Clothing

During the journey West, the travelers would have to stop a whole day in order to wash their clothes. They would have to have a day of good weather and find decent water and a supply of fuel to do so. Eliza McAuley, and Martha Read both mention having to thus halt. Washing a group's clothes meant adding hot water and soft soap to a kettle and starting it to boil. The clothes were then added and stirred 'round with a paddle. They could then be removed and rubbed or pounded before being rinsed again and again then spread on bushes, fences, or the like to dry. Fabrics faded quickly and with no bleach, a piece of blue calico could be added to the wash to "blue" white clothes" (Dick, 238).

Soap was a chore for the homemaker, not a commodity to be acquired from the local store. To make soap, ashes were saved up and soaked with water. The liquid which drained through had to be thick enough to hold up an egg. This material was combined with accumulated meat scraps and drippings in a kettle and boiled for several hours. This was soft soap. Hard soap could be made by adding salt and boiling more, then molding (Dick, 239).

Hard water was a force to be reckoned with in frontier America. It had the effects of roughening the skin, and was particularly harsh to clothing fibers. Better water was to be had by catching rain -- thus, the appearance of the rain barrel as an icon of the West.

Men's dress trousers could thriftily be made from feed sacks, but their work trousers were made of duck or denim. A homespun suit would last a man a year. Women wore the frontier constant -- calico. At 5-8 cents a yard they could afford to clothe themselves adequately with two dresses (a woman's wardrobe for one year) and if they had some extra money they stitched themselves more stylish creations with full, ruffled skirts. Bodices were high-necked and long-sleeved. Hats, for women, at least, were rare. The sunbonnet was most common.

Emily French was a working woman who frequently did washing for other women and describes some of the process. Christiana Tillson, apparently somewhat of an Eastern fashion plate, reports on the traumatic experience of being without her Winter wardrobe as well as outfitting of her neighbors and servant girls. Eliza McAuley refers to the "bloomer costume" or "Reform dress" which was so much of the talk of the time. This outfit consisted of a standard bodice or shirtwaist and a scandalously short skirt (at the knee). Under the skirt were bloomers which were a fuller version of pantalets and intended for wear as outer garments. This dress was promoted by women's rights activists of the time because it was more freeing -- allowing the wearer to partake of activities formerly prohibited because of the inconvenience of a large, long skirt.



"Our clothing is light and durable. My sister and I wear short dresses and bloomers and our foot gear includes a pair of light calf-skin topboots for wading through mud and sand."

"Monday, July 26th. Wash day."

"Tuesday, July 27th. Ironing and baking today."

Eliza Ann McAuley


"Mon. May 31. Laid by to wash."

Martha S. Read


"which together with my winter clothing and, indeed, all that I had excepting what I brought with me on my seven weeks' trip over the mountains, we had shipped in October, two weeks before we started ourselves, and expected to find them at St. Louis on our arrival there. But what was our disappointment at finding that the boat on which they had been shipped from New Orleans had not been heard from. So I not only found myself lacking in household goods, but minus my winter garments. So I had bought for myself a brown bombazine dress, and some blue and white domestic check to make a morning dress for my log establishment, and with the help and advice of the Misses Paddock, had fitted and made them."

"Being few--either male or female--who wore any out-door garments, the women wore their bonnets in the house and added nothing on going out but a little shawl that came about to the bottom of the waist, said waist being a very short one. I suppose, living as they did in cabins without windows and keeping both doors open for the admittance of light--windows and out of doors was all the same to them in respect to warmth--and having come from a more southern climate, they had never learned the necessity of protection from the cold."

"her wardrobe consisted, besides shoes and stockings, of a green flannel petticoat, a calico dress, a white dress, and a checked apron, in all four pieces. When she came from St. Louis she wore her white dress over her calico, which was not in good taste; the stripes and figures of the calico showing unbecomingly though the thin texture of the white cambric; but when, about once a week, she would drop her calico to be washed, and put on her white over her green skirt, with no lining above her waist but what nature had provided, and then to see her sit down on the floor with her lap full of potatoes and turnips and peal [sic] them for cooking, with the green shading of her dress below and the pinkie development above, she presented a picture I cannot describe."

"She had on a German blue calico dress, with a handkerchief tied over her head and another hung on her arm, in which was her wardrobe."

Christiana Holmes Tillson

"I went to work at 8, had my white clothes on the line before dinner."

"Ollie came in time to hang up some of the colored clothes. Sewed some on the machine for Mrs. Oaks."

"I went to Baltzells to wash. it is cold. She had the water on, so I shall be allowed to wash. Oh such work, and such a lot of dirty & old clothes not scarcely fit to wash, she not able to buy others. I got them ready for the line, the wind so hard, yet I managed to hang all out. The tub frozen full of water, I worked at 2 hours before I could get enough of it out so I could put the clothes in. I washed an Old coat, then cleaned up so to Iron."

Emily French