The First Paper Clothing Fad: 1889 – 1893

The late 1960s fad for disposable paper clothing resulted in some mad, mod dresses in flower power prints, but this was the second time paper clothing was a fad. The first time was 80 years earlier, and it all began when there was a change in how paper was made.

Historically, paper had been made from recycled rags, usually cotton garments that were mechanically pulped into a slurry and dried into sheets. In 1843, wood pulp was used for the first time, and although the resulting paper was not as good quality as rag paper it was cheaper to produce because the raw material was abundant. By the 1870s, mechanical pulping was being displaced by chemical pulping that used sulphites to break down the wood pulp, resulting in a better quality paper.

The insulating qualities of paper were well known – it was a common practice to tuck newspapers inside a winter coat to keep the wind from cutting through the weave of the cloth. American entrepreneur R.C. Mudge and his business partner, Edgar Wasson thought the idea of using the new sulphite paper for making clothing for winter insulation had commercial possibilities. Mudge and Wasson applied for a patent for a paper vest in 1888, and in February 1889, the R. C. Mudge Paper Clothing Company began manufacturing paper vests in Detroit, Michigan. They hired John C. McLaughlin, who would go on to apply for Canadian and American patents for the process he developed to make sulphite wood pulp paper pliable by dampening it with a gelatin solution and rolling it between sets of corrugated rollers and then rubbing it by hand. This softening process allowed for the paper to be sewn, like a textile, but still retain its strength.

The new company displayed their goods at the Detroit International Exposition and Fair in 1889. A newspaper report in the Detroit Tribute extolled the virtues of Mudge’s products: “The men’s vest cost 50 cents, the ladies’ 75 cents and other goods come at corresponding prices.  These paper garments cannot be compared with inferior woolen garments.  Wind will blow through wool.  It simply can’t get through this paper, which, besides being warm is tough, standing a pull of 98 pounds to the inch without tearing.”

To promote his venture, Mudge commissioned J.E. Fancher to create a piece of music titled “The Paper Vest Gallop”, printed on the sulphite paper he used to make his paper garments. Mudge also promoted his goods by donating paper blankets to hospitals and paper vests to postmen.

Mudge didn’t have enough financial backing to support his fledgling business that he expanded too rapidly. Despite all the promotion and accolades, his venture failed. Mudge’s business and stock were sold under a mortgage to Henry McMorran and Wilbur Davidson of the Sulfite Fibre Works of Port Huron Michigan for $75,000. The new owners hired Mudge and McLaughlin to oversee the transition and continue to improve the manufacturing process. They also changed the name of their company to the Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Company. In July 1890, McLaughlin made suggestions on how to improve the quality of the paper with the addition of spring-loaded pounding machines, but left the company shortly afterwards. In 1891 Mudge also left the company and moved to Brooklyn where he became a Vaudeville stage manager.

The Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Company eventually failed sometime in 1893 and leased their property to the American Fibre-Chamois Company. By 1894, ladies’ dresses had taken on full balloon-shaped sleeves, and the American Fibre-Chamois Company found a new, viable market selling their paper as an interlining to give sleeves their desired fullness. In 1896, McLaughlin sued for patent infringement by the American Fibre-Chamois Company over their use of his process for making the paper pliable. The court found that McLaughlin had not been specific enough in his patent over details, like the strength of the gelatin solution used to dampen the paper, and his case was dismissed.

Concurrent with Mudge’s business was the New York Paper Clothing Manufacturing Company, founded by Charles G. Barrett at 290 Pearl Street in New York. Their ‘Zero’ vest for men and women was a paper interlined cloth vest that they advertised as being “…just the thing for cold weather. It is light, comfortable, soft and pliable and fits perfectly.” The Watertown Daily Times reported on October 27, 1890 that: “Anyone that is troubled with weak lungs can readily find relief by wearing a good chest protector. These goods… can be had at the W. H. Drug Store. We have… a line of paper vests, which are made by the New York Paper Clothing Company, which are used by many who are continually exposed to this cold climate and have given the greatest satisfaction.” However, like Mudge and the Port Huron Fibre-Garment Manufacturing Co., this company also failed and was dissolved in 1893.

With thanks to Lynne Ranieri and other members of the VFG who uncovered this story.

Patent Fashions – 1937 Shoes

American design patent D104,965 was granted June 15, 1937 for 3 1/2 years to John J. Doucette, of the Pedigo shoe company of St. Louis, Missouri. Founded as the Pedigo-Weber Shoe Company by 43 year old James Pedigo in 1912 (he was born in Clay County, Tennessee on November 21, 1868) the Pedigo-Weber Shoe Company built a new factory in 1918 at 3427 Locust Street in St Louis (restored into condos in 2009.) This pair, likely made in the fall of 1937, was sold through a store in Macon, Georgia.


Patent Fashions – Dress Sheilds

The earliest examples of dress shields I have found in garments date from the early 1890s. However, Elizabeth Emerson on a chat group I follow (Fashion Historians United) found a reference to them being a new idea in 1863 when Godey’s Lady’s Book wrote about them:

The New Dress “Shields”

Ladies who perspire freely, and thus so soon destroy light silk, and other dresses, by discoloring them under the arms, will find complete protection by using our light and convenient ‘Shields,” made of a new material, and perfectly adapted to their use. They can be applied in an instant and taken in and out without any trouble, and add no encumbrance, which can be inconvenient or disagreeable to the most fastidious… the cost is so trifling, only twenty-five cents per pair…will save a dress worth as many dollars, it is worth while to employ it in these days of poor goods and high prices. Is it not so?

I couldn’t find any patents for these first examples, but there were plenty afterwards, starting in the 1870s:

Patent fashions – Puckered swimwear 1938

espacenetimageBritish patent GB486475 (Publiation Date: 1938-06-03) for elastic fabric. SYMINGTON & CO., Ltd., R. & W. H., and BILLING, G. W. March 30, 1937, No. 9090. The invention relates to garments, particularly but not exclusively intended for bathers or swimmers, made of puckered material rendered elastic by stitching strands of rubber (Fig. 1), following the warp and weft in a zigzag manner. The material is folded and seamed (Fig. 6). The material so folded is provided with a continuous spirally run length of rubber strand e, (Fig. 2), intersecting the other strand a. The garment has a top hem f, Fig. 7, as a runner for draw-strings g.


I have since come across some images of an extant suit:

Patent Fashion – Personal Flotation Device, 1915

na_1718_2Perhaps not a fashion, but it is worn… Moved by the tragedy of the Titanic, Norwegian-born former sailor (who had been shipwrecked three times), John Edlund (1874 – 1957), invented a personal life saving device and patented the idea in 1915.

Edlund created his idea when he was living in Claresholm, Alberta – about as far from an ocean as you can get. The device doubled as a valise when not in use for lifesaving. Unfolded, the passenger could climb in and then walk into the water from the ship’s deck – seeing their way through a small glass looking-hole. Edlund was offered a fee for his design, but he turned it down to pursue his own marketing campaign. The idea was profiled in many publications in Canada and the U.S. and there was some interest in it during the Great War, but the idea eventually sank.

Lipstick templates

lipstick-stencilThe first commercial lipsticks appeared on the market in the 1880s. While too much lipstick soon became associated with loose morals, many ‘nice girls’ dabbed lip colour sparingly onto their lips to achieve a healthier appearance.

Just as the fashion for stronger lip colour was taking off in 1915, the invention of metal, retractable lipstick tubes (made from bullet casings) made lipstick application an easier process. Previously, lip colour could only be applied at the dressing table, but now lipstick could be carried for touch-ups, although early lipsticks were prone to melting in hot weather.

In 1926 lip stencils were first made by cosmetics manufacturer Helena Rubinstein to ensure the flawless application of a heart-shaped “cupid’s bow” lip. Various improvements to these stencils over the years were fodder for patents:

Moustache fashion

Ant_304.1L.jpgBy the time I went back to my bookmarked page to purchase this 1904 Moustache trainer on Ruby Lane a few months ago, someone had snapped it up. Not that I avidly collect moustache related paraphernalia (I assume the buyer was a collector). The history of keeping moustaches in shape and out of food is an interesting one. as indicated by these Victorian era US patents for devices to keep lunch and moustaches well apart.

Canadian Fashion Connection – False Eyelashes

Actress Lillian Gish claimed that DW Griffith had invented false eyelashes in 1916 when he had a pair made of human hair glued to a strip of gauze for actress Seena Owen to wear in his film Intolerance. That would be a nice story if it wasn’t for a Canadian woman from Ottawa by the name of Anna Taylor who received a U.S. patent in 1911 for artificial eyelashes. However, her patent for ‘improvements’ to artificial eyelashes suggests invention rights may have to be given to German-born Charles Nestle (Karl Nessler) who reportedly first made false eyelashes around the turn of the century.  Nestle is better know for inventing the permanent hair waving machine.

tiff:timestamp: 2000: 5:26 12:06:45