Dressmaking in Early New England

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Mrs Charles Willing by Robert Feke 1746

Of the various crafts in early America, only a few were fully open to women. However, one in which women led was dressmaking.

Actually, the preferred terms in New England in the 18th century for someone who made formal garments for women was mantuamaker or gownmaker. The term mantuamaker comes from the name of a gown called a mantua, which in turn comes from the name of the Italian city, Mantua, which was famous for the silk that went into such gowns.

Petticoats, Mantels, Hoods, Hats, and Cloaks

A mantuamaker would be able to make a variety of products. A Boston couple working together as mantuamakers advertised their skills at making, in addition to mantuas, “all sort of gowns, petticoats, Spanish flies, mantels, velvet hoods and mantel hoods, high-crowned hats and cloaks.”

Advertisements indicate that some men made their livings as mantuamakers. But female mantuamakers predominated especially as time went on. In 1789, all 11 of the mantuamakers in Boston’s town directory were women.

For some mantuamakers, business was brisk enough to call for the services of apprentices. Thus mantuamakers would place advertisements in newspapers specifically for female apprentices.

Inexpensive Trade to Enter, Customers Provided Material

Compared to other crafts, mantuamaking and tailoring were inexpensive to get into. The tools did not cost much and the customers usually provided the material.

Tailors made clothes mainly for men. The one garment they made for women was the riding habit, which was tailored in a way similar to a man’s coat. Most tailors were men, but some women entered the trade as well and would be called either tailors or man tailors. Catherine Parsons was one such tailor and for 40 years made men’s clothes in Northampton, Massachusetts. There were others, such as Abigail Woodman, a “man tailor” listed in Boston in 1789. Ten others listed were men. In some towns, husband-and-wife teams ran tailoring businesses.

Tailoress, Seamstress

The term tailoress was occasionally used to mean a female tailor, but more often used to mean seamstress, a woman who did sewing but not the more advanced skill of cutting cloth. Because cloth was very expensive, it could not be wasted and skillful cutting was especially valued. That’s also why the tasks of making a garment were sometimes split. Sometimes female tailors specialized in one only part of the whole task of making clothes at a time when buying a new coat was a complex business transaction. Records from Windsor, Vermont, tell of a man who wanted a new coat. First he visited a shop to buy linen, flannel and other cloth, along with thread and buttons. He then went to a male tailor who measured him and cut the cloth. Then the man took the cloth to a female tailoress, Catherine Deane, who assembled the coat. Usually, the labor of the tailor or tailors made up just 5 to 15 percent of the cost of the garment.

The presence of female tailors was a threat to some male tailors. In 1769, a male tailor in Hartford, Connecticut, complained in rhyme in a newspaper notice that quality suffered when female tailors made clothes. He advised readers to “count up the cost / and see how many pounds you’ve lost / by hiring women to cut your cloaths.”

Sources:

  1. Miller, Marla R. “Gender, Artisanry, and Craft in Early New England: The View through the Eye of a Needle.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 743-776.
  2. Miller, Marla R. “The Last Mantuamaker: Craft Tradition and Commercial Change in Boston, 1760-1845.” Early American Studies