Sunday, April 6, 2014

Women Professions Part 2 Seamstress

Part 2 Profession Seamstress

The sewing machine was invented in 1846 but was not used widely until 1860. Wealthy families or families of means would hire a seamstress or find servants that could sew. This was an invaluable skill for most households and it allowed Free Women of Color the opportunity to support themselves but on the negative side it made slaves with these skills more valuable. Be sure to read the famous story of slave and seamstress Oney Judge that was owned by George Washington who escaped to freedom.

 Even with the advent of the sewing machine ready-to-wear clothes did not make a huge impact on American society until sometime between the 1870s and 1900s. By 1910 women could purchase a complete ready-to-wear wardrobe. Once companies established large factories with modern machinery and efficient production practices, consumer demand for cheaper clothes rose. New York City alone produced more than 40 percent of all ready-to-wear clothes during this time.

The average wage for a seamstress during the 1800s was $16 a week but some made much lower depending on her employer. Many of these women were skilled in crafts that are lost to us today.  All fabrics were natural. There was no polyester, spandex, elastic or vinyl. The most commonly used fabrics were cotton, linen, and wool. Silk was available, but very expensive. There were no zippers, snaps, safety pins or Velcro, and buttons were mostly for decoration. Hooks, straight pins and laces were the most common fastenings.

In the 1880s and into the 1900s, fashion dictated that a woman’s body be tightly corseted and that her gowns–as dresses were made to be tightly fitted over the corsets. Ready-made dresses could not provide the perfect fit, so women who aspired to be among the most fashionable and who could afford it still sought the services of custom dressmakers. The complexity of draping adding elaborate trim and ornaments to make these fashionable dresses also required the expertise of professional seamstresses. Project Runaway participants could have never compared to the skills of these women! Remember there were no ready made patterns either everything was done from scratch.

Many of the women in our family supported themselves and passed down the craft of sewing.  Katherine Broyle (Rainey) was a slave in the Rainey household. Not only was she skilled in sewing and but she passed on the craft to her daughters Mollie, Kate “Sissy”, Willie, Jessie, and Annie Claude. Mollie took up the craft and made her living as a seamstress.  She even was hired to travel to Boston sometime in 1900s to work for the Scarritt family. I am still researching the connection.  Mollie in turn taught her daughter’s (Ella, Leo, Ione, Wille, Annie Laura) the craft.  My grandmother Annie Laura Bell Steele supported her family as a seamstress.  I have several items that my grandmother made and did not understand how priceless they were until I became an adult.  A great story comes from our cousin Geri (Bell) as a young girl; she attended a dance decked out in a taffeta dress made by Annie Laura.  She said several people asked her; did you buy that dress in New York City?  She smiled and never told them it was hand made (expertly) by Annie Laura who made many of their clothes and all of her children’s clothes.  Our cousin Kathy told me, that Aunt Leo (Bell Steele) was also an expert seamstress and made all of the clothes, curtains and other household items.  Here is a pastel of Annie Laura sewing that was done by the artist May Asbury Jones in 1950.  It sold at auction in 2012. I missed purchasing it by two weeks. 

On the Steele side of the family we have Sarah “Sallie” Keen listed on the 1860 census as a seamstress. She is even listed as owning property.  Once William Steele passed away in 1859 Sallie supported her 5 children (Charlie, Frank, Augustus, William, and Addie) by William and Emma (father unknown) by sewing. 

Please share your stories and photos of the seamstress in your family. It is fortunate that we have stories and photos to share with each other.  It is because of these very strong and determined women that food was kept on the table and a roof over their family’s head.
These are photos of some of my grandmother’s handiwork.

This was my father’s (Warren Bell Steele) quilt as a child. It is made of scrap material that Big Mama collected from other projects she was working on. Of course I thought it would be cool to sleep with it as a teenager so it is torn.  The underside is made from used flour sacks.

This quilt was saved by my mother from Big Mama’s house in Milledgeville on Liberty Street. It is much better shape. Beautifully done again with scrap material.

This is a tablecloth that was done by Big Mama. All hand sewn applique with embroidered lace repeated through out the tablecloth

And of course the essential tool of the 1800’s to finish any project. I got this off of Big Mama’s back porch on Liberty Street. She had several.

Here is a great link on how to store your old quilts!

Family Research Continued

In continuing my research on the Steele and the Bell’s I came across this article. It appears that Jane Mitchell was mislabeled as Julia Mitchell.  The interesting thing is it does list her as a former slave of David Byrdie Mitchell. I now have another clue as to where she may have come from and at what date she may have earned her freedom.  David Mitchell came from Scotland and landed in Savannah, GA because he inherited property from his uncle. We know in 1842 she is listed with John J. Mitchell (her agent verifying her FPOC status) and her daughter Jane Mitchell (age 22) as owning property.  So some time prior to 1842 she earned her freedom, although I do not have her listed on the 1850 census as a FPOC.

Baldwin County GaArchives News.....Julia Mitchell June 17 1887 ************************************************ Copyright.  All rights reserved. ************************************************  File contributed for use in USGenWeb Archives by: Carla Miles October 15, 2004, 11:31 pm

 The Marion County Patriot The Marion County Patriot, No. 24 June 17, 1887 Page Eight State News Items 

Milledgeville claims the oldest woman in Georgia.  Julia Mitchell, an old negro  resident of that city, is one hundred and twenty years old, and in apparent  good health.  She was one of Governor Mitchell’s slaves years ago and says she  remembers the revolutionary war distinctly.  She has been blind now for several  years, but her memory of the long ago makes up an interesting conversation.   File at:  This file has been created by a form at  File size: 1.1 Kb

The Reid Connection

I had my DNA test done a couple of years ago and today I had a man reach out to me that was managing his cousin’s account.  Our DNA match on her maternal side; which included Andrew and Agnes Reid.  They are the great great grandparents of David Henry Reid who was the father of Mary Louise “Mollie” Reid Bell.  So it is confirmed now by DNA test.  I have the Reid’s traced back to the late 1600’s from Ulster, Ireland.

Hope everyone is well.  Here is the link to the blog site if you want to read past newsletters.

Happy in research!  Theresa


  1. Great job, as usual Theresa. My grandmother, Belle Powell Steele, certainly didn't acquire the sewing trait. She could sew but she absolutely hated to do it. Subsequently, my mother never learned. My grandmother found it so odd when I decided to take sewing lessons years ago.

    1. You can now pass on the lessons to your daughter! I wish I could sew better. I was more of an observer! T