Race and Dressmaking Discussion/April 1998


Query From Frances Freeman Paden fpaden@nwu.edu 29 April 1998

Does anyone know about a convention in the South (turn-of-the- twentieth century ) of white women making dresses for black women? In a 1911 speech made by a white woman, I've come across the following statement: "She had been accustomed all her life to see the young [white] girls of good family make money for their Easter offerings by sewing for colored people." I've done quite a bit of checking and haven't found anything on this. I'll appreciate any leads. Thanks!

Responses:

From Melanie Buddle buddlem@uvic.ca 30 April 1998

...Hmmm. I don't know, but "sewing for colored people" could also mean working along a black seamstress-sort of an employee rather than making dresses *for* black women to wear. (Sewing "for" a business or businesswoman rather than for a "specific" customer?) Could well-to-do whit e families have arranged this, just so their daughters could earn their own money at Easter (but not as a job to have throughout the year)? I mean, is it possible that black seamstresses were pressured by their white customers to take on these daughters temporarily? Just a thought...it is certainly an intriguing reference.

From Eileen Boris ecb4d@blue.unix.virginia.edu 30 April 1998

On white women sewing for African Americans in the South, I wonder if the memoir writer isn't referring to some sort of philanthropic enterprise that paid its sewers--providing clothes for blacks and pin money for white women? Could it be church connected? What has me puzzled is the payment to the white women because most charity work in which such an exchange might occur didn't pay the sewers. What was the original reference?

From Lesley Hall Lesley_Hall@classic.msn.com 04 May 1998

This sounds to me to have something to do with philanthropy: perhaps equivalent to the UK upper/middle class sewing ":good" clothes (esp. baby clothes) for the "deserving" poor. Or the "missionary basket." Were they sewing directly for "colored people" or for bazaars and fancy sales to raise money for the object of charity? another possibility.

From Fran Paden fran@casbah.acns.nwu.edu 04 May 1998

In response to additional queries by two subscribers, I'm sending along more information about my query regarding white women sewing for african-american women in the South. In a speech delivered by Adelene Moffat at the third annual meeting of the NAACP (1911), she tells an anecdote about an African-American woman approaching a white Southern woman in Boston and asking her, "Won't you please, ma'am, make me a dress?" Moffat explains, "Of course she made the dress, to the horror of some of her Northern friends, saying to herself: 'And this in Massachusetts!' She had been accustomed all her life to see the young girls of good family make money for the Easter offerings by sewing for colored people." I hope this fuller citation helps. Thanks!

From Katherine Durack durack@iquest.net 04 May 1998

This certainly makes sense to me--I would guess that the situation has something to do with the high cost of sewing machines during their early years (nearly the equivalent of per capita income in 1860). I could easily imagine the philanthropic scenario--with the probable outcome somewhat shapeless dresses (as opposed to clothing personally fitted by a dressmaker).

Interesting enough, race was something the sewing machine manufacturers were very sensitive to--early testimonials from manuals (pre-Civil War) attest that the machine was "so simple that any negro of common understanding can manage it." Another testimonial from the same document asserts that, "surely, if a poor colored man in Africa can work your machine without aid or directions, who should despair with both near at hand>" (an effort to persuade middle class white women of the ease of the machine and the helpfulness of the documentation). And, while it's been some time sine I looked through them, my recollection is that in Singer's sewing machine trade cards (from the Columbia Exposition), there are a few men shown using the machine: all natives from other countries (India, Africa, etc.)

I would also be interested in the original source for the quote, and the context of the remark.

[cross-post from "H-SAWH@h-net.msu.edu" "H-NET List for the Southern Association for Women Historians"]

From:Emilie GOSTANIAN GOSTANIAN@aol.com 11 May 1998

Consider the possibility of missionary societies who would collect clothing and send it to schools run by their societies. Mather School in Beaufort, SC was one such example.The donated clothing and other items were sold to the public in a store on the school property.I can supply further details if interested.