Saturday, August 7, 2010

Stitching Together another Nicholson 'Story'

An 1885 White Peerless sewing machine, very likely the kind Margaret Nicholson used. How do I know? It's not mentioned in the letters, the brand of the machine. (Although there's plenty of mention of sewing dresses and shirtwaists and the house accounts reveal few (maybe one)dresses were purchased from 1888 to 1920.)

I know because I put two and two together. I found a promotional brochure for White Sewing machines, that had the music for some patriotic American songs. And I know because yesterday I noticed something in the 'store' books that I had previously overlooked.

The Nicholsons bought a sewing machine in 1885 for 30.00. That's a lot of money. And with this, I learned something else, that Margaret probably learned how to sew on machine as a young mother, out of necessity.

In the early years a dress is purchased for Marion. And there are payments to a seamstress. So this woman, who probably learned baking at her mother's elbow, learned a new skill, with a new machine.

A new technology made her life easier and cheaper. Or gave her even more work to do :) And since she had 3 daughters, with the help of this machine, she was able to satisfy their instinct for adornment without breaking the bank. And this happened in parallel with the birth of the clothing industry which gave poorer women work and also helped spur the union movement as their working conditions were, for the most part, appalling. The items in the Eaton's catalogues tell that story.

There are no sewing machines in the 1889 Eaton's catalogue, but there are some in the 1906 Sears Catalogue.

From that moment on, most big purchases for clothes made by the Nicholsons were for men's and boys suits. Yes, the Nicholsons spent a whole lot more on Herb, as a child, than on the girls. I saw a 10,00 entry for "Herb's bank account" when that boy was but two.

Like most family, they put their dreams and aspirations on the shoulders of the only boy. They spoiled him, I imagine. He must have been quite a disappointment (to say the least) although, apparently, they never mentioned it.

Luckily, the Nicholsons were feminists, even Norman, (remember, they bought Flora a book at 2 years old) and they brought up strong women, who weren't spoiled. And this prepared the girls for the tough life ahead, the wars and the Depression, and Marion's early widowhood.

I'm thinking out loud here, but this theme is central to Flo in the City, my book about a girl coming of age in 1910.

In fact, on my website, I write "A woman's love of clothing affects her in more ways than the obvious one." It's so true. Clothing is very much a political issue: indeed the Nicholsons knew it: they clipped a letter to the Editor from 1913 where someone is replying to another letter than complains about women's expensive clothes habit. When it comes to fashion women are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

And so it goes, the last 'fabric' stores have now closed in Montreal. Marshall's was the most famous, on St. Catherine. Beauclair and what's that other one, Fabricville. I used to write ads fo them. They may still have a store. When you can buy cheap cheap clothing, (on the back of Third World labour) who needs to sew? My mother was brought up rich and was well-educated in Greek and Latin, but couldn't sew. If she had been able to, it might have made my childhood easier. I was very tall, and no store clothes fit me growing up, and, besides, we had no money for clothes for me.

And yet I didn't help myself in Home Ec, in high school, I deliberately failed sewing. (Home Ec, I have learned, was a left over of the Home Economics movement of 1910. So all things are connected.)

Today, as it happens, I stumbled upon a paper about this very thing: it appears a Nan Enstad at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was covering this territory in 1999. Her paper is Dressed for Adventure: Working women and silent movie serials in 1910 (on Jstor) and this paper:Fashioning Political Identities: Cultural Studies and the Historical Construction of Political Subjects from a book Ladies of Labour..working women, popular culture and labour politics in turn of the century America. Change America to Canada and you have the essence of TIGHSOLAS.
...So now I have more reading....