by Thomas J. Tarowsky.
Column reprinted courtesy of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register.
Tom Tarowsky Holds New Idea Woman's Magazine.
This is the third in a series of columns about the curious and interesting items that the Marshall County Historical Society has identified and cataloged in the Cockayne House, and what they tell us about life in the Ohio Valley between 1850 and the turn of the current century.
Style and Fashion on the Farm?
As the Easter holiday approaches, most folks begin to think about spring. Some of us are involved with planning our gardens, while others begin to mull over their vacation plans. Still others (I’ll call them “fashionistas”) ponder the latest fashions and styles as the seasons change.
I’m not a very good gardener (plants fear me), travel is a bit pricey now, and I’m a very, very long way from being a “fashionista”—my fashion-consciousness and sense of style go no farther than trying not to wear blue socks with brown slacks. Even so, I’ve been quite surprised to find that the Cockayne family gave every appearance of maintaining a comfortable and stylish middle to upper-middle-class lifestyle at their farmhouse, a century ago.
The Cockayne family was most well-known in the early 1900s for its success in raising Merino sheep in the riverside pastures that were later subdivided and developed into the City of Glen Dale. When we stop to consider what it was like to operate a large sheep farm, as did the Cockaynes, the words “style” and “fashion” never enter our thinking.
This may be because most of us have an urban vision of late 19th and early 20th century prosperity. I suspect that many of us tend to think of the row houses found in downtown Wheeling as windows upon the only middle-class lifestyle of the late Victorian era—stately brick homes, with tall ceilings, beautiful woodwork, stained glass, and skylights—elegance in brick and stone. We visualize the people who lived in these luxurious homes as gentlemen who wore celluloid collars with their suits, and ladies who glided about in wasp-waisted gowns and dresses.
A middle-class farmhouse? Over a hundred years ago? It was probably pretty small and very modest, right? …and the people who lived on the farm? Oh, the men probably dressed in denim and flannel, and the women wore drab work clothing, too.
That was my first thought, too--and I was mistaken. Just as middle-class neighborhoods in Glen Dale differ from middle-class New York City neighborhoods today, the Cockayne farmhouse differs from the homes of Victorian Wheeling, although middle class styles are apparent in both venues.
In its way, the house made a very strong statement about the prosperity of the Cockayne family and their farm. The house is larger than you might think, as you pass by on the highway—it has 12 rooms. The furnishings and appointments have a story of their own, which must wait for another column.
Have no doubt, and make no mistake about it, Samuel A. J. Cockayne and his family were aware of the latest styles and fashions—the Cockayne women (daughters Ella, Sarah, Gertrude, Dora, and Irena) were just as fashion-conscious as 20-something aged women are today. Evidence to support this is found throughout the house, in a variety of ways.
As TV and the Internet spread fashion and style news from New York and Paris today, magazines such as New Idea Women’s Magazine and Woman’s Home Companion introduced the latest styles from those same cities in the 1890s and 1900s. The process was slower, but the media of the day spread the word about fashion as rapidly as possible. Drawings and articles in the April 1910 New Idea Women’s Magazine describe “Fashions for Easter—The New Dresses Display Many Charming Features, Including the Normal Waistline” The soft pastel-hued drawings that accompany the article illustrate the end result of patterns which may be purchased, so that the reader may sew her own dress. Features (…charming over-blouse and tunic effects that are so popular this spring…) details (The skirt…is composed of a five-gored foundation having a deep circular flounce, and a dart-fitted circular tunic…measuring about four yards at hem) and fabric (Silk serge, cashmere or any supple fabric will prove suitable) were described.
The advertisers were quite sincere in their style-consciousness, too. One advertiser (“Wooltex”) said: “We spend on designing the charming Wooltex creations $50,000 per year. That includes a permanent Style Bureau in Paris, in charge of Mme. Savarie.” It goes on: “Every season we design from 400 to 500 styles. And we make them up in some 1,300 fabrics. Thus we supply an endless variety, and appeal to every taste.” According to this ad, “Wooltex coats run from $15 to $45 …suits from $25 to $55 …skirts from $5 to $15.”
So the Cockaynes had magazine subscriptions—a subscription to New Idea Women’s Magazine (fifty cents a year, seventy-five cents in Canada) doesn’t mean that women were stylish. True, but the Cockayne family’s clothing and accessories remain on hand, to give us hands-on evidence of their style-consciousness, as well.
Isn’t the conventional wisdom that farm life was drab back then? Not the case, at all!
Would you be surprised to find a man’s top hat, hanging on large mirrored coat rack, in the entrance foyer of the Cockayne House? (A top hat remains in that very spot, as though waiting for its owner to grab it on his way out the door.)
But if a well-dressed gentleman wore a top hat, what did the well-dressed lady wear? In the case of one of the Cockayne ladies, a wide-brimmed red hat, accented with large feathers and a veil appears to have been an option.
Speaking of feathers, how about these vibrant red feathers as an accent to an outfit? Were they used as a collar, or as an accent to a hat, or was there another use? What do you think?
My prospective daughter-in-law tells me that shoes are often used to make a fashion statement—one glance at a pair of shoes from the Cockayne house tells us that high heels are not purely a style of 2009, although the cut of the shoe isn’t exactly what we find in the shops today. These shoes reflected both the style and the functionality of their day. I am told that modesty (in Victorian days) required that ankles be concealed—hence the high topped shoes and long dresses. (The high topped shoes were also quite practical in the days before every road was paved and horses were the main source of vehicular power on those roads. Think about it.)
A photo [possibly] of Samuel A. J. Cockayne and his adult daughters, taken near the turn of the last century, shows a stylish family, indeed. Mr. Cockayne wears a dark suit with a celluloid collar. His wife, Hannah (just to his right) and each of his young daughters wears a shirtwaist blouse (apparently white in color), with a thin-waist skirt. Hannah and two of the girls are have pinned flowers to their blouses, while one of the others has apparently clipped a small flower to her belt. The skirts appear to be of both light and dark colors.
The stylish nature of their dress is clear—but what of their home? What was it like?
That’s a story for later.
Next time: A Mother’s Day Story
Please submit questions to Tom Tarowsky, Cockayne House Preservation Committee, 1105 Wheeling Avenue, Glen Dale, WV 26038. Be sure to include your name and contact information, and let us know if we can use your name, as well. Selected questions will be used in future columns. Tom regrets that he is unable to respond to each individual request.