What’s in Mrs. Hale’s Receipt for the Million 1857?
157. To make Starch—Dissolve as much starch as will be required in a very small quantity of cold water; then pour boiling water on it till it is of the right consistency, and let it boil once or twice.
In mixing starch, put alum of sugar in it to prevent it from sticking to the iron. Stirring the starch for a minute with a sperm candle improves it when it is wanted for shirt bosoms or collars.
Getting the Right Look
I’ve been querying a novel (Mist-shi-mus) that takes place on the eve of the Civil War here in the Pacific NW. My main character is a young Englishwoman who has come to stay at English Camp, a Royal Marine camp that was active between 1860- 1872. While she endures the loss of her little boy to smallpox and falls in love with a American frontiersman with an interesting background, she also engages in teas, races and balls. American and British military forces jointly occupied the island while the water boundary was arbitrated. And the officers got along just fine. For a woman out here in this forested, island wilderness, surprisingly, fashion and custom ruled. Jeannie Naughton will just have to buck up and wear what society demanded– including mourning clothes.
I did some early research on clothing by reading books on historic fashion of which there are some fine ones. I attended some Civil War reenactments and looked at on-line sites for clothing such as Timeless Stitches, Blockade Runners, and Fall Creek Suttlery. But thanks to my association with San Juan Island National Historical Park I got first hand experience in what to wear and how my Jeannie would dress.
But what about the starch?
A Bit of Starch
Oh, that. Mrs. Hale is always so well versed in these things, but while trying to understand underpinnings, my own experience with petticoats is growing. I have two now for my 1860 schoolmarm outfit, but have been debating the hoop skirt. Recently, I was reminded that for work and regular life, women often wore petticoats that were corded. In order to achieve the bell shape so desired in fashion, the petticoat was starched, providing a stiff underpinning to push the skirt out.
For modern application of starch, re-enactors with Fort Nisqually in Tacoma, WA do the following:
1) Dip the corded petticoat into a plastic tub with liquid starch. Soak well.
2) Remove petticoat from tub and place over a clean garbage can (covered with plastic).
3) Let dry. The can will keep the petticoat’s sides from sticking.
The petticoat will help to create the desired shape.
An interesting thing about the use of starch is that it repelled dirt in a time when you didn’t wash your clothes very often.
Happy writing and research. I will, in the mention, search out a corded petticoat or make it myself. Considerable yardage is apparently needed for that.