out a sheet of paper, drew from his porte-manteaux a ten-dollar bill, wrapped it in the paper on which he had previously written “From St. Valentine,” and placed the whole in an envelope.

“There,” said he, “my valentine has cost as much as yours, and I venture to say that it will be as welcome.”

“You are right. I wish I had not bought this costly trifle. However, as it is purchased, I will send it.”

The next day dawned clear and frosty. It was lively enough for those who sat by comfortable fires and dined at luxurious tables, but for the poor who shared none of these advantages it was indeed a bitter day.

In an attic room meanly furnished, sat a young girl, pale and thin. She was cowering over a scanty wood fire, the best she could afford, which heated the room very deficiently. She was sewing steadily, shivering from time to time as the cold blast shook the window and found its way through the crevices.

Poor child! Life had a very black aspect for her on that winter day. She was alone in the world. There was absolutely no one on whom she could call for assistance, through she needed it sorely enough. The thought came to her more than once in her discomfort, “Is it worth while living any longer?” but she recoiled from the sin of suicide. She might starve to death, but she would not take the life god had given her.

Plunged in gloomy thought she continued to work. All at once a step was heard ascending the staircase which led to her room. Then there was a knock at her door. She arose in some surprise and opened it, thinking It must be the landlady or one of the servants.

She was right. It was a servant.

“Here’s a letter for you that the post-boy just brought, Miss Morris.”

“A letter for me!” repeated Helen Morris, in surprise, taking it from the servant’s hand. “who can have written to me?”

“Maybe its a valentine, Miss,” said the girl laughing. ” You know this is valentine’s day. More by token, I’ve got two myself, this morning. One’s a karakter [caricature] so mistress calls it. Just look at it.”

Bright displayed a highly embellished pictorial representation of a female hard at work at the wash-tub, the cast of beauty being decidedly Hibernian.

Helen Morris laughed absently, but did not open her letter while Bridget remained— a little to the disappointment of that curious damsel.

Helen slowly opened the envelope. A bank note for ten dollars dropped from it to the floor.

She eagerly read the few words on the paper. “From St. Valentine.”

“Heaven be praised!” she said, folding her hands gratefully. “The sum will enable me to carry out the plan I had in view.”

Eight years passed away. Eight years with their lights and shadows, their joys and sorrows. They brought with them the merry voices of children—they brought with them new-made graves—happiness to some and grief to others.

Towards the last they brought the great commercial crisis of ’57, when houses that seemed built on a rock tottered all at once to their fall. Do not many remember that time all too well, when merchants with anxious faces, ran from one to another to solicit help, and met only averted faces and distrustful looks? And how was it in that time of universal famine with our friends— Stacy & Wilbur?

Up to 1857 these had been doing an excellent business. They had gradually enlarged the sphere of their operations, and were rapidly growing rich, when this crash came.

They immediately took in sail. Both were prudent and both felt that this was the time when this quality was urgently needed.

By great efforts they had succeeded in keeping up till the 14th of February, 1858. On that morning a note of two thousand dollars came due. This was their last peril. That surmounted, they would be able to go on with assured confidence.

But, this alas! This was the rock on which they had most apprehension. They had taxed their resources to the utmost. They had called upon their friends, but their friends were employed in taking care of themselves, and the selfish policy was the one required then. “Look out for number one,” superceded the golden rule for the time being. As I have said, two thousand dollars were due on the 1st of February.

“How much have you got toward it?” asked Wilbur, as Stacy came in at half-past eleven.

“Three hundred and seventy-five dollars,” was the dispirited reply.

“Was that all you could raise?” inquired his partner, turning pale. “Are you sure you thought of everybody?”

“I have been everywhere. I’m fagged to death,” was the weary reply to Stacy, as he sank exhausted into a chair.

“Then the crash must come,” said Wilbur, with a gloomy resignation.

“I suppose it must.”

There was a silence. Neither felt inclined to say anything. For six months they had been struggling with the tide. They could see shore, but in sight of it they must go down.

At this moment a note was brought in by a boy. There was no postmark. Evidently he was a special messenger.

It was opened at once by Mr. Wilbur, to whom it was directed. It contained these few words only:

“If Mr. John Wilbur will call immediately at No—Fifth avenue, he will learn something to his great advantage.”

There was no signature.

John Wilbur read it with surprise, and passed it to his partner. “What does it mean, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” was the reply, “but I advise you to go at once.”

“It seems to be in feminine handwriting,” said Wilbur, thoughtfully.

“Yes, don’t you know any lady on Fifth avenue?”


“Well, it is worth noticing. We have met with so little to our advantage, lately, that it will be a refreshing variety.”

In five minutes John Wilbur jumped into a horse car, and was on his way to No.— Fifth avenue.

He walked up to the door of a magnificent brown stone house and rang the bell. He was instantly admitted, and shown into the drawing-room, superbly furnished.

He did not have to wait long. An elegantly dressed lady, scarcely thirty, entered, and bowing said, “You do not remember me, Mr. Wilbur?”

“No, madam,” said he, in perplexity.

“We will waive that, then, and proceed to business. How has your house borne the crisis in which so many of our large firms have gone down?”

John Wilbur smiled bitterly.

“We have struggled successfully till today,” he answered. “but the end has come. Unless we can raise a certain sum of money by two, we are ruined.”

“What sum will save you?” was the lady’s question.

“The note due is two thousand dollars. Towards this we have but three hundred and seventy-five.”

“Excuse me a moment,” said the hostess. She left the room, but quickly returned.

“There,” said she, handing a small strip of paper to John Wilbur, ” is my cheek for two thousand dollars. You can repay it at your convenience. If you should require more, come to me again.”

“Madam, you have saved us,” exclaimed Wilbur, springing to his feet in delight. “What can have inspired in you such a benevolent interest in our prosperity?”

“Do you remember, Mr. Wilbur ,” said the lady, ‘ a certain valentine, containing a ten dollar note, which you sent to a young girl occupying an attic room in your lodging-house eight years since?”

“I do, distinctly. I have often wondered what became of the young girl. I think her name was Helen Morris.”

“She stands before you,” was the quiet response.

“You Helen Morris!” exclaimed Wilbur starting back in amazement. “You surrounded with luxury!”

“No wonder you are surprised. Life has strange contrasts. The money which you sent me seemed to come from God. I was on the brink of despair. With it I put my wardrobe in repair, and made application for the post of companion to a wealthy lady. I fortunately obtained it. I had been with her but two years when a gentleman in her circle, immensely wealthy, offered me his hand in marriage. I esteemed him. He was satisfied with that. I married him. A year since he died, leaving me this house and an immense fortune. I have never forgotten you, having accidentally learned that my timely succor came from you. I resolved, if fortune ever put it in my power, I would befriend you as you befriended me. That time has come. I have paid the first Installment of my debt. Helen Eustace remembers the obligations of Helen Morris.”

John Wilbur advanced and respectfully took her hand. “You have nobly repaid me,” he said. “Will you also award me the privilege of occasionally calling upon you?”

” I shall be most happy,” said Mrs. Eustase, cordially.

John took a hurried leave, and returned to his store as the clock struck one. He showed his delighted partner the cheek which he had just received. “I haven’t time to explain,” he said; ” this must at once be cashed.”

Two o’clock came, and the firm was saved—saved from their last peril. Henceforth they met with nothing but prosperous gales.

What more?

Helen Eustace has again changed her name; she is now Helen Wilbur, and her husband now lives at No— Fifth Avenue.

And all this came of a valentine.

Vincennes [IN] Weekly Western Sun 29 July 1865

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A most edifying story with the moral: “Always be kind to seamstresses.” One does so like a happy ending to this sort of tale. “Prosperous gales,” indeed. How delightful that none of the characters puts a single foot wrong: Helen Morris recoils from the sin of suicide; Mr Eustace was content with her “esteem;” Mr Wilbur thinks instantly of charity on Valentine’s Day; the prudent choice of an Argand burner. And that marvel:  two young men with “well-chosen engravings” on the wall of their boarding-house rooms! One does wonder about Mr Stacy and his impulsive purchase made in an attempt to impress Miss Castleton. Did he not remember that he could have bought a lavish valentine wholesale?

Mrs Daffodil wishes all of her readers the happiness of loving and being loved. And of being presented with needed capital just in the nick of time by a deus ex special messenger.

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.


The Dress Doctor: An Ingenious Lady’s Profession: 1894

The Little Seamstress, John Fae, courtesy of Dumfries nad Galloway Council

The Little Seamstress, John Fae, courtesy of Dumfries nad Galloway Council

This is certainly the day of utilizing one’s talent, whatever it may be. A woman who lives in another city found herself, after 20 years of happy sheltered married life, a widow with two daughters, 16 and 18, to make a home for, and an income so small as to be scarcely worth mentioning. The elder daughter was delicate, and the younger had two years of her college course to complete. To meet the crisis and tide over an interval which would give one child health and the other education confronted the mother. For a time she saw no way to pursue. Then a clear-headed friend came to her one day for a talk over affairs.

“No, Isabel,” she began, “I know your liabilities, what are your assets? I mean beside your little income. What can you do absolutely well?”

“I’ve a general knowledge of many things,” was Isabel’s discouraged reply, “but the only thing I can do absolutely well,” and her laugh was mirthless, “is to make over old clothes. You know I’ve always had a great aptitude at that for the girls and myself.”

“To be sure you have, and I believe you can do that now,” came the prompt answer to astonish Isabel.

Further talks followed, and in the end the friend persuaded her companion that something could be done with this talent. The beginning that spring was small and merely among her circle of wealthy friends. She did not actually make over the old clothes, but spent a morning or a day with the family seamstress, carefully inspecting accumulated materials and suggesting designs and combinations which permitted the continued use of dresses and fabrics. She charged by the day, and her rate was not low, but she saved it often a dozen times over to her patrons. The autumn saw her clientele increased, and now, after three years, she is busy nine months of the year at good prices.

Before other women embark in the same occupation it must be understood that this woman has little short of genius for her unique calling. It is positive pleasure to see her at her practice, for she jocosely styles herself doctor of robes, and certainly her skill and deftness are closely allied to the surgeon who fits and restores humanity’s broken bones and misplaced anatomy.

She is shown a fine Paris dress bodice of black satin, whose sleeves have vanished, and of whose skirt is left a single straight breadth. She looks them over critically.

“Have you any velvet or figured heavy silk or silk and wool cloth or any handsome black novelty material?” she asked.

A piece of frise velvet is found which will do for full sleeve tops with some other cuffs and leave two or three straight pieces. Then the odds and ends trimming box is looked over, and a few detached ornaments and some black lace are found. The waist is fitted, the long postilion back carefully opened and pressed and left to hang. The pieces of the frise velvet are set on for skirt fronts and hip pieces joined by jars of the black satin skirt breadth. The jet ornaments are put on the waist and at critical points on the hip skirts. Puffs of lace laid over white silk and a collar to match are made and the end is a costume jacket of imported elegance that looks as if it might have cost $150 and did cost not a penny beyond the seamstress’ time and the designer’s suggestion, as the black silk lining in this case was produced from a discarded coat.

If something extra is needed, she can tell to the shade, quality and fraction of measurement what it must be. And her customers are no longer confined to the wealthy. Persons in moderate circumstances realize that their need of her is quite as great. Did space permit, the recital of her many triumphs in evolving a Worth gown from the family ragbag would be most interesting. Her work is carried on quietly, her patrons advertising her, from one to another and her excellent social position, which has undoubtedly much aided her, has never been in the least impaired. New York Times.

Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 21 August 1894: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil can only applaud the lady’s ingenuity in dress-doctoring and her willingness to accept the advice of her sensible friend. But we really are intensely interested to hear the details of that “Worth gown from the ragbag…”

Remodeling gowns was done by all classes of society.

“Those who are still deep in the fascinating whirl of society engagements do not need to trouble themselves much on this subject [the remodeling of one’s wardrobe.] They usually employ a dressmaker, as they do their household help, by the year, and she assumes the duty of remodeling and making over what she deems worth the labor; but there are many who at best can but afford to employ a clever seamstress to do this kind of work. There are others, again, who must do the greater part of it themselves, or see many dresses laid aside before they have done full service. There is hardly a gown, whether designed for parlor, bedroom, or ball room, but will bear making over once. The clever dressmaker can take out a breadth here, put a panel there, place a Spanish flounce where skirt front has been soiled, or set in a pleating somewhere else. Slashings can be cut, or covered, vests inserted or removed, etc. etc., till any half worn or half soiled gown may be restored to almost its pristine freshness. Even ball costumes can, by skilled hands, be so reconstructed and remodeled as to last and look well after three alterations, and prove satisfactory to any ordinary society goer, unless she be one of those who consider a wholly new costume sent over by Mons. Worth indispensable to her comfort at every evening out.”

Cleveland [OH] Leader 27 January 1889: p. 10

One reason that remodeling was so popular was that ready-made clothing was not always of good quality or plentiful, while there was a surplus of seamstresses and dressmakers. In 1892, these were just a few of the many ladies advertising their talents as dressmakers in The New York Herald. Note the range of fees:

*A dressmaker and ladies’ tailor, “an artist in cutting, fitting, designing; just returned from Paris; late with Worth, Rhodnot, Mrs. Connolly; carriage and tea gown creations; garments made from $12 up…$3.50 per day or at home.”

*Experienced dressmaker in wealthy society family to remodel evening street dresses; superior judgment, good style $2.50 per day.

*Seamstress, First Class, Hand or Machine…will furnish W.W. sewing machine free of charge $1 day.

*Seamstress, Understanding Dressmaking, to go out by the day $1.25 $6 per week.

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.

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