A Working Length

***Incomplete Thoughts Post – See Here***

If you catch my comments on various FB group threads, you will know I have a bit of an obsession with a series of letters in Moore’s Rural New Yorker discussing women’s in-house working attire and related rural articles or columns. Even though the focus of my impressions currently are that of a women business owner, this has captivated my attention. I may be able to use it in my reworking of a straw sewing impression, I also may not. Let’s face it, domestic cleaning work is not my strong point in any century.

We know that (some) mill workers kept shorter skirts.

We know (some) fisher women kept shorter skirts.

We know (some) washer women kept shorter skirts.

Women employed as maids and house keepers, who were photographed in the occupation, show shorter skirts. Here is a house keeper from 1864. Not only is her skirt shorter, those may actually be pants underneath.

What about women working in their own homes? Why do we interpret these activities with full length or just above the foot length skirts? What skirt lengths did the women of the latter 1850s and early 1860s actually wear when they laboured about the house? What skirt supports did they use? What techniques did they use for safety?

The letters/discussion in the Rural NYer make me think it wasn’t cut and dry, that there was quite a bit of variation in what women did and why.

How many times a day do we go up stairs and down cellar, each time carrying half of what we otherwise could if we had not to carry our dress in one hand; and even then one will step on the dress sometimes, and then the ugly rent must be mended. It may do for those who have nothing else to do to have the care and carry their swaddling clothes or hire others to do it, but for us, – the working bees of this world – away with it; it is nothing but slavery to fashion as ancient as the Heather Mythology, of more ancient still for what I know. (Moore’s Rural New Yorker, April 30, 1864.)

Now, just take some of those long dresses that have become faded at the bottom and in front, take out the front breadths, leaving about five, tear off the bottom leaving the skirt long enough to come half way from the knees to ankle joints, use the parts taken out for pants, prepare skirts to suit the length of the dress, running “shurs” in one for three or four hoops from the discarded skeleton, and with good thick-soled shoes or bootees you are well, becomingly dressed for any and all kinds of work that may fall to your lot. (Moore’s Rural New Yorker, April 23, 1864.)

I do not advocate short dresses anywhere but at home, at work. At church and on the street, I think long dresses much more becoming, and wear them myself. Short ones are only for work; have you any objections to them there? If you have, I would suggest that you put on long skirts, and wear them for one week, wash, mop, milk, work in the garden, and if necessary help plant corn. If you don’t lay them aside at the end of the week and say ladies, wear short dresses to work in by all means, you have more patience than falls tot helot of most mortals. Stellie. Prarie Home, Mich,. 1864. (Moore’s Rural New Yorker, August 6, 1864.)

william_hemsley_baking_dayHere in William Hemsley’s Baking Day, we see sacque bodice combined with a likely wool skirt. The skirt appears to be higher than the top of her foot as she does bend forward to work the bread. Her sleeves are rolled up.


This card image shows the skirt pulled up and back. The petticoat, not white, is likely mid-calf. Again, this woman is bending forward. Her sleeves are turned up.

Published in: on May 6, 2016 at 7:00 pm  Comments (2)  

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve always found it hard to believe that women who had to “wash, mop, milk, work in the garden, and if necessary help plant corn”, to say nothing of feed the chickens and haul ashes, would be wearing the long and fashionable hoop skirts. Most women of the period would be living in rural areas and wouldn’t have servants to do these things. Even in town there would often be chickens and cows. Maybe because so few of us come from farming backgrounds, we seem to overlook how most women would be living.

  2. LOL! The quote about “you put on a long skirt and work in it!” made me giggle much. 😀

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