Tag Archives: Victorian sewing

Autobiography of an Old Pair of Scissors: 1875

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN OLD PAIR OF SCISSORS.

I was born in Sheffield, England, at the close of the last century, and was like all those who study Brown’s Shorter Catechism, made out of dust. My father was killed at Herculaneum at the time of the accident there, and buried with other scissors and knives and hooks and swords. On my mother’s side I am descended from a pair of shears that came to England during the Roman invasion. My cousin hung to the belt of a duchess. My uncle belonged to Hampton Court, and used to trim the king’s hair. I came to the United States while the grandfathers of the present generation of children were boys.

When I was young I was a gay fellow—indeed, what might have been called “a perfect blade.” I look old and rusty hanging here on the nail, but take me down, and though my voice is a little squeaky with old age, I can tell you a pretty tale. I am sharper than I look. Old scissors know more than you think. They say I am a little garrulous, and perhaps I may tell things I ought not.

I helped your grandmother prepare for her wedding. I cut out and fitted all the apparel of that happy day. I hear her scold the young folks now for being so dressy, but I can tell you she was once that way herself. Did not I, sixty years ago, lie on the shelf and laugh as I saw her stand by the half hour before the glass, giving an extra twist to her curl and an additional dash of white powder on her hair—now fretted because the powder was too thick, now fretted because it was too thin! She was as proud in cambric and calico and nankeen as Harriet is to-day in white tulle and organdy. I remember how careful she was when she ran me along the edges of the new dress. With me she clipped and notched and gored and trimmed, and day and night I went click! click! click! and it seemed as if she would never let me rest from cutting.

I split the rags for the first carpet on the old homestead, and what a merry time we had when the neighbours came to the “quilting!” I lay on the coverlet that was stretched across the quilting-frame, and heard all the gossip of 1799. Reputations were ripped and torn just as they are now. Fashions were chattered about, the coal-scuttle bonnet of some offensive neighbour (who was not invited to the quilting) was criticised, and the suspicion started that she laced too tight; and an old man who happened to have the best farm in the county was overhauled for the size of his knee-buckles, and the exorbitant ruffles on his shirt, and the costly silk lace to his hat. I lay so still that no one supposed I was listening. I trembled on the coverlet with rage, and wished that I could clip the end of their tattling tongues, but found no chance for revenge, till, in the hand, of a careless neighbour, I notched and nearly spoiled the patchwork.

Yes, I am a pair of old scissors. I cut out many a profile of old-time faces, and the white dimity bed-curtains. I lay on the stand when your grand-parents were courting—for that had to be done then as well as now—and it was the same story of chairs wide apart, and chairs coming nearer, and arm over the back of the chair, and late hours, and four or five gettings up to go with the determination to stay, protracted interviews on the front steps, blushes and kisses. Your great-grandmother, out of patience at the lateness of the hour, shouted over the banisters to your immediate grandmother, “Mary! come to bed!” Because the old people sit in the corner looking so very grave, do not suppose their eyes were never roguish, nor their lips ruby, nor their hair flaxen, nor their feet spry, nor that they always retired at half-past eight o’clock at night. After a while I, the scissors, was laid on the shelf, and finally thrown into a box among nails, and screws and files. Years of darkness and disgrace for a scissors so highly born as I. But one day I was hauled out. A bell tinkled in the street. An Italian scissors-grinder wanted a job. I was put upon the stone, and the grinder put his foot upon the treadle, and the bands pulled, and the wheel sped, and the fire flew, and it seemed as if, in the heat and pressure and agony, I should die. I was ground, and rubbed, and oiled, and polished, till I glittered in the sun and one day, when young Harriet was preparing for the season, I plunged into the fray. I almost lost my senses among the ribbons, and flew up and down among the flounces, and went mad amongst the basques. I move round as gay as when I was young; and modern scissors, with their stumpy ends, and loose pivots, and weak blades, and glaring bows, and coarse shanks, are stupid beside an old family piece like me. You will be surprised how spry I am flying around the sewing room, cutting corsages into heart-shape, and slitting a place for button-holes, and making double-breasted jackets, and hollowing scallops, and putting the last touches on velvet arabesques and Worth overskirts. I feel almost as well at eighty years of age as at ten, and I lie down to sleep at night amid all the fineries of the wardrobe, on olive-green cashmere, and beside pannier puffs, and pillowed on feathers of ostrich.

Oh, what a gay life the scissors live! I may lie on gayest lady’s lap, and little children like me better than almost anything else to play with. The trembling octogenarian takes me by the hand, and the rollicking four-year-old puts on me his dimpled fingers. Mine are the children’s curls and the bride’s veil. I am welcomed to the Christmas-tree, and the sewing-machine, and the editor’s table. I have cut my way through the ages. Beside pen, and sword, and needle, I dare to stand anywhere, indispensable to the race, the world-renowned scissors.

But I had a sad mission once. The bell tolled in the New. England village because a soul had passed. I sat up all the night cutting the pattern for a shroud. Oh, it was gloomy work. There was wailing in the house, but I could not stop to mourn. I had often made the swaddling-clothes for a child, but that was the only time I fashioned a robe for the grave. To fit it around the little neck, and make the sleeves just long enough for the quiet arms—it hurt me more than the tilt-hammers that smote me in Sheffield, than the files of the scissor’s-grinder at the door. I heard heart-strings snap as I went through the linen, and in the white pleats to be folded over the still heart I saw the snow banked on a grave. Give me, the old scissors, fifty bridal dresses to make rather than one shroud to prepare.

I never recovered from the chill of those dismal days, but at the end of life I can look back and feel that I have done my work well. Other scissors have frayed and unravelled the garments they touched, but I have always made a clean path through the linen or the damask I was called to divide. Others screeched complainingly at their toil; I smoothly worked my jaws. Many of the fingers that wrought with me have ceased to open and shut, and my own time will soon come to die, and I shall be buried in a grave of rust, amid cast-off tenpenny nails and horseshoes. But I have stayed long enough to testify, first, that these days are no worse than the old ones, the granddaughter now no more proud than the grandmother was; secondly, that we all need to be hammered and ground in order to take off the rust; and thirdly, that an old scissors, as well as an old man, may be scoured up and made practically useful.

Around the tea-table, Thomas De Witt Talmage, 1875: pp 50-52

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is a little strange to find a useful household article so sententious, boastful, and sentimental—all at the same time, but there was a 19th-century vogue for these whimsical first-person “autobiographies” of inanimate objects as we have seen previously in the life-stories of a corset and an old needle-book. In the current era, when nearly everything from fashion to spouses is disposable, one wonders what objects will be left to sell their stories to the tabloids?

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 Crazy-Quilt Mania: 1883-1891

crazy-quilt-1884-pa

A crazy quilt made c. 1884 in Pennsylvania by Lucy Richards Brock http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/50455.html?mulR=478039240|1

CRAZY QUILTS

A Feminine Mania Which Has Many Sides.

“What’s all this talk about crazy quilts?” asked a Chronicle reporter of a young lady acquaintance.

“Is it possible that you have never seen one?” exclaimed the young lady, “when dozens of them have been exhibited and raffled right here in San Francisco. Why, I’ll show you mine. There,” said she triumphantly, after spreading before the attentive gaze of the reporter a dazzling army of bright-colored blocks, “that is a ‘crazy quilt,’ or will be when these blocks are all stitched together on the machine. You can judge of the effect by placing them together.”

“It’s a great deal of work, isn’t it?” asked the reporter.

“Well, that depends,” was the reply. “Mine is made on these squares with a piece of cloth for the foundation of every block; on each of which the silks and velvets and brocades are placed in erratic fashion, the more zigzag the pattern and the greater the contrast of colors the better. Some, though, put all their patches on one large foundation, which is a very bulky, clumsy way, for, as you see, each scrap must be worked all around its edges with a fancy stitch in bright silk or floss. The ordinary stitch is the featherstitch or else the old-fashioned ‘herring-bone.” But, of course, if one choses, the needlework may be very elaborate, illustrating all the stitches known to decorative art.”

“I should think that the silk for the ornamentation of the patches would an item of expense?”

“It was to me until I stopped buying it by the spool. I get waste silk now, all sorts of colors, for 25 cents an ounce.”

“Where did this idea of a ‘crazy quilt’ originate?” was the next question.

“Well, I’ve been told all sorts of versions, but I believe that the truth is this: The officers’ wives in a military post somewhere on the frontiers invented it. Of course it’s only a new variation of an old idea. Patchwork is as old as the hills. Silk patches are an innovation on the calico quilts of our grandmothers, who early in their tender years were initiated into the mysteries of ‘star quilt,’—that of the ‘rising sun,’ ‘fox and geese,’ ‘flowers’ and the ‘log cabin’—all the rage during the Presidential campaign of ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too,’ as the old Whig war-cry had it.”

COLLECTING THE PATCHES

“Tell me why this particular style is called a ‘crazy quilt?’” persisted the reporter.

“Oh, for any number of reasons. Because the pattern is crooked, confused, confounded; because there’s an infatuation in the work itself; because to see one is to want to make one; because in our search for pieces we drive dressmakers, milliners and dry goods clerks crazy.”

“Why, is it so hard to make a collection of patches?”

“Awful!” exclaimed the young lady in a tone of desperation. Everybody wants them. Whenever two ladies meet greetings are hurriedly exchanged, and if they do not both speak at once, the one who can talk the fastest says: ‘Oh, my dear, I’ve been wanting to see you this long time to ask you for some silk scraps.’ ‘You’re not making a crazy quilt are you?’ the other one interrupts. ‘I was going to ask you for some scraps myself!’”

“”Why, do you know,” continued the young lady, “I’ve had people I was visiting want to cut off a piece of my bonnet string.”

“Indeed.”

“Yes. I’ve asked all my gentlemen friends for their cravats and hat linings; there’s always a clean piece, you know, underneath. Last week I went to my milliner for some pieces and she told me all their customers were coming for the same thing. I didn’t get any there. Then I went to my dressmaker, who does a rushing business. ‘Mrs. F.,’ said I, ‘have you any—‘ ‘Stop,’ said she, waving me off with her hand; ‘don’t say “crazy quilt” to me. I’m wild. I’ve just taken away my own shears from a lady who intended to snip off some pieces of the goods on my cutting table.’ Nothing there. It’s no use going for samples—they won’t cut them for us at the stores. But you’ll save me your cravats, won’t you?”

DEVICES OF THE MANIACS.

The reporter, after giving the required promise, took his leave. On his way he stopped at a dry goods store, and as a query said “Samples” to the clerk at the silk counter.

“Don’t give any after 10 A.M. Are you making a crazy quilt, too?” “No. But tell me, do you have many such requests?” “Guess we do! The ladies have no conscience at all; expect us to cut and hack away at our richest goods. We’ve had to shut down on the sample business. Why it took time and cost us something. But we’ve had our fun out of it, too. One day a little girl came in and asked for samples of light silks. I noticed that she looked queer when I gave them to her. Before she got out of the store she began to cry. Mr. S., the proprietor saw her and asked her if she’d lost anything. What do you suppose she said? ‘No, sir; but that man over there cut the samples in such long, thin strips, that they’re no good for the built.”

“What was too bad,” said the reporter.

“I can tell you a better one than that of Mrs. __,” mentioning a well-known name that the reporter was surprised to hear. “She came in to look at some brocades. I showed her our handsomest. She couldn’t make up her mind. Then she said: ‘I really don’t know which of these blues will match my silk, but if you will cut me a piece of each I can tell when I get home and send for the one I like best.’

‘Why, mamma, that’s what you said at all the stores,’ said her small boy.”

“Dead give-away, wasn’t it?” said the reporter.

“Guess so, for the youngster, for she took him out quick.”

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 28 September 1883: p. 3

Tamar Horton Harris North (1833–1905) Quilt (or decorative throw), Crazy pattern, ca. 1877 American, Silk, silk velvet, cotton, and cotton lace; 54 1/2 x 55 in. (138.4 x 139.7 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Cooper, 1983 (1983.349) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/13907

Tamar Horton Harris North (1833–1905)
Quilt (or decorative throw), Crazy pattern, ca. 1877
American,
Silk, silk velvet, cotton, and cotton lace; 54 1/2 x 55 in. (138.4 x 139.7 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Cooper, 1983 (1983.349)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/13907

Tamar Horton Harris North (1833–1905) Quilt (or decorative throw), Crazy pattern, ca. 1877 American, Silk, silk velvet, cotton, and cotton lace; 54 1/2 x 55 in. (138.4 x 139.7 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Cooper, 1983 (1983.349) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/13907

Tamar Horton Harris North (1833–1905)
Quilt (or decorative throw), Crazy pattern, ca. 1877
American,
Silk, silk velvet, cotton, and cotton lace; 54 1/2 x 55 in. (138.4 x 139.7 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Cooper, 1983 (1983.349)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/13907

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil hopes that none of her readers are sample fiends. Dry-goods stores resented the “sample nuisance” as a form of shop-lifting:

A manager of a dry goods firm, when asked about this petty form of shoplifting [candy], said that what the manager of the candy department said was as true in his case as in others. He further made the statement that this form of theft [for crazy quilts] was actually conducted by mail…

“Well, that is where we lose, principally. Persons in town and out of it—women mainly—write to us for a bunch of sample of some particular color. That is the last we hear of the samples or the supposedly prospective customer. And if we had any means of checking it we would probably find that the same women were procuring samples of other colors from other stores. These silk and satin samples cost money, and the loss occasioned by this deliberate theft amounts to something considerable in the year.

“Another form of petty larceny is of the same class, practically, but really more expensive to us when you know that the samples that go in this case are fine cloths, such as are used for trouserings and coats. These samples are those used in the making of fireside rugs.” Watertown [NY] Daily Times 23 February 1905: p. 6

A scheme to stop the sample fiends was invented by a Boston retailer:

Fair dames who have been wont, when paternal and fraternal neckties ran short, to replenish their crazy quilt materials by writing to large dry goods houses for samples of this or that silk or velvet, will be obliged to exert their ingenuity in some new direction, if a scheme to be put into operation by a big Sixth avenue concern is generally adopted. This firm is now having printed on large cards a figure something in the shape of a numerously spoked wheel. The figure is in black lines, and the triangular spaces between the lines are filled on each side with a different shade of color. Above is a space on which is to be pasted a small piece of silk or velvet goods. This will show the quality of the material. The triangular spots, each of which has a number printed on it, stand for the colors. The fair applicant for samples “from which to order a new dress” will hereafter instead of a package of 15 or 20 scraps from as many different pieces of goods, receive a few of these cards and will read beneath

The Gay Wheel

A printed request that she will order her dress from the one the quality of the sample which suits her best, and according as to colors, to the numbers. The firm that is about to try this plan claims that its loss from its “sample” nuisance amounts to thousands of dollars annually, and that any attempt to refuse outright the demands of the ladies results in a severe loss of trade. Boston [MA] Herald 20 June 1886: p. 8

“Crazy-quilt fiends” would stop at nothing to get fabric, even importuning celebrities:

The “crazy quilt people,” we are assured, are worse than all. They apply by the hundreds to Mrs Harrison for scraps of her dress. Scores of them send her bits of silk, on which she is requested to write her name, the autograph being intended to form the centre-piece of a crazy quilt. If she does not immediately comply with their demands, they write and beg of her to hurry up. Wanganui Chronicle 12 September 1890: p. 3

The crazy quilt fiend has again tackled the Governor. This time the request is not for a piece of one his discarded neckties, but for a block of silk bearing his autograph and the date. Verily, some of the prevailing fads are peculiar. Idaho Statesman [Boise ID] 17 May 1891: p. 1

This narrator suggested that the styles of gents’ neckwear had been altered by the craze:

The crazy quilt rage goes on in as intense a fashion as that of roller skating, and Lent has not subdued but rather emphasized the rush for “pieces” of the most gaudy hues. Men growl that their neckties are not safe, the dry goods houses are getting niggardly about samples, and gradually masculinity is arraying itself against another woman’s right. Have you noticed the tendency toward sobriety in color in men’s neckties? It is a growing one and only the result of a plot between men and brothers against women and sisters. And I don’t wonder at it. Neither will you, when you lose a brilliant-hued scarf for days and have almost forgotten it, when it suddenly appears to you in the form of a center piece in a crazy quilt. I have gone necktieless, suffered and cursed, and am therefore a rabid adherent of the new movement in neckties, even if it, in the end, leads us to black and sober solid colors. There are more ways of crossing a river beside jumping it. Therefore a change of style in mankind’s wear that will cripple the crazy quilt mania will be in the nature of an elevation of the dynamiter with his own mechanical can. Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 25 March 1885: p. 4

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.

 

How She Found the Time: 1856

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

HOW SHE FOUND THE TIME.

“Ah,” said Mr. Nelson, as drawing his chair to the centre table his eye rested on one of the popular novels of the day, “so you have a new book to read, Sarah. Where did you get it?”

“I borrowed it of Mrs. Merton, or rather she lent it to me — insisted upon my taking it, because, she said, she knew it would interest me, fascinate me; indeed, I told her it wasn’t much use to take it, for I should never find time to read it.”

“But she had found time — hadn’t she?” asked her husband, a little roguishly.

“Of course she had. She always finds time to do any thing she wants to; I never saw such a woman in my life.”

“And yet she has four children, and keeps but one girl?”

“And I have only two children, and as many girls, I suppose you would like to add — would you not?” responded the wife, just a very little bit out of humor.

“I must confess you have guessed aright, my dear. But I would not have said it in a fault-finding way, but simply from a desire to find out, if we can, why you have so little time to devote to reading — why you always have so much to do. Does Mrs. Merton do up every thing as neatly as yourself? Her parlors, I know, always seem the perfection of order and comfort, her husband’s and children’s clothes are always tidy, and she herself, in appearance, the personification of neatness and taste. But after all, perhaps there may be some oversight that is kept out of view.”

“You are mistaken,” said Mrs. Nelson, emphatically. “She is one of the most thorough housekeepers I ever knew. I have been sent there when she had been taken suddenly ill, and so violently, too, as to be unable to give a single direction; and yet every thing needed was always found without the least trouble; every drawer and closet was in order, and the whole house would have borne the rigid scrutiny of the most prim member of the Quaker sisterhood. And yet she never is in a hurry, and though always doing something, never complains of being wearied. She does all her own and children’s sewing, even to cutting dresses, and coats and pants; embroiders all her collars, and sleeves, and little girls’ ruffles; writes more letters every year than I have done since my marriage, and reads more than any other woman not purely literary that I ever knew. But how she does it is a mystery.”

“Why don’t you ask her to solve it?”

“I have thought of doing so ; but — but — well, to own the truth, I am ashamed to. It would be a tacit confession that I am in the wrong somehow.”

“But do you think you are?”

“Sometimes I do; and then again I think my failures to do what I would so dearly love to, are the result of the circumstances which I cannot control. For instance, yesterday afternoon I meant to have emptied my mending basket entirely, — I could have done so easily, and then one worry of the week would have been over, — but Mrs. Lawrence and her friend from Boston came in quite early, and, as you know, passed the afternoon. I could not blame them for coming when they did, for I had told them to come any afternoon this week; and I was glad to see them, and enjoyed the visit. Yet it upset my plans about mending entirely, for of course it would never have done to have littered the parlor with that. The afternoon was lost as far as work was concerned.”

“But was there nothing you could do?”

“Yes, if I had only had it. There were the handkerchiefs and cravats you want to take with you next week, which I might have hemmed if I had only had them. But you see, I had designed them for this afternoon, and so did not go out to buy them till to-day. And now I suppose the mending must lie over till next week, and then there- will be two baskets full. And so it goes. I wish sometimes the days were forty-eight, instead of twenty-four hours long.”

“Well, I don’t, I’m sure,” said her husband, good humoredly; “for I get tired enough now, and I doubt, Sarah, if either you or I would find any more time than we do now.”

“Well, one thing is certain — I shall never find time, as the days are now, to do what I want to do.”

“But you say Mrs. Merton does.”

“Yes, but she is an exception to all the rest of my acquaintances.”

“An honorable one.”

“Yes, an honorable one. I wish there were more with her faculty.”

“Perhaps there would be, were her example followed.”

“I understand you, and perhaps some day will heed the hint.” But here her further reply was prevented by a request from his head clerk to see her husband alone on urgent business.

All this time, while Mrs. Nelson had been bewailing the want of time, she had sat with her hands lying idly in her lap. To be sure, she was waiting for Bridget to bring the baby to be undressed; but she might easily have finished hemming the last cravat in those precious moments, and there it lay on her workstand, and her thimble and thread both with it. But she never thought of taking it — not she. She never thought it worth while to attempt doing any thing while waiting to do some other duty that must soon have to be performed. And thus, in losing those moments, she lost the evening chance to finish the hem; for when the baby did come, he was cross and squally, and would not let her lay him in the crib until nine o’clock, and then she was so tired and nervous, she couldn’t, she said, set a stitch to save her life.

It happened one day in the following week, after a morning of rather more flurry and worry than usual, that she went to the centre table to hunt for a misplaced memorandum. In her search for it her glance casually fell upon the borrowed novel, and with that glance the foregoing conversation rushed forcibly over her memory.

“I declare,” said she, “I have half a mind to run over to Mrs. Merton’s this afternoon, and cross-question her, till I learn her secret. Such a life as I am living is unbearable. I can’t stand it any longer. If she can find time, I know I can, if I only knew how.”

And true to her resolution, for though seemingly hasty, it had been for some time maturing in her mind, almost unwittingly she found herself at an early hour at her friend’s parlor, her bonnet and shawl thrown aside, and herself, work-bag in hand, snugly ensconced in a low rocker beside her little work-stand.

“You have not finished your collar, then?” she observed to Mrs. Merton, after a while, by way of leading the conversation in the desired channel.

“O, yes, indeed,” answered the hostess, tossing her head to one side, gayly, with a pretty affectation of pride. “Didn’t you notice how becoming it was?”

“And commencing another so soon?”

“Only basting on the pattern, so as to have it ready for some odd moment.”

“But how do you bear to spend so much time in embroidery? Why not purchase it at once; it is so much cheaper in the end?”

“For the wealthy it is, I grant, and for those not very wealthy, if their eyesight is poor, or if lacking in taste and needle skill. But I find it cheaper to do it myself. My husband’s salary does not allow us many luxuries, and the small sum we can spend for them I prefer should go towards purchasing what my own fingers cannot make. I can embroider collars and sleeves not as perfectly, it is true, as they do in foreign climes, but handsomely enough to suit my own and husband’s eyes; but I cannot write books, magazines, reviews, and newspapers, and they are luxuries more essential to my happiness than these articles of dress; so I do my own needlework, and with the money thus saved we purchase something that will never go out of fashion — an intellectual heritage for our little ones as well as a perpetual feast for us.”

“But how do you find time to do so much work? I cannot conceive how or where.”

“Well I hardly know myself,” said Mrs. Merton laughingly. “My husband sometimes tells me he believes the fairies help me. I seldom sit down to it in earnest, but I catch it up at odd moments, and before I am aware of it myself, it is done.”

“O, dear,” and Mrs. Nelson sighed. “I wish I had your faculty. Do, pray, Mrs. Merton, tell us the secret of your success in every thing. How do you always find time for every thing?”

“Do you question me seriously, or only mockingly, to remind me how much I leave undone?”

“Seriously? Yes, very seriously. To own the truth, it was to learn this I came over here to-day. There are a thousand things I long to do, because they would not only increase my own joys, but those of my husband and household ; but I cannot find the time. Yet you do them, and you have more cares and duties than I. If you tell me your secret, believe me, I shall feel under the deepest obligations to you.”

Her friend hesitated a moment. She was not wont to speak very much of herself, believing that character should reveal itself by actions mostly, and conscious that it will, too, whether it be a perfect or faulty one. Yet there was such an urgency, at length it conquered the scruples of modesty.

“I am afraid I shall remind you of ‘great I,’ if I undertake it,” she said, with a blush; “yet I can hardly give you my experience without subjecting myself to the charge of egotism. Yet, as we are alone, and as you seem to think I have avoided some of the besetting evils of this life, why, I will reveal to you what you call my secret.

“My mother early instilled into my mind and heart, by precept and example, a few rules of action, that I have sedulously endeavored to follow, and which, I believe, almost more than any thing else have contributed to my domestic peace and happiness.

“One of them is, always to have a time for every ordinary duty; to have that time at such a day or hour of the day as is best adapted to its perfect fulfilment, and always, extraordinary cases excepted, to perform the duty at that time.

“For instance, my general sweeping day is on Friday, because to my mind it is the most suitable one of the week. And the best portion of the day to do it in is very early in the morning, for then I can throw open my doors and windows to the freshest, purest breezes we get at all; and I am not disturbed by the din of travel, nor annoyed by the dust; and then, by postponing my bath and breakfast toilet, merely throwing on a wrapper and cap to sweep in till the house is clean, why I am tidy for the rest of the day.

“Whereas, if I wait till after breakfast, I must spend time to take another bath, and make another change of dress. Now, I confess, it is hard sometimes to keep this rule. When my sleep has been broken by the restlessness of baby, or when something has kept me up later than usual the previous evening, I feel strongly inclined to lie in bed and let the sweeping hour go by. But the dreadful consequences always stare me in the face so ruefully, that sleepy and weary though I may be, I struggle out of bed, — for it is verily a struggle, — and tying down my hair, and buttoning on my wrapper, and drawing on my gloves, as my old aunt used to say, I ‘make business fly.’ And I assure you I always find myself enough happier to compensate me for my efforts, hard though they seemed.

“And then, for a second rule, I always have a place for every thing, and always put it in its place, and thus waste no time in looking after things. For example, perhaps you will laugh at it, but I always make it a rule to put my thimble in my sewing-box, when I leave my work, no matter how great the hurry; and you can have no idea, until you have tried it, how much time is thus saved. Why, I have one friend who says she lost so much time by looking up her thimble, that she has bought herself three, so that when one is mislaid, she needn’t wait to hunt it up. Yet this rule, which soon would become a habit, would have saved her time and money.

“The third and last rule necessary to specify is this: to be always busy, or perhaps I ought to say employed, for with housekeepers, generally, to be busy is to be in a worry over too much work.”

“But you don’t mean to say you never rest — that you never get tired?”

“By no means; I both rest and get tired, and many times each day. But rest does not always imply cessation from labor. Sometimes it does, I grant; and when, after any unusual fatigue, I find myself inclined to lie down and sleep, I always indulge the feeling. It is one of Nature’s promptings, which, to insure health and joy, should be heeded. And I do not feel that I ever lose any time that way, for the half or even hour’s sleep so invigorates me, that I can work with twice the ability, afterwards, that I could if I had striven on with weary limbs and fretted nerves. But many times a change of employment or occupation will rest one as much, nay, more, than idleness. You know yourself, after a busy forenoon on your feet, that it rests you to sit down in your rocker, and busy yourself with your sewing. And sometimes, when I have been handling heavy clothes, such as coats and pantaloons for my boys, till my arms and fingers ache, I rest them by taking up some light garment for my little girl. Or when my limbs ache severely, from some arduous duty, and yet I have no inclination to sleep, as is frequently the case after rocking a worrisome child to sleep, I lie down on my old-fashioned lounge, and rest myself in body by that course; while I soothe, and gladden, and improve my mind by reading, always being careful, though, to put by the book just as soon as I feel that I am enough recruited.”

“But suppose you get behindhand with your work from sickness or company, or some other cause; what do you do then?”

“I never allow myself to get behindhand from the latter cause — visitors. I never allow them to interrupt my domestic affairs. I never invite company except on those days of the week that have the lighter duties. And if casual visitors come along, they will not disturb or hinder you, if the rules I have given you are implicitly followed. You are always ready for chance company. And with these rules, even sickness, unless long continued, will not vary the domestic economy. But if I do get behindhand, I make it up as quick as possible. I rise an hour earlier every morning, and deny myself the luxury of visiting till the accumulated work is performed.”

“Excuse me, but I most ask you one more question. What do you mean by odd times? You said you should work your collar at odd moments.”

“I can answer you but by some examples. Yesterday afternoon I was going to cut and baste a dress for myself. But unexpectedly a friend from the country came in to take tea with me. Now, I did not want to litter the parlor with my pieces; so I went to my basket and took out a pretty little sack for Harry, and spent my time on sewing that. I always keep something in my basket suitable for such odd times; and when I have nothing really necessary, I take up my embroidery. And then, you know, we wives are frequently obliged to wait till a considerable time has elapsed for the appearance of our husbands at the table, and these odd moments, usually so irksome to women, are precious to me. I always mean to have the meals ready at the hour: if Mr. Merton is not here then, — and, being head clerk, scarcely a day passes but some meal must wait, — instead of watching the clock or thrumming on the windows, I read the newspapers and magazines. I assure you I never take any other time to read them, and yet I am never behindhand with them.

And when I have none of them on hand, I catch up some story that I want to read, and yet don’t want to give that time which I usually devote to solid reading. The volume I lent you ” — Mrs. Nelson blushed; she had had it a week, and read only the first chapter — “I read in four days in this way. And when I have no reading that I am anxious to do, I spend the moments in writing. Most of my letters are penned while waiting for the tea bell to ring. And hark, there it is now; a pleasant sound for your ears, too, I guess, after the homily I have just given you. Please,” and she rose gracefully, “let ‘great I’ usher ‘dear you’ to the dining room.”

“With pleasure; yet I wish the bell had not rung so early. I have not heard half enough.”

“Have you never observed, my dear friend, that many sermons lose half their effectiveness by undue length? The benediction at such a time is noted as a relief, not a blessing. Some other time I will preach the rest.”

“I pray Heaven I may have resolution enough to practice what you have already taught. Sure I am, if I so do, my life, what is left of it, will be like yours — a perpetual sermon; and my daily benediction like yours also — the blessings of my children and the praise of my husband.”

Sweet Home: Or, Friendship’s Golden Altar, Frances E. Percival, 1856

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Admirable though the lady’s principles of organization may be, Mrs Daffodil, whose chosen profession is bringing order out of chaos, cannot but feel that Mrs Merton is sister to those organised, yet odious persons who follow lofty doctrines  of folding socks, colour-coding tinned goods, and keeping nothing in the house that does not “bring joy.”  We respect, but do not necessarily emulate them. Besides, Mrs Daffodil can think of a great many things that do not bring joy, such as HM Revenue & Customs forms, cod-liver oil, and certain footmen, but she is not at liberty to chuck them out.

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.

 

Economy in Dress an Art: 1889

Make-do and Mend.

Make-do and Mend.

WHAT ECONOMY MEANS.

[Dinah Sturgis in Dress.]

Economy is a good deal a matter of habit, and one that is more honored in the observance than in the breach. Those who do not need to count the cost of what they have are a small, a very small, minority. But too many think economy only a bore, when it is in reality an art.

Being economical does not mean going without. It means managing thriftily—so ordering one’s expenditures that each dollar spent shall bring its full value in return. It does not pay to struggle with a mob of people for a half or a whole hour to get some handkerchief for twelve cents that may be had at the next corner in three minutes for twelve and a half cents; nor has one any moral right to ask or expect to get two dollars’ worth for one dollar. But one has right—indeed, it is a duty—to ask full value in return for one’s money. What is economy at one time and for one person is dire extravagance under other conditions. All one’s powers of judgment and fair-sightedness must be laid under tribute to keep one off the rocks of extravagance and niggardliness. This last is a very mild name for the quality of mind that is willing to enrich its material self at the expense of poor workwomen or workmen.

In the matter of a wardrobe, as in all else, true economy is based upon getting the best qualities of materials at the outset. The best is the cheapest in the long run, but the best is not always the highest priced. Fancy fabrics bring the highest prices, but these are usually short-lived in favor and often they are not at all durable in texture. She whose purse is limited will be best dressed if she confines her purchases to standard fabrics, depending upon cut, finish and fitness, and not upon extreme novelty, for style. Having the latest “fad” in dress is an expensive hobby that in no way compensates for the lack of the sterling qualities of appropriateness and becomingness. One who cannot keep pace with fashion’s scouts will save herself much heart-burning by not entering the competition. One is never “out of the fashion” who is becomingly dressed in unobtrusive styles. Pronounced styles must be renounced the instant they become unfashionable, else the wearer is rendered conspicuous, something the woman of refinement always avoids.

Nothing is cheap that one does not want, but it is economical to look ahead, and to buy with an eye to the future. If one finds between two seasons, selling at less than the regular price, just what she is going to need later on, it is a legitimate bargain that she has every right to accept. It has nothing whatever in common with the “bargain” hunting that throngs the counters of largely advertised shops, with women tumbling over one another to get the sop thrown to them in the shape of worthless three-cent trash. While people are crowding in at the front door of shops to secure the “wonderful bargains slightly damaged by fire, water and smoke,” not infrequently the shopkeeper is bargaining with some agent at the back door to supply cheap grades for this “drive” as long as it lasts. Truly there are bargains and bargains.

A few well-made clothes of good quality are far preferable to twice the number of poor quality. Economy has to do not only with providing clothes at the outset, but with caring for them properly afterward. An article of clothing carefully kept will outlast any two that, when they are found to be going, are allowed to go. Sponging, pressing, new braid, and some little alteration, such as redraping, the addition of new vest, collar, cuffs, etc., will give a new lease of life to a gown thought to be quite passe. When a waist is too far gone to be of any more use, and the skirts are good or may be made good by the changes already suggested, there are the pretty plaited, smocked, or tucked blouses to be brought to one’s notice. These may be of inexpensive cashmere, or of expensive silk, according to one’s purse; the point of consequence is that they shall be suitable in texture, color and style.

The makeshifts of women-students, who in order to go on with their work must sacrifice every available penny of their slender incomes, would, if written out, make interesting studies in economy. From the music-student, who washes her own handkerchiefs, and dries and irons them by stretching and pressing them on a marble table, to save on her laundry bill, that she may hear the Gotterdammerung, to the art student who buys soiled white slippers at quarter-price, and turns them into respectable black ones with a bottle of liquid dressing, that she may have something to wear with her many-times renovated black-lace dress when she is asked to meet the artist of high degree, there are doings, often funny, often pathetic, that milady in her boudoir, who thinks economy means merely a jewel less, does not dream of. But it is well she should know about them. Perhaps it will make her more tolerant to know that the gods have not been so generous to everybody as to her own sweet self.

One is never at a loss to put what she has learned or evolved of economical devices to use. It is well to know, whether one is remote from the professional cleaner or has too few ducats to employ him, that silk ties, light gloves, slippers, etc., may be easily cleansed by washing them in naphtha. The cost is but a tithe of the cleaner’s prices. One needs only to know that the liquid is very volatile and very inflammable. Hence but a little of it should be poured out of the bottle at a time, keeping it tightly corked in the meantime, and it should be used out of doors or in a room where there is no fire or lamp. Gloves should be put upon the hands, and the hands then washed in the liquid, rubbing the soiled places lightly. A few hours’ exposure to the air, of articles thus cleaned, will remove every trace of odor. Feathers may be recurled, with a little patience and a knitting needle. Soiled white feathers may be cleansed by washing them in the lather of white curd soap, and dried by shaking them before the fire; they are then ready to curl, done by drawing each thread over a knitting needle. It sometimes saves a few pennies to know that wrinkled but unworn canvas out of old skirts, etc., may be restored to usefulness by sponging it clean and ironing while damp; the pressing with a hot iron restores its stiffness. One’s “good” gloves may be made to last as long again as they usually do others are substituted in their stead rainy-day wear, shopping, etc.; and these second rate gloves need not be depressingly shabby either. Naphtha will cleanse them when soiled, and a little care will keep them neatly mended, and provided with buttons. Thread of the same shade as the kid should be used in mending gloves. Ripped seams need only to be neatly oversewed, but when the kid breaks away oversewing the edges together does not answer; the edges of the break should be button-holed around in fine, even stitches, using a very fine needle, and then worked back and forth in “lace” stitches, drawing the button-hole stitches together, making a “tidily darned place.” The better to strengthen the place, when the kid has already proved to be rotten, put a piece of fine court-plaster, rather bigger than the spot, over it on the under side of the glove. A glove thus mended will give no further trouble—in the same place, at least. Soiled  places on white wool garments may often be entirely removed by rubbing them with Indian meal. Pour a little meal over the place to be cleaned, and rub it lightly with a clean, soft cloth, using fresh meal from time to time, then shake off, and dust the spot with a clean cloth.

One’s peace of mind is so disturbed by the consciousness that she looks shabby that it is of no small importance that the evil day should be warded off. Frequent sponging in ammonia and water will keep one’s black frock and coat, that are trying to shine, in subjection, and also remove spots that come by accident, but which no ordinarily neat person can allow to remain. The shabbiest boots look comparatively elegant if they are kept blacked, supplied with buttons, and free from rips. These last, when sewed up, should be stayed upon the wrong side, a bit of black velvet answering well for the purpose. The bonnet that is gray with a season’s accumulations of dust, and flaunts its dismantled plumes to one’s chagrin, will take on an air of positive elegance if the trimmings be taken off, the felt sponged (with the grain of the felt,) the velvet steamed and brushed, the ribbon turned and pressed, and the hat or bonnet retrimmed, omitting the plume if it is past being an ornament. Trimming, once nice but grown tawdry, spoils the effect of the handsomest material and should be taken off bonnet, wrap, or frock as soon as it reaches that condition.

Once more, economy is not a synonym for poverty; it is the hand-maiden of rich and poor alike. Being economical means making the most of one’s resources, selecting and arranging materials to bring the most generous returns for one’s investments, be they much or little. Economy is not an independent art; it depends for its best results upon one’s general knowledge of ways and means.

The Eastern Star, Volume 2, June 1889

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The authoress (and one suspects that she was born under a less elegant name) is not persuasive that economy is an art form with all of her turnings, and spongings, and pressings, not to say marble-topped tables full of sodden handkerchiefs. It all sounds unutterably dreary and Mrs Daffodil speaks as one who grew up with such dismal economies and found them useful in her career as a lady’s maid. Naphtha in particular, leaves a Smell, no matter how well-aired and one cannot depend on some careless flat-mate not leaving the cork loose and then lighting the gas…

‘Another Camphene Horror. —’A daughter of Rufus S. King, 770 Greenwise street, New York, was dreadfully burnt on Saturday night. She called on a lady, whom she found cleaning her gloves with camphene, and rubbing her own gloves with the liquid, went to the fire to dry them. Her clothes instantly took fire, when she threw her arms around the lady, and they fell upon the floor. A servant girl had the presence of mind to roll the carpet around Miss King, by which her life was saved, though her hands will never be capable of use. The Liberator [Boston, MA] 1 March 1850: p. 3

“Hand in Glove,” by Elizabeth Bowen, is a cautionary tale about the use of benzine to clean gloves, in the guise of a ghost story.

However, remaking articles of dress does have its satisfyingly creative side, as in this story of “The Dress Doctor,” a lady who made her living from remodelling garments. 

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.

 

Empress Eugenie’s Sewing Circle: 1866

 EugenieEugenie’s Latest Whim

The fashionable female world will be astounded at the latest whim which has seized the beautiful French Empress. For some time odd rumors have been circulated, which are now thought to have an origin in the far-reaching policy of the Emperor, rather any change of the Empress. Visitors admitted to the privilege of seeing their Majesties in the retirement of domestic life have expressed their astonishment at the simplicity of dress adopted by Eugenie. A plain dress without trimming, and worn with only a linen collar and cuffs, was said to be her costume on one occasion. In the recent speech made by the Emperor before the Corps Legislatif, he declared himself tired of hearing about more liberty for France. What France wanted was not more liberty, but greater simplicity, virtue and happiness. To this speech Jules Favre made a terrible reply.

He showed that, under the Empire, virtue and happiness were not to be found; that idleness and luxury had taken their place; that vice and wantonness stalked boldly abroad at midday in Paris, and were openly copied and countenanced by the leaders of Parisian society.

The effect of this scathing rebuke has been somewhat neutralized by an incident which occurred the other day, and which has been industriously circulated. A deputation of Lyons workmen waited upon her Majesty with a sample of antique and very costly brocade, which she was requested to bring into fashion. “I am very sorry I cannot comply with your wishes,” said the Empress, with her peculiarly charming style, “but there are many ladies whose husbands could not afford these toilettes as expensive. My own is among the number.” Of course the deputation left puzzled, bewildered, at the Emperor’s poverty, but completely fascinated.

I have not told you, however, of the latest Imperial whim which has taken the direction of sewing machines. A few weeks ago the Empress issued an order for several different kinds of sewing machines—one of which captivated her fancy, and it is said that she has not only become an expert operator herself, but that, greatly to the disgust of her ladies, she ordered several more of the same kind, and insists upon an hour’s practice as one of the daily morning recreations. A sort of Court Society has thus been formed, the substantial results of which are to be given to the poor. The news of this new whim of the Empress has been received with enthusiasm in fashionable quarters, and an immense rush created for machines. It is to be hoped the new whim will last long enough to clothe some of the miserable poor of Paris.

Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 21 April 1866: p. 1

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The Second Empire was a time of inflation both in skirt volume and in fashionable extravagance. Some pious ladies formed sewing circles to help the poor. Others tried to rein in the expense of being a la mode.

A number of ladies in Paris have formed themselves into a society called “L’ Union des Femmes Chretienne,” for the purpose of reforming the fashions. Each one promises to pay so much a year for her toilettes, and not to employ any dressmaker or buy goods unless she can pay for them right away. Won’t they please try this on here? Monticello [IA] Express 26 Mary 1870: p. 3

The Empress Eugenie, was, of course, Empress of the French until 1871. She and Emperor Napoleon III sought refuge in England, where the Emperor died in 1873.  As one might ascertain from the hostile tone of the article above, the Empress was often accused of extravagance in her dress. Here is what Dr Thomas Evans, the American dentist who helped her to escape to England (and who seems more than a little enamoured of her Imperial Majesty), had to say:

“But the anti-Imperialist gossips never grew weary of tattling about her love of personal display, of inventorying her dresses, and bonnets, and jewels, and furs, and of hypocritically bemoaning the “luxe offréné” —the unbridled luxury—of the Court. Just as if it was not one of the principal functions of a sovereign in a country like France—the arbitre de la mode for the world—to set the fashions of the day, and to regulate the etiquette and ceremonials of the Court!

And most eminently was she qualified to prescribe and govern the “form” at a Court brilliant and fond of display and originality to the verge of eccentricity. It was with the most exquisite tact and taste that she fixed the line where fashion stopped, and to pass beyond which would have been ridiculous. The beau monde everywhere accepted her decisions in these matters as ne plus ultra. From the day she entered the Tuileries, the Empress was the ruler of the world of fashion, and the supreme authority with her sex, in the four quarters of the globe, in all matters pertaining to the graces and elegancies of social life; and through her patronage the names of the couturieres, and modistes, and florists of Paris became famous in every land.

And yet most ladies who are at all prominent in our fin de siecle society, would probably be greatly surprised were I to tell them that the Empress, when one day at Farnborough reference was made to these particular critics and the alleged extravagance of her wardrobe, said in my presence: ”How very ridiculous all this is. Well! I suppose they think they must say something. Why! with the exception of a few gowns made for special ceremonial occasions, (those which she used very happily to call ‘mes robes politiques ‘) during the whole time I was at the Tuileries I never wore a dress that cost more than fifteen hundred francs, and most of my dresses were much less expensive.”

A writer who is no friend of the Empress has the grace to say, when speaking of her: “We live at a time when queens are exposed to public observation more than ever before, when they cannot put on a dress without having it described by fifty newspapers, when twenty articles are published every day about their fetes, their amusements, their jewels, and their head-dresses. This publicity tends to lower queens in the estimation of the people, who no longer see anything but the frivolous side of their lives.”

Memoirs of Dr Thomas W. Evans, 1905

 

“A paper pattern so perfect every lady can make it up herself:” 1911, 1874, 1915

"The international encyclopedia of scientific tailor principles, for all kinds and styles of garment-making ... Also designing ... embroidery, crocheting, knitting, worsted work, fancy and artistic needle work .." (1885)

“The international encyclopedia of scientific tailor principles, for all kinds and styles of garment-making … Also designing … embroidery, crocheting, knitting, worsted work, fancy and artistic needle work ..” (1885)

New Phase of the Paper Pattern Business

The newest development of the sartorial business is the manufacture of paper patterns, made to measure and fitted, with the aid of which it is possible for a woman to wear a gorgeous gown of an unimpeachable foreign design at a very small cost as compared with such a garment purchased from a high class dressmaker. The cost of these paper costumes range from about $3.50, although occasionally they are less than this. The average is about $6.00.

“Six dollars does seem a big price for a paper pattern,” admitted the manager of the pattern place referred to, “but the same pattern not cut to measurements or pinned together may be had for $4, and skirts, coats and other pieces separately cost $1 and $2 only, unless cut to measurements.

“Nevertheless the demand for these patterns in New York is so large that there are now two or three places which deal in nothing else. At this time of the year, for instance, our business is so brisk that we do not guarantee to furnish a pattern cut to order in less than ten days.

“By far the largest percentage of our private orders come from women who keep a lady’s maid and can afford to buy imported gowns; who do buy imported gowns. All the same these women come here and send their maid in for certain patterns to be made up at home by the maid and a seamstress.”

At this particular place only paper models are shown, but every one of these is marked with the name of one and another noted French house and is an exact copy, a saleswoman explains, of a recent model put out by that house. But supposing a customer doesn’t care for any of the models on the dummies, she looks over books filled with illustrations of the latest French costumes and it would be strange if any woman with $5 in her purse hesitated about handing it over to the saleswoman and having her measurements taken.

At a Fifth avenue place the procedure is a little different. Here early in the season an exhibition of imported costumes is held for a week or ten days, primarily for the benefit of dressmakers, although outsiders who pay for the privilege are admitted. Models from all the leading European houses, made of various materials and costing up to the $1,000 mark in some cases, are displayed and sold to anybody who cares to buy, and before the sale closes most of the costumes have changed hands. The majority of these in turn before they leave that place are copied in paper, and, after the exhibition of originals closes, the paper duplicates have a show of their own. The most popular of these duplicates are made in several regular sizes and sold for less than those cut to fit. But needless to say it is the chance of getting a pattern of an imported model cut to fit that has spelled success for a branch of the paper pattern business undreamed of not many years ago. Information and advice respecting materials, color, and probable cost are handed out with the pattern.

“Tell your dressmaker,” or “Tell your seamstress not to deviate from the pattern” is included in the advice, and probably this hint is needed, for results have justified the enlargement of show-rooms and the hiring of more expensive quarters since the concern started.

A man long connected with the paper pattern business, old style, said that this was one of the surprises of the business that while the price of ordinary paper patterns had declined steadily since reaching a certain stage of popularity and competition, the newest phase of the business represented prices equivalent to the price charged by old-fashioned dressmakers for making a gown. Said he, “I worked for years for the concern which first put paper patterns on the market nearly fifty years ago. The head of this was a custom tailor who by request cut a paper pattern of a skirt to oblige a customer. By advice of his wife, who herself made her children’s clothes, he made a paper copy of a suit she had made for her little girl and sold it, and after that a wrapper pattern designed by his wife. That was the beginning of the paper pattern business, which grew so tremendously that some other folks started in making paper patterns too and then some more, till now there are a dozen thriving concerns in the field. The output of the original concern, still the largest of all, is 50,000,000 paper patterns a year, nine-tenths of which are for women’s and children’s garments. For some years the lowest price for a pattern was 45 cents. Today no paper pattern of this concern is sold for more than 15 cents.”

This man believed that were the output of the other manufacturers of paper patterns added to that given the figures would be doubled. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 14 May 1911: p. 3

Many magazines such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Godey’s, and Peterson’s printed patterns for men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. Here is an advertisement from Frank Leslie’s:

Every Lady Her Own Dressmaker

It is now a conceded point that the very best and cheapest mode to dress in Fashion, and with the most admirably fitting dresses, is to send on a stamp to the Pattern Department to Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Journal, with your address in full, when a Catalogue will be sent, which will afford full information of all the fashionable dresses of the day, and how to make them.

Ladies have merely to mark the dress in the Catalog, and to send the exact measurement, taken under the bust, and a paper pattern will be sent for 25 cents, so perfect that every lady can cut out the dress, and make it up herself, thus saving the expense and trouble of a dressmaker.

We receive on every hand the most gratifying testimonials of the superiority of our patterns to all others. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper [New York, NY] 24 January 1874: p. 14

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has, in her capacity of lady’s maid, made up dresses from patterns. She may therefore rightfully claim to be sceptical that there exists a pattern “so perfect that every lady can cut out the dress and make it up herself.”  Gowns in 1874 were not some simple frock one could make at home and repent at leisure, (to use Saki’s memorable phrase) but richly layered confections of a richness and complexity that would do credit to a state bed.

The Bunch of Lilacs, James Tissot, 1875

The Bunch of Lilacs, James Tissot, 1875

Each generation had its own intricacies in paper patterns. A gentleman describes the perils of a pattern “with instructions” in 1915. He exaggerates, but only a little:

A correspondent of the New York Evening Post says that she wanted to make a plain little white waist, the kind that you pay $9 for in the shop and that are obviously worth about 14 cents. So she bought a pattern with instructions. You know the kind of pattern, at least you do if you are married and know anything at all. They are made of extraordinarily thin yellowish paper that tears if you so much as think about it. It is perforated all over with holes like piano-player music and you get into trouble if you absently use a piece for a cigar-lighter. You must have seen it about. Now the pattern was all right. Any one can make anything with a pattern. In fact we have long cherished the conviction that we ourselves could construct any article of women’s clothing, upper or under, if we only had a pattern, solitude, and the ability to restrain our manly blushes. All you have to do in the case of an undergarment is to lay the pattern firmly upon the raw material, mark the outline with a pencil, leaving a margin for hems and errors. Cut it out. Do it a second time with another piece of raw material, stitch them together along the edges, construct a sort of tunnel for the pink ribbon, stitch on the lace around the lower extremities or the upper edge as the case may be, and there you are.

But to return to the lady who pours out her sorrows on the sympathetic bosom of the New York Evening Post. She has no complaint to make about the pattern. It is the elucidatory instructions that have reduced her to the edge of a gibbering idiocy. And here they are:

“Tuck front creasing on slot perforations; stitch three-eighths inch from folded edges; or omit tucks and gather between double ‘TT’ perforations. Gather back on crosslines of single small ‘o’ perforations, and adjust stay under gathers; centre backs even, bringing small ‘o’ perforations in stay to under-arm seam. Close under-arm seam as notched, terminating at stay. Sew sleeve in armhole as notched, easing any fullness.”

Now in all humility we ask to know: Do these ravings mean anything?  How do you ”adjust stay under gathers” ? What is the process by which you “centre backs even”? Of course you “sew sleeve in armhole.” We should not be likely to sew the sleeve into the neck or into the small of the back. We know enough for that. Even in our own unobtrusive garments we should greatly object to find the sleeve anywhere but in the armhole. That is obviously where it belongs. But when it comes to “easing any fullness” we  may frankly confess that we should be stumped.

And we do not know how to ‘”tuck front creasing on slot perforations.” We have an inner conviction that it cannot be done except perhaps by prayer. If the mysterious hand of destiny should at any time require us to make “a plain little white waist” we believe that we could do it in the way already outlined, but we shall avoid the false aid of the commercial pattern with its insanity-producing “instructions.” The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 3 July 1915

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.

 

Reminiscence of an Old Needlebook: 1872

Here you will find the story of the pictured needle-case. http://npobjects.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/victorian-needle-case/

Here you will find the story of the pictured needle-case. http://npobjects.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/victorian-needle-case/

REMINISCENCE OF AN OLD NEEDLEBOOK.

I “’spect I grow’d,” in the city of Chicago, in 1849, under the deft fingers of Mrs. Pierce, a very estimable lady of the Presbyterian Church, though she usually attended the Sewing Society of the Canal-Street Methodist Episcopal Church. If I could, I should love to tell how the little old Canal-Street Church graduated into the Jefferson, and from that to the present splendid, commanding Centenary; but I leave that for some one better posted in Church history.

In those days sewing society and prayer-meeting expressed what we meant, just as well as the “circle,” which is now so much in vogue; and for my part I think it sounded quite as religious. There are so many circles—”circles around the moon,” “select circles,” “spiritualist circles,” and “political circles,” that I feel like discarding the word entirely, only when speaking of those things. But pardon this digression.

I was composed of the best material—light-blue enamel cloth and deep-blue satin, neatly bound with blue silk, though I do not know as I need to mention my color, as this is not as essential to respectability now as it used to be. My center was a roll about two inches in diameter, covered with the enamel and satin, and a band around each end, to hold the scissors. My leaves were white flannel, edged with a neat stitch; in one end a porte-monnaie, and the other a satin pocket, shirred with a blue silk cord. I was very nicely stitched by hand, not with one of those painfully accurate machines which leaves no room for complacency at your own handiwork.

I remember well when I was finished off and passed round to the ladies for inspection. I was greatly admired, and pronounced as pretty as I could be, until some one suggested that if there had been a thimble-sink in the roll I should have been perfect. Alas! thus early I learned we are not to look for perfection either in feature or form.

I can even recall the names of many of the ladies who were present, and whom I often met during my stay in the city. After a whispered consultation, they decided to make a present of me to the wife of their pastor. I need not say that our admiration was mutual, and neither of us has ever regretted our intimate relation as mistress and servant. I shall not attempt a pen-portrait of her. She would not allow it; she would shake her finger at me deprecatingly

if I were even to tell you her name was, for she is naturally retiring, and does not like her name to appear in print too often. She feels it is presuming too much on the magnanimity of her friends. For many years I was favored with a place by her side or in her reticule, wherever she went, whether for an afternoon visit or a month, and I never failed to attract attention and excite admiration. Indeed, I do not know but my vanity was a little stirred by such expressions, “Perfectly beautiful!” “How convenient!” and the like. But after a while “a change seemed to come over the spirit of my dreams.” I could scarcely define what it was, only I felt there was something wanting, until accidentally I observed a change in the tense of the ladies’ remarks, who noticed me particularly. Instead of as formerly, it was “What a pretty needle-book this has been— to which my mistress would reply, sometimes with a sigh—for I think she sort of analyzed my feelings—”Yes, it has been a beauty, and I cherish it still for the sake of the dear friends who gave it me.”

Ah, my friends, there are none but old folks and old needle-books who know the sorrowful grief that comes to our hearts when, conscious of our own failing energies, we hear such remarks as “she has been a splendid woman,” or “he has been a giant in intellect.” Happy is it for us if we may take to ourselves the “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I think I may take this much to myself, without arrogance—if I have not always carried the best needles for my mistress, it has not been my fault, but she seldom used any others. My needles were always ready for every good work, either at home or abroad, from making the ”dainty dresses” to garments for grandpa and grandma, and the snowy shroud in which the little loved ones were tenderly infolded as they were laid to their last sleep, as well as the wedding trousseau of my young mistress; and, too, many of my needles, like Dorcas, have gladdened the hearts of the poor. My young lady was a baby when I came to live in the family, and she was such a darling, just as all babies are. Her little blue eyes would dance at sight of me, especially while I was a forbidden object for her inexperienced fingers, and it was really amusing, as she grew older, to see with what womanly dignity she would select a needle, for she “must go to sewing.” It was not uncommon, after this, to find needles on my leaves as crooked and pointless as an infidel’s argument.

At length my last great trial came and passed, as they will with all old folks and old needlebooks. It happened on this wise. Last Christmas my young mistress made a beautiful new needle-book and sent it to her mother, with this message: “Now, mother, I do hope you will not use that old thing any longer!” She did not mean to be ungrateful to an old family servant, but only had a thoughtless way of speaking, as young ladies often have. Accordingly, to indulge her, as mothers love to do, my mistress removed my needles to the new needle-book, but I noticed her eyes grew humid as she carefully brushed and rolled me up, to lay me away with other cherished mementos of the past. Doubtless the power of association brought familiar forms and faces vividly before her, many of whom still live…while others have crossed the flood and found their promised reward. I comfort myself with the thought that not one of my companions in this “old folks’ retreat” will awaken more sacred, loving memories than myself.

The Ladies’ Repository, Volume 32, 1872

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: In the days when needles were dear and needlework was an important domestic skill for clothing one’s household as well as the deserving poor, a needle-case was an essential part of a lady’s equipage. Some were shaped like books or pocket-books, while others, like this one, had pincushions or compartments, were rolled up, and were often called “huswifes.” Although this particularly garrulous specimen did not have a “thimble sink,” it had a porte-monnaie, which is a coin-purse or wallet. Dorcas was a New Testament disciple “full of good works and almsdeeds,” known particularly for her skill with the needle. When she died, women showed Peter (who then raised her from the dead) the many garments she had made. (Acts 9:36-38)

Here is another pretty specimen:

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.