Material Matters of the Early 19th Century

The early industrial revolution provided a vast alteration in the consumer culture and fashion of women in the early to mid-19th century, with innovations, a change in economy and a push for consumerism.  The women’s local economy before this industrial push was responsible for much of the creation of handspun items like cloth and not always the consumerism of such.  Martha Ballard, like the story of many women of the time, experienced a slow switch to the new machinery for production, like her having to bring wool to be carded by “the machine” instead of by hand in Maine in 1812. [1] From a modern view, this technology is only seen as a benefit to society, however at the time it not only altered the style of fashion but altered the very style of how women lived.  This women’s economy that once was, was now handed to the men and the machines, and women had to switch from the producers of material goods to the consumers of material goods.  This evolution was the beginning of the modern era, one that would forever alter the lives of women through industrial changes, economic changes and fashion consumerism.

Before that of the 19th century, women held a different sphere of responsibility.  She ran the home and played the part of the deputy husband when her husband was not as home along the tasks of spinning, weaving, farming, and cooking.  Women’s roles also went outside of the home.  Women traded their wares and even held professions.  This was considered the female economy, in which women would work and trade goods outside of the normal sphere of men.  They would trade and barter, and sometimes even sell goods or services for coin or credit.  The money could be kept for themselves, as long as the husband was informed of the income and could also be used to benefit the home.  This was not as commonly recorded in the books as the male economy.[2] Richard Ware, a historian writing about the legal rights of women stated that women in the colonial era obtained “a measure of their individuality and independence in excess of that of their English sisters.” [3] They had a level of freedom in the economy that woman did not in many other places of the world. 

What altered this to define a new position for women?  Part of the change in the roles of women was that of the Revolutionary War.  After the war, it was stated widely that women needed to step into the roles of the republican mother and education the future of the country.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, when in negotiations for the new roles of America, pointed out that men lived very important lives, leaving them unable to educate and raise the next generations.  Women, however, did nothing too important, leaving them to be able to train both themselves and then their sons in the pursuit of liberty and government. [4]  Women could now attend specific classes, as this education was seen to help future men.  Before this movement, the colonists did not concern themselves to the ideals of femininity, but more to the roles of wife, husband, neighbor and other such titles. [5] These roles were ones beneficial to the community, not that of individuality.  Unfortunately, this new role would remove the ability to find time to weave and spin like the century’s past.  They could no longer easily barter their trades and turned to the roles of consumerism.  The change in the material economy was not more than an evolution of production and consumerism, but a change in the society itself.  The improvement of the material world would only aid the ever-budding economy of young America.  Individuals could rise and find success through a successful economy.  This new pursuit of liberty could only be obtained through one thing, commerce.  [6]

As the women’s lives shifted away from production, the early industrial age was able to step in.  While industry did not happen overnight, it certainly took New England by storm.  Many small industrial plants found their way into even the smallest of towns across New England.  Silk mills, linen mills and cotton mills were built.  Rhode Island can claim the first mill, back in 1973.  The Slater Mill was the first successful water powered mill, producing cotton. [7] Men from Rhode Island who saw the success of this first mill, left to start their own franchises.  One of which, Perez Richmond, came to the town of Willimantic, CT to build Cotton Mills in 1820. Mills started to pop up all along the Willimantic River.  An example of one of these many cotton mills, opened in 1822 and was built by Jonah Lincoln. [8] His mill was able to quickly product so much cotton cloth, and with that a large profit, that he gifted a large chunk of land later that year to the town to be used for a burying grounds.[9]  Many of the mill owners found profits in their endeavors.  In fact, a book written about the history of Connecticut references the many cotton factories, 6 in Willimantic alone by 1836, with over 13,000 spindles being run. Willimantic also had a paper and satinet factory. [10]    This made more and more industrial mills get build across the 19th century.  With the establishment of railroad across New England in 1849, this added an even greater advantage to the commerce of material production.[11]  This production caused great innovations in both the manufacture of materials and how those materials were worn on fashion. 

These innovation lead directly to the world of women.  Such innovations, such as “machine net” fabric was produced, which held embroidery better than regular fabrics.  This was woven on a special loom in the early 19th century, with an example of a dress from 1807 in the Victoria and Albert Museum.  These net dresses were affordable, due to the quick nature a machine could make them and became popular as a result.[12]  Knitting machines were another innovation of factories, giving the ability to machine make socks, vests sweaters and more.  An early machine-knitted sweater for a woman went on display in the Great Exhibition of 1851, originally a British staple of innovation.[13]  There were multiple innovations of machinery that created a new world for the tailor and fashion connoisseur. Metal grommets, first patented in 1823 by Thomas Rogers saved women time in having to do hand-done eyelets on transitional stays and corded corsetry.  The sewing machine was most likely the largest innovation for the material and fashion industry.  Clothes could be made at a much higher speed and could also be made now in factory settings and sold in mass to department stores to consumers through catalogs. The innovations took a while to get hold of the public, and fear of the machine caused tailers to destroy the majority of the first factory set up with sewing machines in 1830 in France.  The man who was granted the first patent on Sewing machine, Barthelemy Thimonnier, was forced to flee his country to England.  By the mid 19th century, sewing machines became more lightweight, and soon companies like Singer offered the first concepts of financing for machines.[14]  The concern of course, was that men “feared that is women did perform their sewing duties in less time there would be time left over for them to improve themselves or participate in the suffrage movement”[15]  These innovations supported the shift in women’s production of material, and certainly saved them time on any production still done in home.  This same consumerism from industrial innovations also aided the lack of women’s time to produce, since she was now expected to learn republican ideals and teach her sons these ideas.  These machines could relieve time constriction for women while simultaneously supporting the new republic economy.

The early 19th century fashions were not a direct inspiration from machinery and industry, but inspiration from social movements.  Certainly, the aid of innovation altered the ease of production and the look of the garments.  The cut of women’s garments in the early 19th century took an inspiration from the political events, and not just that from the local young America.  The high waisted regency gowns, robe pelisses and other such styles with a high bodice were inspired by the Napoleonic Wars and the military styles adopted by women in France.[16]  Once can say there is vast evidence to support France being the constant fashion center for both European and American fashion from the 18th century to today.  Women also found inspiration in Greek styles, with the skirts suggesting a Greek pelplos attire.[17] By the 1830s, cotton became the most popular fabrics to use in garments.[18]  This, as can be compared to the dates of cotton mills, connects the industrial advances to the changes in the materials used in women’s fashion.  Eventually the bodice slowly became longer, and by the 1840s, the skirts became fuller. By the Civil War era, the production of cloth had to become so affordable that the dresses used more and more fabric.  By this same era, many shops sold premade dresses, rather than have them made at tailor shops. [19]  The innovation of manufacture was ripe in the streets of the cities and on the fabric that clung to the women in the mid 19th century, still pushing forward the roles as women as consumers.

As women adjusted to these new times, they slipped readily into the role of a consumer.  Servants, who used to also be responsible to cloth manufacture and clothes making, found their jobs changing as women became consumers.  Now, the only thing they would hold responsibility to purchase, was that of the supplies for the dinner table.[20]  Even Mrs. Child refers to the purchasing of yarn to knit rather than spinning your own, as the cost of time is more valuable.[21]  Women now had jobs to perform, like educating for the sake of future liberty, managing the households and still acting as a deputy husband for when her husband was not at home.  Time had now become money, and if it was easier and cheaper to purchase a premade textile or the materials in which to make a textile, the women would do so.  Consumerism was also ground into these women from the ideals of supporting their newfound country to promote the same republican concepts as teaching their young sons.  Helping build the economy would help the country as a whole.   The eyes of the world watched the new democracy in action, and every choice each individual made would either aid or hurt its purposes.[22] All of these innovations in commerce, society, economy and material lives brought women to this new role.  In 1851, a speech in Litchfield Connecticut would mark the end of the material culture of the female economy.  This speech labeled that past as “the Age of Homespun.” Horace Bushnell would go on to explain, that the age of women by their spindles was over, and the recasting of the early republic was the signs of the age of progress. [23]  This single moment marked the end of the era for women, no matter how hard they clung to the old ways of the female economy and their own production of materials.  The age of commerce and the material consumerism had fully taken over.

It was a long journey to take, from the early settlements and a society working together for a common goal, to the 19th century, now a society pushing for economic survival.  Consumerism was the new way of the woman, and one that was here to stay.  The ideals of the past, production in home and the local female economy of bartering and trading, seemed to fade into oblivion, with new roles and industrial advanced pushing women to the markets.  Women could be in the pursuit of Liberty by aiding this new economic system with the simple task of purchasing material goods. Cottons, pre-made dresses and corsetry, new metal grommets and innovations could be purchased with ease through catalogs and local shops.  It was there for the taking and not a difficult thing to embrace.  Women in the early 19th century had allowed themselves to step away from the “Age of Homespun” and into the age of progress, directly into the arms of materials consumerism.

Bibliography

Arnold, Janet. Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction C. 1660-1860. New York, NY: Drama Book Publishers, 2005.

Ballard, Martha. A Midwife’s Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York, NY: Alfred A, Knopf, 1991.

Bakke, Mary S. A Sampler of Lifestyles: Womanhood & Youth in Colonial Lyme; Some Fun, Facts, Foods and Fancies Mostly about Lyme’s Colonial Striplings, Damsels, and Dames. New Haven, CT: The Advocate Press, Inc., 1976.

Barber, John Warner. Connecticut Historical Collections Containing a General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, &c., Relating to the History and Antiquities of Every Town in Connecticut, with Geographical Descriptions. New Haven, CT: J.W. Barber, 1836.

Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: the Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

Beardsley, Thomas R. Willimantic: Industry and Community: the Rise and Decline of a Connecticut Textile City. Willimantic, CT: Windham Textile & History Museum, 1993.

Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2009.

Dyer, Serena. Material Lives: Women Makers and Consumer Culture in the 18th Century. London, UK: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2021.

Emery, Joy Spanabel. History of the Paper Pattern Industry: the Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution. NY, NY: BLOOMSBURY VISUAL ARTS, 2020.

Eves, Jamie. “Mills and Migrants.” The Windham Textile and History Museum – The Mill Museum, March 18, 2019. https://millmuseum.org/mills-and-migrants/.

Feller, Daniel. The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815-40. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Harwood, Pliny LeRoy. History of Eastern Connecticut: Embracing the Counties of Tolland, Windham, Middlesex and New London. Chicago, Il: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1932.

Johnston, Lucy, Marion Kite, Helen Persson, Richard Davis, and Leonie Davis. Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail. London, UK: V & A Pub., 2009.

Lincoln, Jonah. Land Deed for Jonah Lincoln. June 14, 2021. Windham Textile and History Museum Catalogit. https://hub.catalogit.app/5190/folder/a8c8f880-cd46-11eb-94e1-078bc531f993/entry/c5b1a1d0-cd51-11eb-94e1-078bc531f993.

Mrs. Child. The Frugale Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. 12th ed. Boston, MA: Carter, Hendee and Co, 1833.

“NHL Database.” National Historic Landmarks Program, February 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20121007141543/http://tps.cr.nps.gov/nhl/detail.cfm?ResourceId=6&ResourceType=District.

Roberts, Robert. The House Servants Directory. Boston, MA: Munroe and Francis, 1827.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives. New York, NY: Knopf, 1982.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. Vintage Books, 2002.

Waugh, Norah. The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 ; with Line Diagrams. London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1994.


[1] Martha Ballard, A Midwife’s Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York, NY: Alfred A, Knopf, 1991).

[2] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives (New York, NY: Knopf, 1982), 46.

[3] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives (New York, NY: Knopf, 1982), 35.

[4] Mary S. Bakke, A Sampler of Lifestyles: Womanhood & Youth in Colonial Lyme; Some Fun, Facts, Foods and Fancies Mostly about Lyme’s Colonial Striplings, Damsels, and Dames (New Haven, CT: The Advocate Press, Inc., 1976), 51.

[5] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives. 37

[6] Daniel Feller, The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815-40 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 33.

[7] “NHL Database,” National Historic Landmarks Program, February 2020, https://web.archive.org/web/20121007141543/http://tps.cr.nps.gov/nhl/detail.cfm?ResourceId=6&ResourceType=District.

[8] Thomas R. Beardsley, Willimantic: Industry and Community: the Rise and Decline of a Connecticut Textile City (Willimantic, CT: Windham Textile & History Museum, 1993). 4

[9] Jonah Lincoln, June 14, 2021, Windham Textile and History Museum Catalogit, June 14, 2021, https://hub.catalogit.app/5190/folder/a8c8f880-cd46-11eb-94e1-078bc531f993/entry/c5b1a1d0-cd51-11eb-94e1-078bc531f993.

[10] John Warner Barber, Connecticut Historical Collections Containing a General Collection of Interesting Facts, Traditions, Biographical Sketches, Anecdotes, &c., Relating to the History and Antiquities of Every Town in Connecticut, with Geographical Descriptions (New Haven, CT: J.W. Barber, 1836). 446

[11] Thomas R. Beardsley, Willimantic: Industry and Community: the Rise and Decline of a Connecticut Textile City (Willimantic, CT: Windham Textile & History Museum, 1993). 5

[12] Lucy Johnston et al., Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail (London, UK: V & A Pub., 2009). 146

[13] Lucy Johnston et al., Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail 150

[14] Joy Spanabel Emery, History of the Paper Pattern Industry: the Home Dressmaking Fashion Revolution (NY, NY: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020). Pg 32

[15] Williams Papers. Dressmaking History, Series V Box 1, Betty Williams Collection, University of Rhode Island.

[16] Lucy Johnston et al., Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail (London, UK: V & A Pub., 2009). 20

[17] Norah Waugh, The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 ; with Line Diagrams (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1994). 132

[18] Norah Waugh, The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 ; with Line Diagrams 133

[19] Norah Waugh 183

[20] Robert Roberts, The House Servants Directory (Boston, MA: Munroe and Francis, 1827). 135

[21] Mrs. Child, The Frugale Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, 12th ed. (Boston, MA: Carter, Hendee and Co, 1833).

[22] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2009).

[23] Laurel Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York, NY: Vintage, 2002). 16

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