Remembering 11/11/18: Red Cross Patterns

The appalling carnage of World War I is often given in statistics; these Red Cross patterns and instructions for volunteers — making hospital gowns, bandages and wound dressings, surgical masks and gowns, etc. — also remind us (and those Red Cross volunteers) of the suffering it caused.

Women’s magazines like Delineator and Ladies’ Home Journal published government information as well as encouraging volunteer work. The patterns above are for operating room personnel.

A surgical gown for doctors and two kinds of pajamas for hospital patients. Delineator, Nov. 1917.Red Cross patterns were available for sewing groups or individual volunteer stitchers.

Operating room gear — like surgical gowns and sterile shoe covers — could be made using regulation Red Cross patterns. Pajamas for patients were also in demand. The “taped” pajama below opens so the injured soldier need not be moved for his wounds to be inspected and dressed.

Red Cross regulation “taped pajamas” for the wounded and socks for injured feet; Ladies Home Journal, Dec. 1917.

Making these garments must have reminded civilians that soldiers were receiving terrible injuries.

Women and children were encouraged to knit Red Cross regulation sweaters, socks, and even “helmets” that kept heads and faces warm.

“Knit Your Bit for the Navy” article, Delineator, August 1917. “Every man in the fleet must be kept warm if we are to win — will you help?”

Delineator, November 1917.

Red Cross volunteers also made:

Not just knitting: List from Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1917. The same information ran in several women’s magazines, but each magazine formatted it differently.

Many women imagined themselves doing “glamorous” war work, like nursing or ambulance driving. (They had no idea of the horror those women faced daily.)

However, “In war more men die from exposure and illness than from wounds. Every hour that you waste, you are throwing away the life of one of our soldiers.” “Don’t say you are too busy to knit — it isn’t true.”

Items to Knit for the Red Cross, LHJ, October 1917.

Initially, there was such an outpouring of knit garments — many totally unsuitable for the Front — that the Red Cross used women’s magazines to explain why regulation colors and instructions had to be imposed.

A poorly knitted or fitted sock could have a serious impact on a soldier. Blisters and foot infections sent many to the hospital. LHJ, Oct. 1917.

The front and back of a knitted “helmet.” LHJ, Oct. 1917.

More disturbing knitting supplied the operating room:

Knitted Wipe for Surgical Use, LHJ, July 1917.

Some volunteers chafed at the Red Cross rules, so regulations had to be explained and justified — repeatedly.

LHJ, October 1917. (Laparotomy is an abdominal surgery procedure.) Sterile dressings needed to be made in supervised rooms, not at home.

LHJ, October 1917. Even a loose thread could cause infection.

Children were also encouraged to knit for soldiers and sailors:

Article recruiting members of the Junior Red Cross, Delineator, November 1917. Even beginning knitters could manage to make mufflers and wristlets.

Junior Red Cross war work suggestions. Delineator, Dec. 1917. “Uncle Sam needs a million sweaters NOW. There are twenty-two million of you [children.] If you work, every soldier under the Stars and Stripes will have his sweater.”

The United States didn’t enter the war until April of 1917. French and British soldiers had been fighting the Germans since August of 1914, and supplies were being exhausted.

LHJ, August 1917.

LHJ, October 1917. All these “boxed” images are from the same article.

The Armistice treaty which concluded “the War to End All Wars” came into force at 11 a.m. Paris time on 11 November 1918 (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”) — Wikipedia.

About 8,500,000 soldiers had died. Over 21 million were wounded.

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Wrap Skirt Pattern 1480, 1927 to 1930s

Butterick skirt 1480 was first illustrated in June, 1927, with a blouse/step-in combination (No. 1493) and a cardigan jacket (No. 1367.) Delineator.

This very simple wrap skirt pattern first appeared in 1927. Surprisingly, it was still being featured — in a much longer version — in December of 1930. It had survived a major change in fashion. There is only one copy in the Commercial Pattern Archive, so I can’t be sure if the pattern was produced in a longer version after 1929, but it is certainly longer in illustrations from 1930.

Buttrick wrap skirt No. 1480 barely covered the knee in summer, 1927.

A 1928 version — still short, can be seen here. A different combination blouse and step-in — copied from Vionnet — appeared in Butterick’s Delineator in 1929. [And it had a zipper!]

The “one-piece wrap-around straight skirt” really is simple, with just four parts: Front belt [the front waistband,] back belt [waistband,] skirt, and an optional pocket. (The dressmaker would need to figure out linings, facings, etc. )

Butterick 1480 pattern from the Commercial Pattern Archive. 1927.

Here is the same wrap skirt illustrated in July 1927 — this time with a sporty striped jacket:

Far right, Butterick skirt 1480 with “coat” 6603 in July 1927. Casual chic!

Upper left: wrap skirt 1480 again. September 1927. These three styles are unmistakably “Twenties.”

This time, skirt 1480 was shown with a jacket-like ; the blouse opening lines up with the flap on the skirt.

By Fall of 1929 the new, longer skirt had been introduced.

Butterick wrap skirt 1480 is shown with overblouse 2802 (still in Twenties’ style) and a flared coat (Butterick 2794.)

The skirt covers the knees completely. (September, 1929.) This coat is about the length that some dresses were just 18 months earlier.

Notice how quickly the longer skirt took hold — there’s a big difference in patterns from September 1929 — above — and October 1929, below:

In October of 1929, skirt 1480 was shown with overblouse tucked in, in the alternate view.

Butterick coat 2847, blouse 2864, and wrap skirt 1480. Delineator, October 1929. Belts are rising. Notice the back view at right.

In 1927, the wrap skirt was described as “mounted on a belt that rests just above the hipbone.” In 1930 it “fits snugly over the hips at a high waistline.” To me, this sounds like two ways of saying the same thing — if the pattern was really much changed, it would have been reissued with a new number.

In her History of the Paper Pattern Industry, Joy Spanabel Emery showed two pattern envelopes of Simplicity 1866 — “first issued in 1946 and reissued in 1947 with a longer skirt. (The fastest and simplest solution was to lengthen existing skirt patterns by three inches.)” [Pg. 164.]

A few months later, by 1930, skirts were well below the knee, and ways to stretch your wardrobe were… creative.

Above: A four piece ensemble made by wearing wrap skirt 1480 with a blouse and jacket, or by wearing it over a dress! The long, waistless top of the dress could be made as an overblouse. (There are four patterns listed: Jacket 2993 (left,) coat 2812 (over her arm) frock or blouse 3002 (center and right, and skirt 1480 (shown three times.)

By Fall of 1930, most traces of the Nineteen Twenties’ look are gone. Skirts are mid-calf; belts approach the natural waist.

Butterick dresses from October 1930. The tunic second from left (3471) is a transitional style, like the tunics [below] that appeared at the end of the Tubular Twenties. Under the 1930 tunic: wrap skirt 1480.

https://witness2fashion.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/three-tunic-blouse-and-slip-costumes-1924-butterick-patterns-5970-5455-5681.jpg?w=500&h=500

Three tunic blouse and costume slip outfits, 1924. Butterick patterns Nos. 5790, 5455, & 5681. A tunic outfit offers more than one hemline, so the eye can choose the length it prefers — old and long, or new and short. 1924.

For more about the 1920’s long-to-short transition, click here.

Yes, that October 1930 tunic was worn over 1920’s wrap skirt 1480. So was this one, from December of 1930.

Left, Butterick tunic blouse 3560 over wrap skirt 1480; right, frock 3548. Delineator, December 1930.

Stylistically, the “Twenties” are over.

Why a wrap skirt should be the choice for wearing under a tunic (or over a dress!) is a mystery to me. But, as seen, easy wrap skirt 1480 survived a fashion earthquake.

P.S. Looking at the tunic dresses of 1924 and 1930 I was shocked to realize how little time elapsed between them. The short-skirted Twenties were short indeed.

 

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Found Online, October 2018

Cover of Delineator magazine, June, 1914. The illustrator is Neysa McMein.

First, a new site for reading vintage magazines; next, a 1969 comic book about sewing classes for girls.

The Hathi Trust (working with Google) has been digitizing and posting vintage magazines, including Delineator, as soon as they fall out of copyright in the U.S.  The Hathi Trust is up to 1922 now. That’s the good news.

You can flip through the magazines (select the two page layout from the icons at the far right) until something catches your eye. You can download pages or more as Pdfs. Some pages are in color.

Niggling details: The quality of the scans is very variable, sometimes overexposed, sometimes with blurry text.

We can’t expect perfection on every page — I feel lucky the pages are there at all.

Bound copies of Delineator. The larger one is from 1920; the smaller format is from 1922. These are the bound magazines in my public library which I use for research.

Before 1921-22, Delineator was a large format magazine, 16 inches high, often with tiny, serif fonts that are hard to read even when I’m holding the original magazine in my hands, and even harder to photograph because the font is thin and low contrast.

I took this full page photo at a very high resolution from the March 1910 Delineator at my public library.This photo gives a fair idea of how hard to read the original is.

If you look at the same page on the Hathi Trust, at least you can magnify it greatly.

I sympathize with how challenging it is to get these resources online at all.

The Hathi Trust digitizes materials from the libraries of member universities. They are bound volumes, usually containing January through June or July through December, so they are cataloged as one book rather than six issues. You may need a little patience to find what you want, although the text of each volume is searchable, which is very convenient. In 1910, Delineator numbered all the pages in a volume sequentially, so that January began with page numbers in the single digits and June reached the 400s. That’s not hard to navigate.

By 1914, (I don’t have the intervening years yet) each issue began with page 1 — which means you have to search for February, March, April, etc., and the “go to page” function only works within one issue at a time — not the whole volume. Tip: just to the right of the “GO” button is an icon for “sections” of the volume. You can figure out when a new “section” begins — i.e., a new month.

Getting the right exposure for an entire page with images and text isn’t easy. Image from Hathi Trust and Google.

Two images of the same cape from Delineator, April 1920, from Hathi Trust and Google. I printed them, scanned them, and adjusted them.

I have successfully downloaded images from the Hathi trust site, printed them, scanned them and used them in this blog — and I now can search for patterns by number (the same pattern often appears more than once, illustrated in different views.) I used this search function for the capes I wrote about recently. I had only photographed the alternate view of cape 2319; I found the other views on Hathi Trust.

“How To” Lessons in Delineator:

Just in: Delineator ran a series of articles on dressmaking and millinery making. For example, in 1910, Delineator Vol. 75, page 241 (and following pages) illustrates and describes the steps for making a Spring hat — from the wire frame to the finished hat. Click here. (There are more milinery lessons in 1910.) A search of 1909 (Vol. 74) will turn up more hat-making instructions. Other issues simply describe the newest hats and show photographs of them…. Like these gravity defying hats from 1905, Vol. 66.

To find more, search for Delineator and the year (e.g. “Delineator 1907”;) then narrow the list by selecting “Journals” from the column at left.

I have been so absorbed in Delineator that I’ve just begun to see what other magazines are available.  Godey’s Lady Magazine for 1832 is there. Frank Leslie’s Ladies’ Magazine is there. Who knows what wonders you may find at Hathi Trust? I’ve added it to my sidebar list of Sites with Great Information,

Today’s second find is from a British site, The House of Mirelle, in Hull, England. It shares a glimpse of a comic book series aimed at teenaged girls in the sixties.

Bunty image from House of Mirelle article; image copyright D.C.Thompson. Please do not copy.

The 1969 Bunty Annual about Sewing Classes for Girls post will be nostalgic for some of us.

“The House of Mirelle was a high end fashion house that existed in the UK city of Hull between 1938 and 1978.” The website archives materials from these glory days of a thriving Hull city center.

Perfectionist sewing teachers probably caused a lot of tears over the years. San Francisco artist Dolores R. Gray has done a series of works using old sewing patterns and mannequins in remarkable ways. She told me there were uncut threads dangling from this one because, when she finished a dress she was really proud of, the only thing her teacher noticed was one uncut thread.

How perfect that the Bunty story was about a girl who really wanted to be an artist!

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Chiquita Banana Costume, 1951

Butterick 5971 suggests making matching mother and daughter Chiquita Banana costumes. Butterick Fashion News flyer, December 1951.

This costume is nostalgic for me. I can still sing the first line of the Chiquita Banana song: “I’m Chiquita Banana and I’ve come to say….” But I had to look up what it was that she said!

You would be gathering and bias-tape-binding yards of ruffles if you opted for a “Chiquita” costume. The “banana” doesn’t seem to come into it.

Text for the Butterick pattern. It was not issued in time for Halloween, but I bet lots of amateur theatricals had “Latin” numbers.

Butterick apparently licensed the rights to call its costume pattern by this name, although it bore very little resemblance to the original, which had a bolero top with ruffled sleeves.

Alternate view and Chiquita brand logo, 1951. Chiquita’s was meant to suggest a basket of fruit — with her stem sticking up through the center.

The Chiquita company still uses a ruffle-clad woman in its logo.

The song first appeared as a radio advertisement in 1944 — and its purpose was to tell people how to recognize a ripe banana, and to remind them not to store bananas in the refrigerator.

“I’m Chiquita banana and I’ve come to say – Bananas have to ripen in a certain way – When they are fleck’d with brown and have a golden hue – Bananas taste the best and are best for you – You can put them in a salad – You can put them in a pie-aye – Any way you want to eat them – It’s impossible to beat them – But, bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator – So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator.” — Chiquita Company Jingle

By 1951, when this pattern was issued, people could see the animated commercial in movie theaters and on TV. The tune was embedded in my brain by the time I was six. The Chiquita Company says, “At its peak, the jingle was played 376 times a day on radio stations across the United States.”

Thanks to YouTube, you can watch the original animated Chiquita ad by clicking here.

Astonishingly, a version of the song with less obviously instructive lyrics became a huge hit, covered by many singers. Here is one such version. Inevitably, the song was linked to Carmen Miranda in the public mind. If you search for a Chiquita banana costume today, you’ll find lots of Carmen Miranda costumes instead. A documentary about her is called Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business. [I just learned that she has been credited with popularizing platform shoes!]

Many internet sources say that Miranda wrote the ad jingle. She didn’t.

According to the Chiquita company’s Jingle page the original ad was the work of three men: “Chiquita Banana” (words and music by Garth Montgomery, Leonard Mackenzie, William Wirges) under license to Chiquita Brands L.L.C. © 1945 Shawnee Press Inc.

Sarah Skwire wrote delightfully on this topic, so I recommend you click here to read her essay on the wildly popular Chiquita Banana song. She is right about the wartime scarcity of bananas; I remember reading a memoir of British writer Evelyn Waugh in which his children watched him eat the first banana they had seen in years. They remembered it because he ate it in front of them and did not share even a bite.

has written about the commercial’s resultant “Latina” stereotyping in her essay “Miss Chiquita Banana: Here to Stay, for Better or Worse.”

All things considered — history-wise — I wouldn’t rush to make a nostalgic Chiquita Banana Halloween costume today — even though it does look much better in this red, yellow, and black version used on the pattern envelope.

Color image from A History of the Paper Pattern Industry by Joy Spanabel Emery. Please do not copy.

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Unusual Capes, 1912 to 1920

Cape by Reville and Rossiter of Hanover Square, London.

Many years ago I encountered this cape with an unusual criss-cross front.

Detail of front of vintage cape.

I was reminded of it by two different Butterick patterns.

1914: Butterick 6975

This one is Butterick cape 6975 from June 1914. Delineator.

Note: I often have to crop images to show details because they would otherwise be too tall to see on a computer screen. Tall hats make it a real challenge. This page was 16 inches high.

Those very tall aigrettes on the hat make it hard to photograph the entire ensemble. [The word “aigrette” is etymologically related to “egret.”]

Let’s hope those are heron feathers and not the endangered snowy egret, or osprey. (Egrets and Herons are members of the same family.)

Here’s a description of Butterick cape 6975:

One pattern included several versions of cape 6975. “The cape may be in any of three outlines….”

1920: Butterick 2319

In 1920, Butterick issued a another cape pattern, even more similar to the vintage cape:

Detail of front of vintage cape.

Butterick cape 2319, Delineator, April 1920.

Two illustrations of Butterick cape 2319 from 1920. Images via Google and the Hathi Trust.

I even found a story illustration showing a young woman wearing a simple criss-cross cape on board a ship.

Story illustration from Delineator, 1920.

Of course, that cape doesn’t really look very good, because the narrow criss-cross front straps conflict with the look of the dress under it. The high-end vintage cape, on the other hand, covers most of any blouse that would be worn under it.

Cream and black cape by Reville and Rossiter of Hanover Square, London.

This very high quality wool cape, which I found in a private collection, was made of tightly woven, creamy white wool, with a black silk lining and black accents. It reminded me of doeskin — but I think it was slightly brushed wool.

Detail of vintage cape fabric, showing damage.

Back of Reville and Rossiter cape. Part of the collar is black.

The cape was probably intended to be worn and kept on, like a suit coat, because it was held in place by ties in back, near the waist. This cape would not be something you casually slipped in and out of during a visit; I think you would want to be standing in front of a mirror as you settled it on your shoulders and then reached behind you — under the cape — to tie the silk ties like apron strings.

The pleated white bands end behind the wearer’s body in black silk ties, which have shattered.

The silk ties, like the lining, were very damaged.

However, there is no problem dating this cape, because it is the British equivalent of couture. The date, 1912, is on the label:

The label in the cape says Reville & Rossiter, (1912) Ltd. Hanover Square W. — a posh London address.

I said this was a very high-end garment;  Reville and Rossiter of Hanover Square also made the custom coronation gown worn by Queen Mary in 1911. (Click the link to see more views and close-ups.)

Back view of Queen Mary’s coronation dress, 1911. The embroidery represented flowers and leaves from England, Ireland, Scotland, and India. Image courtesy of The Royal Collection Trust.

They made this court dress (Click here to see full information and an enlarged image) in the collection of the Victoria and Albert museum, …

Reville & Rossiter made this Court dress with train, worn in September, 1913. Image courtesy of V&A museum.

Detail of bodice on court gown by Reville & Rossiter, 1913. Notice the superb lace and the tassels at the waist. Courtesy of V&A museum.

… and this 1919 evening dress, also at the V & A.

The front of the Reville & Rossiter cape. The black buttons and buttonholes echo the back collar, also black.

I suppose it’s possible that the cross-over front of this designer cape inspired copies, which became available as sewing patterns by 1914 — and the style was copied even more closely in 1920. According to The Royal Collection Trust, “Reville and Rossiter was a London couture house made court dressmaker to Queen Mary. It gained the royal warrant in 1910 and in 1911 designed the queen’s coronation robe. By the 1930s they were no longer in business.” You could say that our vintage cape, made in 1912, was fit for a queen.

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Fashions for Daytime, October 1928

“Clubwoman” in an ad for Quaker Oats cereal, October 1920.

You could make your own version of this coat with a Butterick pattern:

Butterick coat 2243 from Delineator, October 1928. Tweed with  a lynx collar is “the smartest sport coat.”

To wear under it, Butterick offered a range of classic Twenties’ dresses:

Left, a two-piece dress with a bi-color hip band, Butterick 2267. Right, a more complex cut, with pleats falling from a diagonal zig-zag; Butterick 2279.

The collar of the dress on the right becomes a loose scarf — a detail often seen on late Twenties’ dresses.

As usual, these dresses are pleated in front but plain in back. The skirt length is appreciably shorter in this ad:

An ad for Diamond Dyes suggests that your high-school or college-age daughter can wear dyed dresses instead of new ones. Delineator, October 1928.

The school girl’s two-piece dress is inches above the knee and has a dynamic Art Moderne repeated V in front, plus a pleated skirt.

The high-school girl’s skirt exposes her knees completely. 1928. Her belt is two-toned.

I was about to comment that the dress does not look “long out of style,” but dresses for girls were always shorter than dresses for women, so perhaps she did wear it when she was 13 or 14.

Although the picture isn’t really clear, this dress for young women has a vertical zig-zag button placket closing. Butterick 2258. The pleats are cleverly inserted into a point at front and side fronts.

Butterick 2275 is a typical, simple Twenties’ style. The surprise is the neckline, which ties in front and in back. Once again, the skirt part of the dress only has pleats on the front. If you look closely, you can see a vertical line of buttons at the side of the top, just at the hip. This allowed a pull-on dress to be fastened tightly at the hip.

Butterick 2281 and 2245 are day dresses in the normal range of women’s sizes. It looks like pleats were chic in the  Fall of 1928; they go all the way around in dress 2245, right. Delineator, October 1928, p. 121.

Prints and plaids for daytime. The pleats at left are top stitched, but would not be if the fabric was printed velvet. The dress on the right (2245) is probably waistless.

The next dress could be made for size 52:

Butterick 2283: all the interest is in the front.  The pleats are top stitched for several inches. This dress was recommended for large sized women — up to 52 inch bust.

The cuffs echo the band with decorative button at the point. There are no figure flattering diagonal lines in back, however. The two dresses below are also for larger-than-average sizes. Can you figure out why?

Butterick 2227 (left) and 2249 (right.) October 1928.

A closer view of Butterick 2227 and 2249. This modern velvet comes reasonably  close to the printed fabric at left. a description of the dress at right is below.

The thing all three dresses for larger women they have in common is: Surplice (i.e., diagonal) lines.

This simple afternoon dress calls for printed velvet; here is one source. Printed silk rayon would work, too. Rayon is one of the first synthetic fabrics, often used in the Twenties.

A simple afternoon dress, October 1928. Butterick 2253.

October clothes for schoolgirls were very similar to adult clothing:

A coat for girls and a dress to go under it. October 1928. Butterick patterns in Delineator.

Butterick for schoolgirls ages 8 to 15, October 1928. Their knees are not covered at all.

 

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Book Review: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism — Women’s Fight for Change, by Tessa Boase

Note: the accompanying images are not from this book, but much of what I learned, is. Any reflections about parallels with current events are mine, and mine alone. This book made me think.

The millinery and feather trades were a huge international business in 1910. Ad from Delineator.

I’m sorry I took so long to review this book; I loved reading it, and I’ve raved about it to friends, but it is so jam-packed with fascinating information that I was tempted to quote something from every other page — which would not be fair to other readers; it’s too much fun to discover surprising facts for yourself! [Even so, I couldn’t resist sharing a few. My enthusiasm carries me away. A shorter review can be found at The Vintage Traveler 🙂 ]

In her previous book, The Housekeeper’s Tale, Tessa Boase poured through old account books, legal proceedings, letters and diaries, and used her research to unearth the life stories of several women servants over a period of nearly two centuries. I confess that history was the class that bored me the most in high school — although I was a good student, I hated “history.” But history vividly told though the lives of ordinary women — that is fascinating, and suspenseful, reading.

This teenaged girl wears entire bird wings on her hat. Delineator, March 1910. In 1892, 800,000 pairs of wings were imported by one London dealer. [Boase, p. 87]

In Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, the women central to her story are not ordinary — most of them are women who achieved great things: They changed the laws of England in the early twentieth century. And they did it against all odds:

“Right up until the First World War, the idea of bird protection was as laughable to the general population as the concept of female emancipation.” — Boase, p. xiii

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst was the very vocal leader of the movement for women’s suffrage, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU.) Mrs. Etta Lemon was the primary founder of the Society for the Preservation of Birds (SPB,) seeking to prevent the extinction of birds which were being hunted for women’s hat trimmings. Both of them were up against an all-male parliament, male voters, and a public perception that women should stay home and keep their opinions to themselves.

But, surprisingly, the crusading Mrs. Lemon,  — like many of her supporters — was an “Anti:” she was opposed to women getting the vote.

Did you know? In 1913, the Antis had 33,000 members; “the Pankhurst’s WSPU just 2,000.” [Boase, p. 237.]

It’s very hard for a modern woman to identify with Etta Lemon, — and this conflict between two successful, activist women is the paradox that shapes Boase’s book. It twines together two stories about women: the campaign for wildlife conservation and the campaign for voting rights. [The large cast of characters is helpfully listed and described early in the book — a very good idea!]

Wisely, Boase uses the gripping story of working woman Alice Battershall, ” a lowly feather washer,” to plunge us into the very big business of millinery and the feather trade in late Victorian and Edwardian England (and the world.) Alice was tried for the crime of stealing two ostrich plumes from her employer.

The trade in feathers was world wide. Ad for South African ostrich, Delineator, April 1910.

Alice Battershall earned 5 shillings a week — not a living wage even by the sweatshop standards of 1885. Her employer would have sold the feathers for 7 shillings each. Alice sold them to a “fence” for 1 shilling apiece. I had to stop and think about these figures: one ostrich plume was worth more than a week’s wages. Even by selling them to so cheaply, Alice increased her starvation wages by 40% — a powerful temptation.

And ostrich plumes were not the most valuable; ostrich were farmed, and the ostrich didn’t have to be killed for its feathers.

A family of Snowy egrets. Photo By AdA Durden from Jacksonville, USA Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC , via wikipedia.

The bird that faced rapid extinction was the snowy egret. (Milliners called its feathers “Osprey.”) In 1903, a single ounce of Osprey feathers cost almost twice as much as an ounce of gold. [Boase, p.124] But snowy egrets only sported these long, delicate feathers (their nuptial plumage) while mating and raising their young. Egret nestlings need to be fed by both parents over a long period of time; whenever a plume hunter shot and skinned the parent birds, the next generation of snowy egrets died of starvation. When a colony was hunted two or three years in a row, it became extinct.

One famous hunter, David “Egret” Bennett, first wiped out egret colonies in Central America, then moved on to the colonies in Mexico and Baja California. He, too gets a chapter. He was aware that he was driving the species to extinction, but “I have never found any occupation as profitable,” he explained.

[Personally, I see a parallel with the fossil fuel industry today. For me, history — brought to life in Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Hat — keeps informing and illuminating the present.]

Mrs. Lemon and her friends began a campaign against the wearing of osprey; they sent letters to newspapers all over England; they wrote to parish newsletters and to clergymen citing biblical passages in support of their views; they wrote (and spoke) to other women and of course, to members of Parliament. But, while Mrs. Pankhurst was leading demonstrations and being arrested (repeatedly) for advocating votes for women — always while elegantly dressed and wearing hats bedecked with feathers,  the anti-suffrage ladies of the [eventually Royal] Society for the Protection of Birds hired men to carry the placards in their most effective education campaign. And, although Mrs. Lemon actually ran the SPB until she was forced out in 1939, on paper her husband Frank was its “honorary secretary.” She did not assume its leadership — officially — until he died.

Exotic birds, like the bird of paradise, were especially valued. This “Paradise Bird” was sold by Sears.

If you couldn’t afford the real thing, parts of many birds might be combined to make one. Sears catalog, 1910.

The sheer numbers of birds killed and skinned and transported to auction in New York and London boggles the mind. An undercover reporter from the American Ornithologists Union slipped into a plumage sale in London in 1888.

“Here were birds by the shipload,” writes Boase, listing about 7,000 parrots, 1,000 woodpeckers, 14,000 quail, grouse and partridge, 4000 snipes and plovers and other domestic birds like the 7,000 starlings, jays, and magpies. There were 5000 tanagers; hundreds (each) of birds of paradise, gulls, finches, orioles, larks, toucans; and 12,000 hummingbirds from all over the world. [It’s a mercy that my mind simply cannot picture a pile of 12,000 dead hummingbirds.]

Until I read this book I knew very little about Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst; I didn’t realize that she was a widow who had to support herself and her daughters, while trying to maintain the appearance of a respectable and “womanly” woman of the upper classes. Cartoonists often depicted suffragettes as mannish women with ties and cigars or as frustrated spinsters. Mrs. Pankhurst was determined to break that stereotype. As in all things British, social class came into it. She didn’t believe that the exclusively male Members of Parliament, who were middle class by virtue of inheritance and/or wealth, would pay attention to the pleas of working class women. This led to a painful break with her socialist daughter Sylvia, who championed “equal pay for equal work” and an end to the “sweating trades” (e.g., ostrich feather curlers) in 1918. [That was 100 years ago….]

The women who worked in the millinery and feather trades were exploited in wretched, health-destroying working conditions, and often reduced to prostitution during the regularly occurring months when their trades were dormant.

A child might have worked for days to “willow” this plume. Peckham’s ad in Delineator, June 1910.

This is an ostrich plume that has been “willowed.” An ordinary ostrich feather has been made longer, fluffier and more luxurious by having extensions tied to every flue — a job which the small and nimble fingers of children were good at.

“One women and two children might labour for a day and a third on a single ostrich plume — whose preparation required as many as 8,613 knots…. In 1910, this earned them 3 cents….”  — Boase, p. 13.

“Pulmonary tuberculosis was a slow and steady killer of women in the feather trade.” [Boase, p. 13]  Nevertheless, abolishing the trade was a political hot potato: workers often preferred the risk of slow death to unemployment and starvation. (Hunger was already part of their lives.)

[This is another dilemma we face today. Although Boase never mentions these parallels, this book offers plenty of food for thought. Silicosis and  pneumoconiosis kill coal miners, and mesothelioma kills asbestos workers; nevertheless, eliminating these trades means eliminating jobs — a problem in 1910 and in 2018.]

As the new century progressed,  some women — like Etta Lemon; Eliza Phillips; Emily Williamson; Virginia Woolf;  and Winifred, Duchess of Portland — campaigned against the extinction of entire species for hat trimmings.  Mrs Pankhurst, immaculately dressed but debilitated from her frequent protest fasts, saw her supporters’ demonstrations become increasingly violent. Then came World War I, and a great change in women’s lives….

As I have mentioned, Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is history told by a scholar with a novelist’s touch, focusing on the small detail and the personal story to bring its events vividly to life.  And, although the author does not mention their relevance to modern life, I can’t help being stimulated by many of the facts she shares.

Over 100 years ago, American Ornithologist Henry Oldys addressed the U.S. Congress on the topic of wildlife conservation, urging legislation to prevent the extinction of species:

The spirit of the age, was, he said, marked by ignorance, cupidity and supineness — a toxic combination that was steadily exterminating creation. “History will not listen to the plea, ‘It was not my business,’ ” he cried. ‘It will answer: “You were there and could have prevented it; therefore it was your business. You failed to do your duty. The only explanation is that you were corrupt, ignorant, or weak.” ‘ — from Boase, p. 226.

[In the light of my country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and the U.N.’s recent report that irreversible climate change is happening more rapidly than predicted, someone needs to say that to Congress again.]

Nevertheless, I also found hope from the fact that women, working together, can accomplish the near-impossible. Even the story of the troubling Mrs. Lemon gives me hope:

The RSPB began with a letter writing campaign organized by a few Victorian ladies — bird-lovers excluded from all-male ornithological societies because they were women.

“Within six months… this little ‘bird and bonnet’ society [grew] from 1,000 to 5,000 members.” In two years, it had almost 10,000, “most of them women.” [p. 74.] Today, “The RSPB is a behemoth — a charity with 1.2 million members, 200 nature reserves…, 2000 staff and 14,000 volunteers. It has an annual income of 100 million pounds and it wields great political power. Its business today is international nature conservation.” (p. xi.)

Reading that makes me feel a lot better about our chances.

Summary: By focusing her complex story on the lives of individual women, Tessa Boase has turned an extraordinary mass of scholarly research into a memorable and fascinating book, filled with surprises and startling details. I used to think history was boring. Not this one.

The publishers deserve praise, especially for the footnotes (actually endnotes) which are printed in two-column format. They never intrude, but if you want to check a source, they are easy to read without constant page flipping. Full index and bibliography; color plates; and Ms. Boase herself collected the illustrations for the end papers from period magazines. Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

Mrs. Pankhurst wore a purple feather because the Suffragette colors were purple (for freedom and dignity,) white (for purity,) and green (for hope.) Click here to see the (faded) feather that inspired this book.

Tessa Boase blogs at tessaboase.com/blog, where you can see more Edwardian feathered hats in full color (including eyes and beaks….)

Fashion sketch of a chic Parisienne; Delineator, May 1910. She is wearing a glorified chicken.

Four feathered hats. Delineator, February 1910.

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