There is always something special about children’s toys that have survived down through time. Not only do they speak to well-loved playthings and the sentimentality of the little owner and the family that preserved them, but there is much to be learned from the articles themselves. This doll’s dress holds a wealth of information, even in its worn state.
The first thing that is noteworthy in seeing this dress is the fabric. The shade is dramatic and the style is expressive of the day, and we can use the two to make an educated estimate of when the dress was made. An innovation in dye technology created a colorfast purple or mauve dye in 1859; before that time, purples were often unfixed -- or fugitive -- and faded out nearly completely by our current day, especially for something as well used as this dress. So, we know this was made post-1859. The style of the dress also provides dating details. The sleeves are fully lined with tan cotton muslin, just as the child’s sleeves may well have been. The bodice, waistband, and very full skirt all mirror mid-1800s fashions.
There is even a nice blend of skills, as the construction seams are hand sewn (see photos above) and the hem is sewn by machine -- sewing machines being a recent arrival in the home following Elias Howe’s 1846 invention in nearby Cambridge, MA. By 1860, this technology was available to the home seamstress, but it was still a very new thing, not in every home, and certainly used under supervision. This explains the machine stitching on the hem, where there are few consequences if the seam goes a little astray.
Nonetheless, it would be easy to overlook, and it is a reminder to all who are interested in dating or learning more about objects to look inside and under and behind as well as straight on.
From a child’s plaything, we can not only make informed decisions about the date and techniques of creation, but also peek into the past domestic scene in which it was made. Such a lot of information packed into such an ordinary thing!
--An article on children’s toys in 1860
--A revolution in permanent purple dye
--A history of sewing machines
Meguey Baker studied early American textile history and material culture at Hampshire College. She is a member of the Mohawk Trail Quilt Guild, a volunteer textile conservation specialist at Memorial Hall in Deerfield, and does textile repair and conservation for private clients.