Teachers, South, and Calico Dresses

Teachers, South, and Calico Dresses

November 20, 2021 1 By Editor

Beauvisage is the neighborhood butcher and had attempted to buy Nicette’s affections; each time she leaves her flower stand “…for a minute, when I come back I find a sausage among my roses, or a pig’s foot on my footwarmer.”  Nicette further confesses:

My mother’s inclined to favor Beauvisage, who shuts her eyes with galantine and never comes to the house without a chitterling eight inches long. Mother’s crazy over chitterlings, and she’d like to have me marry the pork man, so that she could always have a pig’s pudding on hand.

The implication I take from this exchange is that Nicette is economically so poor that even a calico dress is a reasonable enticement.

The next Ngram link took me to a book by George Augustus Sala. Sala was an English reporter and book author. In 1863, The Daily Telegraph (first British penny daily newspaper) sent him to America to cover the Civil War. His newspaper column took the form of a series of letters.

In 1865 Sala published his letters from America, augmented with additional material, in a two volume set aptly named My Diary in America in the Midst of War.[5] In volume 2 Sala writes:

Agitation against extravagance in dress had been occasionally heard of in New York before the breaking out of the Civil War . At one time , I am told , “ Calico Balls ” were fashionable . Do you know the nature of a calico ball ? The ladies who are to attend it agree to wear only calico dresses ; the colour , the design , and the trimmings being left to the discretion of the wearer . After a few weeks of the calico movement , it was found that the New York milliners were charging rather more for cotton dresses full trimmed than they had hitherto asked for silks and satins . Then the movement was modified . The ladies came in calico dresses , like so many Molly Moggs , and wore them until twelve o’clock ; but at midnight the reverse of the transformation scene in Cinderella took place. The cotton-clad belles tripped into their disrobing power , whisked off their calico frocks , and reappeared in dresses of the most expensive materials , and blazing with jewels.

In the South , during the Civil War , a kindred institution to the calico balls , but a more sincere one , has obtained . Of the “ Starvation Parties ” you have heard , —the réunions , where you might dance , sing , gossip , play cards , charades , forfeits , and flirt , but where you got neither a bite nor a sup.

This brings up an interesting and perhaps more pertinent issue.  What were Calico Balls?

A quick look at Ngram Viewer indicates the relative year to year frequency of use[6]. Setting the smoothing function to 1 gives frequency in one year blocks (as opposed to say smoothing of 3 which plots three year moving averages).  

Figure 4: Google Ngram Viewer, calico ball, American English, 1850-1910

We see peaks in 1860, 1890, and 1936.  While the sample books were published in these years, no doubt the books were written a year or more earlier. Still it is worth a quick survey of what was going on in the United States during these years:

  • 1860 – Lincoln elected US President; southern states form Confederate States of America
  • 1890 –  Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota, Oklahoma Land Rush, Spanish American War (1898); new states join union (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington)
  • 1936 – Depression in USA; Germany, Italy, and Japan form an alliance, Hitler’s Germany host Olympics

Digging into some of the links, I came across Kristin Holt’s excellent posting “What is a Calico Ball?”  Holt provides a clipping from the January 13, 1885 Hartford Courant newspaper, Hartford, Connecticut:

Figure 5: Holt, K.  (2021, November 2). What is a Calico Ball. Kristin Holt. http://www.kristinholt.com/archives/15728

In the article, Holt provides additional clippings of the same time period from papers in Richmond VA, Chicago IL, and San Francisco CA. Each article advertises a Calico Ball and request that afterward the Calico dresses be donated to clothe the poor.

The CivilWarTalk.com site has some historical newspaper articles posted in their discussion of “Calico Dress Balls”. One article is about an 1866 Southern Relief Fair in St Louis holding a calico dress ball to raise funds to help civilian orphans, windows, and disabled soldiers. A “ticket admitted a gentleman and as many ladies as the holder chose to bring”.  Ticket sales, not including pre-sales, were over $2,300. About $40,000 in year 2021 dollars. Of course applying an average inflation rate of 1.85% per year might not be the best comparison. A better comparison is to look at the cost goods and services.

In 1868, the cost of Board & Tuition at St Louis University (St Louis, MO) was $300 per year (10 months), the same university’s 2021 cost of board & tuition is $57,300.  Another apt comparison is labor costs.  A US Department of Labor bulletin published in 1898 provides the “average daily wages in gold for certain cities of the United States, 1870 to 1898”.  In 1870, on average a plumber in Saint Louis earned $2.881/2 cents per day (interestingly carpenters earned the same amount) so the $2,300 raised by the 1866 Southern Relief Fair at-the-door ticket sales would procure 797 plumber (or carpenter) labor days.  Assuming 8 hour work days, this comes to 6,376 labor hours. True enough, the work day in 1870 likely exceeded 8 hours; studies of the 1870 manufacturing industry estimated a work week was around 61 hours — but let’s not get bogged down in details  (yes-that is a joke!). Suffice to say, the 1866 Southern Relief Fair Calico Dress Ball raised over $2,300 and was a great success.

Calico Balls evolved into fund raisers for causes large and small. The newspaper Abilene Weekly Reflector (Abilene, Kan.), May 7, 1896 reported a Calico Ball on behalf of Bushrod Keieh “…to raise  funds to secure a trial in a higher court for the condemned man”. The Meade County news (Meade, Kan.), January 28, 1904 reported a Calico Ball with “Proceeds for Waterworks”. The newspaper Barbour County index (Medicine Lodge, Kan.), on February 1, 1905 reported the St Valentine Ball to be given by the Rathbone Sisters[7]  Feb. 14th is to be a “Calico Ball”.

At some point Calico Balls became a type of costume party. The Free press (Hays, Kan.), February 4, 1899 reported “The Calico ball last Friday eve was a success, the costumes very tastey and the Judges awarded that worn by Miss Kittie Fox as the prettiest and gave her the prize”

The New York Journal and Advertiser (New York [N.Y.]), December 3, 1899 reported:

The Clarks — the newest multi-millionaires of New York, have just given New York an original social diversion. It was a farm party, with the guests as farm hands attired in homespun raiment, and with the animals and products of the farm as gifts , to the host. Of course, the host did not need them.  But that’s another story. 

Later the article reads:

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