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Frontier Women in 1816 Indiana


Part IV – Clothing the Family

Among the many responsibilities an Indiana pioneer woman had, one of the most continuous, next to feeding her growing family, was keeping them clothed. Clothing was worn, mended, twice mended and turned if necessary. All clothing was designed to be serviceable and long wearing. They were made either from fabric that had been spun and woven at home or from deerskin. The fabric fibers from wool, cotton, flax or a fabric known as linsey-woolsey, with a linen warp and a woolen weft. The fibers that were spun and woven into fabric, were dyed with a variety of natural substances from walnut hulls for deep brown, indigo for blue or madder for red. Dying took place in the summer, but much of the spinning and weaving was done during the winter.

Underneath her frock and habit, the frontier woman would have worn a shift and petticoat. The shift doubled as a nightgown and came to her knees, hanging loose from her shoulders. Clothing fastened with ties, hook and eyes or buttons or sometimes even pins. Older women covered their heads with caps, night and day, though younger women and girls wore sun bonnets to shield themselves from the sun and quilted hoods in the winter to provide adequate warmth. For her children, who would run barefoot in the summer, she might make a tow shirt, made much like a shift. In the winter and when they grew older, they would be dressed much like their parents.

Her husband would be dressed in clothing that would serve him well for the long hours he spent outdoors. Even if his outer clothes were made from deerskin, his undershirt would be made of linsey. Deerskin was ideal as it resisted snakebites and briars. It was not particularly comfortable to wear when it got wet however. Both men and women wore moccasins or went barefoot in the summer.

Clothes were washed with the soap a woman made herself. Soap making was also a laborious task, often requiring long hours over an outdoor cauldron with constant stirring. It was made from animal fat and lye and made by leaching out the chemicals from wood ash. The soap was very harsh and it is likely her hands were chapped and blistered from immersing them in such a solution. A pioneer woman’s life was never easy. Work began before sunup and very often continued after the sun had gone down and she did her quieter work by the light and warmth of the fire, very often after everyone else had gone to bed.

— Gretchen Brown


The Indiana Home by Logan Esarey
Home Life in Early Indiana by William Frederick Vogel

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