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( Originally Published 1963 )
From the first venturesome colonists to the last great waves of migrants in the late nineteenth century, a bundle of personal possessions was all that many persons were able to bring with them to America. It was not until they found a place to settle down and earn a living, perhaps to establish a farm or a business, that they began to own more material things. Yet personal possessions remained important.
Anyone who has ever had to clear out a house in which a family has lived for fifty years or more knows that odd and unexpected things are certain to be found. "Why did she save this?" and "What on earth will I do with that?" are questions to which there are no answers.
Both questions are superfluous when it comes to old clothing. "Old" does not mean necessarily the bustles and bonnets worn a century ago. It can mean clothes worn in 1910, 1915, and even the 1920's. For some reason or other, most antique dealers are eager to buy clothing that was fashionable during any decade from the 1920's back through the nineteenth century. Women's and children's clothing is easiest to dispose of, but the stovepipe hats, vests, and other sartorial items favored by Victorian gentlemen disappear too-and bring some cash money. Tucked in the bottom of some chest are bound to be some hand-stitched and embroidered baby clothes, but for all their sentiment, these are less redeemable.
It is well to look over clothing that has been saved for many years. Furs are less likely to be worth money now, for the skins have a way of drying out and becoming too brittle to be handled and made into something more up-to-date. (This can be true of a beaver muff or fox neckpiece only thirty-five years old.) However, taking time to go through a closet or trunkful of clothes may bring to light an evening dress circa 1912 or a ball gown of the 1890's and all its accessories. The attention of possible buyers certainly should be called to a costume with several pieces, even a suit with the blouse and the hat that was worn with it on the street. Bridal dresses, whether a simple apple-green silk one with dainty white lace collar and cuffs or an elaborate one of Paris muslin or peau de soie with a train and yards of fine lace trimming, are certain to find buyers.
Look through trunks and chests of clothing for shawls and laces, miser's purses and calling card cases, parasols and umbrellas (the handles of the latter are the most valuable part and appeal to collectors). Who knows, you might even find, tucked down among the hemstitched and lace-ruffled petticoats, a buskboard-a stiff wood or whalebone board worn by a woman to make her figure flat in front. Calling card cases are small and slim, and fold over either once or twice. Many of them were covered with silk, but ivory, tortoiseshell, papier-mache, or silver were not uncommon.
Many kinds of purses may still be found. Most interesting and one of the oldest types is a miser's purse. This was crocheted or knitted, with an opening in the middle and rings to keep the contents in either end secure. A miser's purse 12 inches long was carried in the hand, and sometimes they were long enough to be carried over the arm. On the other hand, men carried much shorter and narrower ones in their pockets. Those carried by ladies often were embroidered or had tiny beads crocheted in a pattern along their length. They also might be finished with bead fringe at either end.
Any dealer or other buyer of period clothing and accessories should be interested in combs, barrettes, and large, ornamental hairpins. Sometimes these were merely shell or horn; then again they were silver or were ornamented with silver or gold, and for special occasions, with semiprecious stones such as rose quartz and turquoise.
A complete outfit of lady's or gentleman's clothing, not necessarily made expressly for a wedding, may be of interest to a restoration or museum in your state or county. Since such organizations usually are non-profit ones, they are more interested in suitable gifts than in purchases, and most of them reserve the right to decide what is suitable for their displays. The prestige of having some of their ancestors' clothing and accessories on permanent display will offset the lack of any financial gain for many persons. Less historic clothing and accessories may be sold for cash, either to antique or second-hand dealers.
Shawls were an essential article of dress for ladies until the early years of the twentieth century. Shawls were not only needed indoors before the days of central heating but also were worn on the street. Solid-color or plaid woolen ones also were worn by men as they walked about the town and cities on their business during the 1800's.
The word "shawl" is of Persian origin and refers to a large square or oblong article of dress that has appeared in many forms and under different names all over the world. Pre-eminent among the shawls worn by American women were those known as Kashmir and Paisley.
An India or Kashmir shawl was a prized possession of many ladies during the 1800's. Such shawls were brought to this country as early as the 1780's, and no one could estimate how many came into United States ports on clipper ships. All of these shawls made in India are noted for glowing and enduring colors and intricate patterns. They were made from a fine, soft, short under-wool found on the shawl goat, and the finest of all came from the goats in Kashmir.
The "cone" pattern dominated the elaborate design of most Kashmir shawls and of Indian textiles generally. The shawls were woven on hand looms, sometimes in one piece but more often in small sections that were sewn together so precisely the seams are almost impossible to detect. Another type of Kashmir shawl had an intricate pattern embroidered over the plain woolen background.
Paisley shawls were machine-woven in Scotland in imitation of Kashmir shawls. A Scotch textile manufacturer by the name of Paterson first succeeded in copying the pattern of the treasured shawls from Kashmir shortly after 1800. The pattern was multihued, but black and white, red, yellow, or some other one color predominated. Shawls have not been woven in Paisley, Scotland, for years, and nineteenthcentury ones of fine wool are highly prized.
Beautiful shawls of silk with silk embroidery were brought from China during the 1870's. Embroidered silk shawls always have been a favorite in Spain. The Spanish shawls invariably were edged with long silk fringe. The typical floral patterns were embroidered either on silk or silk net in gay color combinations or in black on black for mourning wear.
Small shawls of silk or wool were worn over the head upon occasion. The mantilla, usually of lace and meant to be a head covering that falls down over the shoulders, has been worn in Spain and the Spanish colonies as well as in Genoa, Italy, for centuries. Comparatively few old family trunks except those in California, the Southwest, Mexico, and possibly Florida are likely to yield a lace mantilla unless a sea-going captain brought one home to his wife. However, it is a rare family whose female members did not own some good lace.
Real lace, handmade, was used for many things other than wedding veils. Fortunate indeed is the person who finds a Mechlin, rose point, or Brussels lace wedding veil first worn by a bride in the 1700's or 1800's. During the 1800's, good lace was used on the caps generally worn by grown women indoors, on fichus, collars, some aprons, and handkerchiefs. Battenberg lace, for example, might edge a handkerchief or set off a luncheon set or bureau scarf. Dainty, fine lace also was essential on christening robes.
It would be a pity to cut into a lace bertha (a large, shaped collar) made during the nineteenth century. If it cannot be used as is, by all means sell it. Handmade laces common during the 1800's have all but disappeared. Actually, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, lacemaking was developed to its highest art in Belgium during the 1700's. During that century and the next one, linen thread was the basis for a great many kinds of lace. Cotton, silk, gold or silver, and mohair threads, also aloe fiber, were used to some extent.
Mechlin, one of the famous Belgian laces, is a bobbin lace. It can be distinguished from other famous bobbin laces such as Binche and Valenciennes by the cordonnet, a flat silky thread that outlines the pattern. Typically, the pattern is floral, the border a shallow scallop or a slight wave. Mechlin lace, even in the 1700's, was costly. The same type of lace made in Italy was called Vermicelli. Not all kinds of lace were made in all countries, but from Italy to Ireland each country was noted for at least one type until the early years of the twentieth century.
Incidentally, the lace made in Ireland, which is correctly known as Irish crochet lace, imitates some of the much older Venetian and other Italian laces. The roses are one of the things that distinguish this Irish lace from others. Each rose, leaf, and other motif was hooked separately and then chainstitched in place on the pattern of the lace. This is a slow method of producing crocheted work but a much faster method of lacemaking than the ancient bobbin and needle methods. Irish crochet lace became popular about 1850 and continued to be so until quite recently. Although it is such a late addition to handmade laces, this Irish crochet type should not be disdained. Who knows when it may again become the height of fashion?