Bloomer girls, 1852

November 22, 2015

As someone who hasn’t even owned a dress for the last 25 years, I tend to be more charmed than amused by 19th-century attempts at “dress reform.” Those loose trousers under yards of drapery look much more comfortable than the skirts sweeping the ground, the mud, and—as Esther puts it in Bleak House—“all the light objects” in the room.

Yes, all that drapery makes the wearer look like a pantalooned armchair. But the alternative was dragging ten or fifteen yards of fabric through your day. (Which, besides being uncomfortable, could be dangerous: one of the Merry Cousins burned to death when her skirt got too close to a fireplace.)

Francis Woodworth had a different reaction. As a former minister, he was culturally conservative. But when it came time to write about the new style of clothing, he seems to have been remarkably sympathetic, pointing out how practical it would be for walking in the woods. Still, he didn’t really approve.

This piece from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet includes a rather wonderful illustration of what may be a variation of Bloomer dress. Other illustrations I’ve seen feature gathered trousers topped by a knee-length dress that makes even a slender young woman look like a ruffled pumpkin. The clothing here is just as drapy, but the calf-length skirt looks pretty graceful.

Still, it didn’t catch on. It was superceded by the hoop skirt, which—as Harriet Beecher Stowe points out in Household Papers—could require twenty yards of fabric.

Blue jeans are just so much simpler.

(And why was it called “Bloomer dress”? The style became associated with Amelia Bloomer after she adopted it and enthusiastically promoted its use. Even though she dropped the style, the name stuck.)

“The Bloomer Dress” (from Woodworth’s Youth’s Cabinet, October 1852, pp. 110-113)

two women in Bloomer dress

My readers have all heard of the Bloomer costume, no doubt. But probably very few of them have ever seen a lady with the dress on. Have you ever seen one worn, reader? and if you have, what did you think of it? Was it becoming, or otherwise? Presuming most of the boys and girls who read these pages have never seen one, and knowing that there is a great deal of curiosity afloat about the thing, on the part of those who are unacquainted with it, I must present a picture giving an accurate representation of the dress, as it is worn by some of our western ladies.

Now, my friend, what do you think of it? “It looks odd,” you say. So it does; there’s no disputing that. Every new style of dress looks odd. Do you remember when the ladies wore large bonnets? I suppose not. You are hardly old enough. But I remember the time very well, when my mother wore a bonnet of such a monstrous size, that it was about as much as she could do to go through a door, if the great thing flared out to its full width. Now how do you think your mother would look with one of these great umbrellas on her head? Why, you would laugh outright, to see her or any one else walking the streets with such a bonnet on.

I can remember, too, when the men used to wear a hat, the crown of which was small enough to fit the head at the brim, but which was almost twice as large on the top. What a curious-shaped thing it was, the great bell-crowned hat! If it should make its appearance now, in our streets, don’t you think we should all laugh at it, and call the fashion unbecoming and absurd?

But recollect that when the hat was worn, and was considered in the fashion, there was very little or no complaint about the absurdity of it. Nobody laughed at it then. At least, I never heard of any one’s laughing at it. So of the monstrous bonnet. It was fashionable once, and then it seemed becoming enough. The ladies did not laugh at the thing and make fun of it. And so it is with all fashions. They are not generally regarded as so much out of the way, until some other fashion comes along, and then, after a little while, the old one seems odd and queer. Now, as you say, the Bloomer dress looks odd enough. Well, the reason may be because it is so entirely unlike anything else which the ladies wear or have worn.

“There! Uncle Frank likes the Bloomer dress. How he praises it up.”

No, my little friend. You are too fast. I don’t say that I should like to see our ladies generally dressed in this style. I am not prepared to say that. I am not sure that I should be pleased, if I should see all the women and all the little girls about the streets dressed as Mrs. Bloomer recommends. On the whole, though a man ought to be a little diffident about laying down rules for the regulation of the dress worn by the other sex, on the whole, I think, if the ladies should come to me for my opinion, (a thing, by the way, which I have not vanity enough to expect,) I should most likely go against the general use of the Bloomer dress, while I might recommend some change, for the sake of convenience, in the present style of dress.

I can’t help thinking, and must say, that, aside from the appearance of the thing, the Bloomer costume must be very convenient in the country, if one has to ramble about the fields and forests much, and, it seems to me, that a lady must miss a great many of the luxuries of country life, if she does not take such rambles. I have been out with ladies, before now, on a botanical tour, when I could not avoid noticing that their mode of dress was very inconvenient for that kind of business; and at such a time, I don’t know that it would have struck me as at all unbecoming or improper, if those ladies, instead of the ordinary dress, had worn a genuine, out-and-out Bloomer suit, just like the one you see in the picture. However, we men may think what we will about the Bloomer dress, and say what we will about it, I presume that our mothers, and sisters, and wives, and daughters, will take the matter into their own hands, and decide it for themselves. The great majority of them don’t like it. That is clear enough, and it does not appear now as if it would get to be a common mode of dress very soon. Its origin, if there were nothing more, is unfavorable to its popularity. It did not come from Paris, and we in this country, as all the world knows, have set up the Paris dress-makers and milliners for our guides.


The velocipede was a precursor to the bicycle and had just been invented when the Connecticut Mirror gave readers this slightly confusing description.  (A photo in the Wikipedia article on the “dandy horse” makes the description a lot clearer.)  What I especially like is the paragraph on how to ride it—something I’ve wondered since I first read about these.  Though other questions linger:  could it really go as fast as a horse? how many people tried one of these things?  (btw, “equilibrio” is an early version of “equilibrium”)

“The Velocipede or Swift Walker” (from Connecticut Mirror [Hartford, Connecticut] 31 May 1819; p. 1, col 4)

This truly original machine was the invention of Baron Charles De Drais, master of the woods and forests of H. R. H. the Grand Duke of Baden. The account given of it by the inventor, of its nature, and properties—is,

1. That on a well-maintained post-road, it will travel up hill as fast as an active man can walk.2. On a plain, even after a heavy rain, it will go six or seven miles an hour, which is as swift as a courier.

3. When roads are dry and firm, it runs on a plain at the rate of eight or nine miles an hour, which is equal to a horse’s gallop.

[4]. On a descent, it equals a horse at full speed.

Its theory is founded on the application of a wheel to the action of a man in walking.

With respect to the economy of power, this invention may be compared to that very ancient one of carriages. As a horse draws, in a well constructed carriage, both the carriage and its load much easier than he could carry the load alone on his back; so a man conducts, by means of the velocipede, his body easier than if he had its whole weight to support on his feet. It is equally incontestible, that the velocipede as it makes but one impression, or rut, may always be directed on the best part of the road.—On a hard road, the rapidity of the velocipede resembles that of an expert skater; as the principle of the two motions are the same. In truth, it runs a considerable distance while the rider is inactive, and with the same rapidity as when his feet are in motion; and in a descent, it will beat the best horses in a great distance, without being exposed to the risks incidental to them, as it is guided by the mere gradual motion of the fingers, and may be instantly stopped by the feet.

It consists of two wheels one behind the other, connected by a porch, on which a saddle is placed, for the seat of the traveller. The front wheel is made to turn on a pivot, and is guided in the same manner as a bath chair. On a cushion in front, the fore-arm is rested; and by this means the instrument and the traveller are kept in equilibrio.

Its management.—The traveller having seated himself on the saddle, his elbows extended, and his body inclined a little forward, must place his arms on the cushion, and preserve his equilibrium by pressing lightly on that side which appears to be rising. The rudder (if it may be so called) must be held by both hands, which are not to rest on the cushion, that they may be at full liberty, as they are essential to the conduct of the machine, as the arms are to the maintenance of the balance of it (attention will soon produce sufficient dexterity for this purpose;) then placing the feet lightly on the ground, long but very slow steps are to be taken, in a right line, at first; taking care to avoid turning the toes out, lest the heels should come in contact with the hind wheel. It is only after having acquired dexterity in the equilibrium and direction of the Velocipede, that the attempt to increase the motion of the feet, or to keep them elevated while it is in rapid motion, ought to be attempted.

The saddle may be raised or lowered, as well as the cushion, at pleasure; and thus suited to the height of various persons.

a Yo ho sighting, 1818

February 13, 2015

The editor of the New York Columbian may have been suspicious of this eyewitness account of the “wild man of the woods,” but it made for a good story and would fill a column inch or two, so he published it.  This New York sighting of what is currently called “Bigfoot” is remarkably similar to classic 20th- and 21st-century sightings:  the solitary witness surprises a solitary creature which escapes into the woods.

(from The New-York Columbian [New York, New York] 9 [14 Sept 1818]: page 2, col 4.)


Report says, that in the vicinity of Elisburgh was seen on the 30th ult. by a gentleman of unquestioned veracity, an animal resembling the Yo ho, or Wild man of the Woods. It is stated that he came from the woods within a few rods of this gentleman—that he stood and looked at him, then took his flight in a direction which gave a perfect view of him for some time. He is described as bending forward when running, hairy—and the heel of the foot narrow, spreading at the toes. Hundreds of persons have been in pursuit for several days; but nothing further is heard, or seen of him.

The frequent and positive manner in which this story comes, induces us to notice it. We wish not to impeach the veracity of this highly favored gentleman—yet, it is proper that such naturally improbable, if not impossible events, should be established by the mouth, of at least, two or three eye-witnesses, to entitle them to credibility.

Root around in early 19th-century American newspapers for 90 seconds, and you’re likely to find at least one story of some mysterious critter or other (sea serpents were a New England specialty).  Though we still love sea monsters, the “wild man of the woods” is today more popular, as “Bigfoot,” the “Skunk Ape,” “MoMo,” or any of a host of modern regional variations.

Large, hairy, barefoot—the wild man hasn’t changed much in 200 years.  Neither have audiences, who seem to enjoy that tingle of skepticism mingling with the thought that there really might be something out there in the woods.

This story—copied from a Georgia newspaper—is a classic.  It has the huge beast (13 feet tall!); it has action (five men decapitated!); it’s just a great story.

But is it a true story?  Well, it certainly wasn’t intended to be taken literally.  Early newspapers didn’t always print just news; early editors certainly didn’t thoroughly research the stories.  Some later stories of wild men are clearly pranks.

A note:  “Dr. Morse”—named in the footnote—was Jedidiah Morse, whose geographies were standard texts for decades; early editions listed the mastodon as possibly still living somewhere in North America, but, then, every textbook has a flaw.

“A Giant Story” (from Connecticut Herald [New Haven, Connecticut] 26 [3 Feb 1829]: p. 3, col 3.)

Darby, Didst ever see a Whale?
From the Milledgeville (Geo) Statesman.

There is a tradition among the Creek Indians that there is, in the trackless gloom of the Okefenokee Swamp, an island of enchanting beauty, more blissful than any place on earth. While it is generally tho’t that this murky fen—this Black Sea of Avernus, containing nothing higher in the order of beings than countless swarms of mosquitos, snakes, frogs and aligators: the Indians say that in the terrestial [sic] paradise on this island there dwells a race of mortals of super-human dimensions and incomparable beauty. This island though sometimes seen, is represented as inaccessible from the attribute which it possesses of locomotion; thus eluding approach—or from the ever varying labyrinths of fens and bogs by which it is entrenched, and in which the bold invader is confounded who ventures too near this enchanted spot. Thus lost in inextricable sloughs, a few intrepid hunters were once saved from per[i]shing by a company of women from this island, of surprising beauty, whom they denominated the daughters of the sun, or children of the Great Spirit. Having kindly supplied them with refreshments and pointed out to them a way of retreat, they admonished them to fly for safety—for that their husbands were fierce men and cruel to strangers. *

This legend we have hitherto regarded as fabulous; but Mr. John Os[t?]can, residing on the borders of this swamp, in Ware co. and some of his neighbors over the line in Florida, have become satisfied from ocular reality, and they so aver, that it is, mainly, a matter of fact! We have their statement in writing, tested by a respectable witness, who has put the paper in our hand containing the following facts—we beg the gentleman’s pardon—truths we should say.

Not long ago, two men and a boy, in the vicinity of this swamp, like our friend Paul Pry, “had a curiosity to know, you know,” what could be seen by two or three weeks pilgrimage into the accessible regions o[f] this dismal empire. The season being unusually dry, they pushed their exploration far into the interior, and at the end of little more than two weeks, found their progress suddenly arrested at the appearance of the print of a foot step, so unearthly in its dimensions, so ominous of power, and terrible in form, that they were at once reminded of the legend we have mentioned above, and began seriously to apprehend its solemn reality. The length of the foot was eighteen, and the breadth nine inches.—The monster, from every appearance, must have moved forward in an easy or hesitating gait; his stride, from heel to toe, being but a trifle over six feet. Our adventurers had seen enough! and began to think of securing a retreat, without waiting to salute his majesty, not doubting but the other part of the story might also prove true—of his fierceness and cruelty. They happily effected their escape, returned home and related the history of their adventures, and what they had seen of the “man mountain.” A company of Florida hunters, half horse and half alligator—nine in number, determined, a few months since, to make this gentleman a visit—to ascertain if he had a family, and his manner of living. Following, for some days, the direction of their guide, they came at length upon the track first discovered; some vestiges of which were still remaining; pursuing these traces several days longer they came to a half on a little eminence, and determined to pitch their camp and refresh themselves for the day. The report of their rifles, as one or two of them were simultaneously discharged at an advancing and ferocious wild beast, made the still solitudes of these dismal lakes reverbrate [sic] with deafening roar. Echo beyond echo, took up and prolonged the sound, which seemed to die away and revive in successive peals for several minutes. The report had reached and startled from his lair, the genius of the swamp, and the next minute he was full in their view, advancing upon them with a terrible look and a ferocious mien. Our little band, instinctively gathered close in a body, and presented their rifles. The huge being, nothing daunted, bounded upon his victims, and in the same instant received the contents of seven rifles. But he did not fall alone; nor until he had glutted his wrath with the death of five of them, which he effected by wringing off the head from the body. Writhing and exhausted at length he fell, with his hapless prey beneath his grasp. The surviving four had opportunity to examine the dreadful being as he lay extended on the earth, some time, wallowing and roaring.

His length was thirteen feet, and his breadth and volume of just proportions.—Fearing, lest the report of their rifles, and the stentorian yells of the expiring giant, should bring suddenly upon them the avengers of his blood, they betook themselves to flight, having first secured the rifles of their headless comrades, and returned home with this account of their adventures.

The story of the report, as related above, is matter of fact, and the truth of it is accredited, we are told, by persons living on the borders of this swamp, and in the neighborhood of the surviving adventurers.

* This tradition is mentioned by Dr. Morse, in 1806—Se[e] his Geography of that date.

Winterizing a garden in 1877

November 14, 2014

Fortunately, the weather around here hasn’t completely mirrored the weather in New York in 1877. Yes, it was bright and warm November 11 and 12 (and weren’t the crickets happy!); and, yes, the prediction is for a coating of snow the night of November 13, but at least the snow waited a few days longer than it did in 1877. We take our comfort where we can.

Besides recording the weather, William Hoyt Coleman describes how to winterize a nineteenth-century garden, tells a funny story on himself, and evokes a cozy fireside with a gardener dreaming of spring.

“The Breath of Winter.” Christian Union 16 (14 November 1877), page 434.

Please to remember
The sixth of November
Snapping cold weather and frost.

Guy Fawkes’s little corner in gunpowder under the Parliament buildings was not half so worthy of an embalming ditty as the remarkable weather of this remarkable season. Hardly had we ceased to chant the praise of the frostless fall when quick and sharp from his hiding place old Winter blew an icy breath, and the astonished world awoke this morning to see his white mantle flung over the earth and every tender thing grown rigid in death. No gentle preliminary droppings of the thermometer, with crispy white frosts on the low meadows, but out of the balmy air and brilliant fires of a splendid autumn we are tossed into the ice and snow of winter!

Happy they who can flee unto stoves and radiators! Even pigs and chickens can do what majestic trees cannot—run from the frost. There they stand, bravely lifting their boughs to heaven, but their beautiful garmenture of leaves has dropped suddenly to their feet at the touch of the frost-king, and like fair captives before a conqueror they seem to shiver and shrink from his gaze.

What a litter of leaves under every horse-chestnut tree! Be they brown or green all have dropped at once to the earth and the walks are carpeted with them. Now shall the nut-burrs fly wide open and the long deferred nut harvest begin, save where impatient boys have already thrashed the trees. Sometimes other things fly open besides burrs. We once went up a tall walnut to thrash it. It was “pay-day” for the nursery hands and we had the money drawn and in a pocket-book. It was quite bulky and interfered with a free clambering about the limbs. Calling to some one below to catch it we tossed the wallet down, without thinking that it was unfastened. The flaps flew open, the greenbacks flew out and fives tens and twenties [sic] went sailing off on the breeze. Nut gathering was at once suspended and all hands did their best to contract this suddenly expanded currency. We remained at our post to watch the flying notes and mark their final places of deposit. Under the tree and over the fence, and under bushes and along the hedge they dropped, but eager seekers went after them till all that were visible were caught and counted. One five was missing and then a long search ensued and at last it was found in the next yard nestled snug in the grass. But we shall never throw anything but specie from the top of a hickory tree again, and not even that if we are wise enough to leave it below.

But this wintry air is a sharp reminder to hurry up what work remains to do in yard and garden. The geraniums and tomato vines can be pulled up and hung in the cellar; the first to keep for spring planting (if you like big plants to set out) and the last in hope of some more ripe fruit before Christmas. It is a good time to transplant any hardy shrubs that you would like to have in new places and combinations. They will have masses of fibrous roots and will start off and grow finely next spring. Herbaceous perennials, both roots and bulbs, that have been long blooming in the same place, can be taken up and divided to good advantage, either to reset, or, what is better, to give away to your neighbors who have none. Large trees can also be moved if carefully done, but it were better a month ago. As soon as the leaves are all off the trees, and the wind has blown them into the fence corners, go to work and mulch everything. Even the hardiest things will thank you for it if we have light snow this winter, and tender, half hardy plants will live through rejoicing. Bed the roots of the vines about the porch, and the plot of fancy evergreens. Even tender roses can be carried safely through in this way; the tops will be killed but the leaves will save an inch or two of wood that will throne the blooming shoots of next year. Put them over the grapevines and around the raspberries. On the strawberry beds too, but very, very lightly, or the green leaves will be blackened by spring. Indeed we are not sure but that a sedging of earth is better, leaving the leaves exposed. Give the asparagus beds and the rhubarb plants a generous dressing.

Do up the pruning now, also. It is cold work in winter and nasty sloppy work in spring. Then, too, if great snow banks bury your garden as it did ours last winter, you won’t be able to do it at all until late in the season. So prune out the grapevines, only leaving a little more wood than usual to allow for possible winter killing; cut out all the old wood and thin this year’s shoots of the raspberries and blackberries; thin the currant-wood (and by the way we should have said that currants and gooseberries ought to be planted in the fall as they start so early in the spring); thin out the fruit tree branches where they crowd or interlace each other, and prune back the dwarf trees to a few inches of this year’s wood.

No neat gardener requires a hint to clean up and burn or cart away all rubbish of weeds, dead vines, stalks, etc., and to put away all loose stakes and trellises. Then if he has been wise enough to have accumulated a good supply of fertilizing earth, as described in one of these papers, he cannot better conclude his season’s labors than by throwing a generous shovelful about the roots of every plant that he possesses. It will keep them warm through the winter, and they will jump next spring. Then may he retire with a good conscience to his fireside, and while the hickory snaps and the snow flakes sift on the window pane, he may drop into his easy chair and dream of the Garden of the Future.

The Harvest Girl

November 7, 2014

This delightful little illustration showed up at an antique show beside a strangely familiar (and oddly grotesque) sibling.  They were overpriced.  I bought them anyway.

HarvestGirlThe little harvest girl advertises W. N. Stevens Variety Store, at “S. E. corner of Third and Arch Streets,” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The ad probably is late 1830s; the store was at this address from 1837 to 1839. (It’s advertised in Philadelphia newspapers until at least 1845.)

Probably the image was copied from another.  (Her sibling’s definitely was.)  While I haven’t yet found the original for the Harvest Girl, this kind of doubling was fairly common in 19th-century American periodicals and books.  Illustrations were expensive to create, and publishers used them and reused them and reused them …  (Someday I will tell the epic saga of the monkey.)

And, apparently, copied them from other publishers.  (That sibling, for example.)  Maybe this is a copy of a better illustration.  Maybe not.  It has a wonky charm of its own, however, and it was certainly worth the price.

Readers of William Hoyt Coleman’s column in the Christian Union got a chatty—and patchy—report of the New York State Fair of 1877: no pie judging, no news of prize livestock. Coleman focused on developments in farm machinery, new grape varieties, and a surprisingly entertaining argument about flower-growing.

Some of the heat appears to have been generated after remarks by Mr. Vick (apparently the owner of a nursery), who took farmers to task for neglecting to grow flowers.  “But they were there to speak for themselves,” Coleman points out, “and they did.”  The rambling report that follows includes a sprinkling of delightful moments:  an 80-year-old farmer who “protested with great vehemence against the idea that farmers didn’t love flowers”; the casual mention of keeping a rose bush near the house for drying small bits of laundry; the contrast between farmers’ daughters forced to play croquet in a neglected yard and the sons “dashing about” in (presumably expensive) buggies.

Coleman credits the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry for the “remarkable discussion.”  It was at that time a new organization; it would make a major impact on American culture.

from “The New York State Fair at Rochester.” Christian Union 16 (3 Oct 1877): p. 286.

Wednesday evening there was a discussion on “Fruits and Flowers” at the Court House. Over one hundred and fifty farmers and fruit growers were present and the proceedings were very lively. … Mr. Vick read an essay on “Flower Growing,” in which he bore hard upon the farmers for not taking more interest in flowers. But they were there to speak for themselves and they did. A young farmer said he attended to his flowers as regularly as to his other crops, and he believed it paid. He had bought two dollars worth of seed of Mr. Vick and the same year had received twenty-five dollars in premiums for his flowers. When he sold his former farm the new owner plowed up the flower garden and put in potatoes as it was handy to the house in keeping off the bugs. His crop was three barrels of potatoes worth ten shillings per bl. He did leave one rosebush as it was handy for his wife to dry small things on. An old gentleman over seventy, who said he had been a farmer all his life, wanted Mr. Vick to tell him how he could learn to grow flowers; he had tried a great many times but failed. He had two sons who each had farms but they had both sold out and gone into other business. Somebody said, “Give your wife the money to buy seed and she’ll show you how.” Mr. Quimby thought farmers were buying flower seeds much more largely and that many took great pains to keep plants through the winter where they had only wood fires. An old man of eighty protested with great vehemence against the idea that farmers didn’t love flowers. He had been a farmer all his life, had observed many other farmers, and he knew better. When he was a boy his father used to bring wild flowers from the woods and carefully set them out. He and his neighbor would exchange flowers with each other. Mr. Barry said he knew many rich farmers in the Genesee Valley who paid little attention to the improvement of their dooryards. He had seen their daughters trying to play croquet in grass three feet high while their sons were dashing about in buggies. Mr. B. went on to plead for the elevation of the farmer with unusual force and eloquence. Altogether it was a remarkable discussion. The speakers made their points with great vigor, and the audience applauded lustily. And all about flowers! We could not help thinking that the grange must have a good deal to do with it. Farmers are getting broken in to speaking in public and to thinking on their feet. They have always had good ideas; now they are learning to put them in shape.