Teachers, South, and Calico Dresses

Teachers, South, and Calico Dresses

November 20, 2022 0 By Editor

Mrs. “Dick” Rutherford, with a gingham apron over her calico dress and a big sunbonnet hiding her hair, looked the typical hard-working Down East farmer’s wife.

Milkmaids, rough-looking farm hands, ploughmen, chicken women, butter women and a novel assortment of old farmers and their wives, all with paper mache chickens on their heads as caps, were among those who offered their compliments and a happy birthday to the bewildered Dr. Culver. All the guests masquerading in this ridiculous fashion …

One of Dr. Culver’s most highly prized gifts was a chicken coop filled with chickens, presented to him by Frederick Crocker.  Mrs. Crocker was dressed as a chicken woman and was one of the acknowledged belles of the evening.  Her costume was of calico. She wore a big apron stamped with chickens, and a little feather chicken was tucked in her hair as an ornament.

The article thoughtfully included drawings of a few costumed attendees.

Images of calico ball costumes. A chicken women, a farmers wife, and a milkmaid (accompanied by two cows with horns - yes some cows have horns! )
Figure 6: Calico customs at the “farm party” (Cholly Knickerbocker “Society Will Devote a Week to Teas” New York journal and advertiser, December 3, 1899, https://www.loc.gov/item/sn83030180/1899-12-03/ed-1/)

The 1906 publication Masquerades, Tableaux and Drills (image #13, page 10) states:

Among the costumes most generally chosen for calico balls are peasant and shepherdess dresses, and those for fish girls, flower girls and charity girls; poudré and watteau costumes and those for Cinderella, Mother Hubbard, waiting-maids, Bo-Peep, Dolly Varden or almost any of those suggested and pictured throughout these pages. The men at such balls wear simply made character costumes or dress suits made of “calico”; or sometimes ordinary dress suits faced with bright cambric or flowered fabrics. 

From this review, it appears calico, in general, was hold in low regard.  In some segments of society, women wearing calico were either engaging in a make believe dress-up event, demonstrating poor taste, or indicating loose sexual mores. The Topeka State Journal (Topeka, Kan.), November 12, 1905, (edition for Sunday) (bottom, center of page) offered this bit of wit under the column title “Might Be Good for the 400”:

The Comanche Indians have a law if a buck runs away with another’s squaw the husband is to have all his property, and marital infraction is said to be rare in the tribe. A law like that might make the New York 400 palefaces think twice before risking a fortune for a piece of calico.[8]

This brings us back to our original question. In his 1903 “Souls of Black Folk” was De Bois implying something about the women when he mentions calico dresses? Is there a symbolism, an unuttered tacitly assumed underlying meaning that an educated person at the time would automatically perceive? In the book, De Bois certainly makes a great many allusions and casual references, from the contemporaneous to the classical; we can assume the book’s audience was expected to understand the insinuations. A quick review of references includes: the weary emancipator; the ninth crusade; “cracker” Third Estate; Barbdoes of Boston; Toussaint the Savior; Atalanta and Hippomenes; Lachesi, Clotho, and Atropos; Boeotia Venus; Mammonism; the love song of Dido; the springs and breezes of Parnassu.

I am not saying De Bois was implying the women were wealthy northerners who came south to dress up and play at being teachers. That would be outlandish; but there seems to be an undercurrent to the words. 

I was reading what Booker T. Washington said in “Up from Slavery” about those who came to the South to teach former slaves and comparing this to W.E.B. De Bois words about the same group of people. Two men with vastly different experiences talking about the same topic … but that is for another posting. 

In the meantime, what do you think? Was Du Bois implying something about the schoolteachers?

The annals of this Ninth Crusade are yet to be written,—the tale of a mission that seemed to our age far more quixotic than the quest of St. Louis seemed to his. Behind the mists of ruin and rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared, and after the hoarse mouthings 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. They did their work well. In that first year they taught one hundred thousand souls, and more.[9]

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(click on footnote number to return to main text)

[1] W.E.B De Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Mineola, New York; Dover Publications Inc, 1994), p16

[2] In fairness the next line from this quote is “They did their work well. In that first year they taught one hundred thousand souls, and more.”

[3] removed

[4] The end of the US Civil War is often linked to General Robert E. Lee’s April 9th 1965 surrender of the 28,000 man Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.  In hindsight this may appear to be true; however, fighting continued after Lee’s surrendered. Additional Confederate generals surrendered their armies in April, May, and June of 1865. In between these surrenders, on April 14, 1865 President Abram Lincoln (Republican) was assassinated and Andrew Johnson (Democrat) became President. On May 10, 1865, the Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured in Georgia. 

Confederate forces engaged Union assets as late as August 1965. James Wadell, commander of the raider CSS Shenandoah operating against Union commercial ships in the Bearing Sea, learned in August 1865 that Robert E Lee had surrender but that President Jefferson Davis was calling for continued resistance. Wadell sailed to San Francisco to continue pressing the war; off the coast of California he learned of the Confederate defeat and sailed the ship and crew to Liverpool, England. On November 6, 1865, Wadell surrendered his ship and command to the British government.

On April 2 1866 President Johnson issued a Proclamation on the End of the Confederate Insurrection (omitting Texas). On April 20 1866 Johnson announced the official end of the Civil War with Proclamation 157—Declaring that Peace, Order, Tranquillity, and Civil Authority Now Exists in and Throughout the Whole of the United States of America.  

[5] The Justificatory chapter, though containing some outdated and demonstrably incorrect racial ideas, is well worth reading for the commentary on American politics. The chapter is best described as starting slowly, and then slowly, continuously picking up speed until it becomes a screaming freight train bouncing off the rails.

[6] Within the limits of the Google’s 6,000 book per year sample.

[7] The Rathbone Sisters, or more properly, “The Rathbone Sisters of the World” were previously known as the “Pythian Sisters of the World”, not to be confused with the “Pythian Sisterhood”. These groups are auxiliary organizations of the “The Order of Knights of Pythias”. 

The Order of Knights of Pythias was founded in 1864 in the midst of the US Civil War. The organization emphasizes Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence. US President Abraham Lincoln thought the purposes of the organization most wonderful and stated:

It is one of the best agencies conceived for the upholding of government, honoring the flag, for the reuniting of our brethren of the North and of the South, for teaching the people to love one another, and portraying the sanctity of the home and loved ones.”

Lincoln encouraged the organization to apply for a Congressional Charter, and in 1870 The Knights of Pythias became the first fraternal organization so chartered.

The history of the Knights of Pythias covers competing auxiliary groups; break away German speakers; denial of black member chapters resulting in creation of a separate “Knights of Pythias of North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa”,– the reunification of which is still ongoing; insurance programs growing into separate companies that today control assets over $54 billion.  Interesting stuff to be the subject of a future posting.

[8] The dictionary.com entry for 400 reads “the exclusive social set of a city or area”. The Four Hundred refers to“… four hundred people in the fashionable New York Society. If you go outside that number you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or make other people not at ease … ”. The list, never exactly 400 people, determined who New York socialite Mrs. Astor invited to the annual ball held at her New York City mansion. Between the end of the Civil War and 1902, making the Four Hundred list determined social standing and the marriage potential of invitees and their off spring.

[9] W.E.B De Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Mineola, New York; Dover Publications Inc, 1994), p16

light house against the evening sky

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