Our exhibit on laundry closes this coming Sunday, January 12; visit now, before all our lovely starched collars, blued petticoats, and terrifyingly complex laundry tools go back into storage!  In the meantime, here’s a look at a few, final laundry-related items that didn’t make it into the exhibit.

t0966ac-2This fringed linen hand towel is embroidered, in a charmingly free-hand style, with the word “LAUNDRY.”  It has the look of a once-good towel (it even has a stamped, numerical laundry mark, indicating it was sent out to be cleaned) which has now been down-graded to use in the laundry room; lest someone confuse it with a guest-worthy towel, it’s been conveniently marked with its function and place. (And yes, I realize it’s somewhat ironic that it really needs to be ironed.)   Early 20th century; donated by the Poole sisters.

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Many of the helpful laundry-related tips to be found in magazines and household manuals relate to the problem of small articles going missing.  A subscriber submitted this piece of advice to Good Housekeeping’s Book of Menus, Recipes, and Household Discoveries (1922): “Avoid loss of handkerchiefs (and of temper as well)” by basting them together before sending them out to the laundry.  (The contributor adds, “Of course, they are returned unironed, but who would not be willing to press them out rather than not to have them returned to you at all, particularly in these days of high-priced linens!”)  Stockings are also prone to loss, which – as anyone with a pile of lonely, mismatched socks knows – is particularly vexing.  The Ladies’ Home Journal “What Other Women Have Found Out” column for May 1907 included this reader-submitted tip:

LHJ 5-07 reader tips“Sewing pairs of stockings together before washing them will help the busy mother.  It does not interfere with the washing, and when they have been ironed it is a great help to find them all sorted and mated.  A snip of the scissors releases them.”

Our collections include many batches of basted-together collars, handkerchiefs, and stockings – that final “snip of the scissors” not yet achieved – including this pair of fancy cotton stockings, which are still sewn together at the top. Early 20th century, donated by Elisabeth Mast Buck.

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And finally, one of my favorite discoveries while researching this exhibit: a wonderfully modern-sounding article from the January 1926 issue of Women’s Home Companion.  In “Charting the Seas of Matrimony,” Frances Duncan Manning (1877-1972), author of several books on gardening and frequent contributor to women’s magazines in the 1910s and 1920s, argued that “Where [husband and wife] are both at work a scrupulous fairness in the division of labors is vital.”  Manning uses the household chores of cooking and laundry to illustrate her point, which is why the article caught my laundry-attuned eye.  If an unmarried professional young woman has been taking care of her own wardrobe, she may see no reason why her new husband can’t do the same for his own – and if he blithely assumes she’ll provide his beloved “well-laundered shirts, mended socks, [and] exquisitely pressed trousers” as if by magic, the matrimonial seas will be choppy indeed.  Manning sums up her argument in a way that makes a fair division of labor seem like a positive thing (hooray, independence!) for everyone: “The corollary to economic independence of women is domestic independence for men.”  In other words, everyone should know how to do their own laundry.

split the work

Today we have a fur coat, owned and worn by Rebecca Darby Nourse Chinn (1904-1982) of Dawsonville and Rockville.

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The coat was donated by Mrs. Chinn’s daughter, who described it as “Mother’s raccoon coat,” worn while attending Swarthmore College in the 1920s.  Rebecca Nourse (pronounced “nurse”) grew up in Dawsonville; she attended the Dawsonville School, the Andrew Small Academy in Darnestown, the Fort Loudoun Seminary in Winchester, Virginia, and then Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, where she graduated in 1927 with a degree in biology.  After college, she taught at Gaithersburg High School until her 1929 marriage to Raleigh Chinn; later in life she worked as a librarian at the Twinbrook Library.

Her entry in her senior yearbook at Swarthmore.

Her entry in her senior yearbook at Swarthmore.

The raccoon coat – a large, enveloping affair – was a fashion fad of the 1920s, particularly among college students. Along with ukeleles, galoshes, jalopies, and Rudy Vallee’s megaphone, such coats became a symbol of 1920s youth, both at the time (see: Rudy Vallee singing “Do the Raccoon” (1928), or the contract-signing scene in “Horse Feathers” (1932)) and in later decades.  Raccoon coats are often thought of today as a strictly male style, but women also adopted the look, and why not?  A nice big fur coat was fashionable, looked expensive, and kept you warm in that open-topped car.

1924 photo of a Mary LaFollette of D.C., from the Library of Congress collections.

1924 photo of a Mary LaFollette of D.C., from the Library of Congress collections.

Mrs. Chinn’s coat is in good condition, though slightly bald in spots (it was worn by the donor’s daughter and grandchildren as a costume for many years) and missing a few of the large brown leather buttons.  It has a high shawl collar, deep cuffs, and two slash pockets edged with raccoon tails; the lining is brown satin on the top, and tan plaid wool on the bottom.  There is no store label.

Buttons (and tail-edged pocket)

Buttons (and tail-edged pocket)

The lining

The lining

The basic design of this coat, from collar to pockets to lining to buttons, seems to have been something of a standard style; a little poking around on the internet revealed examples of very similar coats for men and women, some without labels and some from a variety of shops and furriers. Here’s a man’s raccoon coat – same buttons, though without the tails on the pockets – by Saks Fifth Avenue, in the collections of the Met, and here’s one worn by Peter Lawford in “Easter Parade.”  A ladies’ version of the coat can be found in the 1927 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog as the “Swagger ‘Tomboy’ Model” (“collegiate style”). The only difference between this one and ours is that the Sears model is made of “natural gray opossum fur,” while our coat appears to indeed be raccoon.  Here’s the Sears description:

1927 Opossum Fur Coat SearsFor misses and small women, we offer here a fur coat of luxurious warmth and appealing smartness.  Made of genuine, Natural Gray Opossum Fur – only large pelts used and those of a selected grade – dense, long haired and very sturdy; of a pleasing silvery gray color with rich darker gray markings.  The pockets show attractive trimming of Striped Raccoon Tails.

The coat is called the “Tomboy” model, having been especially made for hard, strenuous service and cut on loose, comfortable lines in mannish double breasted style.  Fastens with large, novelty leather buttons.  The sleeves and yoke are lined with guaranteed, genuine Skinner’s Satin and for additional warmth and practical wear the lower part has All Wool Plaid lining.  Priced far below what you would have to pay elsewhere for a coat of this quality, and a value typical of those offered by our Fur Department.  Average length, about 44 inches. . . . Shipping weight 9 lbs.  $129.00.  (Nice cheap coat, right?  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calendar, $129 in 1927 would be $1,731 in 2013.)

Even better is this photo of Rebecca Nourse’s class at Swarthmore; several girls are sporting fur coats and collars, and the young lady holding up the left side of the banner, R. Esther Howard (Class Secretary), is wearing this coat.  (Well, presumably not the exact same coat.)  It’s a smallish photo; for a better version, check the 1928 Halcyon yearbook here.

1928 Swarthmore yearbook class photo
I don’t know if this coat was a college girl’s birthday present, something she purchased for herself, or what; regardless, Rebecca Nourse, like so many of us, wanted to keep in style (and keep warm) while she was at school.  But she wasn’t so faddish that she ditched the coat later; a good coat should last a long time.  To finish off today’s post, here’s a 1932 photo of Rebecca Nourse Chinn, in the front yard of her Rockville home; she’s wearing the coat.

RDNC in coat 1932

A good housekeeper keeps track of the household linens.  When was that tablecloth last used?  Which pillowcase needs mending? Did all the sheets come back from the laundress?  And whose towel is that, anyway? As Sidney Morse, author of Household Discoveries (1908), remarked, “All fabrics will wear better if not used continually, but allowed to rest at intervals . . . linen and other articles are often mislaid or stolen when sent to laundries, and sometimes taken from the line or blown away when spread on the grass to bleach.” Advice books and magazines from the 19th and 20th centuries suggest a variety of methods for inventory management, such as keeping a memorandum book, or tacking a list to the inside of the closet door. However, towels and sheets are not noted for their individuality.  The easiest way to maintain control is to mark them, either in embroidery or ink.

Elizabeth Ellicott Lea (1797-1858) of Sandy Spring wrote a cookbook, Domestic Cookery: Useful Receipts and Hints to Young Housekeepers, and published it herself in 1845.  The book was popular, and eventually went through 19 editions.  Our copy, published in 1856, includes this helpful tidbit on page 208:

House Linen. Have a book in which to set down all the bed and table linen, towels and napkins; every article of which should be marked and numbered, and counted at least once a month.”

I particularly like this piece of advice because it goes so nicely with these two artifacts, donated by Lea’s great-granddaughter Isabel Stabler Moore: a pair of pillowcases, marked respectively “M.L. No. 2″ and “M.L. No. 6.”

both cases
These linen cases are handsewn. Number 6 is larger, 33″ x 18″, with attached twill tapes to close it around the pillow.  Number 2 measures 28″ x 16.5″, is made of a slightly coarser linen, and shows more evidence of use; it is stained and mended.  Both cases are carefully marked in ink (which has created a slight stain around each set of initials).  The donor told us they were made and used by her grandmother – Betsy Lea’s daughter – Mary Lea Stabler (1822-1888) of Sandy Spring.  It’s worth noting, however, that the initials don’t actually match:

ML 2 and 6
Researcher Mary Robare* kindly provided us with a photo of Mary Lea Stabler’s embroidered initials, on the Pidgeon Family Quilt.  The form of the M there matches – or at least is closer to – our pillowcase No. 6 … assuming, of course, that Mary embroidered the quilt signature herself.

"M.L.S." embroidered on the Pidgeon Family Quilt, in the collections of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; photo copyright Mary Robare.

“M.L.S.” embroidered on the Pidgeon Family Quilt, in the collections of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; photo copyright Mary Robare.

At any rate, the two cases were marked by two different people, whoever they were. Did other family members mark them for Mary, as a gift, or just to give her a hand?  Was one of the cases made, marked, and/or used by Martha Lea, Mary’s sister – or by someone else entirely?  Initials can be deceptive; some women chose their middle name over their maiden name, or put their final initial in the center of the mark, or even added their husband’s first initial before their own.  A third pillowcase in this donation is marked “E.W.S. No. 6″; we haven’t been able to trace E.W.S., thanks in part to these issues.  However, based on the donor’s genealogy, it seems likely that one or both of the M.L. cases belonged to Mary Lea Stabler, following her mother’s published advice.

Household linens were not the only items that required marking.  Anything that was going to be sent out to the laundry would benefit from an identifying laundry mark; our collections include gloves, collars, shirts, aprons, dresses, and underthings that are marked in ink with initials and names, or have pre-made name tapes sewn inside.  For example, we have a pair of black cotton knit stockings, donated by Mrs. Jack Stone; each stocking has an attached strip of twill tape on which is written in ink “M. Clements No. 2.”

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Mary Elizabeth Clements (1865-1962) of Rockville married Lee Offutt in 1888; awesomely, she won a Discretionary Premium for her knit stockings (including these??) at the 1889 Rockville Fair.  She must have had more than one pair of black stockings (since this is pair number two), and she may even have made them herself; I don’t know where she sent her laundry, but she clearly wanted to be sure she got all her belongings back in good order.

Laundry exhibit status: Both Domestic Cookery and Household Discoveries are on display in the exhibit, through January 12, 2014.  Though Mary Lea Stabler’s pillowcases and Mary Clements Offutt’s stockings are not included, there are plenty of other examples of laundry marks to be seen.

*By the way, there’s a new Sandy Spring Quilt installment on Mary’s blog, Quaker Quilts.

So tell me, gentlemen, what style of collar did you choose for today?  Detachable or attached?  High-stand or low-stand? Starched or soft?  Linen, cotton, silk, or celluloid? Polished finish or dull? Stand-up, turn down, or wing?

Just a few options from the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Just a few options from the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Regardless of these options, there’s one universal factor: the collar must be clean.  The detachable collar, legend has it, was invented in the 1820s when a New York housewife named Hannah Montague removed her husband’s collar from his shirt in order to launder it more easily.  The collars and cuffs of mens’ shirts needed extra care; through much of the 19th century fashion demanded a stiff, starched appearance, and anyway those parts of a shirt are more vulnerable to everyday grime and debris (e.g., ink, hair oil…).  The work of the laundress or laundryman was a little easier when these fiddly bits could be rubbed, scrubbed, starched, and ironed separately from the shirt itself, hence the introduction of collarless shirts and detachable collars, cuffs, and even shirtfronts.  By the mid 20th century, however, men’s fashions had changed, and stain-resistant, wrinkle-free fabrics were introduced. Attached collars became the norm, and a high starched collar is now generally worn only on formal occasions.

We have a number of late 19th-early 20th century collars in our collections, representing only a small portion of the almost dizzying array of style options available to a gentleman of fashion. (If you need a visual, here’s Lloyd Coates, Jr., of Sugarland in a wing-tip collar, or do an online image search for the Arrow Collar Man.) Because collars were so persnickety, they are often mentioned in laundry how-to guides, household hints, and personal accounts of housewives and laundresses. Starching was a messy business, added on to the heavy work of the rest of the laundry, and the sheer numbers of small white pieces – collars, cuffs, handkerchiefs, gloves, diapers, &c. – generated by the average household could be overwhelming. The simplest solution was to send them out to a professional.  Many women did their best to divest themselves of the laundry chore altogether, but when that wasn’t possible, the next best thing was to send out the menfolk’s collars and cuffs.

trio of collarsNaturally, there were various inventions and discoveries that tried to mitigate the problem.  The three collars above (shown au naturel at left, and held together with collar studs at right) present a continuum of starchiness, as it were, starting with the Arrow “Prom” style wing-tip in the back; this one is starched into shape, with the necessary folded points.  The other two are relaxed enough to store flat: First, a Van Heusen collar (in the “Van Hart” style), patented in 1921, which includes the printed instructions “NO STARCH   IRON FLAT WHILE DAMP.”  (This one is in the center in the lefthand photo above, and on the right – resting on its points – in the righthand photo.)

T567a 1Despite these protestations the collar has, in fact, been starched, which may point to the inadequacy of the patented technique, described by the inventor as “a collar sufficiently stiff to maintain its upright shape without the employment of starch and nevertheless sufficiently pliable, by reason of the introduction of reinforcing threads in the fabric to receive and maintain a curvilinear set appropriate to the wearer’s use. . . as applied to a collar of the turn-over type.” (Patent # 1,383,694.)

The third option in the photos above is a “Hempstead” style Arrow collar, probably from the mid to late 1920s, which proclaims itself “A FLEXIBLE STARCHED COLLAR.”

T567d 1(Again, despite the instructions, it is currently in an unstarched state, so it gives a nice contrast to the stiffness of its friends.)  Though I suspect that these manufacturer innovations were less about the laundress’s time and efforts and more about the wearer’s comfort, the printed instructions nevertheless provide a hint of the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into a gentleman’s attire.

T2078Other possibilities included celluloid (plastic) collars, “washable” and easily wiped clean.  Or, one could also simply avoid the laundering altogether by using disposable collars.  The Reversible Collar Company, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of several paper collar manufacturers in the late 19th and early 20th century.  This package of ten “Linene” collars (“Plaza” style), circa 1910, provides instructions that explain their appeal: “Wear both sides then throw away.”  The cotton-faced paper collars maintained a clean, polished and starched appearance (see below) for a little while, and then could be thrown away with no regrets.

T2078 collar 4

In case you – like me – have never attempted to starch something in your life and require a little more proof of the task’s unpleasantness, here’s an account written by a career “collar starcher” from the late 19th century, and, below, a description of the starching step from 1908 (remember, household laundry was a two-day process):

“To apply starch. – Strain the hot starch through a piece of cheese cloth and use while it is still warm.  Select first the articles that require the most stiffness, as shirt bosoms, collars, and cuffs . . . .  The garments to be starched should be nearly dry.  Immerse them or such part of them as should be starched in the thick starch, and rub between the hands to work the starch thoroughly into their texture.  Remove the starch, squeeze out the excess, and rub once more with the hands to distribute the starch evenly through the material [or else it won’t iron well].  Dry the articles, sprinkle them, spread on a clean white cloth, and roll them up in bundles so that the dampness will be evenly distributed before ironing.”
- From Household Discoveries, An Encyclopedia of Practical Recipes and Processes, by Sidney Morse, 1908.

Laundry exhibit status: These collars did not make the exhibit, but there are several others on display.

Linen and cotton collars: anonymous donors.  Package of paper collars: donated by Gladys Poffenberger.

More collars! From the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog

More collars! From the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog

It’s National Volunteer Week (April 21-27, 2013), and it’s also getting close to the day when we will say farewell to Bethania, our fabulous high school intern.  We could not operate the Historical Society’s museums, library, or programs without our many volunteers!  So, as a small token of thanks to all the people who help keep us going, I thought I’d highlight one of Bethania’s collections projects on today’s blog.

As we do with all our high school, college, and graduate level interns, we assigned her a wide variety of activities, from the interesting to the rather less interesting.  If you’re thinking about going into museum work, it’s important to know that it’s not all opening boxes of treasures; some days you may be making copies, or setting up chairs.  But we do try to make most of their time here at least moderately entertaining!  As her final project, Bethania is helping me prepare new boards on our infant Pinterest page by taking photos of our shoe collection.  Over the years we’ve amassed a large number of shoes, mostly women’s and children’s; unfortunately many came with no particular provenance, but they’re still pretty interesting (and sometimes just plain pretty).  I confess, these are my picks rather than Bethania’s – she is taking time off from the internship to handle pesky things like exams and college prep – but perhaps you’ll be hearing from her on the blog soon.

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A pair of snazzy toddler shoes, black patent leather with tan cut-out trim, circa 1925; history unknown.

 

 

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White kid pumps, purchased from Rich’s Proper Shoes, Washington DC, circa 1950; history unknown.

 

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Lace-up high-top ladies’ boots, brown leather, purchased from the Maryland Shoe Company of Cumberland, circa 19o0; history unknown.

 

 

 

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Some of my personal favorites – a pair of “Princess Pat” shoes, early 1920s; history unknown.

 

 

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And at last, a pair of white fabric peep-toe sandals, made by Valcraft and purchased at Julius Garfinckel & Co., Washington DC, circa 1965.  This pair was owned by Frances Partridge of Rockville.

(Apologies if the text and photos aren’t matching up right – they look okay in my preview, but I suspect things will go wrong on other screens.)

Want to relive past intern projects? (Who wouldn’t?)  We’ve featured them in these posts: Log cabin toy, A peek inside the dairy house, 1912 and 1924 diaries, a compendium of summer projects, and one guest blog.  Take a moment to check out their work – and remember, if you see a volunteer, say Thank You!

Last week, a reader admired the tidy little boots sported by the Parsly children in their family portrait. Here’s a closer look at a similar, though slightly earlier, pair.

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These side-button black leather boots are six inches from toe to heel. They’re fairly worn and scuffed, and the right shoe has a hole worn through at the big toe, but otherwise they are in stable condition.  They were probably sturdy, everyday shoes, worn until outgrown.

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The boots were likely worn by their donor, Isabel Stabler Moore (1885-1971), daughter of Dr. Augustus and Helen Snowden Stabler. Isabel was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but the family returned to “Roslyn,” Dr. Stabler’s home in Brighton (Sandy Spring area), after the death of his father in 1890.  An interesting – and currently unanswered – question is, why were they saved?  For sentimental or practical reasons, or perhaps it was simply an oversight?

Inside the left boot is a label for “Best & Co., New York,” a high-end children’s clothing store (originally, anyway) founded in 1879. I can’t find catalog images for that shop, but here’s a selection of children’s shoes from the 1886 Bloomingdale’s catalog. Isabel’s boots resemble the “spring heel” boot on the right (minus the scalloped edge), suitable for both boys and girls.

1886 bloomies shoes

In surveying 1890s images from our photo collections, most of the girls are wearing side-button boots while the boys have front-laced ones, but I don’t believe that was a hard and fast rule.  Slightly older girls had heeled boots, but otherwise toddler shoes of the late 19th century seem fairly interchangeable.

warfield and pooleLeft: Robert Leroy Warfield (1889-1970) of Rockville, donated by the Warfield family. Right: Martha Sprigg Poole (1890-1972) of Poolesville & Washington DC, donated by Katherine Poole.

Want more children’s shoes? We have a nice selection, some of which will probably end up on the blog eventually, but in the meantime check out the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which has gathered their 1890s children’s footwear onto one page (including a fabulous pair of blue boots, which I covet).

We have a lot of wedding-related things in our collections: not only gowns, but also accessories, photos, hymnals, presents, and even a few cake-toppers. What we, and many other museums, lack is the men’s side of the story. There are various reasons for this lamentable fact, and the first draft of this post went into some detail, but let’s sum up for now with “Americans don’t get very attached to the groom’s outfit” (remember, today it’s often a rental) and head straight to one of the few groom-related artifacts in our collections.

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These silk and leather suspenders, embroidered in wool, represent a fashion which should be brought back immediately, because they are fabulous. They were worn by Washington Irvin of Baltimore upon his marriage to Mary Florence Hamilton, in either 1874 or 1880. His daughter, Florence Irvin Wright of Kensington, donated them in the 1970s, along with her mother’s wedding shoes; some years later Mrs. Wright’s own daughter added the plaster “Good Luck” horseshoe from the wedding cake. The Irvins have defeated my armchair genealogy skills, so I haven’t been able to confirm the wedding date, about which mother and daughter disagreed.

see how nicely the patterns match up?

Berlin wool work is a type of needlepoint defined more by the materials than by the technique. Berlin wool, a soft embroidery floss, was developed in Germany in the early 1800s; it was hard-wearing, brightly dyed, and suitable for functional pieces. In the mid 19th century patterns for Berlin work cushions, bags, bell-pulls, slippers, and suspenders were published in women’s magazines (such as the image below, from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1867) and sold as single sheets. The designs, often floral pictures, were worked on canvas in cross-stitch, tent-stitch, or other variations. Mr. Irvin’s suspenders are a repeating (and mirrored) floral pattern in tent-stitch, worked on silk net.

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Embroidered suspenders were fashionable in the mid to late 19th century, and surviving examples are often (though not always) associated with weddings or other special occasions. The groom did not saunter down the aisle with his colorful accessories on view, however; suspenders were support garments and, technically, underwear. My favorite description of the fancy-suspender trend comes from The History of Underclothes by C. Willett and Phillis Cunningham, published in 1951:

“1857-1866. At about this period braces [British for "suspenders"] embroidered in Berlin woolwork of many colours came into notice. What is remarkable about them, apart from their colours, is the fact that they were so often worked by young ladies and given as presents to the sterner sex; this at a time when prudery forbade the mention of the garments to which they were destined to be fastened. Perhaps we should regard them as symbols of a secret attachment.”

Mrs. Wright knew only that “someone made them for [my father] to wear” – for the sake of his bride’s sensibilities, let’s hope that she herself did the needlework for her future husband.

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The Maryland weather is getting colder, which means those of us with winter wardrobes can start making the change. That’s right, it’s time to break out the long underwear!

Hooray for the internet: the union suit has its own Wikipedia page.  Everyone’s favorite one-piece undergarment was invented in the late 1860s,  originally marketed toward women as a liberating change from restricting corsets.  The ladies did not seize upon the concept with much enthusiasm, and instead the garment ended up worn mostly by men and children.  By the mid 20th century the union suit was considered old fashioned, and when Americans needed extra warmth we turned to two-piece “long johns” instead.

But though today the union suit with its rear “fireman’s flap” is considered comical, it had its day in the mainstream, and we have several in our collections.   Here are three (well, two suits and a box) from the 1920s-30s, manufactured by the Allen A Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin.  At left is a short-sleeved union suit, “50% wool,” worn by Judge Thomas M. Anderson (1902-1980) of Rockville.  It was purchased at an estate sale and donated to us by Peg Sante (once our volunteer textile curator); she noted that it was worn by Judge Anderson in the 1930s “when he went hunting.”

This smaller version (below), sized for a toddler, was donated in 1974 by Jayne Greene, and may have been worn by her husband Alexander J. Greene (1923-2010), past Mayor of Rockville, during his childhood in New York.  Like Judge Anderson’s suit, this one has an Allen A Spring Needle label.

And here’s an Allen A Underwear box, circa 1925, from Gladys Benson.  It’s labeled on the end “Union Suits,” and the original tissue inside adds “Spring Needle Knit – Light Weight and Heavy Knit for Men and Boys.”   I suspect that the box was used in later years to store some of the small textiles Miss Benson donated, and no stories about the box’s original use came with the donation.  Perhaps the contents were purchased at a Rockville or Washington store for Miss Benson’s father or brother, both of Rockville.

The Allen A Spring Needle name and logo were added in 1920 to the Black Cat Textiles Company’s goods; the box is copyrighted 1920, the name was registered with the Patent Office in 1921, and many ads from the early 1920s emphasize that the Allen A name on your familiar Black Cat stockings should be seen as “the Maker’s personal pledge of responsibility to you. ‘Allen’ – the name of the Makers.  And ‘A’ – the standard mark of first and finest grade.”  “Maker Allen” was Charles C. Allen, a noted industrialist in Kenosha, who acquired the company in 1912.  The Great Depression hit Kenosha’s factories hard, and the Wisconsin factory closed in the late 1930s; it was eventually bought by the Atlas Underwear company.  The fact that, let’s say 30% of our union suit collection is made up of Allen A pieces is probably just a coincidence – there were lots of rival companies – but perhaps the stores in Rockville, where two of our pieces were worn, favored this particular brand.

It was harder than usual to find additional images for this week’s post as, unsurprisingly, we have no photos of 1920s-30s county residents in their skivvies.  Plus, many of the early Allen A advertisements are too discreet to show their product in use.  Here, however, is a 1926 ad (scroll down to the third row) with a confident gentleman sporting his union suit in comfort and, dare I say, style. (He pomaded his hair!)  Doesn’t he make you want to enjoy some old-fashioned, warmth-providing underwear this winter?

Both the adult and child sizes (the latter shown above) feature a ‘side opening’ flap, not the standard old-guy-in-a-1930s-cartoon two-button flap… which goes to show that you can’t always judge an antique by its cartoon representation.

 

I ask for your indulgence, dear readers, as I invent my own theme for today’s post. After all, it’s not every year that April 18th* is on a Wednesday.

Memory (at least mine) is all about associations. Unless you’re one of those people who remember everything that ever happened to you, some dates stay with you while others are lost in the fog of time. When major events are associated with the date on which they occurred, they become part of the cultural consciousness – think of July 4, December 7, or September 11. Most of the time, however, those associations are personal: birthdays, anniversaries, &c. Familiar dates tend to leap out of the text; if you’re reading about, say, 9th century France,  the thing you notice is that [something important in 9th century France**] happened on what will, some centuries later, be your parents’ anniversary. Thus, when it comes to the many people who lived in the Beall-Dawson House, I can tell you the different years each person was born and died but the only specific date I know without looking is April 18, 1901, the day Margaret Johns Beall died.  (Her side of the family obelisk, in Rockville cemetery, shown above.)

Here are some other (happier) instances of this date, from our collections!

This small (2″ diameter at base) oil lamp wick holder, acquired by a previous curator as an example of lighting technology, has several patent dates inscribed on its small surface.  One of them is April 18, 1871, leading us to this patent for an improved wick raiser – overcoming the difficulties of raising a flat wick into a cylinder, “to produce an Argand flame” – granted to L.J. Atwood. 

Here is an extremely compact table-clamp sewing machine, donated to us in the 1980s by an MCHS member.   The first of three U.S. patent dates marked on the side is another April 18, 1871 patent, this time for “certain novel combinations and arrangements of parts, [with] its object to make a cheap and effective single-thread sewing machine,” granted to William G. Beckwith.

Jumping forward 91 years, we have in the collections three small trophies awarded to (and donated by) Glenmont Elementary School.  On April 18, 1962, the Wheaton Optimist Club held a “Bike Safety Rodeo,” won by Glenmont’s fourth, fifth and sixth grades.  (Or at least, that’s as much as we can glean from the plaques on the trophies; if anyone reading this is a veteran of this or other bike rodeos, please let us know!)

And last but not least, here is Edith Stonestreet Lamar’s wedding gown, donated by her granddaughter Charlotte Garedo.  Edith Stonestreet, youngest daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Stonestreet of Rockville, married George Holt Lamar on April 18, 1894.  Her gown, though relatively simple, is nonetheless in high style, with the voluminous shoulders popular in the mid 1890s.  The two-piece dress is made of white (now darkened with age) silk faille, with silk charmeuse and lace accents.  (The photo shows it minus several petticoats, which is why the skirt is a little limp; apologies to the bride.)  According to the Washington Post, “the bride was attired in white silk trimmed with lace and carried Victoria roses;” the reporter described the event as “one of the most notable social events of the season.”  (April 19, 1894)

* April 18 is your blogger’s birthday. 

** This is a completely made up scenario, though I suppose something must have happened in 9th century France on that date.

After last week’s embroidered waistcoat (a personal favorite), I asked our Facebook fans for their own favorite garments, and received a request for a polonaise.

Readers less immersed in the world of vintage costumes might not recognize the word, just as our descendants a hundred years from now might be stymied by “culottes” or “jeggings.” Fashion history is filled with defined – and named – garment forms like these. Some last for a few years, others for decades or centuries. Many are (correctly or incorrectly) named for historical styles, or for fictional characters and celebrities. Some terms are applied somewhat indiscriminately to a variety of styles, or to a piece that evolved so much over the years as to be almost unrecognizable from its origins, but many are specific, distinct garments.  (A jegging is a jegging is a jegging.)  (No, we don’t have any jeggings in the collections . . . give us a few decades.)

The robe a la polonaise gown was introduced in the 1770s. The style emphasized puffs of fabric around the back and sides of the full skirt, created with tapes and ties on the underside. It was revived a century later, this time with the poufs and puffs centered in the back of the skirt to add to the bustle effect. The polonaise of the 1870s and 1880s was a long bodice or robe, fastened up the front, with a puffed and gathered back.

We have a few such gowns in our collections, including the one shown here (donated by Joan Kain). Like many of our costumes, it was donated by a county resident but was itself worn elsewhere – in this case, in Cheltenham, England around 1880, by the donor’s great-aunt. The polonaise fastens from neck to hem with hooks and eyes, covered with tiny bows.  Flounces of the same fabric are at the wrists, polonaise hem, and underskirt hem, with an extra flounce on the underskirt. The colors have faded, and the gauze-like fabric (perhaps Chambery gauze) has stiffened; there are many tears, especially in the underskirt. It may not look like such hot stuff today, but at the time it was a well-made and fairly stylish day gown.

The fragile condition of the fabric – and the fact that several of the interior tapes are missing from the polonaise robe – means we couldn’t achieve quite the effect the original designer was hoping for. To see the real thing in action, here’s an illustration from Harper’s Bazaar, 1876 (below), or check out these examples (with additional information on the form’s history) from the Met, the MFA, and the FIDM museum. (Fans of fashion take note – clicking these links may lead you into a rabbit hole of more and more fabulous designs, ensuring that you get no work done for the rest of the day.)

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