Friday, July 14, 2017

Clothing on the Prairie in the Nineteenth Century

As families traveled West in covered wagons, women brought their current fashions with them safely stored in trunks. Thus women's clothing on the prairie varied with styles from the East and Europe blending with those of pioneer women. Dresses were out-of-style and made over to try to stay current with the trends seen in magazines and fashion plates.
Material was scarce so no scrap was wasted. Thus the patchwork quilt that is so much a part of our American heritage. When the seat of a skirt became shiny with wear, the panel was removed or turned so that the shiny surface wouldn't be so obvious. Or, when worn beyond repair, remnants were removed to make clothing for the children.

The image above is of my great-great grandmother, Lavinia Ann, born December 15, 1853. Lavinia's mother, Tennessee Caledonia, was full blood Cherokee. I love the name and plan to use it in a story one day soon. The dress Lavinia is wearing looks to be black serge which was popular and serviceable at the time. I imagine it was very hot. It would have been worn to church, funerals, and on special occasions.
During 1840-65 when skirts were full, it took ten yards of the wider bolt calico fabric or fourteen yards of silk to make a dress. That was a lot of fabric so women were lucky if they got two new dresses a year. They were reserved for special occasions and the old ones relegated to everyday use.

In the early 1850's bloomers, called knickerbockers by some were worn by a few, mostly women traveling. The bloomers reached just to the top of the boots and a knee length skirt was worn over them. For women with active lives on the prairie, they were useful attire but the style didn't hang around long. Split or riding skirts did, however.
Mother Hubbard dresses were popular in the 1880s. They had rounded or fitted necklines with flowing skirts that caught in the breeze scaring horses and mules causing them to bolt. Men insisted while in town women wear belts to hold them in at the waist.
This picture is of my grandmother, Martha Comfort Pyburn Riley. She was in her thirties when she left Tennessee to visit cousins in Texas. There she met my grandfather, fell in love with his young son, and married Grandpa to give my uncle a mother. My mother, one of the middle children, was born in 1923 so I assume this photo was taken in the early 1900s. This was probably her one good dress.

Until around the 1840s foodstuffs, as well as animal feed, were packed in boxes, barrels, and crates which made it hard for a farmer without a wagon to get from the store to home. When the sewing machine was invented, double lock stitching made it possible to sew fabric secure enough to keep from spilling. Bags of flour, feed, etc. could be loaded on a horse.

The first feed sacks were made of heavy white canvas printed with the name of the flour or other product. The farmer could bring empty bags back to be refilled. When mills in America began producing inexpensive cotton fabrics in the later 1800s, these cheaper fabrics were used.

Not as durable, they weren’t refillable so women used them for quilt pieces and to make dish towels, curtains, pillowcases, sheets, and other items for the home. The manufacturer’s name was stamped on the sack in vegetable dye so the homemaker could remove it, often a difficult chore, and return it to pristine whiteness. Humorous stories about garments made with the stamp remaining abound.

Starting in the 1920s, feed companies in an effort to help those suffering during the depression, started storing feed, seeds, and grain in recyclable print fabric. Grandma Riley saved the sacks that chicken feed came in and used them to make her clothes. Since the print was different on each bag, the lengths were saved until there was enough matching material to make a dress. She also gave them to her granddaughters and nothing made me prouder than to wear a feed sack dress. Back then flour sacks made dish towels, were used to strain milk, and cover food to keep off the flies. Our ancestors knew how to avoid waste.

This was my very favorite feed sack dress. It was floral in green yellow and orange. Of course it had to be starched and ironed and I wore an Alice Lon petticoat with it. My Aunt Jewell made all of my clothes, including the petticoats, and I loved everyone.

Thank you for stopping by. Did you wear any feed sack clothes? If so, share which were your favorites.

Happy Reading and Writing!


  1. Fascinating, Linda! And it brings back memories of feed sack dresses. I was born in a one lane Texas "community", not a town, but at the time it had a feed store, which always served as the post office, and one gasoline pump for anyone lucky enough to own an automobile.
    Mother saved feed sacks, which I thought were flour sacks. These were pretty prints, and having two little girls she dressed alike, she had to have enough for identical dresses. One time, I recall, we had the same print...but the colors were different. Mine--tiny blue flowers, and my sisters', tiny yellow flowers.
    We had a blind uncle and we fought to sit on his lap..he managed to have one on each knee. A favorite game was to ask him what color our dresses were. He'd feel and think and finally chance of getting it right. We were thrilled--thinking he at least could see the color of our dresses.
    I love your photos. What treasures those are. I and my two sisters have carefully saved every vintage photograph and had many copied by the photoshop man to look vintage...wonderful job he did on those. I adore them...and I do study their clothing.
    Thanks for such a wonderful, nostalgic post.

  2. They very well may have been flour sacks, Celia. Did you all have chickens she would have bought feed for? Though you're town was small, I bet it was fascinating with everyone knowing all the people. Love the story about blue and yellow flowers and the one about your uncle. Oh those wonderful memories.

  3. I remember my grandmother talking about using feed sacks for clothing, and just about everything else. People were so practical then. Can you imagine a millennial to wear a shirt or dress made from a feed or flour sack? They'd probably sooner burn at the stake or attend a frog gigging contest.
    How wonderful it must be to this historical painting of your great-great grandmother. It must be a family treasure.
    Great blog, Linda.

    1. I'd still wear feed sacks if I wore dresses. I loved the prints. They were practical. I can remember my mother-in-law washing and saving tin foil to reuse. Yes,, I'm proud of the photos. My cousin has the large one of the top picture, but I have copies.

  4. Linda, I didn't wear them, but then I grew up in town. My mother wore them. I love photos and paintings of ancestors, don't you? I collect as many as possible.

    1. Yes, I do. We have 2 walls of ancestors and now I'm trying to decide how too give the to someone in the family who will cherish them and pass them down.


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