Tuesday, July 17, 2018

My Velvet Shoes

I have an object lesson for you, gentle reader. Sometimes you come across the best primary sources when you aren't even looking for them.

I'm not even sure what I was looking for when I stumbled across this adorable story several years ago. It definitely wasn't the story I ended up reading. It's called "My Velvet Shoes" and was published in Harper's Monthly Magazine in November 1860.

The story starts with Mr. and Mrs. Lambswool [can't decide if it's too sweet or just perfect] a young married couple in New York. Times are tough and Mr. Lambswool's job as a bookkeeper doesn't pay much money, but he has prospects of a better job. Mrs. Lambswool, darling housekeeper, is thrifty and somehow always finds a way to save up a little bit of extra money (as we are informed by Mr. Lambswool, Narrator). Mrs. Lambswool notices that Mr. Lambswool's shoes are just beyond repairing and probably an embarrassment to the whole Lambswool name, so she pulls out the money she has saved and tells Mr. Lambswool [I'm sick of typing Lambswool already] to go and buy himself some new shoes.

The next morning Mr. Lambswool wakes up first and notices his wife's cage crinoline, hanging on a nail on the wall. I'll let him take over from here:

I declare there wasn't a single rib in the whole apparatus that hadn't been broken somewhere! The circles were all changed to polygons, and at every angle was a neat slice of white cord, or a bandage of galloon, or a delicate suture of linen thread, and in one place where the break was particularly bad - a regular compound fracture, as the doctors would say - and the steel protruded through the skin, the dear woman had put it into splints of whalebone, and wound it round and round with bonnet-wire! I felt the tears come into my eyes as I looked at Mrs. Lambswool's hoops.

Mr. Lambswool continues:

When did she get that set? I calculated on my fingers that it must have been six months ago...I reflect that had Mrs. Lambswool married somebody besides a poor bookkeeper, she would have had at least two new sets since that was bought.

Of course, Mr. Lambswool takes the three dollars he was given and buys Mrs. Lambswool the nicest cage crinoline he can find - it has 30 rows of steel! He uses what remains to buy himself a cheap pair of velvet shoes. Mrs. Lambswool is delighted with the surprise, and declares that when they go to a party at their friends' house, she'll wear her nice lavender silk dress, which never looked right when she was wearing her old hoops.

There is so much more to the story, and so many wonderful little details about the daily life of a young married couple, and so much more saccharine to make you vomit (I mean seriously, there's an impoverished German family to be saved). But just from this little bit, we can glean the following information:

  • There is much to be discussed about the role of husband as provider and the role of wife as housekeeper, as depicted in an ideal mid-19th century family. Mr. L is ashamed not to be able to provide his wife with fashionable clothes, Mrs. L is thrifty and finds ways to keep her husband presentable and would rather he spend the money on himself than on a gift for her.
  • Mrs. L wore her cage crinoline right out, and in a short amount of time too - months, not years!
  • As her cage wore out, Mrs. L found clever ways to repair them and keep wearing them, which means my seen-better-days cage crinoline is accurate. Hooray!
  • Even though Mr. and Mrs. L are too poor to afford new shoes and a new cage at the same time, he has prospects for working his way up in the world at "the firm", and they are invited to society events like parties where a lady would wear a silk dress.
  • Even though she's got a busted-up cage, Mrs. L has a nice, presentable silk dress in a fashionable color.
None of these assumptions is a foregone conclusion; this is just one primary source, and a fictional one at that, and could have been written by someone who had no idea how long cage crinolines lasted. But I can use what I have read to look at other sources and find out how often ladies bought new cages, young married life, and more. And I found this source by accident, looking for something else.

So, I encourage you to stumble through a Harper's or Godey's or even a newspaper local to the place you interpret. You can find amazing sources where you least expect them, when you aren't looking for them.

And of course, if you want to find out more about the Lambswools, you can read their story here.

LATE BREAKING NEWS: The marvelous Jessamyn Reeves-Brown has kindly pointed out that she shared this story on The Sewing Academy two years ago! So that's where I learned about it. Credit where credit's due, and a mystery solved!

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