September 2, 2013

Back to School Clothes for Rebecca Jane

People often wonder about the aesthetics of Quaker quilts.  Why do some appear to adhere to a tenet of simplicity and prescriptions for plainness, while others are almost a riot of color and complicated design?  While we continue to speculate what influenced historical Quaker quilt makers, we find it interesting to detour from quilts and learn one Quaker girl's opinions on the fashions of her day.  Her outlook reflects her life as a country girl attending school outside of Philadelphia in the 1830s.

Rebecca Jane Walker was born in 1815.  She was the daughter of Quakers, Isaac and Susannah Talbott Walker of Waterford, Virginia.  (Images of Susannah Talbott Walker appear in our posts of September 9, 2012 and June 1, 2013.)  Rebecca Jane exchanged several letters with family members during her stays at two different boarding schools in Pennsylvania.  Historian Bronwen Souders kindly shared her annotated transcriptions of these privately held letters.  Excerpts are reproduced here with permission.

Abolitionist Emmor Kimber founded and ran the boarding school (known as the Kimberton Boarding School by 1830) that Rebecca Jane attended at the start of her correspondence.  The school was closed in the late 1840s when parents discovered he was also using the building to aid escaping slaves.

Painting by Kimberton artist John Pierce (1900-1970) as the town was thought to be
in 1834.  Kimberton Boarding School is seen at the top middle.  Courtesy of Kimberton Inn.
Rebecca, age 15, noted many details in her first letter from Kimberton addressed to her mother and grandmother, postmarked 8 May 1830.  (Rebecca Jane's nineteenth-century punctuation, grammar, and spelling are retained here, as transcribed by Souders.)  Although homesick, she reported "I know I shall have to stay there I will think it is for my own good [...] we sew on seventh days after we are questioned in every thing about siphering [sic] Botany history and many other things."
She almost always concluded her letters by extending affection to her other family members, including her seven-years-younger sister, Mary Elizabeth (seen below as a young woman).
Mary Elizabeth Walker Williams (1822-1875).  Courtesy of Theodore Robare.
On the third page of this letter Rebecca wrote, "I dressed the evening in what they/thee[?] told me [...]I washed and put on clean clothes so the girls dress as if they were at home when I went to meeting.  I put on my black cape and ple[a]ted ruffle black silk apron."
Her letters frequently mention clothing.  From Kimberton, 10 Mo 19th, 1830, she implored "if thee makes my dresses, line the sle[e]ves and make them as large as father is willing."
Ferdinand Geor Waldmuller, Die Familie des Notars Dr. Josef August Eltz, 1835
 showing fashionable sleeves of the times.  Collection of
Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
11 Mo 14, 1830, Rebecca Jane wrote to her parents, "Mother I have not made up my mind whether I will make my frocks myself.  I have to mend a great deal."  She further explained, "I have got holes in both of my calicoes [sic] got in the summer All of the girls are going to wear worsted."
Rebecca apparently found some time to sew for herself.  On 12 Mo 12th, 1830, in a letter to her grandmother Rebecca Hirst Talbott Moore, "I have finished my worsted apron all to the hooks and eyes."
Two years later on 10 Mo 14th, 1832, a more worldly Rebecca Jane wrote from West Chester Boarding School to her mother: "about my clothes.  I intend to get two gingham aprons and some muslin for capes with that money in the first place for I have had no new capes of any kind since I have been here and I begin to need some.  And I should like to [have?] some other new clothes which I expect the[e] will send."
She later continues, "I should like to look pretty smart among the rest for I think there is something in your dress that makes you popular here, though I think it a very foolish practice [...] And please mother send me a nice little mareno shall [shawl] dress for I need one [...] Please send good full paterns [sic] for my dresses and not light colour no more little dotted calico please.  I think thee never heard such talk about it, the dress I had, I want my dresses made here, and if the[e] sends my dark gingham please make it short in the waisted [?] And tighter in the body, and it will be most too long in the skirt for this place and if it is made shorter in the waist it will just fit ..."
As our readers return their children to school, we hope to offer comfort in that some things never change.
We are grateful to Bronwen Souders who so generously shared her transcriptions.  All excerpts reproduced with permission, courtesy of the Waterford Foundation Local History Collection, Waterford, Virginia, from Lewis Leigh Jr.
Thank you to the Kimberton Inn for permission to reproduce the painting by John Pierce.  It now hangs in the lobby of their establishment.  See
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.

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