Geneva Historical Society, 2005
Clothing in 1840
§ Although people on the frontier or in some rural areas still raised sheep, spun thread, and
wove cloth, most Americans purchased fabric for their clothing by the 1800s. The Erie
Canal made almost any kind of fabric available in Geneva by 1840.
§ All fabrics were natural. There was no polyester, spandex, elastic or vinyl. The most
commonly used fabrics were cotton, linen, 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.
§ Almost all clothing was made by hand at home by the women of the house.
§ The sewing machine was not invented until 1846 and not widely used until the late 1860s.
§ Wealthy families would hire a seamstress or tailor to make women’s dresses and men’s
suits. They might have servants to help with other sewing.
§ Sewing was an important female occupation and even wealthy women did much of their
own mending and sewing of simple garments, like aprons, shirts, sheets, table linens, and
§ Most ordinary people had only a few clothes: an everyday outfit or two—a dress for
women/girls and a suit or coat and trousers for boys and men—and a Sunday “best” outfit.
Wealthy people might have a few more outfits, but not as many as most people today.
§ Washing clothes was very hard work and dresses and coats would not be washed very
often. Instead, undergarments would be washed regularly. Collars and cuffs for both shirts
and dresses were removable, so they could be changed for fashion or for cleanliness. Girls
and little children wore large aprons or pinafores that covered their dresses to keep them
clean. Men’s shirts and women’s chemises or shifts were washed regularly.
§ Everyday men’s clothing included a shirt, pants, waistcoat (vest), tie and coat.
The shirt was made of linen and pulled over the head (no button-up shirts). It
hung down the thighs and was used