Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

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The Clothes that Make the Colonists

There’s the saying, “it’s the clothes that makes the man”.  Today, we can assume learn a lot about a person from their outfit.  It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure that out.

The same goes with studying history.  There’s a lot to be learned about people judging from the clothes they wore.  However, there is one prominent hitch in this method.  During colonial times, which is the period we are concerned with, fabric is hard to come by.  It takes years of work to make a new petticoat.  Thus, clothes were worn until they could not be worn anymore.  Or, if they were outgrown, they were taken apart so the fabric could be reused.  Few every day outfits were preserved, therefore, for our study.  As Eliabeth Ewing wrote in “Everday Dress”, clothes “were refurbished, altered, given new trimmings of lace, ribbon, frilling, brought to date, eventually cut down to for a smaller member of the family”.  Because of this, museums tend to have only fancy attire (worn maybe twice a year) and baby clothes (too small to be reused and not worn as hard) to exhibit.  The problem with studying the fancy attire is that they are fashion based.  Ewing explained that fashion was used to create a certain kind of image and reap attention.  However, clothes are what is “worn by the man or woman in the street”.  A modern example.  We have fashion trends, such as high-waisted shorts or beanies, but we wouldn’t wear a Versace gown to the mall.

Baby clothes tell us a bit more.  The colonists swaddled their infants, in the hopes of making them grow straight.  Also, the tight swaddling clothes made squirming impossible, turning the child into “a neat manageable bundle that could be hung on a peg on the wall out of harm’s way” (Kidwell & Steele, Dressing the Part).  As they are learning to walk, they would often wear puddings, which were hats made to cushion their heads should they fall.  Children also had leading strings attached to their dresses.  The strings were used for walking lessons and as leashes to grab them if they wandered too far. Both genders wore dresses.  Claudia Kidwell and Valerie Steele wrote:  “The 18th century child was not generally thought of as having a personality, much less a gender”.  Indeed, it was a very big moment when sons graduated to breeches, a time determined by their mothers.

 Luckily, we do have enough information to gain a myriad of insights into the every day outfits of the thirteen colonies.  People in cities could buy clothes from tailors.  However, those living in the countryside, such as our own Chadds and Barns families, relied more on peddlers and travelling salesmen.  As each colony had their own currency, those peddlers and salesmen often operated on a barter system.  Another method of buying clothes is the secondhand market, which really grew by the 17th century.  It was cheap, resourceful, and not only used by the poor.  It became that well-off people would pass on unwanted clothes to their servants, who preferred to sell rather than wear them.  

We also know some things regarding fashion.  Around 1790, simpler clothes were vogue.  Petticoats were very minimal.  Muslin, which are light, were preferred.  Shawls came into fashion.  And men’s formal attire came to be more evocative of country clothes.  Part of that shift in fashion can be attributed to national prejudices.  Fancy attire came to be associated with the outrageous lavishness of the French court under the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Hoping to move away from that association, colonists started to prefer the image of a country gentleman as ideal.  However, around the 1820s, entering into the Victorian Age, fashion became elaborate once more.  “It was gradually becoming fuller-skirted, with puff sleeves reappearing and increasing in size, corsets becoming once again formidable figure-controllers, waists nearing their natural place” (Ewing).  Just like today, fashion is ever changing.  


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Revoking Vows: A Glimpse at Marriage and Divorce in colonial Pennsylvania

“Husbands explained their arguments with logic and patience, and wives attempted to persuade their husbands by good examples and moral certainties, but submitted to their requests if they could not.” 

So wrote Dr. Merril Smith, formerly a history professor at Temple University, regarding marriage expectations during the very first years of American colonization.  However, as ideas began to change and the threat of a war against Mother England loomed, so did approaches to marriage.  

The traditional way held its ground in the face of rapid changes.  Love was seen as a result of years of marriage, not a factor in choosing a spouse.  Husbands must act with love and gentleness towards their wives, but ultimately they were the leaders of families.  Wives should guide their husbands by their virtue and grace, while submitting to the men’s decisions.  Of course, certain societal mores act as inhibitors on the husbands’ power.  Neighbors and family members often became involved when a marriage grew physically abusive, sometimes by interfering directly or acting as witnesses in courts.  For example, neighbor John Lewis once had to restrain John Evans from kicking and beating Evans’s wife, Sarah.  

However, flaws in this traditional approach soon arose.  Since the men were the heads of the family, they had ultimate say over all matters, including management of finances.  However, in poor families, the women often worked as well, leading some wives to want a say in budgets.  Many husbands also wasted money on alcohol, impoverishing his family.  In other cases, it might simply be that the wife could do a better job.  

Aided by revolutionary propaganda, a second viewpoint gained popularity.  The Quakers have always seen marriage as a partnership of equals, and the Revolution encouraged the same thinking.  The choosing of one’s own spouse is a statement against tyranny and a fight for individual liberty.  An advice column in 1774 advised a woman, who found herself having to choose between two suitors, to marry the man she loves, as long as he is financially sufficient.  Here, one sees a growing emphasis on personal feelings, but only as long as he can provide.  It seems that pass a certain threshold, the importance of wealth gave significant ground to affection.  

During the late 18th and early 19th century, both views of marriage often came to head, especially when one spouse holds one mindset and the other believes the other mindset.  In those cases, the two must learn to live together, compromise their values, and work as one despite their competing ways of thinking.  While divorce was available, it was uncommon.  Many, when in an unhappy marriage, either gritted their teeth and bore it or simply abandoned their spouses.  In colonial America, it was much easier for men to desert their wives, as they had more means and were less noticeable traveling alone.  However, some women did manage to find help with family members.  After a wife deserts her husband, he may, as many husbands did, put a notice in the newspapers.  The notice served two functions.  One:  it was a way for him to portray himself as the blameless victim.  Second, it told the world that he no longer had any duties to maintain her.  She had left him.  She chose to give up on his support, both legally and financially.  He was free from any obligations to her.  

Yet many did sue for divorce.  236 women and 131 men filed for divorce before the Supreme Court from 1785 to 1815.  The majority of men (64%) cited adultery as grounds for divorce, no doubt influenced by the Great Awakening’s championship of the ideal “passionless” wife.  The higher rates of wives is surprising since divorce was riskier for women.  There was always the danger that if a woman lost her divorce case, that her husband would either refuse to take her back or mistreat her even more than before the case.  Even if she did win, a woman’s societal status would be diminished greatly by divorce.  She would be an outcast.  She would have less of a chance to remarry.  She would have fewer resources to support herself and any children who may be dependent on her.  Therefore, the bed and board divorce may be a better option for some.  The bed and board divorce provided the wife with alimony, while a full separation would not.  However, it would also inhibit her from remarrying.  

Of course, we still have these issues today in marriage.  Who has the final say on budgeting?  If marriage is a partnership, what happens when the partners can’t agree?  What are the pros and cons of obtaining a divorce?  That’s one advantage of studying history.  You learn that there have been hundreds of men like your husband.  

All information comes from Merril D. Smith’s “Breaking the Bonds” (1991).