Women of the mid-1800s considered ornamental fineries like the handkerchief an easy piece of their wardrobe to part with. Men carried such items into battle, out to sea, and across the difficult terrain of the West. Often these small squares of material were sprayed with perfume. At the time, perfumes and colognes were worn mostly by married women, and the fragrance of choice was predominately floral. The hope was that the fragrance would remind loved ones of the girl they had left behind and prompt a speedy return. Not all handkerchiefs processing lingering bouquets inspired romantic sentiments, however:
“Women beware. The perfumes which are most agreeable to the senses are not always the most helpful to the nerves. Ambergris, for instance, is positively offensive to many, yet it is said to possess a wonderful power of clearing the brain and driving away those evil spirits knowns as the “blues.
On the other hand, attar of roses, with the suggestion of glowing suns and gorgeous eastern colors, predisposes one to tears. A faint odor of musk acts as a tonic, while civet brings drowsiness of soul, for which the best antidote is the pungent odor of Sandalwood. The fragrance of citron and aloe wood is as soothing to nervous people as far-off music.
Many perfumes, delightful in the open air, become particularly disagreeable in a close room. A whole evening can be spoiled by the presence of tuberose or lilies in a reception room. Their strong fragrance has a very bad effect. Magnolia blossoms, too, have a delightful perfume in their native grove, but woe to her who sleeps through the night with a single blossom on her pillow. There are many fragrant flowers, such as carnations, clove pink, sweet briar and apple blossoms, that are as beneficial as they are sweet and scented.
A vivid perfume is nearly always bracing, while a subtle one is generally enervating. One may become positively intoxicating thro’ inhaling the odor of the peach, almond, wild cherry and other blossoms of the same class, because they all contain a suggestion of prussic acids.”
Free Press, Mesa, Arizona Territory, July 9, 1897
Accessories to a woman’s look were quite varied. In addition to lace handkerchief, gloves were considered a must – a lady always wore gloves. Short, kid gloves that matched a lady’s outfit were preferred for day wear. With an evening dress, satin, lace, or net-work gloves that reach the bottom top of the sleeve. Both kid gloves and those intended for evening wear were often decorated with fine embroidery. Women in rural areas wore gloves made from suede, cotton, and wool. Black and tan gloves were always in favor.
According to the magazines of the time such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, gloves were such a popular item of clothing that in 1892, more than 30,000 people in the United States made their living from the industry. It was such a growing market that the government imposed tariffs to protect wages and guard against foreign encroachments.
“Since those protective duties were imposed American factories have become the most important sources of supply for the home market and have turned out a product not only of a continually improving quality. The American glove is just as handsome and more substantial than the foreign article and can be bought at a lower price than ever before.”
El Paso Daily Herald, Texas, May 1892
Women from all socioeconomic backgrounds added parasols and fans to their summer look. These items were not only decorative, but also functional. Parasols provided shade from the heat and were made from material such as cotton and linsey-woolsey for the more basic style, and lace and satin from the more elaborate. The average parasol was 24 inches across. Fans helped keep ladies cool as well, and often hung from the waists of their dresses.
According to an 1865 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, women were not considered proper ladies if they appeared in public without a shawl. A shawl was a common outer garment that was square, rather large, and usually made from wool. The shawl every woman coveted was a Paisley. It was patterned after the hand-woven Kashmir shawls from India. Paisley shawls ranged in price from $2.50 to $500.00. The less expensive Paisley shawls were available from Montgomery Ward and Company; the higher-priced versions were imported from Scotland.
Authentic Paisley shawls were woven in a manner quite similar to methods used to weave tapestries, and the finest were woven with goat’s fleece from Asia. But regardless of price or quality, Paisley shawls were worn more for decoration than protection from the elements. Everyday shawls that had a more utilitarian purpose were either crocheted or handmade from cotton or wool. Women who couldn’t afford the fashionable Paisley shawl sometimes added fringe and beads to the edges of an everyday shawl.
Ladies handbags or purses were generally kept tucked inside the pockets of their full skirts. When they were worn outside, one could see they were small drawstring or clasp bags. Many purses were hand-crocheted out of beaded fabric. Still others, like the ones offered at fashionable stores in Denver, Colorado, were crafted from the finest material.
“The little chain purse looks conventional enough, but when some fair shopper chances to find it she will be much delighted at the marvelous workmanship, as she will be later disappointed by the price.
It is made of iron, studded with stars of red gold. In the center of each star is a tiny sparkling diamond. The clasp is in the form of two crescents. The clasp is thickly studded with gleaming diamonds, and the effect is beautiful. The purse is about the size of a silver dollar. The back is fitted with a safety clasp pin. It is to be worn pinned on the left side of a lady’s belt, a little below the waistline. It will cost $150.00.”
The Denver Republican, Colorado, August 1899
In the 1850s, outfits for both sexes were topped off with a hat. Most children and all adults wore some kind of head covering in public. The bonnet was the most common hat worn by women. Made from a wide range of material from calico and straw to velvet and silk taffeta, the brim of the sunbonnet contained thin slats of wood or cardboard so that it stood out over the wearer’s face. This provided protection from the harsh sun of the open country. All bonnets were fixed with curtain from 2 to 14 inches in length hanging down at the back to conceal the neck from the elements as well.
Winter bonnets were traditionally black and made to match or coordinate with different dresses. They were made with buckram frames – a heavy, stiff, reinforced wire that made the hat stand out away from the face. Bonnet trimmings consisted of ribbons, lace, feathers, flowers, fringe, or braid. The hat stayed on the head with the use of hatpins and a tie under the chin.
Hats were considered a vital fashion accessory throughout the nineteenth century. Women were considered only partially dressed if they left their homes without headwear. By the early 1860s, the bonnet was slowly being replaced with wider, taller, and more elaborate hats. White organdy garden hats with sprays of flowers were the style in the East. In the West, the Hussar hat was the rage. The Hussar was a low-brimmed military hat that was redesigned for ladies and included layers of lace and tulle. Straw hats from Paris were popular from coast to coast – fancy yellow straw and appliqued lace hats topped off many looks.
Newspaper editors in California cautioned finely dressed women with such hats not to overrate the attention they received from their fashions. They warned, “The girl who expects to win her way in life with her beauty and a grand hat alone may be disappointed.”
“To win and hold admiration you must first cultivate the gifts that nature has bestowed upon you. If you have a talent for music, develop it; learn to play some instrument; for many are more charmed by music, than by handsome features or clothing. Pursue the same course with regard to painting, drawing and designing, and if you have power to obtain useful knowledge in any direction, do it. I have heard young men in speaking of their lady acquaintances say, ‘Oh, they look well, but they don’t know anything.’ There is no necessity for such a state of things; books are cheap and accessible. If you have to labor all day in a shop or store, still at odd intervals you can gather up an education and contend with greater difficulties than did Clay, Fillmore, Webster and others of the greatest men. If you go through life a flying butterfly, how will you be spoken of by-and-by?”
Sacramento Bee, California, August 1882
Women wore special headgear indoors such as nightcaps, morning or breakfast caps, day caps, and dress caps, all considered proper for home use. Nightcaps were typically made of wool to keep the head warm while sleeping, and some were colored and topped off with a tassel. Day caps were made to show the back of the hair, which was usually pinned up into a bun. Dress caps were part of semi-formal evening wear and were dainty pieces of material attached to the hair directly below the crown of the head.
A quality pair of shoes rounded out a lady’s daily costume and could often accentuate the overall look. Black or brown ankle-high laced boots, with square toes and wide heels, were generally worn until they were replaced by high-heeled button boots with pointy toes, introduced in the late 1870s.