Historic Speaker Series: Clothing and Textiles of the Meadowlands 1890-1915

Historic Speaker Series: Clothing and Textiles of the Meadowlands 1890-1915

This month, I gave a talk on Zoom as part of the Meadowlands Museum‘s Historic Speaker Series! This talk covered information from the 2018 exhibit at the Museum, A Stitch in Time: Clothing & Textiles of the Meadowlands,1890 to 1915.

A few highlights from the talk are shown in this month’s post for anyone who was not able to tune in virtually covering! The focus of the highlights is on bleacheries, silk production, and embroidery of the Meadowlands region.

The exhibit, and subsequent talk, is meant to emphasize the power and peak of the textile industry in Northern New Jersey during this period. While most might think of New York City as dominating the garment industry, Northern New Jersey’s silk production and embroidery work were unparalleled in the country at this time. NYC may have dominated the garment trade in terms of completing and selling finished garments, but Northern NJ was a giant in wool and silk fabric production, mechanized embroidery work, and played a significant role in other areas of textile and notion production. The exhibit and talk also bring to light some beautiful garments from the Museum’s collection and how these would have fit into the larger fashion picture, in terms of silhouette and style.

A close-up of the embroidery on this lingerie dress – discussed later in the post

One lesser known stage in garment production lies in the work of the bleacheries. The bleachery turned raw materials into uniform yarn and fabric. The bleached fibers could then be used as is, a uniform white or ivory fabric, or then provided a uniform surface for printing or further dyeing. In the Meadowlands region, the Standard Bleachery Co. of Carlton Hill in East Rutherford employed about 675 people at its height, and its owner, William McKenzie, was instrumental in developing the town of East Rutherford and the surrounding area. The dress below is from the Museum’s collection, and its ground cotton fabric represents the uniform bleached cotton goods that were created at the bleacheries.

Afternoon Dress, circa 1905, USA
Irish crochet lace, cotton, linen
The Meadowlands Museum 70.124b

This type of dress from about 1905, was typical of the summer Afternoon Dresses from that period. White or ivory fabric color, lace details, partial sleeves, and a high neckline were all elements that would have been well suited to the social expectations of what a lady might wear mid-day in warm weather months. Darker colors, a low neckline, and a sleeveless bodice would have been considered evening wear.

The three-dimensional lace details of this dress are an Irish crochet lace and were made by hand. Lights colors and lace accents were also elements one might see on what was called a lingerie dress. So-called because of the details that were similar to those used for ladies’ lingerie at the time.

A similar lace dress from the Costume Institute’s collection is shown below, styled with a hat and parasol.

Afternoon Dress
Cotton, 1901
MET Museum 1980.590.1

The silk milks of Paterson are also important to mention as Paterson was a hub for skilled immigrant silk weavers and dyers. Paterson was known as the Silk City or even called the Lyon of America, referring to the French city of Lyon which was widely known for its silk production.

The 1915 Industrial Directory of New Jersey wrote, “Approximately one-third of this nation’s product of this beautiful fabric comes from the looms of New Jersey mills, and fully ninety percent of this great total is credited to Paterson. Upwards of 160 silk mills and dye houses, employing an army of operatives numbering nearly 30,000 men and women are now in operation.” 1 The sheer volume of silk fabric produced in Paterson at that time was unmatched in the U.S.

Silk Mills of Dexter, Lambert & Co.
Photograph, 1890
Wikimedia Commons

Many of these silk factory magnates became incredibly wealthy and even built “castles” for themselves in Northern NJ. For example, one of the owners of the Dexter, Lambert & Co. silk mill shown above, Catholina Lambert. The mill itself was an impressive structure, but Lambert built a mansion home in Paterson in 1892 after the continued success of the mill. Lambert Castle was made in the likeness of British Castles, and it is now the home of the Passaic County Historical Society Museum. Granted, Paterson is technically outside of the Meadowlands region, but it is one of the neighboring cities.

KForce at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Museum’s collection houses quite a few silk garments from that period, but one of the dresses that was shown in the Zoom talk is this gown from both 1888 and 1904.

Combined Wedding & Trousseau Gown
Black lace, silk, and jet, 1888 and 1904
Meadowlands Museum, 65.19 A&B

Why two dates you ask? Great question! This gown is actually a combination of two different gowns, and presumably was first a wedding gown in 1888, and the black lace of the trousseau gown was added in 1904. I think this piece especially speaks to the value of silk and the desire to modify silk garments rather than discard them. The silhouettes and styles would have changed a lot between these periods, but even though the wedding gown likely had a bustle or the remnants of that style and slimmer sleeves, it appears that the blouse and skirt have been modified to suit the S-curve silhouette of the Edwardian era and the added lace layer at the shoulders would have accented the height of the sleeves that were just waning in popularity around this time.

Left: 1888 Peterson’s Magazine Fashion Plate, PKM at English Wikipedia., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Center: 1895 The Ladies’ World October, Public Domain; Right: 1904 Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The images above show the progression of styles from 1888, to 1895, and 1904 respectively. You can see how the bustle skirt progressed to an hourglass, and finally, into a more sloping S-curve. For many woman, it would not have been practical to begin again with an entirely new dress as styles changed, so adjustments would have been made in order to continue to wear an existing dress.

The last section highlighted from the historic talk is embroidery. Embroidery, or the art of working raised and ornamental designs upon a support material with a needle, is closely associated with North Jersey, especially within cities like Union City, Weehawken, and others that border the Hudson River across from Manhattan. A large bridge sign above Route 495 commemorates this to all travelers riding towards New York City. The sign reads, “Welcome to North New Jersey: Embroidery Capital of the World Since 1872.” Of course, this is no longer the embroidery capital of the world, but it does call to mind the longstanding dominance of that area in the embroidery business.

Schiffli Machine with Card Reader (replaced the manual pantograph)
Early 20th century, post-1912
Chris Riedener, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

The photo above is a Schiffli Machine with a card reader. The Schiffli technology was integral to the success of embroidery work and by 1910, there were 468 shuttle embroidery machines in New Jersey. Schiffli means “little boat” and this is due to the boat-like shuttle that produces the embroidery. These machines allowed for more complex designs and utilized anywhere from 682 to 1,020 needles to create intricate embroideries on fabrics that looked as delicate as if they were done by hand. Important to note is the underlying bedrock of the Palisades in this area of NJ that was used as an anchor for these massive cast iron Schiffli machines. The machines weighed 5 to 8 tons and the anchor was made by 20 foot shafts in the sturdy Palisades bedrock. This prevented the needles from vibrating as they created embroidered designs.

An example of embroidered fabric is shown here on this dress from the Museum collection, ca. 1910. This is another example of a lingerie, afternoon dress. Notice this dress is also light colored, has lace accents, and is made of a delicate mousseline.

Cream mousseline, button front, floral embroidery, green velvet, ca. 1910
Meadowlands Museum 71.120.2

These are just a few areas of discussion from the Historic Speaker series talk. There will be more talks upcoming on Zoom with the Museum covering other historical topics, which will be posted here as dates are confirmed.

There is so much information to cover from A Stitch in Time: Clothing & Textiles of the Meadowlands,1890 to 1915, so don’t hesitate to comment below with further questions! The Meadowlands region and Nothern NJ are often overlooked as major players in the textile trade, but they undoubtedly had a major influence in the amount of textile and garment related goods that were produced around the turn of the century, and likewise, the industry played a critical role in shaping the region.

1 George C. Low, Director, The Industrial Directory of New Jersey, Bureau of Industrial Statistics of New Jersey, Camden, NJ: S. Chew & Sons Co., 1915, 403.

-Danielle Morrin

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The Body: Fashion and Physique, Victorian – Edwardian Highlights

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