No Kohl’s, Walmart, or Target. Where did the pioneers get their clothes?

Three imperatives drove the pioneers as they moved ever westward from the Atlantic Coast: Obtaining food, shelter, and clothing.

The earliest pioneers who crossed the Appalachian Mountains lived a subsistence-level existence, making and growing virtually everything they needed for their own survival. In fact, they didn’t live that much differently from the Native People they were steadily displacing.

They farmed and hunted for food for themselves and their livestock, built their homes and outbuildings from the timber growing in the dense forests of the east and southeast, and made their own clothing from flax and wool they raised on their small farms, as well as from the hides of animals they raised and hunted.

Cutting a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River created a true harbor that led to the city’s explosive growth.

By the time settlement began accelerating here in the Fox River Valley and the rest of northern Illinois, the old frontier lifestyle had begun phasing out. The settlers who arrived here starting in the early 1830s were a different breed from the hard-bitten Daniel Boone types that had settled the timbered regions. For the most part, these settlers on the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and spread westerly all the way across the Mississippi River were experienced farmers, used to selling the livestock and crops their farms produced for profit.

They arrived at a propitious moment in history. By 1834, U.S. Army engineers had finally pushed a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating a true stormproof harbor at Chicago. That meant ships could arrive and take time to safely offload cargo, seek repairs, resupply their crews, and the other things found in Great Lakes ports. Chicago’s harbor, coupled with New York’s Erie Canal opened Illinois’ prairie farming market to the rest of the nation. In 1833, only four ships had called at Chicago. In 1834, with the development of its harbor, 176 vessels arrived, with the numbers exponentially increasing after that.

For the most part, the Fox Valley’s early settlers didn’t lack for shelter as log cabins quickly gave way to homes built of sawmill produced lumber. By the mid-1840s, lumber for prairie farm homes was being shipped into Chicago from forests in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Likewise, food was relatively abundant, produced locally and imported.

But what about clothing? Ready-made clothing wasn’t available for a decade or two after the settlers began arriving in large numbers here along the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines rivers. So where did the pioneers’ clothes come from?

Our picture of early settlers, colored by Hollywood movies, has settlers dressed in fringed buckskin, but that era was long gone by the time settlers began arriving on the tallgrass prairie. It turns out buckskin just isn’t very comfortable to wear; it gets positively slimy when wet and dries hard. Native People switched to cloth clothing as soon as traders began offering fabric and blankets as fur trade items.

Fiber Folklore – Hateful Flax Spinning | Dances with Wools
Producing flax suitable for spinning was an extremely labor-intensive process. Then the fibers had to be spun into linen thread with more labor, and the thread then woven into cloth.

And in any case, by the time of settlement deer had become increasingly rare in northern Illinois due to the trade in hides and furs.

Some of the earliest settlers made their own fabric from their farms’ patches of flax and from the wool produced by their own sheep. But making linen from flax plants is an extremely labor-intensive task that requires growing the plants and then laboriously processing the stalks before the fibers can be spun into thread. Manufacturing cloth from wool grown on the farm is far less difficult, but still time consuming.

And by the time settlement was really accelerating in the early 1840s, that harbor at Chicago was one of the busiest in the whole nation, bringing every sort of thing people needed, including tons of cloth manufactured in the woolen and cotton mills of New England. So it quickly became a lot cheaper in terms of time spent to buy cloth for clothing than to make it at home.

But cloth still had to be turned into clothing. Most of that was, of course done at home. Needlework was a major home craft of wives and daughters of the era. But they didn’t make all of the clothing of the era and that left niches for men’s tailors and women’s dressmakers.

James Sheldon Barber came west to Oswego with a wagon train of his neighbors from Smyrna, New York in late 1843. As a single man, he had neither the time nor the skills to make his own clothing, although he indicated he was able to make repairs. Clothing was not cheap. In February 1844, just a couple months after he arrived, he wrote back to his mother in Smyrna: “I have not bought any clothes yet but the prices of making is a trifle higher here than there.  There coat $4 to $8, pants 1 to $2. Vest 1 to $2. Shirts like these you make for me 3 shillings; Socks 2 shillings to 3 shillings.”

Lorenzo Rank was one of six tailors working in Oswego in 1850 according to the U.S. Census of that year. Rank went on to become the community’s long-time postmaster and local columnist for the Kendall County Record. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the area expanded, the number of single men who needed clothes as well as families who didn’t have the time to make their own clothes grew as well. By 1850, nine tailors were doing business in Oswego—then the Kendall County Seat.

But just 20 years later, according to the 1870 U.S. Census of Oswego, only one tailor and two dressmakers were doing business in Oswego. What happened?

One major impact seems to have been the development of the first practical sewing machines for home use. Isaac Singer had patented his first machine in 1851, something he continued to improve in conjunction with other inventors and sewing machine company owners. Singer was a typical robber baron of the era, once remarking, “I don’t care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I’m after.” But his invention did, indeed, revolutionize how people obtained their clothing.

Locally, tailors bent with the times. Some began selling what amounted to clothing kits. In the June 20, 1867 Kendall County Record, editor J.R. Marshall noted that a tailor in Plano was offering a new service: “Many of our readers wish to buy cloth by the yard for their clothing, have it cut by a tailor, and made at home. They can be accommodated in this way by Mr. Morley, who has a large stock of cloths on hand, which he sells in any quantity desired and cut it into garments in the most fashionable manner. He asked but a small profit on his cloths. Clothing made to order.”

In the late 1860s, when Mr. Morley was making a buck by selling shirt, pants, and coat kits, only about 25 percent of people’s clothing in the U.S. was readymade. With the growing national economy and improvements in transportation, however, by 1890, 60 percent of the nation’s clothing was readymade and sold in stores, and by 1951, almost all—right around 90 percent—of the nation’s clothing was factory-made and store bought.

Steady improvements in transportation bought the products of the world to Kendall County so that it was soon much cheaper—at least in terms of labor—to buy first cloth and then clothing in local stores than it was to make it. And the revolution in mechanization in the form of sewing machines that made it cheaper for companies to manufacture off-the-rack clothing as well as for clothing to be made at home, had a huge effect on how people obtained their clothing. Another game-changer was the development of mail order firms like Sears and Montgomery Ward, that allowed clothing to be ordered at home and thanks to the U.S. Postal Service, shipped right to consumers’ mail boxes.

It was a trend that’s continued right up through the present day when spinning, weaving, and making clothing at home has turned into a leisure-time craft.


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Filed under Business, family, Farming, History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation

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