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Ladies of the American Civil War

The ladies during the American Civil War. Visions of Scarlett O’Hara often come to mind for many. Pictures of ladies in the long, glorious gowns of the grand balls bring many women today to wish to live back then and have access to such glorious dresses to galas with gentlemen at our sides. Hollywood has aided in this idealistic view of the antebellum period but the reality of life back then was hardly picturesque. Let us see an example of life back then and decide if that is truly desirable over today.

At this time period, c. 1860, ladies woke, dressed in chemise, under petticoat, drawers, stockings and dress. The well to do could get by in the morning in a morning dress – a robe of sorts. Either outfit was not to be worn for the public but it was find to wear to breakfast. During the morning, if a guest were to arrive to visit, they would be refused, as she was not yet ready to receive company. Times for receiving company or for visiting, in the larger communities, was general well known but there were exceptions. Now, if the lady’s husband was wealthy enough to hire a business manager to run the business in the North or hired an overseer to manage the slaves in the fields of a large cotton planter, for example, the lady could see either of these two men dressed as simply as a dress for these were working men and not gentlemen. Ladies handled the everyday workings on farms and businesses such as ordering supplies, paperwork, etc., all in their husband’s name and the men handled all the major sales and purchases.

‘Morning’ in the 19th century ran until 2 o’clock in the afternoon and then ladies dressed for the day. First off, they wear a cotton chemise – simple off the shoulder shift in white, it has puff sleeves and falls in straight line to their knees. Next are their stockings. Made of cotton, wool or, for the wealthy, imported French silk, stockings come in 3 colors – black, white or the latest color is tan. Black is for daytime (if they go shopping for instance, black will not show dirt) and white for nighttime engagements (balls or dinners). They are held on by garters, designed out of ribbon and a spring-type coil or the latest, elastic, though this will need to be replaced as it looses its hold easily). She can wear pantalets, which are crotch less. Next in line are her shoes – low-heeled boots for day, slippers for evening. Highest heel is 2 inches. Ball slippers are made of the material the dress is made of and often resemble ballet slippers. These last for one soiree, as their fragile materials won’t hold longer.

All this needs to be on before the next piece. The corset. Women wore this piece over a century. For the mid-19th century, it goes from the bust to their hips, a metal busk up the front and pull strings in the back. To size one, take your waist measurement and subtract 4 inches. Laces crisscross in the back to the waist where they are looped to the hole beneath with the next crisscross and tied to stay in bottom hole. Take the laces and make a loop out of the single-sided lacing – these are your ties. You cross them and pull to front. This closes the back 2 to 3 inches and you tie it in front. Hence the back is open 1 to 2 inches. Example: a 26 inch waist corset is 22 inches; laced it reduces the waist to 23 or 24 inches. You don’t require any one to tie you in, unlike what Hollywood shows. Average waist size for a lady is 18-20 inches in a corset – the ‘waspish’ waist that is in style. Ladies are trained to wear corsets from the age of 7, a twill piece that as they age, the metal stays are inserted so by the time they’re 10, it can have up to 20 stays in it. The number depends on the lady. Also, physical exercise like we do today is not encouraged for ladies, they being the fragile beings. Tomboys are even thwarted in their ways by over-protective parents, looking to raise a proper lady. With this, ladies stand straight, can’t bend to put on shoes, can’t truly run or jog and have to limit what they are eating since this squashes your insides, making no room to over-indulge in. Does it cut back on breathing capacity? It can but if fitted correctly, it isn’t hard to wear.

Problem with corsets deals with pregnancies. Ladies didn’t advertise they were pregnant. Pregnancy kept one ‘confined.’ You stayed home upon the baby-bump appearing. Last 3 months to be spent in bed. Without proper birth control, ladies could be constantly pregnant and to stay at home that much would drive anyone to madness. Many continued to wear corsets to hide their condition. They even had gestation corsets – they had tiny slits in the bottom front with mini-lacing. Still it left no room for a baby to grow. Many doctors wrote articles, letters to ladies to not wear corsets during this time. It caused immature births, tiny babies with little chance of survival. The impact was slow to take.

To be in the family way was terrifying since birthing was the major cause of death in women. Up to 50% of the newborns died within their first year, so many diaries even lack a woman saying she’s expecting. Suddenly, she writes about ‘Thomas’, for example, and upon reading, you realize she had a baby boy named Thomas.  If they lived to 1, up to 30% died by age 5. With no vaccines and often times, baby-food was simply table food chewed to mash inside their mother’s mouth, many came down sick and died. So many did not want to be to attached to their newborn as the loss was too heart wrenching.

But back to dressing. After the corset came the under petticoat followed by the cage crinoline (hoops) and an over petticoat. Crinolines came into vogue in the late 1840s to 1850s. After the Empire gowns went out of style, skirts started to expand, soon growing to the bottom width to equal your height, which meant wearing 20-30 under petticoats! First hoops were cone-shaped with a bar down the side to keep the form but that proved a problem if you fell. Then you were a bell that fell, needing assistance to rise, calling in a gentleman to whom it was an honor and a privilege to help. But in that shape, it exposed everything underneath and men were foxes in sheep clothing so the design rapidly changed to spring wire hung by ribbon – more moveable. Hoops and corsets required ladies to sit halfway on a chair. To sit back was uncomfortable. And one never lifted their hoops to run or go up steps. A slight nudge from behind moved the skirts a smidge up to step up a curb and a minuscule lift, to clear the toes, worked for steps. Running was out of the question and so unladylike!

The undergarments are mostly white cotton in the summer but in the cooler months, this could change. Pantalets could be made of flannel or wool; under petticoats flannel, wool or quilted like a bedspread, with many colors, the rage was to wear bright red here; the over petticoat remained white cotton as this smooth the lines of the cage crinoline so as not to be seen once dressed.

Dresses, those large voluminous gowns, were one piece or bodice hooked to the skirt to appear as one. Mostly made of 7 yards of fabric, they gave the perfect gathered skirt and fitted bodice. Collars and cuffs were separate. On laundry day, it was easier to clean those than the dress for that required it to be taken apart – sleeves from bodice, bodice from skirt – and washed separate and hung to dry, individual pieces took quicker. Colored clothes were turned inside out and hung in the shade to dry, protecting the hues, with whites placed in the sun to brighten. Due to the nightmare of this, ladies changed clothes multiple times a day (up to 9 in the summer) so you didn’t have to wash unless necessary. You were covered from your neck to your wrists, even in the summer.

To leave, you needed a hat, coat and gloves. Hats were bonnets or straw hats. Coat could mean shawl in the warmer months. Gloves were mostly kid leather or could be cotton. Lace gloves or mitts were not used. They protected their skin from exposure to the sun. The idea was to have white porcelain skin. To be tan meant you were of the working class. Freckles were flaws. They actually had ointments and scrubs to try and eliminate them. The idea was if you had freckles, you weren’t as beautiful as the flawless white skinned ladies and you’re marriage possibilities were diminished to second-hand choices.

The lovely ball gowns were saved for dances and parties that started later, after 9 pm. These gowns had short sleeves and the bodice went as low as it could go, almost to the nipples without exposing them. Only a lady of ill-repute would wear that before 9 hence the late start. Balls ran till 3 or 4 in the morning, followed by a huge breakfast before home and bed. Ladies weren’t expected to work, therefore these hours didn’t impede on them. Also, at balls, you only danced the opening presentation parade, designed so all could see who wore what, with your husband or intended and only one other dance. Otherwise, you danced with others all night. It was a social outing. Men asked ladies to dance, put their names in her dance card (which she wore dangling from her wrist) and his own. It was up to him to find her for the dance. Afterward he was to return her to where he got her and if that left her alone, he escorted her to her friends or family. If he botched it and didn’t come for her, she could snub him, an act that others followed and he’d be asked to leave all together. Dance stewards often wandered the ball, finding men to dance with ladies who needed a partner. Tiring for the men to be sure. Men also retrieve drinks for ladies, as women were not to cross the dance floor alone. Ever.

While all this sounds fantastical, ladies hardly sat and did nothing at home. Spheres of Domesticity were in place, meaning men went to work and did politics (very damaging for a lady!) and women ran the house, raised the kids, made sure the children went to church, took care of the cleaning, sewing, the sick and injured (in the South, that included the slaves), helped on charities (a huge requirement for ladies of the North) while promoting their husband’s interests. Ladies were not suppose to have any political views and if they did, remained quiet as men, especially in the patriarchal South.

As to education, ladies were taught basic math and English. They were not considered intelligent enough to understand higher math or science at all though cooking itself was a science (most recipes were not written and those that were said for a cake, take a pound of butter, some flour and a dozen eggs and somehow you’d make a chocolate cake! Plus laundry detergent, starch, and soap were all made at home by women – that is chemistry last time I checked). No college was in their future except if they father thought it would make them worth more in marriage, they might be sent to Finishing School to learn French (diplomatic language), the harp and how to arrange dinner parties.

On marriage, lower class ladies could marry at 14, middle to upper class was 20-21. They had coming out balls, dressed in the brightest springtime colors. There were more men in the US than women prior to the War so marriage shouldn’t be hard. The men considered suitable had to be 5-10 years older than them and proven to make money to support a wife and children. If a lady wasn’t married by 23, she was ‘retired’, put ‘on the shelf’, ‘spinster’. Refined to wearing the darker colors of her status – brown, navy, dark green, she was left with few options. Life to live alone was out of the question. Ladies were under a man’s care from daughter to wife. Without marriage, she could be a nanny to on of her siblings or hat boutique sales lady or perhaps teach in the wild west (Kansas). If she married later while working, she was to quit – the man of the house earned the money. Divorce was unheard of and only infidelity (mostly by the wife) could grant it as divorce was damaging to her and the husband’s family names. Reputations were at stake there in a bad marriage, many just lived apart, either by floor or houses, but went out sociably together as a ‘happy’ couple – what went on behind closed doors was no one’s business.

So, tell me, are you sure you want to live back then?

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