Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Mighty Fallen: The Holmes Family of South Carolina

Emma Holmes (1838-1910)
Portrait from 1900

In South Carolina's new post-Civil-War economy former elite Charlestonian Emma Holmes and her family struggled to adjust to a system without slaves or fortune. Emma (in her late 20s) and her sister attempted the household chores their enslaved house servants had always done.

Photograph by J. Byerly, Maryland
Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection
of occupational images

Laundry may have been the most arduous. It wasn't just washing and drying clothing; it was ironing and starching to very high standards. Sending out the laundry was the Holmes's one luxury in the first weeks after the war. How to pay for it in a house without money?
July 17, 1865
"Sue & myself are taking in sewing to assist in paying for our washing."

Another Kelbaugh Collection photo

Washerwoman and seamstress were two of the few money-making options open to the female entrepreneur. Emma certainly was in the category of "decayed gentlewoman" as a woman of good family who had fallen upon hard times was called. Nearly every gentlewoman in Charleston and Camden was decayed after the war.

Emma was not confident she would earn any money at a profession she found unpleasant.

"It certainly won't be much more than [paying for laundry], for I've always considered seamstresses as a dreadfully ill-paid class & always declared I would never take sewing as my means of livelihood, for it would soon kill me or at least make me feel like committing suicide. 

Kelbaugh Collection 
"For with closest application, a very quick workwoman could barely finish one chemise a day, that is putting really good work upon it.
A "Fancy Chemise", a cotton or linen undergarment,
from Godey's Lady's Book in 1862.
The Holmeses were not making "fancy" chemises.
"Those we are doing are quite plain, save four rows of cord stitched into the band & three little tucks in the sleeve, & I know it would take me two days of steady work to make one."

Fancy chemise

Well, it turns out they had nothing else to do as they had no fabric to make their own clothing...and they really didn't earn money for the work. They traded for scarce commodities---perhaps to a contractor who supplied the fabric.
 "But as we have very little work of our own, save mending, in which Nina [probably a now-hired former slave] assists, we work together mother assisting...We lighten our labor by reading aloud.... We are to be paid in sugar and soap at 50 cents a garment. Of course, we should much prefer money, but, that being scarce, barter is the order of the day."
Emma was a real fire-eater when the war began, willing to sacrifice anything to uphold her perceived class and state's rights. Winding up as a seamstress was not so bad a fate as others. (Note: She didn't keep up professional sewing for long.)

Emma Holmes tale is told in her published diary:
Diary of Miss Emma Holmes, 1861--1866, edited by John F. Marszalek

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Professional Seamstress

The portraits of unknown women of 
Addie and Rebecca's generation are
copied from online auctions
April 29 1866. "I have been out sewing for two weeks. I guess sitting so steady is the cause of my pain. Yesterday I was sewing for Mrs. Mary Goodwin in High St and I expect to go tomorrow and Friday and Saturday and the rest of the days to Mrs. Saunders. I don't think I could stand going out everyday"

Addie Brown (1841 - 1870) of Connecticut was about 25 years old when she wrote about her current work to close friend Rebecca Primus. Both Connecticut women were of African-American descent but of different classes. Addie was an orphan without much of an education (I've corrected her spelling and punctuation here.) Rebecca was a middle class teacher, daughter of store clerk Holdridge Primus and dressmaker Mehitable Jacobs Primus.

Sewing for a living was a common occupation for African-American women with limited job options. Hand sewing all day is hard work (as many of you readers know) but Addie preferred sewing to other house work.
"Gertrude has told me she was not fond of doing house work. She is sometimes like me---likes sewing the best."

"June 25, 1861. O Dear how tired I am of sewing my fingers is even sore. I told Mother I will not sew any more to night. It tis ten o'clock." Addie lived in New York with a family as the Civil War began.
At times Addie worked out. 
"Hartford, Connecticut,  December 1,  1865: Monday I expect to go to Mrs. S to sew. Mrs Couch wants me one or two days also. Mrs. Doughlass wants some sewing Mrs. Swans is going to intercede for me also. I hope I will get along this winter." 

Women had seamstresses and dressmakers stay at their homes, fitting and cutting a seasonal wardrobe. Women like Addie moved from residence to residence.

After the Civil War when sewing work was hard to find she worked at George Smith's Dye House, which mended, cleaned and re-dyed clothing. 

In November 1865:
"I get along very nicely to the Dye House. I was sewing nearly all day yesterday and all this morn we was paid last night. I rec $19.00. You don't know how pleased I felt, Dear Sister. Just look back $4.00 per month. What a jump up."

But she was discharged a month later. "No more work. Business is dull with them."

Addie also sewed while she did other work. She found a job doing domestic work at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut and continued to sew as she worked in the kitchen.
"July 18, 1867. Give my love to your mother. Tell her I shall let her have the shirt very soon."

Addie might have sewed for charity too, telling Rebecca of her interest in a group that supplied clothing and other household goods to freed slaves in the South.
"November 11, 1866. The freedman's aid society meet Wednesday evening in the Pearl St School house [in Hartford]." 
And she quilted. 
"November 18, 1866. The quilt you gave me I fix it today and I shall put it on tomorrow."
This sentence implies that Rebecca who was teaching freed slaves had sent Addie a quilt top in Hartford. Addie fixed it (basted it to back and batting?) and was planning to put it in the frame.

Read the letters:
Letters From Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland, and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854-1868. Edited by Farah Jasmine Griffin.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Ann Baker Carson: Philadelphia Business Woman

Second Street, Philadelphia, about 1800
Birch's Views of Philadelphia

Ann Baker Carson Smith (1785-1824) was another of Philadelphia's female business owners. Ann Baker's father was an alcoholic sailor who could not support his family of seven children and eliminated one hungry face at the family dinner table by forcing her at fifteen to marry an ill-tempered, alcoholic ship captain who rarely contributed financially whether he was on a voyage to India or back in Philadelphia. 

With some education in needlework she used her sewing skills to support her four children at one point. Biographers Susan E. Klepp and Susan Branson find that Ann Carson hired female employees. Like other women she organized "domestic 'manufactories'. They were labor contractors who sometimes hired live-in seamstresses to help make shirts and other clothing, or who cut the cloth at home and distributed garment pieces to out-workers."

The Baker women were self-reliant, earning money through reputable occupations. Her mother took in boarders; sister Sarah Baker managed a school. In 1807 Ann opened a store, a china shop that supported herself, four children, her mother and siblings.

A China shop 100 years later

As Ann wrote her autobiography "Nature did not create me for a non entity."

"My mother, from habit and her early marriage, was considered by my father incapable of conducting any father's pride forbidding the idea of his daughters' learning any trade.

Selling shoes 100 years later

Had he permitted my mother to keep a shoe, grocery or grog shop, now at this time our family might have been opulent." (How reliable a narrator is she?) 

Ann wrote that she boarded with Mrs. R on Third Street, 
across from the Mansion House hotel on the left here. 
She and her family changed residence many times.

In 1807: "I had now been one year without receiving any means of support [from Captain Carson]. I had never been accustomed to any employment, except needle-work for myself and family." But she made plans "all of which my mother opposed."

Queensware was the everyday china

"My mind was active and enterprising...not to be intimidated by her imbecile doubts and false pride....I sold all my superfluous furniture and as Capt. C had brought me a considerable quantity of china...which at this time was getting scarce [due to international trade wars] I determined to enter into the sale of china and queens-ware [stoneware].

Second Street, many decades later

I therefore rented a house in Second-street [for $500 per annum], a part of the city well calculated for business....Heaven smiled upon my endeavors and prosperity crowned my exertions."

Ann was not left a non entity. She became a notorious celebrity and died in prison in 1824. While Captain Carson was missing she remarried, wedding Richard Smith. Carson showed up years later; the two husbands got into a fight and husband #2 shot husband #1. She was jailed as an accessory to murder.

Walnut Street Prison from Birch's Views

Things went downhill from there.... Furious with a newspaper editor who refused to lobby the Governor for a pardon she hired kidnappers to persuade him to change his mind. Caught in the plot to kidnap the editor and/or the governor and/or their sons, she went to jail and so did her long-suffering mother. Husband #2 was hung. Back on the streets she was caught in a counterfeiting plot. She died of typhoid in the Walnut Street Prison.

Ann's autobiography was published in several versions under several titles, many of which explain a good deal about the plot:

Whether she wrote it or editor Mary Clarke ghostwrote it for her is confusing. She was probably not that reliable a narrator in any case---Ann seems to have gone off the deep end when her favorite husband was arrested. But her discussion of opening a china shop during the Non-Intercourse Act---the embargo that made imported china a valuable commodity--- rings true and as her biographers have noted gives us a little insight into women's entrepreneurship and the attitudes they had to overcome.

(Her mother might have given her more advice about a Non-Intercourse Act.) Bad choices in men appear to have been her downfall but she was, as she said, enterprising.

Read “A Working Woman: The Autobiography of Ann Baker Carson,” by Susan E. Klepp and Susan Branson in Life in Early Philadelphia, edited by Billy Smith. Here's a preview:

The Memoirs of the Celebrated and Beautiful Mrs Ann Carson (always a good title for a memoir--insert your name here) hasn't been digitized. but see a pdf of Susan Branson's analysis of the whole kidnapping disaster by searching for the words:
Susan Branson He Swore His Life

"'He swore His Life was in Danger From Me':. The Attempted Kidnapping of Governor Simon Snyder". Susan Branson. University of Texas at Dallas. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Shopping in Philadelphia: Women in Shops

Elizabeth Ruffin from the cover of her published diaries

Almost 200 years ago a 20 year old Virginia woman was treated to a tour of the North. Elizabeth Ruffin (1807-1849) and her older half-brother Edmund Ruffin (1794-1865) did Philadelphia, New York, Saratoga, Niagara Falls and Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, among other social hubs. I think he was trying to marry her off, but she wasn't having it. Their first stop was Philadelphia where they shopped.

Chestnut Street, Philadelphia's fashionable shopping street
in the 1850s. The photos are long after Elizabeth's visit.
Photography had not been invented in 1827.
Library of Congress

Tuesday, July 31, 1827. "Went out shopping, carried brother along and entertained him agreeably over the counter, no doubt increased his natural fondness for the employment by introducing him to the millinery and mantua [dress] making department, give him a deal of credit for exercising such strain'd patience....

Women clerks at L.J. Levy & Co a few decades later

"Enter the Stores and there are women only to be seen, manage all matters and almost carry on the whole exclusively, as to the men they are things of nought...seem to have not part or lot in the matter."

The next day they "formed a part of the fashionable promenader on Chestnut Street, the place of most general resort for exercise and my feet are now aching....the streets do indeed look most inviting; the stores are all illuminated but the brightness of the glass-establishments is dazzling almost to blindness."

Another view of Levy's the fashionable city's most fashionable store

The following day: "Went out shopping in the morning and witnessed habits so strange to me; for instance; entered a Shoe-Store, business carried on in a large scale and managed entirely by the females who not merely sew them but sale them too with their delicate hands, not a male to be seen behind many counters."

And on Friday: "Really I am getting right tired of Philadelphia; can't get any waiting on, obliged to do it my eyes have seen till they are saturated....

She and Edmund picked up the gowns she had ordered on Tuesday. His unexpected patience delighted her.
"I will not say a single word against him in any matter for he has left his old self at attentive, so accommodating, [waiting] on some mantua-makers for the completion of my Dresses all too without murmuring or scolding in the least; who will believe me? certainly no soul at home."
(I think he was trying to marry her off and she needed a new wardrobe. His time was an investment.)

The city market in 1856

On Tuesday they also went to the market-house "really worth seeing; it extends a mile in length, right in the middle of the street frequented all times of the day where the women are always ready to receive customers and when not thus engaged, are sewing or knitting by their baskets, never idle I believe they do two-thirds of the business in the whole city."

Market on Hanover Street, 1860
Photo attributed to Charles Himes

"I admire this independence much among the females tho' carried rather too far, (driving a cart for instance) and think when I return [to Coggins Point] I shall be induced to venture much further on old Turtle (her horse?)

Evergreen Plantation, Elizabeth's home
Coggins Point is on the James River in Prince George County

The Ruffins stayed at Philadelphia's United States Hotel with a view of the First Bank of the United States. She thought the classical building "clumsy, disproportion'd and unsightly...pillars almost all the way of a size, no symmetry or beauty about them."
Elizabeth's amazement at the female sales forces working in Philadelphia is revealing. Her Virginia  experience was quite the opposite, a contrast illustrating the point that female roles were perceived differently at different times and different places. There is no one past attitude about women's work.

Many of us may remember our grandmothers' view of working women but their grandmothers might have had completely different opinions. We can contrast Philadelphia and all its women workers in 1827 with South Carolina in the mid-20th century. According to the memories of  Polish immigrant Libby Friedman Levinson (1909-2000) when interviewed in 1995:
"My mother was not a businesswoman. My mother always used to say God put a curse on her because her two daughters were businesswomen. She thought it was horrible for a woman to work in a store. She would cry about it."

Elizabeth Ruffin did not find romance on her tour through the north. By the end of the eight weeks she was so bored she "had to go out to buy something to sew on." Perhaps the problem was that she had an arrangement with her first cousin at home Harrison Henry Cocke, whom she married in 1828. She felt somewhat out of place in the North; she missed cornbread and fresh peaches. And as she noted above, she was used to being waited upon. A slaveholder on her own without any "servants" was obliged to do it herself, a rude awakening.

Brother Edmund Ruffin was the notorious "fire-eater" whose rhetoric contributed mightily to secessionist ideology. Her analysis of his personality, undergoing a "wonderful metamorphosis" on the trip, is a private view of a man considered the archetype of the extreme Southern radical, one who shot himself in 1865 rather than face a defeated Confederacy. Elizabeth did not live to see the Civil War; she died at the age of 42 at her sister's in Mobile, Alabama, seeking relief from tuberculosis.

Read Elizabeth's diary: An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827-67, edited by Michael O'Brien. Here's a Google Books preview:

Libby Friedman Levinson interview: Jewish Heritage Collection at the Lowcountry Digital Library

And see a post here on "Fancy Stores" in Philadelphia:

Monday, March 18, 2019

All Work; No Pay: A History of Women’s Invisible Labor

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has a new exhibit called All Work, No Pay. Their topic is tangential to this blog's topic, which is working for pay, but the show addresses many of the same issues. Curators Kathleen Franz, chair and curator, Division of Work and Industry and  Kate Haulman, associate professor of history at American University describe it well on the NMAH  website so I am just going to quote them here and add photos of house dresses and aprons from my files like the Hooverettes below:

A Hooverette is a housedress with an 
overlapping reversible front, named for Herbert Hoover.

"Break rooms across America display signs imploring staff to clean up after themselves. They read: “Your mother doesn’t work here. All Work, No Pay: A History of Women’s Invisible Labor examines just that: the implied expectation that women will take care of the housework. Opening March 4, this case display shows that despite advances in the paid labor force, women continue to be responsible for most of the unpaid work at home.
On the back of this 1930s photo is a note: 
"These are the girls (maids) I work with."
Two of the women (back row left and right) seem to be wearing 
Hooverettes, wrap garments that can be overlapped in the 
other direction to show a clean dress.

"Explore the history of women’s work in the home and the value and implications of unwaged labor. Despite making steps forward in the paid labor force, there is an implied and historical expectation that women will take care of the housework and unpaid work at home. Costumes meant for domestic work from colonial America to the 1990s and objects from various ethnic communities and classes highlight how women shared similar tasks across race and class despite the complicated dynamics and inequalities between them.

1921 Sears ad

"The display explores the theme of unpaid work in three sections: “Separating Home and Work,” which identifies the changing perspectives of gender roles and work in early America; “Making Unpaid into Paid Work,” which contrasts gains in the paid workforce against the continuation of unpaid work in the home from the 1890s to 1940s; and “The Second Shift,” in which the unspoken expectation of housekeeping continues despite progress in women’s rights from the 1960s through the 1990s.

“There is a historical relationship between unpaid work and the lower wages that women often receive in the workplace,” said Kathleen Franz, chair and curator, Division of Work and Industry, who co-curated the exhibition alongside guest curator Kate Haulman, associate professor of history at American University. An infographic at the display points to a statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor based on the 2013 U.S. Census that women on average earn 80 cents to every dollar men make.

"Pockets, aprons and housedresses meant for domestic work are among the featured objects. “Work wear” pieces from each time period serve to both underscore the enduring nature of housework over three centuries but also the ways in which women tailored their clothing to make that work easier on the body. In the 1700s and early 1800s, short gowns were garments owned by most women and highlight how they shared similar tasks across race and class despite the complicated dynamics and inequalities between them. These short gowns allowed for freedom of movement and were often complemented by “pockets” which could be tied on and used to carry small tools such as scissors and thimbles.

"By the 20th century, there was a healthy retail market for ready-to-wear housedresses. Although new technologies, such as electric irons, promised to make women more efficient domestic laborers, they did little to lighten the load. Seeing an opportunity, entrepreneur Nell Donnelly Reed designed cheerful, stylish garments that made her a millionaire. Even during the Great Depression, her factory employed thousands of women to manufacture Nelly Don dresses. Finally, the exhibit features today’s version of the contemporary housedress: yoga pants.

"Many of the costumes on view represent the type of women’s clothing that is rarely seen outside of the home and thus are representative of the invisibility of women’s labor over time. All Work, No Pay draws on the deep collection of the museum’s domestic clothing costumes, many of which have never been on view.

"This display is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, #BecauseOfHerStory. The initiative is one of the country’s most ambitious undertakings to research, collect, document, display and share the compelling story of women. It will deepen understanding of women’s contributions to the nation and the world. More information about the initiative is available at

1913 ad in the Ladies' Home Journal

All Work, No Pay is meant to stimulate intergenerational conversations about the association of gender and labor and will have a space adjacent to the display where visitors are invited to sit and share stories about who did the work in their mother or grandmother’s houses to build an archive of housework. Curators plan to staff the conversation table on occasion in order to enter into a dialogue about the topic and to record and preserve oral histories about housework for the museum’s permanent collection.