The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 14, 2001


Treasures of Carlisle's Past: 'Wee Clothing for Wee Folk'

Nineteenth Century "advice author," Lydia Maria Child cautioned mothers of the 1830s: "With regard to dress, as in most other cases, a medium between two extremes is desirable. A love of finery and display is a much more common fault than neglect of personal appearance; both should be avoided." (The Mother's Book, 1831, p. 125)

Child was specifically writing for mothers who in those days fashioned most all of the family's clothing by hand. Several items in the Carlisle historical collections evidence the special care that went into stitching children's clothes. Then as now, a mother-to-be prepared a "layette" of baby garments for her expected infant. In the 1800s the woman herself hand-made the garments­as she did the clothes for adults and older children in the family.

One of five "undervests"of Roscoe Fifield

Roscoe A. Fifield's mother lovingly sewed "undervests" for her son, born February 19, 1848 in Maine. Five of these are in the historical society's collection. Made of fine white linen, some are trimmed with lace. They are loose, unfitted garments which follow the patterns set forth in The Workwoman's Guide, published in 1838. This compendium of sewing instructions even lists the recommended number of baby garments a mother should stitch!

Shirts, such as Roscoe's, were generally made in two sizes, one for infants, the second for children up to seven or eight years old. The first would be an "open" style, while the second would be "closed." The author of The Workwoman's Guide specifically notes:

"Baby-linen should be cut out with great exactness and precision, and made up with the most scrupulous neatness. In all the patterns, an eye should be had to their being contrived so as to put on with the greatest comfort and ease to the infant, and made to button or tie readily. No hard seams, buttons, or runners should come in contact with their tender skin, therefore, all strings should be made to tie on the outside."(p. 17)

She not only provides diagrams for all articles of clothing, but also has a measuring system to determine sizes, specified in the number of "nails." (a nail equals 2 1/4 inches). She indicates that five yards of fabric are required for 24 shirts­the tiny size of these garments is evident when she notes the length of the sleeves are a mere 2 1/4 inches.

Little Roscoe grew up to become the father of Martha Fifield who moved to Carlisle in the early twentieth century with her husband, Rev. Benson Wilkins. She is remembered today for her church history and her series of notebooks chronicling the town's families, houses and history. These form an important part of the library's archival collection.

Another important article of infant clothing was a "cap." Infants typically wore caps both day and night. In the collections are two tiny hand-made infant caps. One, of white muslin, measures only 4 and 3/4 inches by 3 and 1/2 inches. The other, of darned net, is only slightly larger, measuring 4 and 1/4 inches by 5 and 3/4 inches. Both bespeak the care the maker took to create a pretty and protective head covering for her baby.

Until age five or six boys and girls often wore similar garments: a dress over trousers, the trousers often called pantaloons for girls. One such dress survives in the town's collection. It belonged to John William Heald who later kept a store in his house, the former Red Lion Tavern.
Calico suit of young Rufus Hartwell


The town collection also has two "boy's suits." One, of calico, belonged to Rufus Hartwell, born in 1796. Sadly, Rufus died in 1801, a reminder that infant and childhood death was quite common in earlier times before the advances of medicine and vaccines.

Shoes, striped stockings and a blue jacket, all worn by Thomas A. Green, are also in the town collection. Green later became a leader in town affairs, serving as vice-president of the Village Improvement Association and a member of the committee for building the Soldiers' Monument. It was to Green that Johanna Gleason wrote in 1894 regarding her desire to donate money for a library. Seven letters addressed to Green relating to the library and town clock, are preserved in the archives of the town historical collection. Green was particularly interested in the "appearance of the town" and left money for the Thomas A. Green Fund at his death in 1925, the income to be used annually for the making and repairing of sidewalks and the planting of shade trees in and about said Carlisle Village.

Like adults, children of the 1800s had a limited number of outfits to wear­ perhaps one or two pairs of trousers for boys and two or three dresses for girls. The garments that have survived from this period were undoubtedly the wearer's "Sunday best." Plain cotton, linen and woolen breeches, shirts and shifts were the norm for everyday wear. These were often remade for the growing child and handed down to siblings. The Workwoman's Guide includes an interesting article of clothing, called "leglets." These were designed to be worn OVER the legs of a boy's trousers. As the Guide explains "they are useful to put over the legs of children's trowsers, [sic] when they are soiled or tumbled, before it is necessary to put on an entirely clean pair." (p. 52) They would have been most practical in a time when outer garments were washed infrequently!

The garments which remain in historical collections may look quite different from the items we see at specialized children's stores today, but they remind us that attention to a child's dress was no less important 100 years ago than it is today.

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