"Peggy, Let The Boys Alone" went a popular comic song from mid-nineteenth-century Boston publisher L. Deming.1 A mother's lament, it told how Peggy went off every evening to listen to sweet talk from ne'er-do-wells and play hide-'n-seek in the corn crib. It would not be long before Peggy would "cause your Daddy and I to mourn that you wasn't born a son." What had gotten into this wild new generation? Fashion was one cause of their rapid descent from the pristine morals of their parents. The mother sings:
The reason why ball gowns were called "evening clothes," one joke had it, was because they were "suited for Eve."2 Neither the song nor the joke comport with our usual understanding of mid-nineteenth-century American popular culture. Could such ripald flippancy about dress have been common? Here is a family dialogue on the newly popular hoop skirts, as reported in Harper's Weekly:
[Angelina, the sister]. There's a pretty creature, with the most charming toilet, and face and manners to match, throwing herself, with nonchalant grace, on an inviting lounge after a panting waltz. Well; unfortunately the hoop is a complete circle, and will not allow one fold of her airy drapery to fall around her feet. No; there it stands up, bearing aloft the edge of her garments almost on a level with her own reclining head!"
George [the brother]. "Yes, it is so; and I can assure you, girls, the display afforded to the beholders opposite is interesting beyond description! There's another thing. I know exactly the most popular style of garter only from passing the high stoops at the moment the young ladies happen to be going up and down the numerous steps. Some of them are very steep indeed, you know.
". . . No, I needn't be quiet [to his Aunt]! I only want to caution them [his sisters] to all things in proper order, for there are no longer any 'mysteries of the toilet'; every thing is open to the severest inspection! We see at once the full allowance of trimming, and whether any thing wants mending! Now, there's Mrs. _________. Well, well; don't be cross. I only wish to tell you to be careful that the under-garments do cover you; because the upper ones are so independent that they are no protection at all."3
Another Harper's Weekly column, "The Lounger," published a letter in the December 12, 1857 issue from a Nelly Lancer, who wanted "to know how I am to arrange about my hoops when I waltz. The fact is, that they turnup the bottom of the dress in a frightful way. . . .What with low-necked dresses and hoops, I don't know what we are coming to." "The Lounger" admitted to knowing as much about hoops as the next man. All he could do was second Lancer's wish that "[French Empress] Eugenie would just set a new fashion. . . . We don't know anything about fashion until they send it over from Paris."
Harper's Weekly was, with Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, the most popular magazine in the country with approximately 150,000 subscribers. It was an eminently respectable publication, one that the whole family would read. The same was true of Leslie's which, as we will see, published almost every week, a cartoon detailing the voyeuristic and exhibitionistic possibilities of the latest fashions. Here is a sample.4
Crinoline's sail-like properties inspired endless jests. Consider "An Unexpected Flight," another Leslie's cartoon. So did the hoop skirt's tendency to rise in the back every time its wearer bent forward. Here is the rueful complaint of "Mr. John Smith," an Everyman if ever there were one, in Leslie's.5 He had the acute misfortune to accompany his wife, dressed in her most fashionable hoop, down Broadway:
I was much scandalized once or twice, by the determined manner in which it perked itself into the air when my wife bent down to examine the goods on various counters, giving a full view of all the "interior arrangements," namely, white flannel skirts, worked in "compound scallop," silk stockings, and high-heeled gaiters. Now I don't mean to say that my wife's ankles are not the very perfection of grace and symmetry, but I do mean to say that public opinion has a prejudice in favor of covering that particular portion of feminine loveliness, and consequently I was much shocked at the lawless defiance that the hoops bade to public opinion. But when I ventured to hint as much to Mrs. John Smith, in a modest whisper, she called me "an impertinent little thing," and filled my soul with consternation by the indignant arrows that darted from her eyes.
There were, as Prattle's brother George observed, no secrets of the toilet. What was a delicate, refined young man to do, Harper's Weekly pretended to wonder. Under the rubric, "The Feminine Revelations of Broadway," it recounted that "a modest friend complains that his delicacy is dreadfully shocked, during his daily walks in Broadway, by the free revelations at shop doors and in shop windows of such mysteries of female making-up as no one would venture to disclose by word of mouth, though they are flouted in the eyes and face of every passer-by." He was "painfully put to the blush at every step . . . for the whole of Broadway is festooned with skeleton hoops, inflated crinolines, and expanded petticoats." In his innocent quest for a pair of gloves, he cannot enter a shop "without popping his head (of the impropriety of which he seems duly conscious, as becomes an unmarried man) under a full-blown female skirt, which, hanging from the top of the door, threatens, like a gigantic extinguisher, to catch and envelop his bachelorhood within the mazes of petticoat restraint." The blow was not just to his modesty; "his imagination, he says, has received an irreparable shock, for he had always hoped to admire our belles as beautiful and complete living totalities, while this unabashed disclosure of details so freely reveals the means of the making-up of our fashionable beauties, that he can only view them as artificial figures, ingeniously constructed, like a Chinese puzzle, out of odd pieces."6
He was too "fastidious." Still, should men wait upon ladies in such shops? Here, the magazine suggested, was a proper source of employment for young women. Just "think of the complicated artifices of fashion and the cunning devices to supply the deficiencies of nature. What it must cost female delicacy to reveal to a smirking, bewhiskered French coiffeur [hairdresser] the capillary destitution, and to ask for a front, a braided tail, or a dye? How does a feminine anatomy of fashion venture to ask the masculine shopman for those mountains of skirts and mole-hills of padding by which the dead level of nature is varied with the elevations of art?"
In the cartoon at left, "The Padded Calf -- Veal A La Mode," a startled gentleman, intent on admiring a fashionable young woman's limbs, discovers instead that her calves are "padded," that she has achieved that bewitching curve by using bran. A tear in her stocking "re-veals the real state" of her "understanding." Our gentleman has seen too much. He was supposed to see her legs, not the padding.
Crinoline and hoops were about exhibiting one's limbs. They furnished endless tantilizing glimpses of ankles, however well or poorly turned, of calves, padded or natural, and of thighs, everytime a woman went up or down stairs, bent forward, moved through a doorway, or sat down. The woman in crinoline was necessarily a flirt, a "tilter" in the language of the day. Furthermore, flirting successfully required practice and planning. Consider "A Tilt at the Tilters." Clara and her friend Julia, have rigged up a set of stairs using books, a trunk, and a table. Clara asks: "What's the effect now, Julia dear?" "Charming," her friend assures her. Clara "might even flirt just a little more with safety."
It is important to remember that these "tilts" at "tilters" appeared in family publications. At minstrel shows, far and away the most popular form of entertainment of the age, there was more of the same but with increased candor. "Dinah Crow," Jim's sister, was a staple. Here a white man, in blackface and a dress, would accompany himself on the banjo and offer comic observations on daily life. The blackface meant the performer could speak more bluntly. "Dinah" was not noted for her delicacy of expression. The crossdressing had a comparable effect. Here was a "woman" revealing the secrets of her own sex. If fashionable Broadway belles offended Dinah's sensibilities, then their behavior must truly be outrageous. Yet, if blackface and crossdressing provided a peculiar opportunity for candor, the audience remained eminently respectable. This was a show the whole family would enjoy. Here are excerpts from Dinah's song:
She tried to show "de Broadway gals" a good example by only showing "de ankle, insted ob de calf." But the "Broadway gals" wear "de frock up to de moon," exposing "too much . . . unto de naked eye." New York was "a wicked place . . . for de gals wear false things, and tink it be no sin." They used "white paint and red, and salve for de lips, an a sham bishop behind, an a false pair ob hips." Then they promenaded "all day." For whom did they put on this show? Watching, peeping actually, is "a fellow" whose object is "to see where dat gal ties her garter."
Dinah was not alone in bemoaning the trickery of young women. In "Hard Times," another comic tune, the singer cautions that no one, not the merchant, not the sheriff, and especially not the ladies, is to be trusted. Young men go off to see the pretty girls, he sings. And the "old folks will giggle. . . crying, 'Use him well, Sal, or he'll not come again.'" When the "old folks" encourage flirtatiousness, who speaks for maidenly modesty? Yet, however revealing women's costumes, deceit prevails, No matter "how nice they appear," they have squeezed themselves so tightly into their corsets, "you have to unlace them before they can sneeze." Their real figures "can never be seen for they are hooped like a barrel, with French crinoline."
Corsets were condemned on all sides. Catharine Beecher, for example, author of a Treatise on Domestic Economy which two generations of women used as a manual in homemaking and childraising, blamed the corset for much of the ill health suffered by American women in her best-selling Letters to the People on Health and Happiness, published by Harpers & Bros. in 1856. Her generation of women, Beecher maintained, was markedly more sickly than their mothers and grandmothers, a belief widely shared by her contemporaries. She attributed it to a lack of exercise and to unwise dress, beginning with the corset. "Young women," she wrote, "are generally girt so tight around the body, that the lower part of the lungs, where the air-cells most abound, are rarely used. Abdominal breathing has ceased among probably a majority of American women. The ribs are also girt so tight, in many cases, that even the full inspiration at the top of the lungs is impossible." The result was deformity, followed rapidly by debility. The accompanying illustration made her point:
"A large majority of the mothers and daughters of the nation adopt a style of dress that is exactly calculated to produce disease and deformity.
"In the first place, they dress the upper portion of the body so thin [sic], that the spine and chest are exposed to sudden and severe changes of temperature in passing from warm to cold rooms, and this tends to weaken that portion. Then they accumulate such loads of clothing around the lower parts of the body, as debililtates the spine and pelvic organs by excess of heat. At the same time, they bind the ribs so tight, that there is constant lateral pressure against one side of the spine, tending to produce a curvature that distorts one shoulder and one hip. At the same time the weight of clothing on the hips and abdomen presses down on the most delicate and important organs of life to move them from their proper positions, while pointed bodices, with whalebone pressure, co-operate as a lever in front, to accomplish the same shocking operation. The efforts of the Chinese mother in binding up her child's foot to distortion, is wisdom compared with the murderous folly thus perpetrated or tolerated by thousands of mothers and daughters in this Christian and enlightened age and nation. And the most terrible feature of this monstrous course is, that the evil thus achieved by a mother is often transmitted to her deformed offspring."
Beecher's was one voice in a chorus of alarm. Emily Thornwell, author of a very different sort of how-to book for women, The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility, also claimed "Many of the diseases to which the delicate and youthful of the female sex are peculiarly liable, and by which so many of them are hurried into the grave in the spring-time of their existence, may be traced to impropriety of dress: either in preventing, by its unnatural tightness and inconvenient form, the proper growth of the body, and the natural and free play of its various parts and organs, or to a want of caution in accommodating it to the temperature of the season, and to the various and rapid vicissitudes of the weather."7 Thornwell, in addition to invoking considerations of health, also argued that the corset actually harmed a woman's appearance.
When the chest is scientifically laced as tight as can be borne, it often causes the blood to rush to the face, neck, and arms, on taking exercise or remaining in a heated room. Young ladies at parties frequently become so suffused from this cause, that they present the appearance of a washerwoman actively engaged over a tub of hot suds. Tight lacing also causes an extreme heaving of the bosom, resembling the panting of a dying bird.
. . .
In many persons, tight stays displace the breast, and produce an ineffaceable and frightful wrinkle between it and the shoulder; and in others, whom nature has not gifted with the plumpness requisite to beauty, such stays make the breasts still flatter and smaller. Generally
speaking, tight stays also destroy the firmness of the breast, sometimes prevent the full development of the nipples, and give rise to those indurations of the mammary glands, the cause of which is seldom understood, and which are followed by such dreadful consequences.
They also cause a reddish tinge of the skin, swelling of the neck, etc. A delicate and slender figure is full of beauty in a young person; but suppleness and ease confer an additional charm. Yet most women, eager to be in the extreme of fashion, lace themselves in their stays as tight as possible, and, undergoing innumerable tortures, appear stiff, ungraceful, and ill-tempered. Elegance of shape, dignity of movement, grace of manner, and softness of demeanor, are all sacrificed to foolish caprice.
"Motives of delicacy," Thornwell
lamented, "as well as a proper regard for health, have been
repeatedly urged in vain to enforce the strong necessity of relinquishing
such destructive practices. . . ." Unhappily, "the arguments
of the moralist and of the physician have alike failed to induce
conviction. And hundreds, who might have shone forth for years
among the most estimable and lovely of the sex, have in early
youth been dressed in the shroud, because, in an evil hour, they
laid aside those parts of their apparel which their health as
well as comfort rendered absolutely necessary."