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Celebrating Women's History Month - 2024

“The clothes make the man” as they say, but who makes the clothes?

While most tailors of the mid-19th century were men, women made up the majority of the labor force in the ready-made clothing industry, as well as small scale tailor shops.

Celebrating Women’s History Month, we will be showcasing occupations women held in the mid-19th century within the men’s clothing industries.

Originally posted on Instagram @tmtmuseum in March 2024, where some quotes and context had to shortened due to character restraints. Unedited quotes and context below.

Part 1: The Tailoress

In our first post, we learn more about the tireless Tailoress and her endless workdays. Tailoresses were sewists employed to construct parts of, or entire garments for a tailor’s business. Some worked long hours for little pay, as is described in Life in New York, in Doors and Out of Doors, published in 1851: 

“How long does the reader think [t]he tailoress has been at work? Since six o'clock in the morning, and now it is half past twelve at night. Eighteen hours, with an intermission of only a few minutes, since though the rich man may pleasantly pass two hours at his dinner, as many minutes are more than enough for the tailoress scanty meal. …her sole reliance is on her needle. One would think that her industry and skill, should ensure her a comfortable support; and so, it would, if she enjoyed the fruits of her own labor. But she doesn't. That garment which she has been at work upon since the early morning will yield, to the man who pays her, a few shillings for her labor upon it, two or three dollars profit… Why should not each man make it his business to see that the person who made the coat he wears on his back received fair wages for her (or his) labor, even though the large profits of the fashionable tailor be somewhat reduced by the operation! Does it seem quite fair that the fashionable tailor should live in plenty and elegance, while the poor operatives from whose labor he realizes three or four thousand dollars a year, are working and starving to death?”

This CDV photograph in our collection, shows a young tailor and two tailoresses in Colchester, Connecticut during the 1860’s.

Part 2: The Hat Trimmer

Next, we visit the proud Hat-Trimmer, as she was described in Life in New York, in Doors and Out of Doors, published in 1851: 

“There are nice clever girls all over the town who live genteelly by trimming hats. It is perhaps one of the most profitable branches of industry in which females are employed. There are some who mako a dollar a day, or six dollars a week, and the average is not less than four dollars and a half a week. The hat trimmers are, as a class, very pretty, and rather romantic; there is something charming to them in working on a hat which is to cover a man's head. The dear, loveable creatures! 

She is very skillful with the needle, and chose the business of a hat trimmer. In a few months she acquired a complete knowledge of the trade, and ever since has earned a good living by it.”

You can see a hat trimmer’s handiwork on this silk plush top hat in our collection (A025) produced for C. Henderson of Philadelphia in the 1850’s.

Part 3: The Gimp-Weaver

Today, we visit the Gimp-Weaver in Life in New York, in Doors and Out of Doors, published in 1851: 

“Our Gimp-Weaver, who sits patiently at her frame day after day to earn a paltry three dollars and seventy-five cents each week, could weave from the incidents of her own life a romance that would bring more money than the weaving to which her daily labor is devoted.” 

Gimp was a thick cord often used in the making of buttonholes on men’s coats, waistcoats, and trousers from the period. The cord outlined the buttonhole to give it a smoother shape; it rests beneath the thread, being sewn down as it is stitched. Gimp can be seen under and between the buttonhole-stitches on this pair of 1860’s trousers in our collection (P023).

Part 4: The Shirt-Maker

Next, we meet the poor Shirt-Maker, who sewed pre-cut shirts for ready-made clothing companies. Life in New York, in Doors and Out of Doors, published in 1851, provides this verse from ‘The Song of the Shirt’:

“With fingers weary and worn, 

With eyelids heavy and red,

A woman sat in unwomanly rags, 

Plying her needle and thread-


In poverty hunger and dirt, 

And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,

She sang this "Song of the shirt!"

This linen shirt in the collection (S002) was likely made for a ready-made warehouse in the 1850’s, possibly constructed by a female shirt-maker. 

Part 5: The Suspender-Maker:

Today, we meet the Suspender-Maker in Life in New York, in Doors and Out of Doors, published in 1851: 

“So long as people look upon round shoulders and hollow chests as marks of physical beauty, so long will the suspender manufacture flourish. It is a first rate business for the dealers-for the employees, the workies, we suppose it pays starvation wages, little more. The suspender maker who has loaned us her portrait… learned the trade by accident. She was a few years ago wealthy, or rather her father was, and she used to employ her time in embroidering suspenders as presents to her fashionable round shouldered friends of the masculine gender… She first tried her hand at embroidered suspenders, but… found that she could make more money by making a commoner article.”

Suspender-Makers used buckles on a daily basis in their work, likely similar to many in our collection.

Part 6: The Cap-Maker

For our final and longest post, we meet the hard working Cap-Maker, as described in Life in New York, in Doors and Out of Doors, published in 1851: 

“Now comes tripping along our pretty, taper-fingered Cap Maker… With the dainty wand of her well used needle, she waves away the doubts that surround us, and we begin to see how rents are paid, and food and clothing is provided. The secret is in a vast productive industry, finding its demand in an intense trade, extending to all states of the Union and all quarters of the world. The Cap Maker is a beautiful embodiment of American Industry. She is also a fine representative of the worthy independence, and strong self-reliance, of the American woman. 

...She conducts us into a large room in which are sixty girls are all busy as so many bees in June, plying their needles, and fashioning caps of cloth, and glazed fabric, and leather, and plush, and fur. There are caps for two shillings, and caps for five dollars; rough, stout caps for hardy backwoodsmen, and beautiful gold embroidered velvet caps, for some proud mama's little darling to parade with in Broadway. "Well! this is very nice--but it goes but a little way toward solving the problem." She replied, “Don't be impatient, see this worthy woman, coming out of the shop, with a large bundle. This bundle is to be made up into caps. They are all cut out, and ready for sewing… There are, say, 5,000 cap-makers in the city on New York, and there are ten times that number of females engaged [nationwide] in other branches of productive industry. — These 50,000 industrious girls and women, earn, on an average, three dollars a week. This is the annual sum of $7,800,000, of which sum we, the cap-makers, earn only $780,000, a year. Now can you see where the money comes from?" 

…The work of our cap-maker is one of downright toil, sustained by high and holy motives; those of earning an honest living, living a virtuous life, and often contributing to the support of helpless age or infancy. The Cap-Maker is honest, for she more than earns every dollar she gets; she is virtuous, for dally toil, in a city where vice offers the show of ease, is strong virtue; she is useful-look at the aggregate result of her labors.”

This cap in our collection (A014) was likely made by a female cap maker in the 1860’s. 

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