A Mill Worker’s Wardrobe

A few months ago I hatched a plot with Miriam Block, Director of the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum, for a short public history presentation. The idea was to participate in a series of events going on in the town of Winooski in the month of January to commemorate the start of a new decade by looking back 100 years to the 1920s. Playing to my own strengths, I volunteered the idea of a short costumed dress history presentation about the clothes being worn in Vermont’s textile mills in 1920. The thought was that this would form an interesting contrast to our popular idea of twenties fashion, which tends to have a lot to do with beads, fringe, and flappers, and not much at all to do with factory work. I, of course, had not a single one of the garments I would need to do this, but at least I could sew everything by machine, right?

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I’ve been busily researching and sewing for the past month, and though I’m still a few garments away from the full look, the outer-most layer is finally completed, and so I wanted to share a preview.

For someone who specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century costuming, the 1920s is something of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to primary source material, but that doesn’t actually mean it was easy to find the sources I need for this particular project. I am trying to create the clothing worn by working-class women – often immigrants – who were employed in the textile factories of northern New England, and information on that specific demographic is harder to track down than I had hoped.  Luckily for me, the Champlain College Library has a pamphlet in its special collections called “Burlington, Vermont: the Advantages it Offers the Workman’s Family,” which was put out by the Queen City Cotton Mill. It was designed to advertise the mill to prospective employees and it shows a series of images of the mill’s workers. Queen City Cotton was located in Burlington’s South End, and therefor was only a few miles away from the Champlain Mill, where the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum is now located.

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The Queen City Cotton Mill spinning room employees, circa 1920. Image courtesy of Champlain College Special Collections, Llewellyn Collection of Vermont History, 2010.1.407.

With those photographs as a starting place, I perused the 1918 and 1922 Sears and Roebuck catalogs for the types of garments which were available to American women at the time. Then, thanks to the wonderful librarians at the Winterthur Library, I was able to look through a series of pamphlets on dressmaking published in the teens and twenties by Mary Brooks Picken of the Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences.

The one piece of clothing which was clearly in evidence in all three sources was a smock-like garment known as a “house apron,” which the women in the Queen City Cotton Mill clearly wore to protect their clothing from getting dirty while on the job. Though Sears and Roebuck and Mary Brooks Picken both show this apron as an outer-most layer, worn presumably while carrying out house chores, the mill workers wore it topped with a second apron, this one generally dark in color, and with large pockets to accommodate their tools.

 

I found one particular style of house apron in all three sources. It was a simple design, with attractive detailing at the neck and sleeves, and so chose to reproduce that garment. Stay tuned for updates on the rest of the outfit at the 26th approaches, and if you’re in the area, please come to the presentation! There will be tea and cookies and lots to learn about old clothes and Vermont history.

One thought on “A Mill Worker’s Wardrobe

  1. What a wonderful project, Eliza! My paternal grandmother came down from Quebec with her family when she was a teenager to work in the mills in Manchester, New Hampshire around 1910. I wonder if she wore similar clothing.

    Liked by 1 person

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