Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

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.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to see the color of the dress in the last picture. Love the print!


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