Was Grandma a Clotheshorse?

Let’s talk about fashion – historical-fashion.  I want to confess right up front that I’m a fine one to be blogging on fashion.  You are more likely to find me in faded jeans than a stylish dress - sneakers instead of shiny pumps, and frankly I do not understand why anyone would choose low-rise-skinny jeans or platform shoes.  However, as I develop characters for historical novels, I find that I really need to decide whether the farmer's wife is trailing skirts through the mud or if she donned a pair of baggy overalls.  Were those women who spent their days beside a spinning wheel or pulling the beater of a loom wearing hoop skirts?

 Fashion has long been advertised.  Women of the nineteenth century didn't have the dozens of glossy magazines that assault us in every grocery aisle, but they did have Godey’s Lady’s Book to inform them of the latest trends, how and when to wear the popular fashions.  The question I've been asking myself was just how much were our neighbors of yesteryear driven by fashion trends?


Today, anything goes.  I occasionally see pictures from the big fashion shows, but I've honestly never seen most of those styles on the street.  I suppose I would assume that we are more influenced by designers and the styles of celebrities today because we are much more exposed to them.  We see them captured by the paparazzi in every phase of their lives.  It wasn't many years ago that unless you happened upon them in Hollywood or New York City, the only face of an actor you ever saw was the one he presented to his public.   So, it's hard to imagine Clark Gable mowing the lawn in a stained t-shirt, or Vivian Leigh grocery shopping in sweats.  But if I write about a lady trying to make her living as an actress in the 1930’s then I need to decide how she spent her off-camera hours, and what she chose to wear in those times.


My time period is usually half a century before that, and fashion changed a great deal in that span of time - which leads me to my second confession of the day.  Try though I may, my image of history is colored by the classic movies that have portrayed those periods.  Hence I turn once again to Gone With The Wind... (Mammy in her full skirts giving Rhett a tiny peek at her red silk petticoat and Scarlett declaring she’ll wear an off-the-shoulder dress to the barbeque at Twelve Oaks despite the scandal Mammy is sure it will cause.)  The beautiful dresses that David Selznick dressed his actresses in represented a fashion trend that lasted only a few years. 


Hooped skirts measuring up to six feet and corsets cinching waists down to eighteen inches were the culminations of several decades of ever-widening skirts.  Initially the look was achieved with layers of petticoats.  The use of a hooped cage allowed the volume without the layers and weight. 


As I read and researched, my question really was how popular were the voluminous garments?  I was just sure that only the very fashion-conscious, higher society folk were wearing them – certainly no one who worked for a living or did their own cleaning would own one, it just wasn’t practical and we know that poor people are always practical, right?  Wrong.  These new crinolines were very economical, allowing all classes of women to afford them.  The invention of the sewing machine in 1851 and the development of commercial weaving through the nineteenth century further allowed less expensive clothing that more women could have access to.


There are no statistics that register how many women in each socio-economic classes bought crinoline cages, so I have to derive popularity from other factors.  One article noted that every week there was a newspaper notice about a fire starting when someone’s skirts overturned a candle.  Additionally, the mills and factories established policies that crinolines were not to be worn to work.  These two stories certainly indicate to me that truly all classes of women were enjoying the hooped skirts.  We should certainly note that for the lady of class, who wore several different dresses each day, the crinoline was not usually worn with her work dress.  This lady would wear a small crinoline with her day dress which she wore after her chores were completed, then larger hoops in the evening with her evening or ball gown.


Certainly the urban environments were more driven by fashion trends.  Rural folks changed their styles far less often and definitely dominated the group requiring serviceable clothing.  Moreover, factory-made cloth was still less available in the country where spinning and weaving were still being done in the home well into the 20th century in Appalachia.  However, periodicals were readily available even in rural America and while there were no glossy photographs with close-ups of details, the details of the fashions were described.  For women skilled with needle and thread, that is all that would be necessary for them to sew very fashionable clothing for their families.  These seamstresses would be able even to alter hand-me-downs or last year’s dress to tailor the previously-puffed sleeves, smooth the front of a full skirt and add a bustle or remove the lace collar that is no longer desired.


And now I am reminded why I have to continually research – the twenty-first century invariably affects my perception of history.  If I intend to paint a reasonably accurate word-picture of the ladies in my books, I have to start with the right image in mind.  So when I picture the hard working, often impoverished women of rural Appalachia in the mid-nineteenth century I know their clothing reflected a necessarily practical way of life but I must also remember that they took pride in their appearance and when they had the opportunity to go to church, a wedding or a party, their clothing would mirror the description presented in last month’s edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the letter from a second cousin who visited the big city or what was in the pattern books at the general store.




Godey's THE BOOK of the 19th Century

After working on Makin’ Music last week, I was researching a completely unrelated subject when, guess what – I fell into another historical entertainment subject.  Reading.

Okay, reading is a very current – actually timeless – mode of entertainment.  And surely, those of you who would want to read this blog would undoubtedly be prolific readers.  Did you ever wonder what folks read in years past?  Sure, we have lots of books written over the last two hundred years that have been re-printed and we are still enjoying them.  But what about the time we spend reading magazines and newspapers?  How was that different in years past?

Until very recently, newspapers were a primary source of news and information in our country.  Even in our digital age, we still have newspapers printing every day in every major city and most small towns in the country.  We know that historically news was disseminated via periodicals that were read and re-read.  My grandmother tells of a neighbor’s home that was papered in newsprint and she was so starved for reading material that she would stand and read the walls when visiting there. 

Certainly, libraries have long maintained vast collections of historical periodicals but now we have a growing online collection as well.  Project Gutenberg exists “to encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks” (http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Gutenberg:Project_Gutenberg_Mission_Statement_by_Michael_Hart).

It is thanks to Project Gutenberg that I was able to read an entire issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1851 and I’ve got to tell you, I was fascinated!  First of all, a word about the Lady’s Book – it was a premiere lady’s magazine published between 1830 and 1896 with a peak subscription of 150,000.  (The U.S. population in 1860 was 31 million, so that’s a readership of ½ percent of the population.  If that doesn’t sound like much, the top women’s magazine today is Better Homes and Gardens with a readership of just 2% - and the literacy rate in the U.S. is now 99% compared to 75% in the mid-nineteenth century.)  Whew, that sounded like a statistics report – suffice it to say that Godey’s was big in its day.  Of course, the selection of magazines was very different; in 1900 the country had 3,500 magazines compared to almost 7,400 today.

I must confess I’m not a big magazine reader.  So after reading this 1851 issue, I took a look at a couple of current, women’s magazines and was pretty shocked by the comparison.  Some of the differences are certainly to be expected from a basic understanding of the technological differences.  I do not have any idea how a big magazine is really printed, but since I can print beautiful color pages on my cheap little home printer, I can just imagine the power of commercial printing equipment.  And we can certainly see the product in glossy, full-color pages.  In fact, as I flip through the pages of today’s periodicals, they seem to be nothing but pictures.  The advertisements are pictures – and advertisements seem to occupy the lion’s share of the book.  The text of the magazine consists of blocks wrapping around images of fashion, cosmetics, furnishings and clothes. 

One of the magazines I reviewed was a Christmas edition and it is stunningly beautiful as decorations have been assembled in everything from cottages to mansions - in fact, one article was titled Merry Mansions. 

Compare all of this to Godey’s whose printing was largely limited to black-and-white and very heavy on text.  In fact, there are no less than three novels included in part within the issue.  The Gutenberg Project did not include page numbers in the digital rendering but the editor refers to the large size of the publication.  One the current magazines I used for comparison had one hundred ninety-three pages and only one page was predominately text, there were no fictional stories and certainly no poetry. 

Godey’s included numerous poems, a house plan and a description of proper fashion for the opera versus a party or informal dinner party.  I guess I was a little surprised that there weren’t more recipes and articles on homemaking.   However, there were several articles with directions for chenille work, making a head-dress and undersleeves.  Also, there was “A New Receipt for a Washing Mixture” which details a means of washing that require very little hand rubbing and I’m sure would have been most welcome by any homemaker of the 1850’s.

Rarely do I find modern writing that presents a value system and directly says, ‘this is what you ought to believe or how you should act’.  Certainly, most authors endeavor to persuade their readers in some point.  However, the editor’s page in 1851 pulled no punches on the “special gifts of God to men” and women’s unique talents.  This is in no way a religious publication, but she directly asserts that “these Bible truths will be the rule of faith and of conduct with every American wife and mother”.  Surely there is a social commentary there on the focus of Americans and the American media of that day.

Finally, a note on advertisements – and I include this in the end because that is where Godey’s placed their ads.  Instead of the colorful pictures of products, Godey’s listed numerous businesses complete with address and a word about their merchandise or services.  So small is this section that I could scarcely find it for reference.  Perhaps the publisher relied less on advertising dollars than we do today for it seems a subscription would cost ten dollars for ten years, a price vast enough in its day that groups of ladies pooled their money and shared each issue.

Makin' Music

Entertainment.  Billboard reported last year that by 2016 the entertainment industry would top two trillion dollars. Entertainment is pivotal to our modern lives – we think about it, we plan for it, we pay for it.  But how often do we work for it?

T.E. Hixson pictured with instruments he made.  Photo from article published in The Tennessean, no date is given on the clipping.

T.E. Hixson pictured with instruments he made.  Photo from article published in The Tennessean, no date is given on the clipping.

Can you imagine the day when if you wanted to hear music, you played it or sang it?  Such was the world for the Hixson family at the turn of the twentieth century.  T.E. Hixson fathered ten children, his brother Steve had six.  They entertained themselves, their families and neighbors with homemade instruments and God-given talent.  None had ever had formal lessons but they filled every venue they played – of course they played in living-rooms and front porches.  It was a weekly event and they had the reputation of being incredible musicians. 

The music was native to the mountains.  A mixture of Scottish, Irish, and African influences the lyrics praised God, mourned lost love and celebrated family.  They sang about the struggles they faced and the joys they celebrated.  Today we call this mountain music Bluegrass and Kentuckian Bill Monroe is known as the father of the genre.  But long before Mr. Monroe’s 1911 birth and far from his birthplace in Rosine, Kentucky, the Hixson family were enjoying the same music in Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley.

Steve and Elbert (as T.E. was commonly called) grew up on the banks of the Sequatchie River where they farmed the rich bottom land, trapped and fished to churn out a subsistence living.  They were not accustomed to a lot of ‘store bought’ goods and at a young age each learned to make what he needed.   The boys talked little of their father in later years; he would pass down to his sons the farm and farming skills as well as a love of music and rich talent.  The talent they passed to their own children who played alongside them.  Outside of large orchestras, we are accustomed to bands of three to five members.  Of course the whole bunch wouldn’t have played at the same time when the Hixson families met, but it would surely have been closer to orchestra numbers than the Country and Western bands we know today. 

Bluegrass music is known for its improvisation.  These brothers and sisters who played alongside each other day after day could surely have anticipated the chord changes, the added notes and when each instrument would insert a quick run of notes instead of holding a single, long note.  They might have thought the word belonged to another language, but they improvised naturally. 

In that secluded valley, there were no music stores and no one importing finely crafted instruments from European master-craftsmen.  The Hixsons scarcely knew they were missing anything for they made their own instruments.  Whatever their Mountain Music required, the men made from the resources available to them.  Fiddles, banjos, mandolins and guitars were crafted for each member of the family.  When Elbert’s oldest daughter gave him his first grandchild, he declared she would be a fiddle-player and he made a child-sized instrument for her.  Over the next four years, four more grand-daughters were born and for each a small instrument was built. 

Elbert Hixson became so adept at and accustomed to building musical instruments that in his later years he sought new challenges.  He built a fiddle made entirely of matchsticks which was photographed and documented by numerous periodicals.  That one was a novelty and could never produce the sound he’d sought from earlier instruments – instruments that were played for years and in fact some of which are still around and in very playable condition after a hundred years of musical service.

T.E. Hixson holding a mandolin made from a gourd; his daughter Opal Hixson holds the match stick fiddle.

T.E. Hixson holding a mandolin made from a gourd; his daughter Opal Hixson holds the match stick fiddle.

That beautiful valley still seems secluded despite modern roads, power lines and internet service.  It isn’t hard to imagine I can still hear a lingering hum of a dozen instruments celebrating the beauty of the harvest season and foretelling the gloom of winter.  I find myself inspired by these men who created music out of raw materials that valley produced and then passed the beauty of it to their children.

A Soldier Comes Home

A Fictional Short Story

Private William Stepp caught his reflection in a dusty window of the Campbell Station Depot and it stopped him in his tracks.  Despite the stiff brushing he’d given his blue, woolen blouse and the attempt at shining the heavy leather boots, he looked thin and haggard.

Triumphant, indeed, he thought as he remembered a newspaper he’d glimpsed on the short train ride from Knoxville.  The only thing he felt triumphant about was going home.  These last few weeks had seemed longer than the entire four years of bloody battle.  When the Confederate surrender was announced to his company, he was sure he’d be home in a fortnight but he’d been wrong.  The troops had been ordered to Washington, D.C. for a Grand Review.  Nothing ever seemed so nonsensical to Private Stepp – and in fact to every soldier around him.  Each man reviewed each battle, each campaign, each bitter encounter every-time he dared to close his eyes.  William feared he would do this for the rest of his life.

With a shake of his head, he turned his eyes and his thoughts from the morbid and toward the future.  He tried to prepare his heart for what he might find at home – he’d seen so much destruction of homes and farms that he dared not hope that the little cabin he'd left behind to shelter his widowed mother and two young sisters would even still stand.  But he prayed it would.  That had been his prayer every time he saw the burned out hulk of a home, every time he felt the stares from tree-lines of terrified and homeless women and children. 

Now Private Stepp was no more.  Yesterday, Captain Hargrove had given him a paper in Knoxville that said he was now plain old William Stepp.  For the first time in more days than he could count, that lifted the edges of his lips in a half-smile.  But this new man, William Stepp, he had a new challenge on his hands.   Four years ago, he’d not been off that mountain since his mother carried him in on her lap.  Now he’d certainly seen a lot of this country, but he’d been ordered every step of the way, told when to march and when to kneel and shoot; told even when to turn and run in retreat.  Since no trains ran to  Fentress County, he was given a week’s rations and offered a train ride to wherever he wanted to start his trek.  After a look at the ragged map hanging in the captain’s office, he decided to ride as far west as Campbell Station.  He knew the mountain well enough to know it wasn’t going to be an easy walk from any direction but at least this starting point got him out of the busyness of Knoxville’s streets.  There were so many wagons, buggies and saddle horses that he was sure he’d be trampled at any moment.

Another glimpse at the stranger in the window and he stepped off the wooden porch.  Was his pack lighter?  Was the rifle in his right hand now an extension of his arm?  He turned away from the sun, enjoying the warmth on his back, and took his first real steps toward home. 

The climb began almost immediately.  There were other men heading generally the same direction and from time to time he’d walk a way with one of them – some in the familiar blue uniform, others in tattered rags of gray.  There was no malice in these woods now, they all had the same mission – getting home.  He learned the stories of some of the men.  One old man said he’d been home twice – deserted in order to make a crop for his family, then picked up his weapon and returned to fight for his land.  This one looked exhausted, but not ashamed.  He’d fought for what he believed in and William could not argue with that – right now he felt like he would never argue again.

Homesteads were sparse here, and towns even rarer.  William slept at night wrapped in the blanket he carried over his shoulder and warmed by a small cooking fire.  He ate the hardtack and crackers he’d been issued and enjoyed a cup of weak coffee in the mornings.  It had been three days since he’d seen another soul when the leveling land told him he had made it home.  Well, it was still miles to the cabin and to his mother, but he knew he was on the mountain now.  Soon he began to recognize paths he and his brothers James and Pres had followed as young boys out on a ‘long hunt’.  It was a game they’d played, imagining they were frontiersmen exploring the new country.  They packed a sack with whatever food Mother could spare and headed out.  It mattered little that they had only one gun between them, they were all great hunters and they were sure they’d return with enough meat to see the family of ten through the entire winter.  Papa had allowed it, probably because they’d worked so very hard through the hot summer and there was little he could reward them with.

William looked around the terrain he was covering.  Even here it was relatively flat, good farm land though the soil seemed a little on the thin side.  He smiled now – the smiles were coming more readily with each step he took - thinking of Papa’s tells of settling the hillside.  His first stop when he and Mother came from Virginia was on the banks of the fertile Wolf River.  However, he’d soon learned he couldn’t get along with the flatlanders who lived there and decided he’d rather eke out a living on lesser ground than be surrounded by people so unlike him.  So he headed south and twenty hard miles later, among rolling hills and steep gorges, he decided on a north-facing hillside near The Campground.  The infrequent visitors to this well-known stopping point were all the company John Stepp thought he needed.  Amanda had not offered her opinion but William would later hear her telling her daughters how happy she was when they were born and she knew she’d have some kind of feminine companionship. 

William’s musings stopped short as he topped the hill opposite the homestead.  There was the rough cabin, stacked stone chimney with a thin wisp of smoke curling from the top.  Emotion washed over him.  The war-toughened soldier dropped to one knee, the rifle rattled on the rocks at his side and tears streamed down his cheeks.  Here was the victory.  Suddenly, for the first time since the surrender was announced, Private William Stepp, U.S. felt triumph.

Land Grants and Curious Records

Today I want to share a recent research-find which has left me with more questions than answers.  I share it both for the sake of sharing and in hopes that you might supply some of the answers.  If you have any thoughts on the subject, please click “Comment” at the end of the article.  Squarespace, my site host, is currently having some issues with comments if you are using Internet Explorer.  If you are unable to comment here, you can share on Facebook; if you aren’t on Facebook, click here to send me an email and I’ll post the comments for you.  Thanks!


We have a pervasive myth among us that various family lands were granted to ancestors for military service, specifically during the Civil War era.  I’ve been systematically investigating these stories by simply locating the original deeds which clearly show the former owner and which have so far made no mention of government involvement in the purchases.  And then a visit to the office of the Registrar of Deeds threw me for a bit of a loop!


First about the myth:  I have heard from several different people, referring to lands across two or three counties, that land was granted to ancestors for military service.  Certainly, that is a proud tradition in the United States.  When our nation was still in its infancy, we needed to raise an army and we had a lot of land but very little money.  Therefore, after much paperwork, Revolutionary soldiers were granted lands based on their rank and length of service.  According to Kentucky.gov, one Captain Robert Todd (a random selection from their data) was granted 4,000 acres for three years of service as of February 21, 1784.  The document doesn’t really specify where this land was located; it only gives a ‘unit’ name “Virginia State Line”.  As the years past and more land was claimed in the country, soldiers were more likely to receive some form of monetary payment rather than the quickly disappearing free land.  There were still some land grants for the War of 1812 but these were Western grants.  As far as I can determine, the policy of granting land for military service appears to have ended just before The Civil War started.


If you’ve never looked at old property records, the process is pretty simple.  Deeds are indexed both directly (Grantor to Grantee) and in reverse.  As I flipped through the index for years 1865 – 1930, my eye was caught by a grantor listed something like, “Company D, Second Regiment of East Tennessee Infantry, U.S.”  This certainly appeared on the surface to be a military grant of some sort.  However, when I pulled the associated deed I found no specific mention of property.  Usually, there is a detailed description of the land, where it begins, how many rods or poles to the next marker, if there is a body of water on one boundary, and so forth. 

First half of William Stepp affidavit

First half of William Stepp affidavit


In this document, the reader is informed that Mr. William Stepp, age twenty-one, six feet tall of fair complexion with light hair and blue eyes, enlisted in military service in 1861 for the term of three years or the duration of the war.  He has been discharged from the service of the United States as of January 1865, this discharge taking place in Knoxville, Tennessee.  And that seems to be all of the facts presented.  There’s no property mentioned, even though this document in smack in the middle of property deed registrations.  There is no oath of allegiance as one might expect if it were a Confederate soldier returning home.  There is simply no indication why this document is registered, except that William Stepp is who he says he is.


I don’t even know what to call this document so it is hard to begin a search for its meaning.  In previous research about The Civil War, I have never heard of such a requirement for returning soldiers.  One expert I asked suggested the William Stepp document could be an affidavit to confirm identity for some other official document.  If that is the case, that essential other document doesn’t seem to be readily identifiable.


To compound the questions this raises, after studying my photocopy of the William Stepp document, I happened to notice the record preceding it seems to be a similar affidavit for William R. Davis who enlisted in 1862 and was discharged at Louisville, KY. 


Even though this mysterious record leaves me with more questions than answers, I am still very fascinated to find a physical description of Mr. Stepp along with information about where he was born and what his occupation was before the war.  These are the fascinating little tidbits I’m always looking for – aren’t they much more exciting than cold facts of names and dates?  I am awfully curious to learn more about this official document, but in the meantime, I think it’s sparked a short story!  I’ll try to put that together for you next week.


Until then, please leave me comments if you have any information to share.


Update 10/6/2014

While doing some other research, I happened upon this document which is a discharge record for one John Harding.  He's from Indiana, but it is the wording of the William Stepp document, verbatim. 

Now the only mystery that remains is why the discharge order issued in Knoxville, TN (Knox County)  was recorded by the Registrar of Deeds in Fentress County, TN.   The mystery continues...