Working Class Mid Century Frontier Women

The intent of this discussion is to get a handle on the clothing of the Mid 18th Century Working Class Frontier Woman. The tools of information will include runaway ads, severance allowances, paintings, prints, plates and descriptions. I have chosen whenever possible, to show information from the southern colonies, as this will give us some indication of acceptable minimums and extent. Finally, explaining the mechanics, so as to speak, of 18th century clothing to help women wishing to portray a frontier persona to dress appropriately with function and comfort.

The very first thing we must do is clear our minds of modern notions. It has only been in the past 30 – 40 years that acceptable standards of dress has depreciated to its current status. There are women in their seventies who have never worn pants! It was during World War II that the Rosie the Riveter made their national statement, but that was for their jobs that they donned men’s dungarees. And of course there were the isolated eccentrics that veered from the norm, but these are anomalies. It was in the 1970s that girls could wear pants to school and the fabric they were made of or not made of was specific. Up until the 1960s a woman always covered her head in church. A slip or petticoat was worn under your dress and an undershirt was worn until you could wear a brassiere.

How often have I been at events with 100% humidity in the mid 90s and up, dressed in all my clothes; shift, petticoat, pocket, something on top, apron, shoes, stockings, neckerchief and cap; and had a wild-eyed tourist dressed scantily in shorts, halter top and sandals, dripping with sweat fanning frantically only to exclaim “Aren’t you hot!”. Modern notions of personal comfort are just that and must be overcome. Our minds are such tricky things that we can see and feel what we want to. It isn’t any hotter now than it was then, it’s only how we deal with it. So now we will proceed to figure it out.

Narrative Example: Runaway servant ads are a helpful tool for assessing what women wore for we know the following information from them. We know that these were working class women, where they were, the date and a description of what they stole. Sometimes the description of the thefts is quite telling as it gave us an idea of what was considered valuable or necessary. Obviously the descriptions of what they were wearing was significant for identification of the run away and also gives us a look at everyday clothes. The down side to the ads is that they are narrative, leaving a vast opening for subjective interpretation. The severance allowances that were put into law are helpful for indetifying the minimums of necessity of women’s dress. The severance allowance was given to a woman at the termination of her indenture. These same type of allowances are found in poorhouse, workhouse and hospital records. Other forms of narrative descriptions come from travelers and other observers of the time who wrote of what they saw. Here are some descriptions of runaways. Remember that we do not know if they were indentured or wives.

North Carolina Gazette; April 15, 1757: Mary Lambert, who ran away from James Davies in North Carolina, wore a checked woolen petticoat, calico gown, red stockings and old callimanco shoes.

Virginia Gazette; February 20, 1752: Anne Barret of Virginia, took a striped Holland gown and a quilted callimanco petticoat, several headdresses, ruffles and aprons, and new pumps with red heels.

From The Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania 1763 – 1783 by Joseph Doddridge, in describing the women attendees at a frontier wedding “The ladies dressed in linsey petticoats and linsey or linen bedgowns, coarse shoes, stockings, handkerchiefs and buckskin gloves, if any”.

We see examples of proper outfits for ordinary women in the clothing allowances or severance for indentured women servants. Found in the Journal of the House of Burgess Laws of Maryland I 112, a Maryland Act of 1715 stated that at the end of her term the servant should be given “a waistcoat and petticoat of halftick or penistone, a new shift of white linen, a pair of shoes and stockings, a blue apron and two white linen caps”. This was found in The Public Laws of South Carolina “A waistcoat and petticoat of new halftick or coarse plains, two new shifts of white linen, a blue apron, two caps of white linen and a new pair of shoes and stockings.

Paintings, Etchings and Drawings: Visual examples of the clothing of the working class frontier is difficult at best. Portraits were generally done of the wealthy and those that could afford such extravagance. The place to look for working people is in the backgrounds of street scenes, buildings or historic documentaries. Hogarth, David Allen, Thomas Pennant, Paul Sandby and Francois Boucher quite often painted common people, though not American. We can almost be safe initially, that European working class clothing will be quite similar. Other visual examples of clothing can be found in the actual tailors plates or designs of the time, which can be found for one in Diderot’s Encyclopedia of the Trades. In using visual evidence of clothing, we have to also be careful of subjective interpretation. It is so easy for our minds eye to see what we want to see!

The way in which people wore their clothes is not based on the willy nilly whims of fashion, completely, nor the notion of personal comfort, entirely, but rather on an evolution of technology, taste and purpose. Perhaps the skeletal outfit of shift, petticoat, waistcoat, cap, apron, stockings and shoes could be considered the manner of the day. Fashion would affect the shape of the individual garments. Taste, the colors and fabrics and purpose would dictate the quality of the fabric as well as the utility of the cut.

Let’s take a grass roots look at methodology of this outfit. The shift was worn next to the skin. This is the underwear. This is one of the few garments that is washed with any frequency. The shift was slept in, then worn by day under the petticoat. Petticoats are made of any number of fabrics and colors. What is worn on the upper body depends on your needs. In the allowances mentioned previously, a waistcoat was provided for. I say if you wear a brassiere daily with modern clothes you would logically wear a waistcoat, corset, stays etc. with your 18th century clothes. This garment worn over the shift, above the petticoat must be firm enough to hold your bust from bouncing, swaying or perhaps dripping. Perhaps a bedgown or some other gown for undress or everyday clothes would also be appropriate. An apron, perhaps a pinner apron if you choose, is the next garment if you are doing anything. It is also useful to hold your gown shut. Either apron should tie in front, for a quick escape in case of fire and so the ties don’t get “dunked”. Also, for frequent adjustments, depending on what you are doing; hauling wood, slinging babies, peeling taties, etc. As evidenced earlier, aprons weren’t necessarily white. The apron was also washed with frequency. The cap was used to keep the dirt out, bad hair in, sun off, etc. This is also white so it can be bleached back to white when dirtied. Perhaps a neckerchief if the sun is shining, the wind is blowing or to hide the frayed neck edge of you shift. From a grass roots approach, the emphasis is on practicality and purpose. So to address the comfort factor and choice of fabrics, from the William and Mary Quarterly XXI 170, Governor Fauquier wrote in 1766 “that the Virginia woman made cotton of the country into strong cloth, of which they make gowns for themselves and children and coverlets for beds.”.

The clothing are described as made out of Calico, Calimanco and Holland, Haltick or Penistone. These fabrics are common ones. Holland is white linen, most often used for shifts. Halftick is a course woolen cloth. Calimanco is a worsted “stuff” of all colors and weaves. Calico is cotton cloth, it comes in white or solid colors. Laws were in force prohibiting printing on it. Penistone is a course woolen cloth. None of these are exceptional fabrics and would be available to the working class woman. It is my opinion that lighter weight fabrics were used in warmer climates.

I am not one for imposing rules or using a lot of “always” or “never”, but I am all for educated decision making and common sense. If you could truly feel respectable going to the store in your nightly, you might wear your shift around; but remember there’s no other underwear. But more important, we are reenacting a time period complete with its own notions of decency and respectability. Clothing was hard to come by and was taken care of. One would want to protect their good clothes from body oils and soils from the inside by wearing a shift, below the knee in length. And of course, you would want to wear an apron. Why wouldn’t you want such a handy item? If your petticoat is in the way, kilt it up like the “Fish girls” picture. And one more thing, as a frontier woman you don’t have to wear shoes. So, when that sweaty naked tourist next approaches, you will realize that the clothing you are wearing is acting as a cooling agent allowing the dampness in the fabric to cool in the slightest breeze, thus providing refreshment. The sun is kept off your skin by your clothes. Enjoy that you are reenacting a time when to sit in the shade is a good thing to do in the heat of the day.


Arnold, Janet. A Handbook of Costume. MacMillan London Limited 1973.

Brown, Iain Gordon and Hugh Cheape. Witness to Rebellion – John Maclean’s Journal of the Forty-Five and the Penicuik Drawings. Tuckwell Press Limited 1996.

Doddridge, Joseph. The Settlement and Indian Wars of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1763 – 1783. Pittsburgh, PA 1912; republished 1988. Chapter 15, page 102.

Innes, Stephen. Work and Labor. Chapel Hill 1988.

Kalm, Peter. Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America – The English Version of 1770. Dover Publications, Inc. 1937; republished 1987.

Miller, John C. The First Frontier Life in Colonial America. Dell Publishing Company, Inc. 13th printing, November 1976.

Montgomery, Florence M. Textiles in America 1650 – 1870. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1984

Smith, Billy G. The “Lower Sort” – Philadelphia’s Laboring People, 1750 – 1800. Cornell University Press 1994.

Spruill, Julia Cherry with a new introduction by Anne Firor Scott. Women’s Life & Work in the Southern Colonies. Norton Library 1972.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives – Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650 – 1750. First Vintage Books Edition, June 1991.

Illustrations: Contry Woman from “ Catchpenny” of Bowles & Carver

Harvest time, ibid

Mother ,ibid

Tailors Plate , Waistcoat? De Garsault

Tailors Plate, Bedgown? ibid

Seeder, “A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and industry” Denis Diderot

Making Hay , ibid

Fishwoman with thier petticoats kilted up, ibid

at work 12&3 ibid