Category Archives: Curiosities

Mammoth Cave Costume

Unidentified Mammoth Cave Costume, Library Special Collections, Western Kentucky University

Another presentation that focused on the history of southwestern Kentucky was given by Donna Parker, recently retired from the Western Kentucky University Library. Like most Americans, I knew of the great Mammoth Cave system, but it was a real surprise to learn that for close to a century, women visitors to the cave wore a special costume provided by the owners of the cave.

The cave was well-known by the 1840s. It was just one of many natural wonder destinations that well-off tourists traveled to experience, along with Niagara Falls, the Natural Bridge of Virginia, the Hudson River Valley, and New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Early on it must have been obvious that fashionable dress was dangerous in the cave. The owners developed a woman’s costume, consisting of a shortened dress with bloomers or trousers worn beneath.

The wearing of these costumes is well-documented in photographs, diaries, letters, and personal travel accounts. Many women expressed embarrassment at being forced to wear trousers, others saw it as just part of the experience.

Jennie Ray Younglove at Mammoth Cave

The Kentucky Museum has an exhibition on Mammoth Cave, and in it they included this photograph of a woman visitor. You can barely see the trousers beneath her skirt. One of the best sources of information were the photos taken of visitors to the cave. The WKU Library Special Collections has a nice selection of these, dating from the 1850s to the 1930s when the practice of providing costumes ended.

Kentucky Museum and Library Digital Collection

This photo is from the digital collection of the Kentucky Museum. Though undated, this photo is from around 1905, and maybe as late as 1912 or so. It’s interesting in how the costume has changed. The skirt was abandoned, the bloomers shortened. It could be that these women were accustomed to wearing bathing suits, were at that time were very similar to the cave costume.

Unfortunately, the museum has not been able to locate any extant cave costumes. It’s possible that as things changed and women became more accustomed to wearing bloomers, the oldest costumes were remade into the more abbreviated versions seen above. At any rate, there was a fire in 1916 at the Mammoth Cave Hotel, and it is possible the remaining costumes were destroyed then.

I like to think that somewhere, in an obscure collection, a Mammoth Cave costume still exists. The problem is one of identification. How would one distinguish the cave costume seen in the first photograph from a bloomer outfit worn by a dress reformer? How could the bloomers in the third photograph be distinguished from a 1905 gymnasium suit? I’m not sure it could be done.

I can only hope that somewhere one rests in a box with a note attached, confirming the garment as the elusive cave costume.

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Filed under Camping and Hiking, Curiosities, Museums, Proper Clothing, Vintage Photographs, Women in Pants

College-Maid, from the Girls at Maryville College

A recent acquisition is this cute little 1920s blouse with an interesting back-story. It wasn’t so much the blouse that sold me on this piece, but rather, the label.

This one ticked several boxes: women’s college related, somewhat local to me, and after digging a bit, sportswear related. And the Deco-ish embroidery didn’t hurt a bit. So what’s the story?

Maryville College is one of the fifty oldest colleges in the country, being founded in 1819 as a Presbyterian seminary. From the beginning the school was racially integrated, until it was forced to segregate in 1901. It began admitting women in the 1860s, and in 1875 granted the first degree to a women in Tennessee. By the 1920s there were more women than men in the college, probably because it offered degrees in education.

In 1921 (or 1920, according to one source) home economics teacher Kathryn McMurray devised a plan to help girls who were not able to afford their college fees to stay in school. She set up a sewing enterprise where students made simple garments that were then sold under the label “College-Maid”. The program started with ten girls, but three years later more than 400 girls were earning money to help pay for their education.

Several types of garments were made by the students. One was the apron, which is the champion of beginning sewing projects. I also found references to house dresses and work dresses, but best of all, by 1926 they were making two-piece pajamas. I am quite sure that my blouse is actually a pajama top.

Ms. McMurray traveled around the country, encouraging women’s organizations and department stores to sell College-Maid products. Women’s groups would have what we today would call pop-up shops to sell the garments for the college. Some department stores advertised the goods as late as 1934. A dress cost $1.95 at that time.

Several years ago I found some pages from a photo album belonging to a Maryville College student.

Ruth, Gert, Mae and Eva had lots of adventures. I can’t help but wonder if any of them worked making College-Maid garments.

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Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Made in the USA, manufacturing, Sportswear, Vintage Clothing, Vintage Photographs

Of Course You Can Sew!, 1971

I plucked this book out of a Goodwill bin as it was being carted off to the place of no return. I don’t really collect sewing books, but I do have a nice grouping of them that typify the era in which they were written. A quick look through of this book by Barbara Corrigan fit the bill as one to add to the group.

My guess is that the book was written for the preteen and young teen set. The book came from an elementary school library and the check-out card was still in the book. Most of the girls (and all the readers were girls) who checked out the book were in the fifth and sixth grades, but a few were younger. The book was popular, with the card being full.

And no wonder. This was just the sort of book my twelve year old self would have loved. The projects within were just the sort of thing I was always making. There is a section on using simple commercial patterns, but most of the projects were made from squares of fabric or textiles such as towels and other household linens. The dress and bag above are typical. What was interesting was how the bag was made from the part of the towel that was cut off to make the dress. Even in 1971 textiles were not for wasting.

Many of the projects were sportswear. I remember people making similar garments from towels, especially beach cover-ups and bags.
The projects got progressively harder as one moved through the book, but lots of drawings and diagrams made the directions easy to understand. Here you see how to cut a caftan from towels.
Once the novice sewer moved past sewing plain straight seams, a gathered skirt was introduced. The skills were the same, but the addition of the gathers must have seemed like a big leap in ability.

There were also cute designs for making things from bed linens. A girl could have night clothes to match her sheets.

This was the Seventies, so of course there were ponchos.

This sewing corner would have driven me wild with envy. My sewing spot was the dining room table.

I was completely charmed by this little book, perhaps because I would have loved to have had it in my early sewing years. The text was so straightforward, without a bit of talking down to the youngsters that it seemed totally relatable, even though the author, Barbara Corrigan, was in her late forties when she wrote and illustrated the book. The illustrations were cute and modern, and while not the height of 1971 fashion, they were what girls were actually wearing at that time.

I had to learn more about Barbara, and I found she lived in Attleboro, Massachusetts. She studied at the Massachusetts School of Arts, and had plans to be a fashion designer, having been an avid sewer since childhood. But she ended up in commercial art while painting and sewing wedding dresses on the side. In the 1960s she landed a contract to design and write sewing books for Doubleday, of which this book is one. She also illustrated cookbooks and pages for Highlights for Children magazine.

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Filed under Curiosities, Currently Reading, Sewing

The Portia Super Sports Shade

One of the problems in collecting clothes that are somewhat utilitarian is that there is often not a lot of change between say, an eye shade or visor, made in 1925 and one made in 1975 and one made in 2005. There are differences in materials, of course (no velcro in 1925) and in construction techniques, but these things are not immediately obvious when one is shopping primarily online.

I’ve found that sometimes it’s best to buy certain items like bucket hats (which were made for sports as early as the 1880s) in connection with a matching item. I located a 1910s bucket along with a pair of knickers that were made of the identical fabric. That removed all doubt concerning the age of the hat.

I had been wanting a 1920s eye shade of the sort worn by tennis star Helen Wills, but an online search proved impossible. That is, until I ran across the Portia Super Sports Shade. The packaging left no doubt that this was made in the mid 1920s. Better yet, there was a UK registered design number.

I’m fairly experienced in looking up US patent numbers, but the UK system stymied me. All I could figure out was that the design was registered in 1926. If some smart person who knows their way around the UK patent site can help, the number is 722887. I’d love to have a copy of the paperwork concerning this design.

The shade is in very good condition. It was altered by someone with a very small head. I’ll be leaving in the alteration because it does not change the look nor the function of the shade.

I’ve got to say that I’m amazed that this item has survived. Things made of plastics and rubber and elastic and such tend to degrade. And to have the original envelope is a real bonus. From a time when plastics could be highly flammable, it is comforting to see that my sports shade is non-flam.

The seller had another eye shade made by Portia, but it was sold as a reading shade. It was from the 1930s. It appears that Portia is still in business, making sunglasses and eye patches.

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Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Summer Sports

The Body Beautiful by Annette Kellermann

 

I’ve written about swimmer Annette Kellermann before, and you might know her as the subject of the 1952 film, Million Dollar Mermaid, staring Esther Williams. She was the woman who introduced the one-piece swimsuit for woman. but what she might have been best at was self-promotion.

In 1925 she promoted a health plan which was outlined in this booklet. She capitalized on a study conducted by Dr. Dudley A. Sargent of Harvard University which found her body to be the most perfectly formed female physique. She promised that in just five to fifteen minutes a day, any woman could “enjoy the priceless possessions of glorious health, radiant beauty, and a figure fashioned in Nature’s own wonderful mould.”

There are numerous photos of Kellermann’s perfect body in the booklet, most of which appear to have been altered to make her look thinner than she appears in other photos I’ve seen of her.

It just goes to show that  the pressure on women to strive for unrealistic body ideals have been with us a very long time.

I love that on this page Kellermann assures the reader that attaining world-wide fame for her figure has not in the least made her vain. That’s reassuring.

The 1920s was a time when youth and slimness were fashionable. It’s easy to see how this program might appeal to women who had been told their bodies were old-fashioned. Another part of the appeal might have been that in 1925 Kellermann was thirty-eight years old. Though she didn’t advertise that fact in the booklet, she had been in the public eye for about twenty years by this point. People knew she was approaching middle age.

I’d like to say that we’ve finally gotten to the point where we no longer put this type of “perfect body” pressure on women and on ourselves, but then that would be untruthful. Years of exposure to weight loss ads and magazines articles on losing weight, the “helpful” comments of others and subtle peer pressure are powerful influences.

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Filed under Advertisements, Curiosities, Summer Sports

Shopping with the Vintage Traveler – Winter 2020

I’m here to break to monotony of home exile with a bit of virtual shopping for the cabin fevered.  I went on my last shopping expedition for a while last week, and I’m hoping the Liberty Antiques Festival will go on as usual at the end of April. Otherwise, I might have a meltdown. Joking aside, be smart people.

All these photos were taken over a period of several months, in Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, and North Georgia.

I love souvenir items from my region. I’m only about thirty miles from the Eastern Band of Cherokee “reservation”, which is not in Tennessee at all, and is not a true reservation.  Still, this pillow accurately shows what tourists were apt to see in the 1940s or 50s when visiting Cherokee, NC.

If this had pictured a woman golfer, I would have bought it.

Scariest Santa ever.  I love old masks, and have collected a few Halloween ones. They are always creepy.

If I return to this antique mall and this is still there, I’ll probably buy it. As it was, the piece was over-priced and over-ruffled. Still, I love that sailor so much.

I love how sometimes you can tell where an antique store is located just by thinking about the products for sale. In North Georgia I saw a lot of chenille bedspreads. That’s where they were made.

Some time ago I wrote about the Iowa button industry. I had no idea they were also made in Chattanooga, from mussel shells from the Tennessee River.

I liked this Squaw Valley souvenir ski thermometer.

As the Boomers start dying off, will anyone care about Howdy Doody? (I met Buffalo Bob at an Asheville Tourists baseball game some years ago. Such a nice man!)

Sex sells anything, even Mosco Corn Remover.

And here’s more chenille, this time in East Tennessee. This one is a more modern synthetic, but what about that peacock!?

I’ve seen a lot of Enid Collins bags recently, including quite a few I’d never seen before. I loved this poodle. I was once lucky enough to talk with Collin’s son, and asked him if they ever produced a Scottie dog bag. He told me he did not know, and there were many that had limited production, so it was possible one might show up one day. I can hope.

This beach jacket is for a small child. I want a big one, please.

There are some sellers on Instagram who could sell this holey sweater for $$$.

I found the semi-local label interesting.

How pretty is that lavender dress? It came with the hat and the dressform and was priced accordingly.

Simply gorgeous!

I’ve always tended to think of Victorian and Edwardian collars as white, so seeing these striped ones was an education.

Slickers, with the original box!

This is the only way to effectively sell hair nets.

At first I was distracted by the stand-up ad for the World’s Lightest Outboard, and then I noticed the Christian Dior gloves display piece. What a treasure!

And may your day be filled with treasures as well!

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Filed under Curiosities, Shopping

Folk Art Center of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild

Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway as one is traveling south into Asheville, is the Folk Art Center. It’s mainly a crafts store that sells the products of craftspeople who are members of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, which has been around, officially, since 1930. It was born from the Crafts Revival Movement, which was the rural twin of the Settlement House movement made famous by Jane Addams in Chicago.

I’ve written quite a bit about the Crafts Revival Movement, and I’ll link to some of those articles at the end of this post. For the most part, it was driven by a desire of middle class and wealthy women to help women in poverty through the production of traditional crafts.  Remarkably, some of the efforts of these women still survive, as in the case of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild.

And while I find some of the ideas of one hundred years ago to be more than a bit patronizing toward the people of Appalachia, the efforts were sincere, and did actually lead to women in the Southern Mountains being able to make and market crafts, and thus to bring in badly needed cash to their families. It also helped establish a strong renewal of craft traditions in the Appalachians.

The Southern Highlands Craft Guild is also in possession of a nice collection of crafts and other artifacts from the early days of the Guild. Upstairs at the Folk Arts Center is a small, but interesting museum of some of the items in the collection.

Besides textiles, there are baskets and other woven items, like the late 1930s or early 40s tilt hat seen above. It was made by Alice Pratt of Asheville from braided cornhusks, lined in silk.

This 1930s handbag was also made from cornhusks, backed with burlap. The maker was Isadora Williams of Knoxville, Tennessee.

This is the coverlet that pretty much started the crafts revival. In 1894 it was given to a missionary, Frances Goodrich, who was working in the area north and west of Asheville and she was so taken with it that she thought it might be a way for the local women to make money. Unfortunately the coverlet was around forty years old at the time of the gift, and most women, even deep in the Appalachian Mountains had given up weaving due to the availability of cheap mass-produced textiles.

But Goodrich was persistent, and soon old disassembled looms were located and reassembled. Women who had given up the labor of weaving returned to the loom as Goodrich and others started co-ops in which to sell the coverlets and other crafts.

There are other coverlets on display, like these three from North Carolina, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

Here is a very rare survivor, a dress made for handwoven linsey-woolsey. The museum was a bit short on details, but dated the dress to around 1900. There are a few mended spots, but otherwise the dress seems to be in wonderful condition.

People who follow me on Instagram have already seen this piece, but it is just too special not to share here as well. This is a “cow blanket” though that is most likely a misnomer. It was made by Kate “Granny” Clayton Donaldson. Donaldson lived in Marble, NC, and sometime in the 1920s or early 30s she started crocheting figures and animals from her homespun and dyed wool. The story is a bit sketchy, but through an association with the nearby John C. Campbell Folk School (founded by another woman, Olive Dame Campbell} she began attaching the figures to pieces of fabric to make a decorative blanket or hanging.

Quite a few of Kate Donaldson’s blankets survive. They are in the collections of art and folk museums, and occasionally one comes up for sale.

A personal note – my father was born in Marble in 1927. It’s very likely that his family knew Kate, as Marble is a tiny place, where everybody knows everybody else.

Biltmore Industries

Fireside Industries, Berea

Penland School of Crafts

Crossnore Weavers

 

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Filed under Curiosities, Museums, North Carolina