Teachers, South, and Calico DressesNovember 20, 2022
Today I spent the better part of a day plumbing the intended meaning of “waved the calico dresses of woman who dared…”. In a slightly larger context, the quote is
Behind the mists of ruin and ravine waved the calico dresses of woman who dared, and after the hoarse mouthing of the field guns rang the rhythm of the alphabet. Rich and poor they were serious and curious. Bereaved now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses among the white and black of the South. 
What would a thirty something very well educated man writing these words between 1901 and 1903 have in mind? By very educated I mean, valedictorian of high school (Massachusetts, 1884), BA at Fisk University (Tennessee, 1888), another bachelor degree at Harvard (1891), two years study at the University of Berlin Germany, followed by a PhD at Harvard (1895). The words were written by W.E.B De Bois in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folks. De Bois’s many professional skills included: civil rights activist, sociologist, historian, author, writer, and editor.
By “waved the calico dresses of woman who dared…” was De Bois saying they wore colorfully dresses? Printed cotton dresses? Were the dresses waving freely or were the women wearing the dresses? Does “calico dresses” imply made in India, the US, England, somewhere else? Is it a comment on social & economic standing? Is this a simple etymology exercise or something more?
So off to Google Books Ngram Viewer to see how frequently this word set was used between 1500 and 2019 in Google’s sample of 6,000 books per year.
In Google’s sampling of English books, the use of the “calico dress” word pairing seems to have risen around the American Civil War period and appears to peak during the US Reconstruction period.
Focusing on Google’s sampling of books in American English reinforces the association of word pair frequency and the American War between the States and subsequent Reconstruction period.
We can narrow down the search to a period close to De Bois’s birth and his writing of The Souls of Black Folk. De Bois was born 1868 in Barrington, Massachusetts; 85 years after the 1783 abolishment of slavery in Massachusetts, three years after the 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed slavery in all parts of the United States, and two years after the end of the American Civil
While the Google Books Ngram for this time period does not add any new information it does allow us to pull up scanned books from this period that mention “calico dress”. By no means is this a scientific approach; but it seems a reasonably way to get a feeling for the use of and common understanding of the word during the time period.
The first document reviewed was the 1894 City and County of New York Supreme Court Case on appeal of the Last Will and Testament of Sophia Moss. In this case, three daughters and one son contested their mothers’ paper will which left them a token sum with the remainder of the large estate going to the remaining three sons identified as trustees. The aggrieved siblings charged that the trustee sons had abused the mother, and coerced or fooled the mother into setting the terms of the will. The court found that the “paper propounded is not the free and voluntary act of Sophia Moss” and found the document “illegal and void”. Our interest in the case is that “calico dress” or “calico” is mentioned 13 times in the court case, mainly to exemplify that Sophia was not well cared for by her sons.
One witness testified “I never saw her on the street in anything better than a calico dress and a shawl about her shoulders, and a hat.” On cross examination the same witness said that after Sophia Moss moved to her most recent home, “she did not wear anything but calico dresses on the street” to which the Surrogate (the judge) responded “You cannot argue from that she did not have any dresses; a great many people in this world are dressed badly from taste or inclination”.
Another witness, during cross examination said that she had fixed dresses for Sophia Moss, five or more years ago and that “ When I saw it in the paper that Mrs. Moss dressed in calicos and she was so shabby; I told my daughters that while I sewed for Mrs. Moss her satins and silks and poplins and rich clothes I often made over for her.”
A daughter-in-law, wife of one of the trustees testified: “She dressed plain. Of course, a woman of her age – she was not a very fashionable woman, but she dressed nice ; you know, according to her taste. I did not see her in many calicos; I saw her dress a little better than calicos.
From these passages it is safe to say calico dresses were not the height of fashion and that financially well-off people considered dressing in calico to be in poor taste.
Diving into Google Books Ngram again, I next pulled up the novel My Neighbor Raymond by Charles Paul de Kock. A little further digging shows that De Kock was a popular French author. His father, a refugee Dutch banker was guillotined during the French Revolution of 1789. De Kock’s subject was Persian life, and although his writing was consistently deemed lowbrow, his books were widely read.
My Neighbor Raymond published in France around 1823 and published in the US in the early 1900s. The book begins with the main character, Eugene, walking the streets of Paris and for lack of anything better to do, “…indulging in some rather serious reflections on the world and its people…”. Just as Eugene turns his eyes to the moon and “saw mountains, lakes, and forest — for with a little determination one may see in the moon whatever one pleases—“ he collides with a person going in the opposite direction. Hearing her voice, and having nothing better to do, he looks down upon her face:
It was a girl of sixteen to eighteen years, with a little cap tied under her chin, a calico dress, and a modest apron of black mohair. She had every appearance of a young workgirl who had just finished her day’s work and was on her way home. I made haste to look at her face: a charming face, on my word!
Later Eugene meets Nicette, a sixteen year old girl. Thrown out of her home, and with no place to stay, Nicette naively accepts Eugene’s invitation to stay at his apartment. Eugene attempts to seduce the girl, but she innocently, yet skillful, deflects his attempts. Eugene tells the girl that she is too pretty to be selling flowers on the street and continues:
If you chose, Nicette, you could find something better to do than that.
No, monsieur, no; I don’t want to sell anything but bouquets. Oh! I ain’t vain. I refused Beauvisage, who’s got money, and who’d have given me calico dresses, caps à la glaneuse, and gilt chains; but all those things didn’t tempt me. When I don’t like a person, nothing can make me change my mind.