The Kitchen Girls Part 2: Early Campus Female Life

In my last blog I introduced the female employees working at the Saint’s Rest boarding hall in 1866. These 33 women were paid an average of $2.00 – $2.50 a week for their work and were purchasing personal items through the university, charged against their monthly pay. Their purchases don’t appear to be work related; rather they are personal in nature. So let’s take a moment to further examine what these women were buying.

Corsets

Page of Saint's Rest Account Book showing corset purchases. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Page of Saint’s Rest Account Book showing corset purchases. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Corsets were the first things that caught my eye in these boarding hall purchasing records. On April 19th, 1866 seven of the women purchases corsets at a cost of $2.50 each. That’s an entire week’s pay!

Today wearing a corset may seem odd (although in some circles they are making a comeback) but the 1860s were at the height of the Victorian era (1837-1901), when corset wearing wasn’t just the norm, but was expected of women in order to obtain an ideal form. Because some of the women were also separately purchasing whalebone (at $0.15 a piece), we can deduce that they were not purchasing corsets with pre-weaved boning, which became popular (but more expensive) in the 1860s.

Whalebone corset c. 1864. Image Source - Victoria & Albert Museum

Whalebone corset c. 1864. Image Source – Victoria & Albert Museum

Balmoral Skirt

Balmoral Skirt. Image Source: American Textile History Museum

Balmoral Skirt. Image Source: American Textile History Museum

In May of 1866 Millie Trevallee purchased a balmoral skirt for the whopping price of $5.75. A balmoral skirt, or petticoat, is worn over a hoop skirt. There are several entries for girls purchasing hoop skirts. A hoop skirt gave the structural component to the large full dress skirts in fashion during this era. A balmoral petticoat was made of colored or patterned fabric and intended to show at the bottom of a dress. The most common type of Balmoral skirt was made of red wool with 2-4 black stripes running around the hem. In the late 1860s other patterns became popular as the trend spread through different levels of society.

Fabric

Sewing machine invented in the early 1850s lead to mass production of clothing. However, due to the amount of raw fabric being purchased, it’s likely that these women were making their own clothing. The rural nature of the area, and their socio-economic status may explain the lack of pre-made clothing. The kitchen girls were purchasing muslin, printed fabric ( such as gingham), cotton fabric, ladies cloth (a lightweight multipurpose fabric), bishop lawn (light weight slightly blue cotton fabric), silk, and a variety of colored fabric (such as pink and purple). They also purchased trim, ruffling, buttons, and hook and eye closures.

Saint's Rest Account Book showing purchase of hoop skirt, fabric, medicine and other personal items. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Saint’s Rest Account Book showing purchase of hoop skirt, fabric, medicine and other personal items. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Ayer's Ague Cure Ad - Image Source

Ayer’s Ague Cure Ad – Image Source

Medicine

Most of the entries related to health purchases are vague such as pills, “Doctor Bill”, “Paid to Dentist”, or “1 chicken for Mary Bage (sick)”. However a few purchases give us a glimpse into the medical issues and treatments of the time. Several women made purchases of iron tinctures, quinine, and Ague Cure. The iron tincture is a bit more straightforward than the quinine and Ague Cure. Today quinine may only sound familiar to as an ingredient in tonic (it’s what gives tonic it’s bitter flavor), but historically this was used to treat malaria and other ailments. Since malaria isn’t exactly common place in Lansing, it’s more likely that Ada was using it for one of it’s other purpose – such as treating a fever of another cause. The Ague Cure she also purchased in June was also used for fever and chills, known commonly as “malarial disorders”.

This is not a complete list of the items purchased by the female employees, but they are perhaps the most interesting.  Although clothing related purchases dominate the 1866 record they were also incurring expenses for mending shoes, purchasing stamps, and travel.  These account books have provided a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of early female university employees.  They have also allowed us to begin to understand part campus history that we have not yet uncovered in the archaeology of campus.

References:

http://www.maggiemayfashions.com/corsets.html

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/c/corsets-and-crinolines-in-victorian-fashion/

http://thedreamstress.com/2012/11/terminology-what-is-a-balmoral-petticoat/

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections:

UA 17.107 Box 1140 Folder 8

Madison Kuhn Collection 17.107 Box 1141 Folder 66

UA 17.107 Box 2461 Item #40

If the Shoe Fits: Understanding Changing Fashion Through Footwear

It may seem unusual to dig up a pair of shoes, yet shoes are not totally uncommon on archaeological excavations. Just last week a report from Northumberland, England announced a find of more than 400 shoes discovered at the Roman fort of Vindolanda. Typically the entire shoe is not preserved, rather the leather from the soles or uppers, as well as any metal used for the lace rivets are what preserves. CAP has uncovered parts of shoes several times, including in the West Circle Privy, the Gunson trash pit, and excavations at west Beaumont Tower. However this summer, while working at Station Terrace we encountered a nearly complete pair of shoes near the bottom of the excavation unit.

Shoes from Station Terrace after removal from excavation unit. Photo by Lisa Bright

Shoes from Station Terrace after removal from excavation unit. Photo by Lisa Bright

You can learn a lot about fashion, gender, and even identity from shoes. Sure, you can get technical and talk about the way the shoe was crafted, is the outsole stitched, nailed, cemented, etc. But shoes can also inform us about changing gender perspectives as seen through fashion over time.

Stenciling (brogueing) detail from lace area of the right shoe. Image Source: Lisa Bright

Stenciling (brogueing) detail from lace area of the right shoe. Image Source: Lisa Bright

When the field crew was working to uncover and remove the shoes, they informed me that they had found a pair of women’s shoes. At first glance, it’s easy to see how they came to this conclusion. The pointed toe, the stacked heel, the decorative brogueing, and the loop style ties are typical of women’s shoes today. But these are not women’s shoes, these are a pair of men’s dress shoes. We needed to remember the context and time period of this particular site to properly identify these shoes. Station Terrace was used on campus from the early 1890s until 1924, and men’s fashion, specifically footwear, was very different during this period.   Based on the shape, style, and height/width of the heel these shoes were most likely produced in the the early 1900s (1900-1920).

Closeup of men of Tr'e House circa 1908. Note the different styles of shoes. Photo courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Closeup of men of Tr’e House circa 1908. Note the different styles of shoes. Photo courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Chemistry Class circa 1914. Several different shoe and suit styles are represented. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Chemistry Class circa 1914. Several different shoe and suit styles are represented. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The history of men’s fashion is often overlooked, or overshadowed by women’s fashion.  Although the changes in mens fashion from the 1890s to the 1920s is not as drastic as changes in women’s fashion, differences do exist.

Group of students pose with frame c. 1895. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

Group of students pose with frame c. 1895. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections

The Edwardian clothing era (named for England’s Prince Edward VII) was characterized by slight changes to the cuts of jackets, collar styles, and sport and fitness clothing. Men wore lose, plain, suits with wide lapels, called Sack suits (see the above image).  During the Edwardian era the shoes did change considerably from the Victorian era. Men’s shoes fell into three distinct categories; boots, oxfords, and pumps. Boots were designed for every day wear and traveling. They were often two tone, with a dark bottom half and white upper half designed to mimic a shoe spats. The oxford, typically used for business or work, is very similar to men’s dress shoes today.

1912 Sears Catalog ad for men's dress shoes. Note the bows and high heel. Image Source

1912 Sears Catalog ad for men’s dress shoes. Note the bows and high heel. Image Source

Men’s dress shoes are where perhaps the greatest variation from todays style occurs, for they were classified as pumps. Yes, pumps. In the Edwardian era, men’s formal dress shoes look like a hybrid of today’s men’s oxford and a women’s low-heeled flat. Typically they had the same stenciling (broqueing) details of an oxford, a high arch, and a 1-2 inch thick heel. It’s also important to remember that thin string shoelaces weren’t a thing yet. Shoes either buttoned, or were laced with a ½ inch wide silk ribbon and tied in a bow. You can even see these bows in the two historic pictures featured earlier in this post.

Today we may think that a 2 inch heel and bow are feminine, but it’s important to remember that cultural ideals of what is appropriate for a particular gender change through time. In fact, men’s shoes had high heels long before women’s shoes did. (See this article, or if you find yourself in Toronto stop by the Bata shoe museum’s exhibit “Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels”).

The teens marked the end of the Edwardian period (1890-1910). During the teens men’s fashion was heavily influenced by military apparel from WWI.

These shoes provide a unique glimpse into everyday life at Station Terrace.  Although we will never know why these shoes were left behind in the buildings basement, I’m glad they were.

References:

https://www.bustle.com/articles/126280-a-short-history-of-high-heels-from-ancient-greece-to-carrie-bradshawShoe

Making Sense of a Little Piece of Leather: Behind the Scenes with the Shoemaker’s Apprentice

https://www.gentlemansemporium.com/mens-edwardian-clothing.php

http://www.archaeology.org/news/4901-161011-england-vindolanda-shoes

https://archive.org/details/catalogno12400sear