Clothing of the 1830s

Author: Jane Wheeler, Former Director of Programs

Clothing the family of the 1830s was an important task, and most of the work was the responsibility of the women.

Every stitch of the sewing had to be done by hand; Elias Howe didn't even invent the sewing machine until 1846, and Isaac Singer's version didn't come about until 1850.

Of course, ordinary people didn't have the large wardrobes we expect today. They made do with one outfit for every day, one for Sunday best, and perhaps one other, or parts of another, for seasonal change. Even wealthy people didn't necessarily have lots of clothes, although their money allowed them to purchase ready-made items from the storekeeper, or to hire custom sewing done outside the household, or by a temporary live-in seamstress.

Where a family lived determined to a great extent where and how they obtained their clothing. City and town dwellers usually purchased the fabrics, if not the entire garments, from specialty or general stores. People in rural or remote areas were more likely to undertake the whole process themselves. Still, it was possible for nearly anyone to order nearly anything to be sent to them from a merchant in the next town, or even from a merchant oceans away. It just took a very long time to arrive.

'The Seamstress' by Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff - Image from the Saint Louis Art Museum
'The Seamstress' by Alexander Hugo Bakker Korff - Image from the Saint Louis Art Museum
'Spinning by Firelight' (1894) by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Yale University Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Class of 1913 Fund
'Spinning by Firelight' (1894) by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Yale University Art Gallery, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Class of 1913 Fund

There was a great variety of fabrics available for making clothes in the 1830s. They were all "natural" fabrics; wool and linen were most common, with cotton and silk were scarcer and more expensive. Hundreds of weaves and patterns were available.

A rich selection of colors existed even before synthetic dyes were developed in the late 1850s. These early colors were made from plant parts-leaves, stems and blossoms of woods and meadow flowers; roots, barks, nut hulls and tree galls; berries, fruits, pits and skins; mosses, lichens, and fungi and non-plants, such as insects and shellfish.

Many dye sources were imported from tropical areas, and were sold in general stores. They were widely available to both home dyers and professional dyers. The professional dyers sometimes supplied services even to home spinners and weavers. Really, every combination of home and outside professional endeavor went into the providing of fibers, fabrics, and garments in the 1830s.

Often the whole family helped to produce the cloth used for their clothing, especially if the family were rural or frontier.

Sheep were fed and sheared by the men of the household. Wool cleaning and carding were done by young children. Spinning yarn on the high wheel, dyeing it over the cooking fire, and loom weaving of "homespun" fabric were done by the unmarried daughters and aunts. Mothers, sisters and grannies sewed up trousers, coats and dresses; all the women and young boys and girls knit caps, mittens and stockings. Several sheep could provide enough wool for the needs of the average family each year.

When linen was used, the fiber came from the flax plant, which was grown as a field crop.

A quarter acre of flax plants was enough to clothe the largest family. After harvest, the plants were rotted in water to break down the cellulose in the stalks. Then they were "broken" then scraped or "scutched" with a knife, and "hackled" or across several boards covered with sharp metal teeth to separate and align the fibers for spinning. These processes were difficult work, and required strength and determination. When the fibers were all prepared, they were spun on a low wheel, and then loom woven into linen shirting or sheeting, or table linens. Since the only capital investment in linen fabric was for flax seeds, with all the labor being supplied by the family, it was cheap to produce, and was the cloth most used by poorer families, or those on the frontier. It was also the cheapest fabric to buy.

Sewing Needle

Cotton cloth was readily available, but it was imported from England, or at least New England, and so usually required cash to own.

Cotton was grown in India, where there was plenty of cheap labor to perform the backbreaking field work and then the tedious picking out of the cotton seeds from the harvested cotton bolls.

Spinning, dyeing and weaving of the cotton ~ also hand-done very cheaply in India, or the harvested cotton was shipped to England where the newly developing power machinery could turn it into spun threads and then into woven cloth. England developed a monopoly on cotton and sold it to other countries at great profit.

The early American colonies were forbidden to produce their own cotton fabrics, and were forced to purchase them from English merchants.

Later, after the American Revolution, the growing of cotton and the manufacture of cotton cloth encouraged both the slave population of the southern states and the industrialization of the New England states. But, because cotton cloth production was not a family industry, it was expensive to buy. People who could afford to buy cotton cloth found a nice variety of gaily printed patterns. Cotton fabrics were a favorite gift for men to take home from their travels.

woman in day bonnets

Silk, then as now, was for wealthier people to own. Most silk was imported from China and India. It was relatively scarce and relatively expensive.

Though silkworm culture was experimented with throughout the early days of America, the climates and vegetation were not suitable, and the huge amounts of hand labor required were too expensive for silk production to become established in America.

What kinds of clothing did the families of one hundred fifty years ago make with the fabrics available to them?

For men, everyday clothing consisted of a linen pullover shirt, made with full sleeves, deep buttoned cuffs, a generous collar, and very long tails to tuck into the trousers.

Underwear was not worn, so the tails helped protect the wearer from the scratchy wool of the trousers. The pants had straight, fairly slim legs, and a flap which buttoned to the waistband in front covered pockets on either side of the opening. The width of the flap determined whether the trousers were known as "broadfalls" or "narrowfalls."

A wrapped tie, called a cravat, covered the throat. A vest was always worn, either single or double breasted, with shawl collar, or without any collar, whether or not a coat went over it. It helped to hide the suspenders, or galluses, which held up the trousers. Belts were not used by men at that time.

Several styles of coats were worn, depending on age, occupation and social status. There were tail coats, which were waist length in front, but had thigh-length tails in back. A "frock" coat had a thigh-length narrow or moderately full skirt all around. A "round-about" was cropped off at the waist. Coats were both single and double breasted, and the collars were cut so that the vest showed beneath them. Coats were always fully lined. They were made of wool, linen, or cotton, depending on the owner's finances and the dictates of the weather.

There were overcoats, some with shoulder capes, great capes and capotes with attached hood for cold weather. Many farmers wore heavy wool shirts called waumases, which were said to be warmer and easier to work in than coats. These were especially popular in New England.

The Herald In The Country (1853) William Sidney, Museums At Stony Brook
The Herald In The Country (1853) William Sidney, Museums At Stony Brook
Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride - 1830 - William Sidney, Mount Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride - 1830 - William Sidney, Mount Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Shoes were leather boots of various heights for day wear, and slipper-like dancing shoes were available for gentlemen who needed them. Portraits of the time period show some gentlemen wearing dainty shoes with pointy toes, high arches and elevated heels. Stockings were usually handknit of wool or linen, but machine-knit fine stockings were also available from New England mills through local merchants.

Several hat styles were available - round crowned, wide-brimmed fur felts, higher-crowned "toppers" of beaver fur, with slight flares to the taps, high-crowned, wide-brimmed woven or plaited straw for summer. Silk hats were increasingly popular after 1830, as beaver pelts became scarcer and more expensive.

Gentlemen of financial means often gave expression to their wealth by choosing finer fabrics as well as a larger and more varied wardrobe. They may have had cotton shirts as well as linen, perhaps with ruffles at neck and sleeve. Their vests might have been silk damask or embroidered silk satin, rather than wool or linen. Their boots were of fine leather.

Only wealthier men owned enough shirts to be able to set one or more aside as "night shirts "; they simply wore to bed the one they had been wearing during the day, and then continued to wear it the next day.

Wool knit stocking caps were sometimes worn on the head at night, particularly in coldest winter; bedrooms, especially if they were separate from the primary room, were usually unheated at night.

'Bargaining for a Horse' (c. 1835) by William Sidney Mount - Image from New York Historical Society

Women in the 1830s wore full or ankle length one-piece dresses of wool, silk or cotton.

Simple day dresses for house and farm work opened down the front to the waist, (the better to serve the needs of the nursing infant.) They were pinned closed, or fastened with hooks and eyes closely set. The sleeves were usually long; the fashion of the 1830s had most of the fullness very high early in the decade, lower in the arm as the '30s progressed. Skirts were very full, either pleated or gathered onto the bodice. The waist was slightly higher than natural waistline. Necklines were generally modest, although lower cut was considered appropriate for festive evening or party wear. A fichu, modesty ruffle, or lace was usually worn on lower-cut necklines.

Day dresses had several removable collars and capelets which were worn in layers over the shoulders. These "pelerines" often matched the fabric of the dresses, or were of sheer white linen or cotton. Sometimes they were elaborately embroidered. Day dresses were apt to be made of serviceable dark color – especially winter garments.

Laundering clothing was difficult, and not done casually; it was a full production.

Aprons were always worn to protect the skirt during work, and often dressy aprons were worn whenever a woman was at home, even in the evenings. The aprons were usually linen, though some were made from sturdy fabrics like jean.

Dressy dresses usually opened down the back, and were also closed with hooks and eyes. For summer and party wear, sleeves were shorter. They were still very full, however. All bodice seams were "piped", with narrow cording of matching or contrasting fabric. Hems were deep and faced with heavier fabric to protect them from wear. Bodices were always lined.

Under these garments, women wore shifts, or chemises, of linen or cotton. They were simply made, with short sleeves and necklines which could be gathered up on a drawstring. There was no waistline, but the shift was gathered by the dress worn over it. This piece served as the sole piece of "underwear".

Over the shift a woman wore her "stays." or corsets. These were constructed of heavy cotton, intricately seamed and boned with whalebone to achieve the appropriate body line. In the 1830s this was a high bust, small waist, but not exaggeratedly so, and the waist slightly high.

The construction of the dresses was planned with the stays in mind; the seaming of the garments and the definition afforded by the stays were complementary. Every woman was expected to wear stays, summer and winter. Only the woman without any social pretensions whatsoever would consider herself dressed without stays. No underdrawers were usually worn, however, women did wear at least three petticoats at all times, more when it was cold, or the dress required it. They were usually cotton or linen.

Country women often wore a simple work boot, when they needed to be shod. More fashionable city women wore light weight kid leather slippers, black for every day, but pastel colored to match their party frocks. Some of the shoes had ribbon ties. During this period, the heels were very low. As the dresses were ankle length, the stocking showed. Women's stockings were knit of wool, cotton and linen. Sometimes the stockings were decorated with knit designs along the sides, either in colored threads, or as a pattern stitch. The hose were about knee high, and were either black or white.

woman carrying water pail
Mrs Gregory Reading A Ltr From Mr Gregory Crop
Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton By Gilbert Stuart

The finer the gauge of the yarn, the dressier the stockings were.

There was great interest in fashion, and the nuances of the changing fashions from London, Paris and the eastern cities.

Monthly magazines detailed all the latest modes and materials. Sketches and minute descriptions were written so that the most remote lady could be aware of up-to-the-minute fashion, if she wanted to reflect it in her dress.

Some few ladies of means and ambition no doubt did this; most women were content to be generally current. They remade older dresses to show more modern trends, altering sleeves, waistline heights, hems, replacing pleats with gathers or vice-versa, changing ribbons and trim, trying new pelerines and collars. The cloth had been too dearly obtained to abandon, and too many of their scarce hours had gone into the original stitching to toss aside.

It was not uncommon for a dress to be remodeled a half dozen times, and finally to be entirely re-cut and made into a garment for a child.

The Raymond Children, 1838 By Robert Peckham,Gift Of Edgar William And Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1966, The Metropolitan Museum Of Art

'The Raymond Children', 1838 by Robert Peckham,
Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1966,
- Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Civil War women spies

Some fashion forms endured for many decades.

The cloak or great cape was an example of this. It was the usual outer cover of a woman's dress for a couple of hundred years, with changes coming very slowly. As long as skirts were floor length, the cape was very practical. Some had extra shoulder capes for added warmth and rain protection.

The usual fabric was wool, but silk capes for dress were often made. These were usually lined with wool, as even a summer evening could be cool. Some of the capes had attached hoods. Others were intended to be worn with bonnets.

Women kept their heads modestly covered most of the time. They wore "day caps" of fine linen or cotton, with ruffles around the face, and chin ties. These were even worn under the cape hood, or under the summer straw bonnet or winter quilted bonnet. Ladies of fashion wore elaborately decorated bonnets when they left home: flowers, feathers, lace, ribbons, ruchings and ruffles abounded. For sleeping, many women wore night shifts or night gowns, usually full and straight falling, with long, full sleeves and high neck, of cotton or linen, and a night cap.

Children’s clothes were similar for boys and girls until about the age of six.

Both wore "dresses" of cotton or wool around the house. Occasionally, a boy's dress would be worn over "drawers" to match, which showed beneath the dress. Little girls often wore pantalettes peeking beneath their dresses. The usual child's dress was long or short sleeved to suit the season, with slim sleeves, round or boat-shaped neck and the waist was lightly fitted with a set-in belt. Preferred fabrics were linen and cotton, for ease of care.

By the 1830s, corsets for young children had gone out of style, though there were a few die-hards who insisted on keeping children in stays from infancy, so they would develop straight backs. Most physicians, however, and magazine consultants, argued against this as being too confining, and in fact inhibiting of a strong body. Free exercise of the little muscles was better. For this reason, they advised against swaddling infants, as had long been the custom. Infant garments were long gowns, and babies always wore caps.

As children matured into pre-teen and teen years, their clothing more and more resembled that of adults. Their duties were adult; there was no "teen culture" and no particular fad clothing for youth. Often they wore hand-me-down clothing of their parents, unless the family was very wealthy. It was usual for clothing to be passed down from child to child, even shoes.

A much greater proportion of a family's time, especially the mother's, was spent on producing and caring for clothing than is usual now, even though constant laundering of garments was not done. And, a greater proportion of the family income was spent on clothes in the 1830s than now.