The $900.00 1913 wardrobe

About a year ago I came home to find a plastic bag on my door knob. No note or address from the donor, but inside the bag there were three small notebooks, each of them an account book for expenses dating between 1913 and 1918. One notebook accounts for general expenses (mortgage, furniture, coal, taxes…) one covers food, and one covers clothing and linens.

I wish I knew who the original keepers of these notebooks were and why the careful accounting for every penny spent – I suspect it was a newlywed wife’s household accounts. Unfortunately, I also don’t know her name, although she often refers to ‘Frank’, presumably her husband, in the accounts. They definitely lived in Halton county, and I think they lived in Oakville as there is a blotter from an Oakville dry goods store.

These are the accounts of a young middle class woman who shows frugality in her wardrobe, but still wants to remain up to date with fashion – all of which she sews herself. We don’t know what she already had in her wardrobe when she began keeping the accounts. In the first year of accounts (from May 1913 to April 1914) There was no winter coat purchase, so she presumably already had one. There were also no hat purchases, but there were purchases for ribbons and veiling, so she may have re-trimmed some older hats. If she was a newlywed, she probably had a good stock of underwear from her trousseau, which could explain why there was no corset or petticoat purchase, and the purchase of only three pairs of stockings during the entire year. There were also no shoe purchases during these 12 months.

Transcribing what she bought during the first year of her accounts, it is clear she made almost everything she wore. She bought fabric to sew two or three dresses in the spring/summer, a suit and blouse in the fall, and at least two dresses the following spring:
May 21/13 – 3 yards of dress muslin .45
June 19/13 – 3 7/8 yards of Cretonne (a heavy cotton, possibly for making skirt or suit) .48
July 21/13 – 4 yards Percale .60
August 14/13 – 1 1/8 yard print cotton .14
November 5/13 – 2 ½ yards vesting (woven patterned silk) .50
November 6/13 – 3 1/3 yards serge 3.33
November 6/13 – 3/8 yard net .47
November 6/13 – yard satin, ¼ yard lining .51
November 11/13 – 2 yards black sateen .40
November 20/13 – 1 yard cretonne .13
April 3/14 – 3 yards print cotton .38
April 10/14 – 2 ¼ yards cotton .28
April 21/14 – 6 ½ yards crepe 1.63

A page dated 1915 from the clothing accounts notebook, and a blotter from an Oakville shop

Notions purchased during the year to complete her home sewing projects include: 10 spools of cotton thread $.48; 1 spool silk thread $.10; 1 pair dress shields $.25; 2 ¼ yards of belting $.14; 1 dozen buttons, 10 pearl buttons, 3 dozen dome fasteners, sewing tape, 2 card collar supports, and a package of needles $.70; 3 ‘frills’ $.15; 2 lace collars $.75, and 1 embroidered collar $.25. There were many lengths of ribbon at various prices, some were marked ‘Xmas’ and were probably for gifts, others may have been for trimming hats as there was also veiling listed (1 ¼ yards) $.31.

Throughout the year she also purchased: 1 muffler $1.50, 2 pairs kid gloves $2.35; 2 pairs silk gloves $1.25; a ‘Traymore’ robe $3.00; 4 nightgowns (2 bought in December, which could mean they were Christmas presents) $4.00; 3 pairs of stockings .75; 3 pairs of drawers (aka bloomers) .75; 3 vests (I think she is referring to camisoles) .75; 4 pairs of braces (garters?) $1.50; and 15 handkerchiefs (2 marked as ‘Excelda’ brand), although they were all bought in December and some may have been purchased as gifts $2.50. Although I was surprised to see that she did not purchase any ready-made dresses, the month after this first year of accounts, in May 1914, she purchased a cotton housedress and crepe blouse, so she did buy ready-made clothing.

During the year she also bought some men’s clothing for husband(?) ‘Frank’, including 5 ties for $2.00, a ‘Christie’ brand hat for $2.50, 2 collars for $.25, and a night shirt for $1.00. I am guessing his clothing bills for suits and shirts didn’t go through his wife’s budget, and in fact the purchases she made may have been gifts.

In total she spent about $35.00 on herself (I am not including purchases for Frank), which is the equivalent of about $900.00 today. I don’t know who gave me these account books, but thank-you! They are fascinating!

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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