November 15, 2015

"Tell Her Please Be Saving Calico Peices [sic] for Hannah for She is Making a Quilt and We Never Get Calico Here"

With these words, Anna Briggs Bentley asked a family member to remind her mother to save calico pieces for a quilt her daughter was making.  The letter was written 12th mo 14th, 1834 to relatives in Maryland from Green Hill, the Bentley's homestead in Columbiana County, Ohio.

Tile silo - all that remained of Green Hill in 2002.  Photograph by
Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
Anna, her husband Joseph and their six children at the time migrated to Ohio in 1826 from depleted family land near Sandy Spring, Maryland.  They settled near Salem, Ohio, a town founded in 1806 by Quakers Zadok Street and John Stranghan.  Ohio was very much a frontier in 1826 and the Bentleys had to clear land before they could begin farming and raising crops for sale, barter, and to feed their family. Times were particularly difficult, with little or no cash to buy life's necessities.  The Bentleys, like so many new settlers in the area, had to rely, in part, upon the generosity, sharing, and labor of their neighbors and fellow-Quakers to get through the early years at Green Hill.
 
Anna was a prolific letter-writer, corresponding with members of her family whenever she could take time from her continuous child-bearing, illnesses, and household and gardening chores.  Fortunately, her letters have been preserved by the Maryland Historical Society and, edited by Emily Foster, were published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2002 as American Grit, A  Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier.  This remarkable collection of correspondence gives an untarnished view of life on the American frontier in the early 19th century and the hardships endured by early settlers.
 
Anna's letters, themselves, testify to the scarcity of cash and the products one would normally be able to obtain easily in cities farther east.  Paper was a commodity she often lacked and so made efficient use of what little she had, when she had it.  She wrote horizontally across each page as one would normally do, but then turned the page sideways and wrote horizontally across what she had written.  This technique is readable (try it!), conserved paper, and also reduced the cost of postage.  An example of this technique is shown below on a letter in the archives of Haverford College.
 
Portion of a letter from William D. Cope to Henry Cope, October 22, 1826.
From the Cope Evans Family Papers.  Courtesy of Quaker and Special Collections,
Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania.
 
Paper was not the only thing Anna lacked during the early years at Green Hill.  Without sufficient cash income, she constantly struggled to keep her family clothed.  Once they had a small herd of sheep, wool became available to her which she, her neighbors, and her children carded, washed, and spun into yarn for making stockings and knitted items, or delivered to a local fuller who processed it into either woolen cloth or a linen/wool fabric known as linsey-woolsey.
 
Purchased photograph of an unknown girl spinning wool.  Collection of
Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
Much of the family clothing was made from "linsey" as Anna called it.  She wrote on 1st mo 22nd, 1832:  "Thy fears, dear Mother, were too true with regard to our not getting our linsey in time.  It was taken to the fulling mill the week before the freezing cold weather began and there it staid till last 2nd day.  We got the 20 yds fulled for the he part of the family.  I cut out a pair of pantaloons for Jos 2nd day night and finished them, a monstrous pair for our monstrous Aaron, and a pair for Franklin I finished after midnight last night. [. . .]  The linsey is very good.  The other 29 yds for the she folks will be done tomorrow week."  (Foster, 136-137.)
 
The wool and linsey-woolsey cloth, along with flannel made of woolen yarn, formed the basis of the Bentley family wardrobe.  This, their utilitarian clothing, was supplemented by shipments of used clothing and, sometimes, fabric sent to them by their relatives back in Maryland.
 
Anna wrote about one of these shipments during 8th mo 1829.  She described a large box of childrens' clothing as follows:  "There was an excellent black coat that looks like silk, a pr of cinnamon-colored trousers, ditto a very handsome buff waistcoat for Granville, a pair of nice silk stripe drilling, 1 of linnen drilling and one of light stripe pantaloons for Franklin, a waistcoat, 8 shirts, and a nice blue cloth coat with J. Kempton's name in the lining (I don't know how it came there) for Franklin, a pr drilling trousers  and 8 coats and great coat and hat for Thomas, an excellent most new furred hat for Granville, a leghorn for Franklin, a pretty little leghorn which I have trimmed for Aliceanna, a calico frock for Maria, one for Hannah, a gingham for Deborah.  Oh dear, this ain't near all [. . .].  (Foster, 102.)
 
By way of explanation, drilling is defined by Florence M. Montgomery in Textiles in America 1650-1870 as "a heavy linen cloth."  She defines gingham as "a striped cloth woven with multiple-stranded warps and wefts and noted for toughness of texture.  In the West, it was a cloth of pure cotton woven with dyed yarns often in stripes and checks."  Montgomery quotes Thomas Sheraton's Encyclopedia (1804-07) to provide a broad definition of calicos.  "In commerce a sort of cloth resembling linen made of cotton.  The name is taken from that of Calicut, the first place in which the Portuguese landed when they discovered the Indian trade [. . .]  Calicoes are of different kinds, plain, printed, stained, dyed, chintz, muslins, and the like all included under the general denomination of calicoes."  Leghorns were hats made from the straw of an Italian wheat and imported into America from Livorno (a city previously called Leghorn).  They were popular in various styles from the early 1800s but especially during the 1860s.
 
Plate from Godey's Ladies Book showing Godey's Fashions for June 1864. 
 The women are wearing leghorn hats made of straw and variously decorated.
 
On 8th mo 14, 1830, Anna wrote to her sister near Elkton, Maryland.  This letter reveals some of the types of fabric available to those living in Ohio by that time.  She wrote: "What a change there is in the dress of the people here since we came.  Then 1 decent calico and plenty of homemade was sufficient; now there is scarcely an old woman of my acquaintance that could not count 3 nice dresses to my 1.  They have their silks, pongees, bombazets, merinos, while poor me is as contented as any of them when I can put on a clean, whole (ragged and dirty I will not go) calico dress with cape of the same."  (Foster, 173.)
 
A variety of 19th century calico pieces.  Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
 
Montgomery cites a trader in 1807 who wrote that "pongee is a peculiar kind of silk, very strong and wears a great while, that it may be had of all colors and of different qualities."  (Montgomery, 327.)  Bombazet was a worsted cloth of either plain or twill weave finished without glaze.  Merino was cloth woven from the wool of merino sheep.
 
By 1836, calico was being produced in large quantities in America.  Susan W. Greene cites Leander Bishop as saying that by 1836 "the United States printed one hundred and twenty million yards of calicoes.  The Hudson Calico Print Works of Marshall, Carville and Taylor was in a high state of efficiency, having 42 block printers and five printing machines, two of which printed four colors at a time, and three of them three colors.  The machines were all of the best models in England whence they had been recently imported [. . .]."  (Greene, 47.)
 
A variety of calicos in a four-poster child's bed quilt from the 19th century.
Collection of Lynda Salter Chenoweth.
 
 
Anna's 1834 plea for calico pieces for Hannah's quilt seems to relate more to her isolation on the Ohio frontier and her lack of access to both the cash and dry goods needed to obtain it than to its general availability.  Some of the family calico dresses she refers to were existing dresses sent to her by relatives back east to be modified for her use or the use of her daughters.  Calico was, in fact, available - just not easily available to Anna.
 
Sources:
 
Bishop, J. Leander.  A History of American Manufactures 1608-1860.  Philadelphia: Edward Young, 1868.
 
Foster, Emily (ed.).  American Grit, A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
 
Greene, Susan W.  Wearable Prints, 1760-1860, History, Materials, and Mechanics.  Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2014.
 
Montgomery, Florence M.  Textiles in America 1650- 1870 with Foreword by Linda Eaton.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
 
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2015.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 


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