brg_admin | Mar 1, 2019 | 0
Local History: Our Town – Our Story: A Woman’s Work is Never Done, Mend on Wednesday
by Ann Koppy, BHSoc Historian
- Wash on Monday.
- Iron on Tuesday.
- Mend on Wednesday.
- Churn on Thursday.
- Clean on Friday.
- Bake on Saturday.
- Rest on Sunday.
Pioneer women set Wednesday aside to mend clothing during the day, in the evening, or whenever they had a spare moment. They had ironed garments and other textiles the day before and knew what needed buttons or patches. After gathering the sewing basket and button jar or box, they began to stitch. Clothes and sheets were repaired many times to make them last as long as possible. Rural families usually had limited access to materials and fabrics, so used them sparingly and more than once. When garments were worn beyond repair, they were saved for quilts, rag rugs, or perhaps curtains. The stockings, shirts, dresses, and mittens they mended had been homemade by hand.
They used a special tool called a darning egg to repair stockings. Shaped like an egg, it was made of wood, porcelain, or other hard material. It held the toe or heel in place and proper shape and provided a firm surface on which to work.
Girls learned to sew at an early age. It was perhaps the most accomplished skill they would acquire and use. Typically, men’s and boy’s pants were made from cotton, twill, corduroy, or wool. Women’s dresses, undergarments, and aprons were made from cotton, muslin, or linen. Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular monthly magazine marketed to women, estimated that it took 10-14 hours to make a single shirt or dress. The tedious work was made easier by the invention of sewing machines in the mid-19th century.
Inventors had tried for decades to improve hand-sewing methods. Most efforts were unsuccessful. In 1846, Elias Howe (1819-1867) received a patent for a machine that used an eye-pointed needle and lockstitch mechanism. Patent infringement litigation and competition prevented its use until 1854. Isaac Singer (1811-1875) subsequently made the first rigid arm machine that used a table, presser foot, and foot treadle. By 1860, his company was the world’s largest producer of sewing machines. Maine housewife Helen Blanchard came up with the first zigzag machine in 1872. Her improvement sealed seams better and made the garment sturdier.
Many rural women continued to sew by hand, however. In the 1860s, the average cost for a sewing machine was about $100, about ¼ of a typical household’s annual income. Town residents often pooled their money and bought a single machine for community use. Another laborsaving device, the electric sewing machine for home use, became available in 1889. Earlier versions were used for industrial purposes in garment factories.
Paper patterns for the home sewer appeared about this same time. Women in any area of the country could order from a pattern catalog and make fashionable clothing and accessories like those worn by their contemporaries in New York and other eastern big cities. The sewing machine’s efficiency provided opportunities for women to earn an income, as well. Housewives took in sewing and young single women contributed to the family’s earnings, making about $1.00 per day. Federal census records from 1900 list two dressmakers in Beaverton: 19-year old Gladys Kelly and 21-year old Abbie Billstine. We are left to wonder if these young women used their skills throughout their lives..
Interested in more local history? Visit www.historicbeaverton.org