In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Historic Clothing Collection

Mid to Late Nineteenth Century

Until the development of fashion publications, people relied on letters from travelling friends, or returning relatives and neighbors for fashion news. By mid-century popular print media offered a regular flow of fashion news and commentary. Godey's Ladies Magazine, founded in 1830, was the most widely circulated fashion magazine. Its competitor, Petersons Magazine, was founded in 1842. These magazines provided a wealth of up to date fashion information, pattern diagrams (to be enlarged), fashion illustrations, and a variety of handiwork, sewing, crochet and knitting projects.

Industrial developments made significant contributions to clothing production and fashion. Patented respectively in 1846 and 1851, chain stitch and lock stitch sewing machines were initially confined to commercial use, making items such as underwear and Civil War uniforms. Machine sewing became feasible due to the Northhampton, Massachusetts Nonotuck Company's 1851 development of a thread that did not break during machine stitching. Ichabod Washburn, also of Massachusetts, developed wire to make sewing machine needles, and spring steel wire for hoop skirts and bustle supports. Improved water and rail transport speeded and increased distribution of raw materials, finished goods—and fashion news—to remote or newly settled areas.

The discovery of chemical dyes and the gradual growth of a chemical dye industry was another significant mid-late nineteenth century development. Extracted from coal tar, the first such dye produced a new mauve or purple color (1856). A new blue called "electric" blue, may be the bright blue seen in Phebe Cole Townsend's crinoline dress. Of the many new colors developed only a small number proved stable (lasting, not fading) and useful for industrial purposes. Use of traditional plant, animal, and mineral based dyes continued for some time while new dye "know how" and the chemical dye industry steadily grew.

Prosperity and the improving standard of living meant more people could afford to participate in fashion. Attention to appearance, the pursuit of manners and other social proprieties were part of the prevalent culture of self-improvement. Women still relied on dressmakers for the most fashionable garments and made simpler versions at home.