Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Clothing During the Great Depression

by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, December 27, 2011.

Are you knitting furiously to finish those Christmas mittens? Maybe deciding to make 10 pairs of mittens for Christmas presents was a bit ambitious. Time to head to the drugstore for last minute presents. Today, we make clothing as gifts, but it used to be a time consuming chore to keep the family clothed.

Maude Richards, of Exeter, had six sons and a daughter to take care of in the early part of the twentieth century. On top of all of her other duties -- cooking, marketing, canning, cleaning, adjudicating family squabbles, keeping rooms for academy boarders and eventually running a catering business out of her kitchen -- Maude also had to make sure everyone in the family had enough clothing. Her husband was a salesman and was frequently out of town.

In 1913, Maude began keeping a record of all the sewing and knitting projects she completed. Each page of the journal contains a brief description, “kimono apron for myself,” or “marble bag for William”, and frequently a swatch of fabric. Her output is a wonder considering she only had a few hours per day to devote to sewing and knitting. There are a few years missing – 1917 through 1919 must have been too complicated for the family – but it picks up again just as clothing styles began to change in 1920.

When her sons were little, Maude dressed them in rompers and blouses. She used primarily cotton fabrics, which her daughter Olive remembers her buying as remnants from the Exeter Manufacturing Company. Pink was definitely an acceptable color for boys at the time and Maude seemed to favor it. Page after page shows her preference for pink – March 1st, 1913: “rompers for Lauris, blue trimmed with pink and white check” reads one entry.

Some days she managed only a small bit of sewing, “hemmed 1 napkin”. On other days she’d complete much larger projects, “cream linen gown for myself, Baltic blue linen & white pearl buttons for trimming.” Over the few days around January 7th, 1916, she managed only a “small doily with crocheted edge.” It doesn’t seem like much, unless you consider that baby Olive Jeannette was born on January 2nd and Maude notes “in hospital” almost as an afterthought.

Olive’s birth allowed Maude to sew girl’s clothes at long last. After all those boys, she must have been glad to create more decorative pieces for her daughter, although she still favored pink for the entire family. “January 16, 1920: pink & white pajamas for Olive Jeannette. January 18th, 1920: Pink & white outing flannel night-gown for Donald.” She rarely mentions underclothes, except for occasional petticoats, perhaps because underwear could be purchased cheaply. She also doesn’t list those articles of clothing she had to alter.

The Great Depression in Exeter began in the 1920s, not the 1930s as in other parts of the country. A growing family meant that the Richards’ had to be frugal to keep everyone properly dressed. Olive recalls that most of her school clothes came from an annual rummage sale held in the town hall by the O’Leary sisters. Elizabeth O’Leary and her sister, Cecelia Donnelly, would collect used clothing year-round to supply the sale. Although she didn’t particularly like wearing other people’s made-over clothes. She later wrote, “Mother used to say that I had more clothes than any other girl in town; and I’ll bet I did! But nearly all of them were castoffs, rummage-sale items or greatly marked-down things from an Exeter or Haverhill store.”

Maude didn’t buy pre-made sheets and towels. Muslin for bed sheets came in widths that were not wide enough for the average bed. The long, perfectly straight seams had to be made either down the center or on the sides to make a sheet that would fit on a bed. Pillowcases had to be made by hand and Maude generally took on all the bedding projects at one time. During one week in July of 1920, she stitched together seven bed sheets. When the sheets wore out, they were reused. Olive Richards Tardiff later recalled, “Nothing was wasted in our house. Old sheets were cut or torn up for many uses. The best parts were made into pillow cases. Squares were torn for dust rags or for window washing. On rainy days, the children might be set to work tearing strips off the ends of the sheets to wrap into balls for use as bandages to tie onto sore toes or fingers.”

Like so many Exeter women, Maude Richards had to be creative, resourceful and, most of all,productive to keep the household supplied. One of her final entries in the sewing book contains a particularly productive week:

“August 8 to August 12 (1920). Aunt Alice and I had a ‘sewing ‘ time and made three envelope chemesis for her, two envelope chemesis for myself, two slip-ins for me, two nighties for myself, one for Aunt Alice, two long petticoats for her, one nightie for Olive Jeanette, one pair of rompers for Dorothy’s baby, one lavender gingham for Aunt Alice, finished black and white striped gingham for myself and four aeroplane linen napkins for Aunt Alice, for which I take credit for half.”

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