This post discusses an 1859 engraving of W. S. and C. H. Thomson’s Skirt Manufactory in Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition, The “Quiet Circle”: Women and Girls in 19th-Century America, on view until November 19.
The year is 1859, and an extreme clothing trend is gripping the Western world—the hoop skirt, otherwise known as the cage crinoline or skeleton skirt. Meanwhile, a female-managed hoop-skirt factory in New York City employs one thousand women and girls, creating a happy partnership of social reform and fashion fad.
In 1859, Harper’s Weekly, a mainstream periodical with a large circulation, published a series of articles about the “employment of women,” including illustrated pieces on Thomson’s Crown-Skirt Factory and its competitor Douglas & Sherwood. The Harper’s wood engraving in Bartow-Pell’s exhibition depicts the Thomson factory floor teeming with industrious, well-dressed, and attractive young women working at various stages of hoop-skirt production. Women supervisors preside over this idealized scene. A young girl (identified by her shorter skirt) appears to be employed as a runner and hands a bolt of cloth to another worker. Bold letters at the front of the room spell out “Strive to Excel,” a popular inspirational phrase. The artist has not forgotten to add a bit of advertising for Thomson’s products near the title and has included the words “Patent Indestructable” [sic].
Skirts became wider in the 1850s. For a while, women wore multiple layers of petticoats in order to achieve the desirable silhouette, as they had in the 1840s. Some petticoats were even made with horsehair (or “crin” in French), which provided support and bulk but was heavy and stiff. According to Harper’s Weekly in January 1859, “the weight of several such skirts, and the heat generated proving injurious to health, the attention of makers was directed toward the discovery of a substitute, and hoop skirts were invented.” Lightweight steel hoops allowed women to be fashionable but more comfortable. They were also an improvement over their historical precedent, the eighteenth-century pannier.
In House and Home Papers (1865), Harriet Beecher Stowe put it like this:
Look at the hoop-skirt factories—women wanted hoop-skirts—would have them or die—and forthwith factories arose, and hoop-skirts became as the dust of the earth for abundance.
“Yes,” said Miss Featherstone, “and to say the truth, the American hoop-skirts are the only ones fit to wear. When we were living on the Champs Elysées, I remember we searched high and low for something like them, and finally had to send home to America for some.”
The W. S. and C. H. Thomson Skirt Factory was one of the largest manufacturers of hoop skirts in the world. William Sparks Thomson and his brother Charles Henry founded their eponymous manufacturing company in 1856, and Charles H. Langdon joined the partnership in 1858. The factory was located in New York on Broadway, and it originally produced cloaks and mantillas (shawls). But after the steel-hooped cage crinoline appeared in France in 1856, W. S. Thomson shrewdly jumped on board. In 1858, he patented the “eyelet fastening,” an H-shaped washer that was used with an eyelet to secure the crinoline’s steel hoops to its fabric straps. Thomson claimed that this innovation made the hoop “indestructible.” In 1859, the factory is said to have produced three to four thousand hoops a day and used 300,000 yards of steel and 150,000 yards of tape per week.
The Thomson company was a progressive supporter of working women. According to “Employment of Women: Thomson’s Crown-Skirt Factory,” published in Harper’s Weekly in February 1859: “The whole establishment is under the superintendence of a woman, who from the first has exercised control over the employment of hands, the arrangement of work, and the remuneration paid. Even the accountants of the factory are women.” The article also explains that the factory employed an average of one thousand “girls,” who had mostly “been taken from the ranks of plain sewers, and educated to the hoop skirt manufacture.”
Although the cage crinoline, with its oversized proportions, was often the subject of ridicule, the Harper’s Weekly author points out its value to society: “The revilers of the hoop will thus perceive that it is, after all, an institution not wholly useless, inasmuch as in this establishment alone it feeds, clothes, and warms over one thousand females, many of whom have children or aged persons depending on them.” In addition, the “Messrs. Thomson, we understand, contemplate the establishment of a library for their employees, and likewise propose to have a competent lecturer give, in one of the great halls of their establishment, a course of free lectures to the girls and their friends.” The practice of providing continuing education and self-improvement for female factory workers had a precedent in the textile mills at Lowell, Massachusetts.
Thomson’s business was so successful that the company opened factories in London, Paris, Brussels, and present-day Germany, where the firm exuberantly touted its American-designed products. The Paris factory was located on the outskirts of the city in St. Denis. Emile Bourdelin, writing in Le Monde Illustré in 1862, describes “la jupe-cage Américaine Thomson” as “une véritable révolution,” which was high praise coming from the fashionable French. The American-run establishment offered training by female supervisors and boasted machinery that even “jeunes filles” could easily operate. The author opines that Messrs. Thomson “ont ainsi contribué à améliorer la position de la classe ouvrière femme, si peu favorisée jusqu’ici.” In other words, Thomson improved the lives of working-class women by offering them good jobs at a decent wage. American ingenuity was helping women at home and abroad.
Thomson was not the only successful American hoop-manufacturing company. A History of American Manufactures (1864) claimed “it is estimated that as many as sixty thousand of the various sizes are made each day during eight months of the year” by Thomson and its competitors, such as Douglas & Sherwood, a New York firm that also employed women and provided them with educational resources (namely, a 2,000-volume library).
An 1863 advertisement in a British magazine listed a variety of reasons why women should buy prize-winning Thomson crinolines. They were “capital for preserving the dress, just suited for morning dress, superior for the promenade, easily compressible for the carriage, highly recommended for the home circle, and admirable for parties.” In addition, they were “better than medicine for health,” did not “cause accidents,” were “never in cases of fire,” did not “appear at inquests,” and provided “health, happiness, and beauty for children.” This savvy marketing ticked a lot of boxes for the nineteenth-century woman—propriety, economy, fashion, health and safety, family, children.
The hoop skirt only lasted for about ten years and began to go out of style in the late 1860s. It was supplanted by the bustle in the 1870s. During its heyday, the crinoline had some problems. A rare but serious hazard was fire. In 1861, Godey’s Lady’s Book published “An Article which all Ladies ought to Read.” It described the agonizing death of a London woman who reached for an envelope and caught her sleeve on fire by brushing against a candle. “She had on one of those crinolines made of steel hoops,” where the fire quickly spread. “If it had not been for the crinoline, too, her life might have been saved.” The coroner “thought that she was another victim of the prevailing costume among ladies.” On a purely practical level, cage crinolines were often inconveniently wide, in addition to being rigid. Accordingly, many cartoonists made fun of them.
When fashions changed, what happened to hoop-skirt factories and the jobs they provided? Thomson’s company, for example, had another success story with its popular patented glove-fitting corset. And, as is well known, the women’s garment industry has continued to evolve and flourish. To use Thomson’s word, fashion is “indestructible.”
Margaret Highland, Exhibition Curator