Researching Clothing

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.

4) When dry, spritz it with water and iron to smooth out any wrinkles.

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.

8 thoughts on “Researching Clothing

  1. Janet thank you! A fascinating read. The clothing interests me greatly as I am writing about a Scot who immigrates to Canada in 1864. Getting him across Canada into Alberta is difficult at that time in history. And so many inventions on the time line!

  2. Janet, I just got your blog address and am enjoying it. You make the comment, “…surprisingly, fashion and custom ruled.” I have read some interesting works by Pioneer women and found that many (most?) did not want to come, and they insisted on fashion and manners along the journey. The long dresses provided privacy when needed, and the prim hats and aprons were an ‘in your face’ attitude to their menfolk. Could it be that ‘fashion and custom’ was the way those women kept their sanity in a strange and frightening world?
    Looking forward to meeting you at the PNWA Tri-cities meeting.

    • Hi Lenora, So nice for you to drop by. I’ve been researching the mid-19h century for a long time (lots of family history and comments written down) but recently I’ve learned more about clothing in this period from re-enactors at English Camp on San Juan Island and Fort Nisqually in Tacoma . Women didn’t have much choice in whether they wore long dresses. It would have run against societal rules. When some tried to wear bloomers in the 1850s, there was a lot of ridicule. Drawers were a recent addition. Up to then women wore nothing, even though they had some sort of corset type. We can talk about it when I come.

  3. Am still chuckling over what speed reading does to one’s understanding of a blog entry.

    I was quite excited to learn how a petticoat was starched, in order to “achieve the bell shape so desired in fashion”. (One never knows what future fashion dictates will be.) But as a result of my quick skimming, I skipped completely over the words “modern application of starch” and “re-enactors”.

    So I got quite a surprise at step 2 when it says the petticoat should be taken from its soaking in starch and placed “over a clean garbage can (covered with plastic).”

    Clever people who lived in the 19th century, I thought – didn’t know they had plastic!

    • Silly me. My bad. I didn’t have moderation on! Thanks so much for commenting. I’ll be organizing all the e-books that are going out to soldiers and mine to you.

    • The petticoat bit is pretty fun. I”m getting a corded one this summer for my outfit. I do hands-on history workshops in the schools and interpret an 1860s school marm out at English Camp. The plastic part is a new way of doing it. Must have used a barrel or a wooden cage of some sort.

  4. Pingback: Corded Petticoats | be1863

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