Tag Archives: Victorian second-hand clothing

Hints for Earth Day Economies: 1859-1903

Although Monday was, Mrs Daffodil is reliably informed,  “Earth Day,” a time to take stock of how we use the resources of the planet, there is never a bad day to reflect on consumption and its consequences. There has been a societal move against “fast fashion” and a resurgence of “Make Do and Mend.”  Mrs Daffodil will, therefore, “recycle” several posts on the subject of domestic economy in dress, on the clever makers-over of tired garments, and the second-hand clothing trade.

One would go far before one would discover a more ingenious clan than these Southern Ohio ladies and their cunning tricks of skillful fingers.

Although this lady, who traded in second-hand silks and this gentleman, who prospered in left-over laundry, are an inspiration to all of us.

Some clever gentlemen took a leaf from the ladies’ domestic economy books and learned to update and repair their wardrobes.

A fascinating tour of a 19th-century “recycling” firm and an examination of the “rag trade.”

The second-hand trade was a boon to actresses, and the buying, selling, and hiring of costly gowns worn by the Four Hundred, was a practice well-known to the upper echelons of Society.

The second-hand clothing trade extended even unto royalty, as we see in this peep at Queen Victoria’s stockings.

One of Mrs Daffodil’s heroines is this resourceful lady, who set herself up as a “Dress Doctor,” long before Hollywood costumer Edith Head co-opted that title.

Of course, selling one’s evening dresses involve some unwitting “recycling,” as this lady found to her dismay:

Not long ago (write “X and Z” in the Globe) a lady in dealing with the proprietress of a second-hand clothing business, sold to her several evening dresses, which were perfectly fresh and good, but which she could not wear again, as her friends knew them too well. They had probably been worn three times each. The second-hand wardrobe lady remarked, by the way, that all her purchases were for the colonies. Seems odd, does it not? But to return. A few days after the gowns were sold their original owner missed a very pretty old-fashioned diamond clasp, and, inquiring of her maid, discovered to her tribulation that it was in one of the evening dresses she had sold. “Sewn firm on the left shoulder, my lady,” quoth the maid. She proceeded diplomatically to work, sent the maid to the shop, and, in consequence of her operations there, became again the possessor of her discarded gown at exactly seven times the price she had sold it for. The diamond clasp was still in it, its safety being due to proximity to a mass of crystal trimming which formed an epaulette, the clasp having been added with a view to making the whole mass look “good.”

Otago Witness 9 February 1893: p. 42


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.

Left-Over Laundry: 1889


laundry 1901


Novel Business of a Smart Young Boston Man

“Those bundles,” said he, “which that young man took off with him were what would be called left-over laundry. That is, they have lain upon our shelves for several months since they were washed and have never been called for.”

“Do you have many such bundles?” “Well, yes, we do. That young man who just went out calls here about once a month and he gets just about as many bundles every time. You see there are a great many forgetful people in this world, and many of them will take a bundle of clothes to some laundry office, and then, before it comes time to take them out, will have forgotten where they left them, and so the stuff is left on the agent’s hands. Then again many of the bundles are left by drummers and other travellers who are called away from town before their clothes are washed, and either do not come back at all or have forgotten the place when they do come.

“Then there is still another class: Young men who have money one day and are broke the next. These fellows will often leave large bundles and then will not have money enough to spare to get them out for some time and when they do get them the laundry has been in the office so long that they feel ashamed to call for it. From these and some other causes we have many bundles which would never be called for it they laid on our shelves for ten years. Until within a few months all of these bundles have been a dead loss to us, as we are obliged to pay the laundryman for washing the clothes and then get nothing for them.

“As they are all second-hand clothes we could not sell them until this young man came long and he takes all we have off our hands. What does he do with them? Why, he sells them, of course, he makes a business of it, and goes all over the city and suburbs, collecting this uncalled-for laundry. Of course he has to buy it blind, as he is not allowed to examine the bundles before purchasing them, and so he gets all sorts of things in all sorts of conditions, but as, for instance, he only has to pay ten cents for a shirt, and often gets one which is nearly new and costs perhaps $2, he can afford to get stuck on a few of the things.

“He has made it his business to get acquainted with poor young men and women, to whom he sells articles for about a quarter of what they would cost in the stores and still manages to clear from 300 to 500 per cent on his sales. Not a bad profit, if the sales are big enough, is it? And the business is an easy and a clean one to handle. Altogether it is one of the most novel methods of making a living that I have heard of for some time.”

Denver [CO] Rocky Mountain News 29 December 1889: p. 17

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil is always interested to hear of ingenious entrepreneurs who find ways to re-use clothing—an idea which is attracting new interest these days. We have heard of the lady who renovated silks, and of the widow who cleverly restyled outworn fashions.  Second-hand clothing was a lucrative business, either as clothing or even as rags. Certainly it would have been a more cleanly trade than handling the clothes at slop– or pawn-shops. One wonders if the young man kept a store-front or if he went door-to-door to those poor young men and women, peddling the contents of the bundles.

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 Sale of Mrs Lincoln’s Wardrobe: 1867

Mrs Lincoln's wardrobe for sale

Mrs Lincoln’s wardrobe for sale in the New York showroom.


Which has already too large a share of public attention and notoriety, is the exhibition which has been going on for weeks in a small room, upstairs, corner of Houston street and Broadway, of Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe. It is a disagreeable subject, and would not be adhered to, only to correct some misstatements and misapprehensions.

No one can look at the collection and imagine that the object in exposing them was to sell them, or make a large amount of money by their sale. With the exception of the lace and camel’s hair shawls, and a few odd pieces of jewelry, there is nothing which any lady could wear, or which in its present condition, would not be a disgrace to a second hand cloth shop. The dresses, those that have been made up and worn are crushed, dirty, old fashioned, and most of them made and trimmed in the worst way. The skirts are too short for any but a very short person, and the commonest muslins, barreges and grenadines are made extremely low in the neck and would not be available for any purpose. There are some brocaded silk skirts in large heavy patterns which have been made but not worn, but these are unaccompanied by any waist, while the price upon them, and all the other articles, is exorbitant. Had the purpose been merely one of sale it would have been better effected through any large dry goods or jewelry house, who would have taken, as they frequently do, the India shawls and diamond rings at a fair valuation, but the display evidently had another object, and for the sake of Mr. Lincoln and his family, the Union League Club, or some other organization, ought to buy up the goods and transfer them to Chatham street as soon as possible.

Daily Eastern Argus [Portland, ME] 1 November 1867: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Although in receipt of a pension granted by Congress, Mrs Lincoln had a terrible fear of poverty and conceived the idea of selling off some of her clothes anonymously. When this was discovered, the President’s widow was savaged by both the Northern and Southern press for selling her “cast-off” clothes. Here is another piece, quoted by Mrs Lincoln’s former dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, in her 1868 memoir, Behind the Scenes.

“The attraction for ladies, and the curious and speculative of the other sex in this city, just now, is the grand exposition of Lincoln dresses at the office of Mr. [W.H.] Brady, on Broadway, a few doors south of Houston street. The publicity given to the articles on exhibition and for sale has excited the public curiosity, and hundreds of people, principally women with considerable leisure moments at disposal, daily throng the rooms of Mr. Brady, and give himself and his shopwoman more to do than either bargained for, when a lady, with face concealed with a veil, called and arranged for the sale of the superabundant clothing of a distinguished and titled, but nameless lady. Twenty-five dresses, folded or tossed about by frequent examinations, lie exposed upon a closed piano, and upon a lounge; shawls rich and rare are displayed upon the backs of chairs, but the more exacting obtain a better view and closer inspection by the lady attendant throwing them occasionally upon her shoulders, just to oblige, so that their appearance on promenade might be seen and admired. Furs, laces, and jewelry are in a glass case, but the ‘four thousand dollars in gold’ point outfit is kept in a paste-board box, and only shown on special request.

“The feeling of the majority of visitors is adverse to the course Mrs. Lincoln has thought proper to pursue, and the criticisms are as severe as the cavillings are persistent at the quality of some of the dresses. These latter are labelled at Mrs. Lincoln’s own estimate, and prices range from $25 to $75—about 50 per cent less than cost. Some of them, if not worn long, have been worn much; they are jagged under the arms and at the bottom of the skirt, stains are on the lining, and other objections present themselves to those who oscillate between the dresses and dollars, ‘notwithstanding they have been worn by Madam Lincoln,’ as a lady who looked from behind a pair of gold spectacles remarked. Other dresses, however, have scarcely been worn —one, perhaps, while Mrs. Lincoln sat for her picture, and from one the basting threads had not yet been removed. The general testimony is that the wearing apparel is high-priced, and some of the examiners say that the cost-figures must have been put on by the dress-makers; or, if such was not the case, that gold was $250 when they were purchased, and is now but $140—so that a dress for which $150 was paid at the rate of high figures cannot be called cheap at half that sum, after it has been worn considerable, and perhaps passed out of fashion. The peculiarity of the dresses is that the most of them are cut low-necked—a taste which some ladies attribute to Mrs. Lincoln’s appreciation of her own bust.

“On Saturday last an offer was made for all the dresses. The figure named was less than the aggregate estimate placed on them. Mr. Brady, however, having no discretionary power, he declined to close the bargain, but notified Mrs. Lincoln by mail. Of course, as yet, no reply has been received. Mrs L. desires that the auction should be deferred till the 31st of the present month, and efforts made to dispose of the articles at private sale up to that time.

“A Mrs. C__. called on Mr. Brady this morning, and examined minutely each shawl. Before leaving the lady said that, at the time when there was a hesitancy about the President issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, she sent to Mrs. Lincoln an ashes-of-rose shawl, which was manufactured in China, forwarded to France, and thence to Mrs. C __., in New York. The shawl, the lady remarked, was a very handsome one, and should it come into the hands of Mr. Brady to be sold, would like to be made aware of the fact, so as to obtain possession again. Mr. Brady promised to acquaint the ashes-of-rose donor, if the prized article should be among the two trunks of goods now on the way from Chicago.”

A detailed description of the New York visit and clothing fiasco by Elizabeth Keckley may be found here.

While Mrs Lincoln was known to be eccentric and erratic, (it has been suggested that her lavish spending was a symptom of a mental illness), few there were  who sympathised with the lady in her grief for her three dead sons and her murdered husband. Even her surviving son, Robert, felt compelled to lock her away as insane.

Mrs Lincoln had been very close to Elizabeth Keckley, her dressmaker and confidante, but when Mrs Keckley published her book about life in the White House, to, as she stated, “attempt to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world” and to “explain the motives” that guided Mrs. Lincoln’s decisions regarding what became known as the “old clothes scandal,” she was excoriated for violating the former First Lady’s privacy.  This led to a break in their friendship, although it is possible that they reconciled before Mrs Lincoln died. Mrs Lincoln spent her last years depressed and in ill-health, dying at her sister’s home in Springfield, Illinois in 1882.

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.


Gentlemen in Borrowed Finery: 1886

Have you any second-hand clothes? No, never wear ‘em. Elderly Man Asking Young Man For Clothes, William Henry Hyde, 1888 https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ea4a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Old-Clothes Man: Have you any second-hand clothes?
Algernon: No; never wear ‘em.
Elderly Man Asking Young Man For Clothes, William Henry Hyde, 1888 https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-ea4a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99



Secrets of the Business Disclosed

Common Clothes More Valuable Than Fine Fabrics

The “Change Act” and the Economy.

A reporter desirous of obtaining some information in regard to the old clothes trade in Brooklyn called on a local dealer. The reporter’s obliging informant was found surrounded by huge piles of clothing. He was intelligent and seemed to thoroughly understand his business. After making the reporter promise not to mention his name, he said:

“At certain seasons of the year the old clothes business is better than at others. More trade is done during April than in almost all the other months of the year put together. In April, gentlemen shed the clothes worn all winter and don spring attire. The clothing that has been worn in cold weather is, of course, unfit to wear during the heated term, and is usually pretty well used up. The prudent man, rather than put his winter clothes away, and in the fall take them out moth-eaten, sells them. I know men who can well afford a dozen suits, but who have none other but the one on their back. When they get a new one the old suit is sold or given away. It seems strange, but rough, common clothes are more valuable to dealers than fine fabrics. Fine broadcloth suits are not salable when they become a little worn. Much of our trade is done with poor people, who prefer rough to fine clothing.”

“Are the clothes bought by Brooklyn dealers all salable here again?”

“Oh, no; a big trade is, of course, done with residents, but a larger part of the old clothes purchased are sent south or to Ireland….In former years and during the famines, business with the Emerald Isle was brisk. Many strange and incredible scenes are often enacted in old clothes dealers’ shops. There is one branch of the business which I don’t think is done so much here as in New York. This is called the change act. Chatham street and the Bowery contain many dealers who make a specialty of the change trade.


“The change act consists of changing a good suit of clothes for an inferior one, and in receiving a sum of money as an equivalent for the difference in value of the two suits. When a man is broke he will do anything to get money, and if he has a good suit and knows the ropes, he soon disposes of his own good clothes for some of inferior quality. For instance, if a man enters my place with a $40 suit of clothes on his back, and I trade him one worth $10, I can well afford to give him $5 or $8 cash to boot. Some fashionable gentlemen who are seen in a dozen different suits each month own but one.

“The manner in which they are enabled to cut a swell is as follows: Some old clothes dealers do a pawnbroking business in a mild way. If a man has a good suit he can, by paying a small sum, always exchange it for one of equal quality, and still not lose all ownership in his original suit. After he has worn the suit hired a few days he can, by paying a sum, wear still another suit. This arrangement can be continued indefinitely, and finally the lessee, if he desires, can have returned to him his original suit. I have one customer, an impecunious young man who is well known in society. If he is going out in the evening and wishes to appear in full dress, he comes here, leaves the suit of clothes he has been wearing and dons one of my dress suits. In the early morning the young man again appears, takes off the dress suit and puts on his own clothes. For the accommodation I charge only a small fee.”

Bismarck [ND] Tribune 28 August 1886: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has reported before on the “rag” trade, the “misfit clothiers,” as well as the second-hand market in ladies’ clothing, particularly patronised by actresses. Why should the gentlemen not take advantage of the old-clothes market to refresh their wardrobes? It sounds an easy and pleasant trade. Yet, something always comes along to spoil the fun; in this case, the Great War:

There is great mourning among the “hand-me-down” dealers. The marts where the impecunious were smartly endowed with West End “misfits” have closed down. “We cannot get the stuff,” is the cry of the beady-eyed salesman with the crisped hair who lurks mournfully behind a deserted counter. The war affects the second hand clothing trade because, you see, the young knut worn cast-off raiment was the mainstay of the business is now in khaki. He has not troubled his tailor in the matter of civilian clothing for many moons. Formerly a brisk trade was done in the morning coats and lounge suits discarded by young and fastidious officers. These were eagerly bought up by City clerks and others whose means were not equal to their taste in attire. Now, alas, they must dress as they can afford! Harper’s Bazaar February 1916


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 Rag Trade: 1859

Rag sorters at a Springfield, Massachusetts shoddy mill. http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2013/06/walkabout-troys-fortress-of-shoddy-part-1/

Rag sorters at a Springfield, Massachusetts shoddy mill. http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2013/06/walkabout-troys-fortress-of-shoddy-part-1/


Wednesday being a leisure day with Mr. Tibbit, I presented myself, according to appointment, at two o’clock in the afternoon, at his warehouse,Tooley Street, Southwark. A solitary country cart stood at Mr. Tibbit’s door, being, as the legend on the shaft informed me, a native of Swillmead, Bucks. Groping my way through a grove of corpulent sacks, that reached from the floor to the ceiling, I came on Mr. Tibbit’s scalesman in altercation with the man of Bucks, concerning a bag of rags, still on the scale, and the bowels of which the weigher had ruthlessly ripped up, preferring, as he significantly remarked, “to trust his own eye-sight before the bare word of any general dealer going.”

“As good whites, them is, as iver you seed in your loife,” asseverated the Bucks. “Outshots, I tell you, nothing better!” persisted the scalesman. “You don’t catch me lettin’ you hev ’em as sich.” The door of the counting-house at the end of the grove opened fiercely at this moment, and, glaring through his spectacles, little Mr. Tibbit skipped up to the bag of contention. Plunging his hand into the gash in the side thereof, he withdrew a few fragments of rag, and then catching up a piece of chalk, rapidly figured the weight and value of the whole on a large slate that hung against the wall.

“One and a quarter outshots!” shouted he to the young man at the desk, “at twenty-one! One—six—three! How de do, Mr. G.? Pungshall to time! Nothing like it, sir. Dick, bring me my hat. Come this way, sir.”

The big man in the leathern gaiters said not another word, but quietly walked up for his “one—sis—three;” while Mr. Tibbit, glancing over his shoulder to see that I was following, dived into a maze of gloomy, queer-smelling passages, dimly lighted with gas. Tiers of squat bags, through whose interstices the sheen of metals was visible; pyramids of lead, in sheet, in snaky coils, and in “pig ;” monstrous bales of horse-hair, some labelled “raw,” and others “curled.” Then came a bit of open, where stood a stack of old iron, as tall, and altogether as large, as an eight-roomed house! Surely every iron thing manufactured since the demise of that celebrated artisan, Tubal Cain, was represented here. The frame of a pair of spectacles, half a sword blade, a noseless anvil, a great ancient Key, and a rusty, drunken-looking old corkscrew, caught my eye at one glance as I passed. Good heavens! if every broken, rusty, battered thing that went to make that iron mountain could have related its experiences!

My loitering steps had enabled the agile Tibbit to get some distance in advance, and I presently saw him on the summit of a mound of merchandise beckoning me forward. I leapt up the mound, formed of great bags like hop-pockets: they emitted a strange crackling sound.

“Old pawn-tickets, they are,” remarked Mr. Tibbit, answering my surprised glance of interrogation; “there’s a ton and a half of ’em altogether!”

“A ton and a half of pawnbrokers’ tickets! Mr. Tibbit, what food for reflection is here! How many stories of poverty, and recklessness, and hunger, and extravagance do these eloquent little scraps of pasteboard bear witness to?”

“Can’t say—never counted ’em; ’tain’t part of my business,” replied Mr. Titbit, curtly: “I’ll tell you what it is, my friend, if you want to know the history and mystery of everything you may happen to stumble over on my premises, you had better defer your inspection till that remote period when I shall have nothing else to do than to be your guide and interpreter. The object of your visit, if I properly understand it, is to see a rag-bag opened for sorting, and to hear an account of the various purposes to which its contents would be applied. If that is still your intention, come on up these stairs—time is money, you know, young fellow!” I could only plead in excuse the interesting nature of the subject. “Well, if you feel any interest in a lot of old pawn-tickets,” replied he,” you are welcome to a handful—kind of sample, you know. Seven and a half I’ll allow you if you bring a customer for the lot. What are they good for? Why they are worked up again, made into common brown card-board, and then veneered with fine paper for railway-tickets, and all that sort of thing.”

Pocketing the proffered handful of tickets, I followed Mr. Tibbit up the steep ladder, with its greasy cable hand-rail, and into the sorting house. This was a dreary uncomfortable place, about sixty feet long and thirty wide. It was lighted partly by a few grimy windows, and partly by gaps cut in the walls for the sake of ventilation. The cold wind played in and out of these apertures, which were, moreover, fantastically barred with rails, rendering the rag-house anything but a cheerful place that dull December afternoon. Across the beams and joists overhead, humid rags of the heavy drugget and carpet order were hung to dry —and, O! the effluvia they emitted! A fire in these places, Mr. Tibbit informed me, was not allowed by the fire insurance offices. How wretched, then, alas, must be the life of a “sorter” in the winter—and how much worse in the summer! Why, the rag-house must be in a continual fog—a horrid steam—from these heaps of sweating rags!

I venture to make this observation to Mr. Tibbit, who triumphantly asserts, and turns to his work-people for confirmation, that among some eight or nine hundred persons employed in the London rag trade, only six fatal cholera cases occurred during the three months in 1849, when the epidemic was at its height.

Of the labourers in Mr. Tibbit’s sorting-house, the majority were females, mostly Irish females; and attired more in obedience to the inclemency of the work-room than to the prevailing fashion. Five old women and eight or nine girls, varying in age from fifteen to twenty, were seated in a circle on the ground. In their midst was an immense heap of dilapidated cloth garments — coats, cloaks, trousers, mantles, &c, &c. Each operator being furnished with a bushel basket, and a pair of long sharp scissors, helped herself from the heap, and cut away every seam, button-hole, or morsel of lining from the scrap in course of dissection. If a finishing touch was required to complete the desolation of the rag-house, it certainly was supplied in the cold, monotonous clashing of the dozen pairs of scissors. For every hundredweight of “clean cloth” snipped: into the basket, the cutter receives three shillings. To cut seventy pounds of cloth is considered a good day’s work, a circumstance that rather surprised me after I had seen how fast it was possible to work a pair of scissors. Over against the wall stood an old woman making and repairing bags. Elegance not being so requisite as strength for this kind of needlework, the appearance of the old dame was as unlike the ideal seamstress as possible. She was attired in a coat that had once been a cabman’s, evidently. She had great leather gloves on her hands; her needle excelled in size a considerable skewer; while for thread she used ordinary “lay cord.”

There were six rag-sorters. Each man stood before a large sieve, such as is used by builders, being about six feet long and three wide, and was surrounded by a dozen baskets, into which were pitched the various “sorts.” Above the sieve was slung a big bag on which the sorter operated. A new and virgin bag was slung in my honour; and, stationing myself with Mr. Tibbit at a handy distance, the business began. Out tumbled, first of all, a tattered merino mantle, trimmed with crape. Very brown and threadbare, and much darned was the mantle, and I innocently looked for the accompanying widow’s cap. The sorter ruthlessly seized the poor old garment, and, rending the crape therefrom, tossed the merino into a basket, and, rolling up the sombre trimming, threw it up on a shelf.

“That stuff is not of much use, I suppose, Mr. Tibbit?” remarked I, wishing to display my sagacity.

“Ain’t it,” replied the rag-merchant: “I wish I had a ton of it! Why, that’s one of the most valuable articles that passes through my hands, sir. [Some] hunt it up as though it was old gold. Look here,” said he, taking down a huge bundle of dismal, copper-coloured rubbish, “this is the kind of material used by half the mourning milliners and artificial-flower makers in London. The dirt is steamed out of it, and it is dyed and stiffened to look ‘equal to new.’ It would be quite,” continued Mr. Tibbit pleasantly, “only that it’s rather tender, and won’t bear much handling.”

So it comes about that the crape worn, and worn out, in Poverty Rents by widow Jenkins, is presently transformed into flowers, amidst which Lady Bangman mourns her departed lord in a fashionable and becoming manner.

“This is another valuable sort of rag,” said Mr. Tibbit, fishing from the sieve a few new white linen cuttings: “this kind is used in the manufacture of the most superior kind of paper—paper in which extreme fineness and great strength are the chief requisites. This sort of paper is used for bank-notes, cheques, &c. That goes for writing paper,” continued the rag dealer, pointing to a grimy calico shirt sleeve which now turned up. “All unprintcd calicos go for the same purpose. This (a little frock of coloured calico) goes to make printing papers. All coloured rags are made into printing papers, and are valuable according to the depth of their colours; this (a scrap of lavender-lined rag) is a very good sort; this (the skirt of a ‘half-mourning’ cotton gown) is the worst kind of rag for paper making, because an alkali of sufficient strength to remove the dye will not fail to render the fabric rotten, and only fit to be used with better sorts.”

” What sort of paper does that make?” I inquired, smiling, as a huge coal sack came down into the sorting arena.

“Very good paper, sir,” replied Mr. Tibbit, gravely, and with a reproving glance, which instantly checked my levity. “Brown paper, sir! The tar will be boiled out of that old coal-sack until it is as clean as your handkerchief. Why, sir, in these days, this sort of material is considered too precious for brown paper making! Ten to one but by the time it is worked into pulp it will make the acquaintance of a few hop-roots, if nothing more disrespectable even than that! Here comes some sugar-paper material,” continued he, as some brown sacking similar to that in which coffee and rice is imported was disgorged from the big bag! “All flax, sir, and a great pity it is that it can’t be put to a better purpose. But, you see, it is undressed flax—not so much as even stripped of the knots” (he held the bag up, and pointed out some short straws that were blended with the flax); “and the worst of it is, there is no removing it. As you see the short straws here, so they will appear in the manufactured sugar-paper.”

As the business of sorting proceeded, I plainly saw that the thriftless servant and the slatternly housewife were the best friends and patrons of the rag-merchant. Really, a full fourth of the material that passed through the hands of the sorter were not rags at all. Perhaps I should rather say they were not rags in tatters. Many were the stockings thrown among the “dirty whites” that a careful woman would speedily have rendered sound and wearable with a very little darning-cotton and a liberal quantity of soap! Many were the little frocks and pinafores prematurely consigned to the “coloured” bin for want of the saving “stitch in time.” The honest bona fide rags, the rags of the industrious poor, were distinguishable by their invariable cleanliness. If the cast-off garments were clean, they were sure to be threadbare and patched to death. One other thing was especially observable amongst this merchandise: it was mostly made up of children’s clothing. Explainable, I suppose, from the fact that mother’s gown is so often transformed into a frock for little Polly, while father’s coat is metamorphosed into a jacket for young Dick, who “goes out to work.”

Helter-skelter, out they tumble! Year-old baby’s worsted boots, and four-score baby’s worsted slippers! The cotton “bird’s-eye” neckerchief of the navvey, and the satin lace-edged “garter-tie” of Mr. Highbury Barn! These are the remnants of the collars first mounted by young Gill, excoriating his tender neck, and covering him with confusion, consequent upon the inquiries they elicited from his youthful companions! There is the ghost of that splendid, though ugly, shawl that Tom Brown the blacksmith presented to his bride. Many a sick little Brown has that shawl comforted since, and now it will go to nurture potatoes on farmer Wiggins’s lands.

“What is that used for, Mr. Tibbit?” I inquired, as a threadbare piece of Brussels carpet turned up.

“That has done its work, sir,” replied the rag-dealer. “That’s about the hardest worked article of any manufactured. People ain’t half as hard on Kidderminster! but poor Brussels goes from the drawing-room to the bed-room, and from the bed-room to the kitchen, till at last it comes to us, worn out and bald—all its wool worn off, you know, and only fit to be buried.”

“And suppose,” said I, “that all the wool is not worn off when it comes into your hands?”

“Well,” replied he, “I can only answer your question by explaining the treatment generally of rags composed of a mixture of wool and cotton. By a lately-discovered process it is possible, by the aid of chemicals, to destroy every particle of cotton or other vegetable substance in woven fabrics, leaving the wool intact. However, it is an expensive operation, and is only applied to such rags as are made up of at least half-wool. Bags in which wool exists in a smaller proportion, can be used for nothing but the land, and are not worth more than about three shillings the hundred weight. So that you see the existence of a little wool in cotton rags, by rendering them unfit for paper-making, depreciates their value at least two hundred per cent.!”

“There’s a nugget, Mr. Tibbit!” said I, as a lady’s amber-coloured silk-jacket was hustled into the sorting-sieve in company of a dismembered pair of corduroy trousers.

“Yes, my friend, a draper’s nugget—not a rag-dealer’s,” responded Mr. Tibbit, contemptuously. “This is well enough,” continued he (pointing to the white-linen lining); “even this is of some use (tearing a rent in the lining, diving his experienced hand between the inner and outer material, and producing a quantity of wadding—oh ! the mystery of dress-making!); it can be rolled again into sheets and dyed black; but as to this rubbish (the amber silk) I’d sell a ton of it for a hundredweight of good old ropes! No, sir, of all useless material, worn-out silk is certainly the most useless! It is absolutely good for nothing!”

“Except as land-rags,” interposed I.

“Absolutely good for nothing, I said,” replied the dogmatic Tibbit. “It certainly is used as land-rag, but I’d be glad to know of what use it is. Rags are put into the ground for two purposes: Firstly, that by their absorbent nature they may store up superabundant moisture, to be yielded up on demand to the thirsty earth; and secondly, that the soil may be fertilised by their decomposition. Now, where will you find a more unlikely material than silk to perform either of these offices? Nothing that I know of—with the exception of Macintosh— is less absorbent; and of all woven fabrics buried in the earth, silk is among the last to decay. Precious aristocratic stuff silk is, I can tell you, from first to last!” And with a scornful gesture, Mr. Tibbit pitched the dainty jacket upon the old carpet.

So depressing an influence did the unfortunate jacket appear to have on the rag-merchant, that for full two minutes he said not a word. However, a lively shower of new scarlet cloth cuttings fortunately occurring, he again took up the thread of his discourse.

“Ah! that’s something better, sir,” said he. “The man who first discovered how to treat that article made a pretty fortune, I can tell you!”

I inquired of what nature was the discovery.

“Extracting the scarlet dye,” replied Mr. Tibbit, complacently stroking a shred of the famous cloth. ” He kept the secret well, too! Made forty thousand pounds by it before it leaked out. The oddest part of the business is, that the dye extracted is better and of greater value than that newly manufactured! Everybody knows how it’s done now. But it’s a good article to deal in still—a very good article. Reach me that bit of drab, Joe,” said Mr. Tibbit to the sorter.

The “bit of drab” appeared to be part of the skirt of a watchman’s coat.

“That’s rather uncommon stuff, sir,” said he, snapping the drab cloth between his finger and thumb heartily; “that’s wool, sir, that is; every grain of it!

“So is all cloth, isn’t it?” I replied, innocently.

“I wish it was, my friend,” said Mr. Tibbit, with a look that denoted his compassion for my simplicity. “No, sir. Cloth, as a rule, left off being cloth during the latter part of the French war, when commerce was crippled, and people debarred from honest materials were at their wits’ end for shifts and substitutes. It has been degenerating ever since, till it has become nothing better than cotton faced with devil’s-dust.'”

Without knowing its meaning, I had repeatedly heard this latter expression used in connection with tailoring, especially tailoring according to the Hebrew persuasion. This I thought would be a good opportunity to obtain information on the subject.

“What is devil’s-dust, Mr. Tibbit.'”

“This sort of thing,” replied he, coolly taking up the skirt of my outer garment (Registered Albert—thirty-nine and sixpence—Moses and Aaron, Minories.)

“That is absurd, Mr. Tibbit,” I replied. “This is wool, sir, and warranted shrunk.”

“Oh, I’ll warrant you it’s well shrunk,” answered the rag-dealer, with a malicious chuckle. “One more shrinking will about do the business for all the wool there is in that article. However, that isn’t answering your question, ‘What is devil’s-dust?’ Since it was discovered that woollen goods might be re-manufactured, it seems to have been the mistaken opinion of many cloth-makers that wool, like lead, had only to be re-cast to be again new, and that this operation might be repeated any number of times. So they went on, making and remaking, till every spark of vitality was ground out of the wool—till it lay a dead heap, refusing to be woven any more. That was the original devil’s-dust; and this is the ingenious process invented for making it a means of adulterating cloth. First of all is laid a thin stratum of good live wool, then a liberal sprinkling of devil’s-dust, then a topping of good wool again. Then the mixture is rolled into hanks, and spun into fine thread for weaving; the genuine wool that was placed top and bottom forming a secure sheathing to the devil’s-dust, let the thread be drawn out ever so finely. In fact, if you understand how a little cube of copper is electro-plated before it is drawn out as gold or silver wire, you have an exact notion of the devil’s-dust process. Cloth made entirely from this adulterated material would not be so bad, but the ingenuity of a certain class of cloth manufacturers goes yet a step farther! Observe this piece I hold in my hand. When I tear it this way, it parts without any noise; but this way, you perceive it sounds precisely as though I was tearing a piece of calico. This kind of cloth is made by first laying a woof of thread, and then crossing it with a warp either of devil’s-dust alone, or a mixture of that popular material with a little good wool.”

The big bag was by this time emptied, so with a severe hand I buttoned up the wretched registered Albert, whose hypocrisy Mr. Tibbit had unmasked, thanked the good gentleman for his courtesy, and departed from his premises. J. W. G.

The Welcome Guest, 1859

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mr Tibbit seems to have been an early proponent of what to-day is called “recycling.”  This piece is a revealing look at some of the tricks of the textile manufactories. Devil’s dust, also known as “flock,” was old cloth, either wool or cotton, ground into powder and used to adulterate newly woven fabric. Such fabric was sometimes known as “shoddy.” It was said that some mills did not scruple about using “diseased” rags and that the calico trade of Huddersfield was nearly ruined by the practice.  Out-shots refers to a second-class grade of hemp. The job of rag-sorter was an unpleasant one: the rags might be filthy, infested with lice, fleas, or other vermin, and hospital rags might contain smallpox or other contagion.

Mr Tibbit’s remarks on the value of crape are revealing. It was a popular superstition (fostered, one suspects, by the crape merchants of the Norwich crape mills) that it was unlucky to keep crape in the house after mourning was concluded. Its scarcity in the rag market suggests that this was not the case or that it was sold to the old-clothes merchants instead of ending in the rag-bag.

Here is an article about a “shoddy” factory in the United States.

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.




Queen Victoria’s Cast-off Stockings On Sale in New York: 1881


Victoria’s Old Stockings Sold in New York

Its Belles Coveting Royalty’s Cast-Off Clothes.

The following decidedly curious advertisement appeared in a morning paper last week:

“Ladies desirous of purchasing articles from the wardrobe of Queen Victoria can do so by calling on Mrs. Martin, __ W. Fortieth street”

A Mercury reporter found the designated address to be—most appropriately, perhaps—an English basement house let in lodging-rooms, of which Mrs. Martin occupied a back parlor, with a very obese bed in a very contracted alcove, squeezed into the genteel semblance of a book-case. When he shut the door after him, the bed came tumbling down with a violent clatter, and a stout lady in a dingy red wrapper, who was reading a newspaper at the window, said: “Drat it!” with much vehemence. The reporter apologized to both the bed and himself, and explained his errand. Having jammed the bed up again, Mrs. Marti made assurance certain by rolling an arm-chair against it, and, sitting down in it said:


You saw, sir, and you could have seen many others if you had so pleased. It’s not the first, nor the second, nor yet the tenth, and I have the receipts to prove it, not to mention the ladies who has bought of me, if I was so disposed as to name them—some of the first ladies in the land, sir, and I’m not ashamed to say it. Not that it’s any wonder, for the chance they get is not one that comes to them every day.”

“You mean the chances of purchasing the cast-off clothes of a queen,” observed the reporter.

Mrs. Martin surveyed him with a glance of suspicion and replied: “Who said cast-off clothes? If they don’t suit them, they don’t need to buy them, do they? Which, as far as that goes, the


As you call them, young man, is a deal better than some folks’ best. Look at this hosiery now,” and she handed the reporter a black ball from the mantel. The ball unrolled into a pair of silken hose of the finest texture, which presented the appearance of having invested the Royal extremities a couple of times at most. If the irreverent suggestion may be permitted, however, Her Majesty’s pedicurist had been derelict in the performance of his duties about the time she wore those stockings, for at the point of each great toe the delicate fabric had been cut, evidently by the pressure of a sharp edge. The heels and toes were white, or rather had been before Her Majesty’ had walked in them without slippers. The size of the pedals which had filled them was evidently that of an ordinary woman’s and the measurement in other particulars, as far as the reporter was permitted to make it, was in proportion. Altogether, they did not present any particular difference, except in absence of newness, to similar objects which are displayed to the vulgar gaze on those plaster of paris works of art which have become an attribute of most of our dry goods store windows, and the reporter said so. But Mrs. Martin pointed to the white band in which the upper portion of them terminated and remarked, “Don’t they?” And, indeed, woven in the band in open work, were the


Surmounted by a crown. This regal stamp, Mrs. Martin assured the reporter, is permitted only upon articles manufactured from the Royal wardrobe, and in corroboration she produced several other pairs of stockings, which she declined to unroll, however, all of which bore the same mark. It likewise existed on some cambric handkerchiefs, which she took out of a hairy trunk. Her collection, she stated, had included several sets of underclothing, gloves, lace and plain collars, fans and cuffs and shoes and slippers. Most of these had been already disposed of. Such as remained were of a character to be held sacred from the gaze of man.

This led quite naturally to the interesting point of their origin and destination .According to Mrs. Martin, every three months witnesses a complete renewal of Queen Victoria’s wardrobe. In spite of the popular impression that this consists mainly of muslin caps and black gowns, it is really very extensive, and much of it is almost unworn; still it has to give place to the new supply. It falls the perquisite, says Mrs. Martin, of the Maids of Honor, who, in fact, receive no other reward. These exalted, but frugal ladies sell it in a lump and divide the money it brings among them. The method by which it is disposed of partakes of that species of mystery G. W. M. Reynolds use to revel in when he prodded the effete and profligate monarchy with his red-hot pen. [Reynolds was a journalist and the author of Mysteries of London, a sensational fictional mystery serial exposing the sordid underbelly of London society.] The discarded garb of Britain’s greatness having been packed in bundles, is transported by night to the residence of a Mrs. Marks, who receives it from the trusted carrier and returns the money. She does with it what ladies and gentlemen, who deal in cast-off clothing, plebeian or regal, the world over, do with their wares. Mrs. Marti rejected with much scorn the suggestion by the reporter that she was an agent of Mrs. Marks, and held forth certain vague suggestions of relationship with a Maid of Honor as an explanation of her possession of the precious relics she traded in; the said lady being wealthy in her own right, so that she was able to forego her share of Mrs. Marks’ cash and send her portion of the Queen’s wardrobe to Mrs. Martin, whom “she had always thought a good deal of.” Who her generous connection was, Mrs. Martin answered the reporter was a secret wild horses could


The Queen’s wardrobe finds a ready sale in London, at comparatively enormous prices, to ladies who desire to possess some souvenir of their Sovereign. In free America the demand is equally great, Mrs. Martin says, and there is no reason whatever to doubt her. Her customers are all natives, but they gush over the remnants of royal finery with as much fervor as any full-fledged cockney toady ever could. “The first thing they do is to kiss them; the next is to try them on; then they commence to criticise them; but there’s one thing they never do, which is to refuse to pay the price I ask. I never had but one customer haggle with me. I found out afterwards she was the wife of a man who has a museum and who wanted the things to exhibit. I made him pay for them, you may be sure. He has got a full set, dress, lace cap and all, down to the shoes and stockings, but they cost him all they were worth. Never mind how much that was. If people want to know my prices, they can ask ’em, young man. That is what I advertise for. There was a carriage with a liveried coachman at Mrs. Martin’s door when the reporter got to the corner. Another republican admirer of monarchical customs was about to pay her respects at second hand.

The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 June 1881: p. 10

Another view of the royal stockings.

Another view of the royal stockings.

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The custom of allowing the maid the mistress’s cast-off clothes is one that extends even into the lower middle-classes. However, even in titled houses, misunderstands may arise about these perquisites in such wise that Mrs Daffodil has known an acquisitive maid to pack her bags and flit before she is called upon to assist the police with their inquiries. There was a thriving second-hand trade in all cities, including Paris, where this dealer found that the cachet attached to certain names materially improved his business.

Hints for Old Clothes’ Dealers

It is reported that a dealer in second-hand clothes living in the Quartier Latin in Paris has hit upon a somewhat ingenious idea of disposing of the garments which are too old-fashioned or too dilapidated to fetch anything like a good price. Attached to the various articles hanging outside his shop are modestly-written cards containing announcements like the following: “Pair of trousers worn by M. Guizot on his arrival in Paris”—“Overcoat belong to Mr. Littre before he became celebrated”—“Dressing gown formerly belonging to Alexander Dumas”—“Vest worn by M. Thiers when President of the Republic.” It is, perhaps, needless to say that those interesting relics are rapidly bought and proudly worn by the economical students notwithstanding the scepticism of some of the purchasers. “Would you have me believe,” said a young artist one day, as he inspected a velveteen coat, “that this belonged to Victor Hugo? Plainly, it is too small for him.” “Do you think,” replied the unabashed dealer, “that Victor Hugo would have sold so good a coat if he could have worn it with any degree of comfort?”  And the bargain was struck. Richwood [OH] Gazette 29 March 1877: p. 1

You will find another story of the rag trade here.

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.

For stories of Victorian mourning, coffins, crypts, and crape, please see The Victorian Book of the Dead, also available in a Kindle edition.