Dressmakers in history : Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley

 

After reading Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker: A Novel I wanted to learn more about the subject of the novel, Elizabeth Keckley, former slave turned successful dressmaker in Saint Louis who purchased her own freedom; friend and confidante as well as dressmaker to Mrs. Lincoln; grieving mother and widow; author of a controversial and popular memoir; abolitionist; and finally, sewing teacher. 8069031_f260

Keckly established her own business in Washington and soon powerful politicians’ wives clamored for her gowns. She employed as many as twenty apprentices in her shop. Keckly was intimately involved with the Lincolns. She attended the sick bed of the Lincoln’s dying son Willie, and became Mary’s closest confidante. Elizabeth used her influence with the president’s wife to solicit relief for contrabands, slaves who had freed themselves by fleeing behind Union military lines; many lacked shelter, jobs, and provisions. Keckly founded a Contraband Relief Association, with support from noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Elizabeth helped Mary dress for special occasions, and groomed the President’s hair: When almost ready to go down to a reception, [Lincoln] would turn to me with a quizzical look: “Well, Madam Elizabeth, will you brush my bristles down tonight?” (KECKLEY 184)Chicago Historical Society

As a seamstress, I’m curious about the techniques Mrs. Keckley used to make those beautiful gowns, only a decade after the Singer sewing machine was created. Keckley seemed to create prodigiously for many clients, and only hired assistants later in her career while she was sewing and designing dresses for the White house. Sewing machines were introduced for sale to the US public in the 1850’s, so did Elizabeth Keckley switch to using one in the 1860’s when sewing machines became available for sale or did she stick to her tried and true methods of sewing by hand?

By the early 1840s, other early sewing machines began to appear. Barthélemy Thimonnier introduced a simple sewing machine in 1841 to produce military uniforms for France’s army; shortly afterward, a mob of tailors broke into Thimonnier’s shop and threw the machines out of the windows, believing the machines would put them out of work.[13] By the 1850s, Isaac Singer developed the first sewing machines By the early 1840s, other early sewing machines began to appear. Barthélemy Thimonnier introduced a simple sewing machine in 1841 to produce military uniforms for France’s army; shortly afterward, a mob of tailors broke into Thimonnier’s shop and threw the machines out of the windows, believing the machines would put them out of work.[13] By the 1850s, Isaac Singer developed the first sewing machines  Wikipedia

My hunch is that she didn’t switch over, since it may have been a matter of pride not to succumb to this new technology as many tailors at the time considered sewing machines to be a dangerous invention, and feared losing their livelihoods because of it. One would have to read her actual memoir, Behind the Scenes, to find out. And I intend to. While the novel I read was pretty good, I would much rather read the story straight from the subject herself.  I intend to.

Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, And Four Years in the White House (affiliate link ) by Elizabeth Keckley

Critics denounced the memoir as salacious gossip and diminished Keckley as no more than the former slave and “servant-girl.” In fact, the book, part slave narrative and memoir, is a powerful story of a determined woman who had purchased freedom for herself and her son and became the first lady’s dressmaker and eventually her confidante. Keckley recounted her earlier life as former slave not as a source of shame, but of strength, and did not shy away from retelling the brutalities she had endured. Her memoir, rich in detail about the White House as a home and a workplace, also well symbolizes the traditional affinity that residence staff often builds with the first family.- White house history

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How hard she must have worked for her success, only to have her business fall apart after being judged harshly publicly for writing her memoir of her four years in the white house. So that may explain how she closed her business and came to be the head of the sewing department at Wilberforce University, the oldest African American founded University in the US.

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Elizabeth Keckley about the time she became head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Service at Wilberforce University in 1892.

Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection,

I especially wanted to see some of the dresses that she had made, for herself which she wears in the photos above, and for Mary Todd Lincoln, below.

MTl-about-1860_largeMourning gown made for Mrs. Lincoln by Elizabeth Keckley

Mary-Todd-Dresses-HRGowns made for Mrs. Lincoln by Elizabeth Keckleymary2d mary13dGowns by Elizabeth Keckley

For more information on Elizabeth Keckley visit her Wikipedia page.

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-McKenzie

Comments

  1. says

    Fascinating! I probably won’t get to the novel because… so many books. I’m super interested in her own account, though. Thank you for bringing attention to this!

  2. Brenda says

    Wow, I had no idea she worked at Wilberforce University, one of my good friends works there! This really makes me want to read both books.