What She Wore: Insights from Civil War era Fashion Magazines

Image1As soon as they arrived at Mt. Repose, Margaret and her mother had excused themselves and disappeared up a grand winding staircase while the men sat to talk in the Websters’ drawing room. Henry’s father had just opened Robert’s gift, a bottle of the best whisky from the Henderson family distillery, when Henry’s ginger-haired sister reappeared. She swept into the room, embraced her father and planted a kiss on Henry’s brow. She had changed from gray cap and cape to a sparkling emerald evening dress that flattered every curve of her figure and matched her eyes. Her hair, unloosed, swept provocatively over one shoulder. As they stood, Henry intoned, “And this, my friend, as you now know, is the irrepressible Maggie.”

Maggie greeted Robert’s dumbstruck gaze with laughter. “Did Henry tell you I’m plain? He tells all the single male visitors that. His obsessive need for full disclosure, I suppose.”

—excerpt from Soldiers Heart

What were they wearing? On that question, imagination can’t take the novelist too far. Nor do writers have a relevant corner clothier to visit. Happily, the same mysterious chest I found that yielded the characters inspiring Soldier’s Heart, also provided artifacts to help authentically dress them.

Civil War era women’s magazines. I’ve got portions of three of them. And they are stunning. Maggie Henderson likely saved them. They feature beautiful hand-tinted color illustrations. That’s right, hand-tinted.

We don’t realize what an amazing time the mid-1800s was for magazine publishing, for women editors, writers, and illustrators, and publications for, and by them.

Lady’s Book, aka Godey’s Lady’s Book or Godey’s Magazine, was published in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1878 by Louis A. Godey. He hired Sarah Hale as editor. She remained for 40 years, indelibly shaping American lifestyle and culture, from women’s education and professional working roles, to the popularity of white wedding gowns, Christmas trees, and Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

According to Albert H. Smythe (The Philadelphia Magazines and their Contributors) Lady’s Book “was the chief financial success among the Philadelphia magazines, and, after the Port Folio, enlisted the services of the greatest number of the best writers [including Longfellow, Holmes, Poe, and Harriet Beecher Stowe]. The circulation, largely due to its popular colored fashion plates, increased to 150,000 a month.”

Check out the 1842 “improved fashion plate” labeled #1 (The Library of Congress has this image and incorrectly labeled it “21”). It is unusual for its specific Philadelphia background details: note the building signage “Periodicals Publishers Hall Lady’s Book” and the “Sanderson’s” sign on the side of the tallest building (possibly a hotel named Sanderson’s, N. Philadelphia, although perhaps a literary reference to John Sanderson, a founder and contributor to the earlier literary publication, the Port Folio. This appeared in December, hence the focus on outer garments. Our fictional Maggie, by the way, changed out of gray outer garments typically worn by Quaker women.

Tell me what you think of these pre-war looks. In future posts you’ll have a chance to compare these with fashions from the war and post-war years (including the emerald gown that inspired the description, above), as we consider the business, art and personal power they represent.

Next post: Studying an illustration from Lady’s Friend Magazine

Marbles: A Civil War game, summer fun

Webbie trotted along the dusty lane from road to schoolhouse in time to see the new boy emerge from the woods. A girl standing alone, watching other schoolboys play with baked clay marbles, also must have seen the new student because she bent, cupped a hand to her mouth, and the boys sprang up from their circle. They spread out, various ages and heights, forming two rough lines leading to the school’s door. The girls, whispering, giggling nervously, ran over to the school’s front steps and waited.

—excerpt from Soldiers Heart, by Michele McKnight Baker

        clay marbles

  Marbles have been a hugely popular game for many generations. I played with my brothers. My father played with his friends. His father played with boys he knew from the Carlisle Indian School, including Jim Thorpe (a story—a book actually—for another time.)  (more…)

Saying Goodbye

This past week the family gathered. Pool and Lake Pahagaco beach time on the sunny days. We babysat our granddaughter, Olivia Michele, while her parents Dan and Annie enjoyed a B&B getaway in the Poconos. Olivia just turned two. Like bike riding, the grand fun of parenting came right back to us after a little practice. Olivia is blessed to have attentive, loving parents. She is a high energy full-on explorer, curious and boundary-pushing. They let her know what’s ahead (Pajamas, brush teeth, story, prayers, bed, for example). When an episode of willful tears breaks out, Olivia’s mom and dad have a simple, effective strategy. They say, “Tears all done, Olivia. Time for…”. Distraction plus firm, loving consistency. That’s a powerful combination. She has learned she can choose another emotional response, and trust her parents to love and protect her.

Saturday was an especially full day, a double leave-taking. We picked up my father from his cozy personal care apartment in Hanover. We were on our way to a cemetery in Carlisle to bury his wife, our mother/grandmother/great grandma. We took two cars because Dan, Annie and Olivia would drive back to their Massachusetts home that evening. (more…)

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