Thinking About Holiday Clothes During the Davenports’ Time

“Best Bibs and Tuckers”1: What Did Dressing Up in the 1820s Mean?

At this time of seasonal sweaters and holiday finery, it does us good to recall the transformation that took place almost two hundred years ago that made the constant, conscious ruminations over the production of clothing and the manufacture of cloth obsolete. When we thumb through a catalog or surf outfits on-line, we rarely, if ever, think of how or who made these items of apparel. This was not the case in the 1820s when the Davenports lived in their fine brick home on Columbia Square. At that time the household was in the midst of the textile revolution which took Americans, beginning in the late 18th century, from spinning threads and weaving their own cloth into “homespun” to purchasing machine-made fabrics such as cambric, gingham, nankeen, osnaburg, bomazeen and sarsnet at a dry goods purveyor in the port city. Yet, the women of the household still had to coordinate the production of clothing as well as the constant tasks of mending and caring for clothing and cloth items already made.

As evident in Savannah’s newspapers, the textile and consumer revolution progressed during the early 19th century with the proliferation of “fancy goods” and varieties of textiles and trimmings available. Not only are there ads for dress makers, tailors, hat sellers, boot and shoe sellers but also growing outlets for purchasing “ready to wear” including men’s cloaks and vests, workman’s and sailors suits, “fearnaughts, Monkey jackets and trowsers suitable for boatmen,” and varieties of negro shoes, negro cloth, negro caps and gloves and places to buy umbrellas, tortoise combs, etc. As a significant port, Savannah offered the world of goods available at the time. Where some fortunate Savannah ladies donned “leghorns” [hats]2 and drape themselves in imported silk shawls3, their counterparts in the backcountry continued to produce and wear homespun cloth.

In thinking about holiday finery of the early 19th century we recognize that Savannah was a good vantage point to see and understand the breadth of goods available to the early 19th century customer and what being fashionable was at the time. Newspapers carried humorous stories about the exaggerations of current fashions4 and descriptions of up-to-date apparel5. In addition to newspapers, there were hand-colored fashion plates from French and English publications illustrating the taste of the time. Textile authority Jane Nylander writes, “New styles were transmitted from city to country in a variety of ways. Fashion plates illustrating the newest styles were included in French and English magazines like Ackerman’s Repository for many years before they began to appear in American publications.” Additionally historian Jack Larson says, “High style, for Americans, emerged from fashionable houses and dressmakers’ shops of what Americans recognized as “the centers of fashion” – Paris and London. Annual changes in bonnet styles and the cut of gowns traveled in a month or so to New York, and then to other American cities, via illustrated magazines, ‘fashion plates’ or large colored engravings, private letters and stylishly dressed foreign visitors.” During the holiday season, visitors to the Davenport House will see a selection of 1820s English and French fashion plates in the museum’s Morning Room as though Mrs. Davenport were contemplating the styles of the day.

We know more about what the Davenports wore than we do about other aspects of their lives because of three silhouettes by “Master Hankes with Common Scissor,” a newspaper account of the house Mr. Davenport was visiting being struck by lightning and estate documents listing the purchase of clothing for Davenport children and slaves in the household. One assumes that the outfits worn to have a silhouette done would have been their best. Along with being preservation marvels – all three silhouettes are dated and identified with the subjects’ names and ages as well as the artist’s stamp, these three generations of Davenport women in silhouette show a remarkably fashionable trio. All created in 1828, they are of Sarah Davenport (age 40), Cornelia Davenport (age 4) and Mrs. Davenport’s mother Susannah Clark (age 67), the year after Mr. Davenport’s death and the year before Mrs. Clark died. Sarah’s shows the young widow with upswept hair and held in place with a comb. There also appears to be a feather in her hair. Her face is accented by a dangle earring. A lacy fichu ornaments her bodice. The four-year-old Cornelia dons a long sleeved frock with matching trousers. Of note are her sausage curls.6 A real revelation is the matron Susannah in what appears to be a fashionable velvet Spencer jacket, ruff collar and holding spectacles in her hand.

A June 1821 newspaper account of a lightning strike of a house the Davenports were visiting sheds light on what Mr. Davenport wore at the time. “Mr. Davenport who had a child in his arms had the skin torn from his . . . breast and one leg, and a number of blisters under his shirt, vest, pantaloons and one stocking were considerably scorched, while the child received no injury.” So we know that Mr. Davenport was in the main stream of male fashion by wearing long pants. Only the extremely conservative or at formal occasions did men wear knee breeches in the 1820s. We wish we knew if he was wearing a tail coat or a frock coat . . .

As far as we know, half of the Davenport household, the enslaved people, had little choice in what they wore. Much has been written on clothing for plantation slaves – the quantities7 and quality of material used (usually osnaburg in what was called Negro cloth), while less is known about the apparel of house servants and enslaved laborers, stevedores, etc., in the urban area. House servants who came in contact with Davenport visitors and clients would certainly not have worn ragged clothes and they probably did not “go bare footed.” Isaiah Davenport’s estate records show the purchase of “clothes for servants” and “jackets for David and Jack.” Useful resources for what enslaved people wore are the runaway slave ads which appeared regularly in the local papers. Masters closely noted the physical attributes, including earrings, scars and body markings, as well as the outfits worn by runaways when last seen. We know of one runaway from Mr. Davenport, a slave named Nancy, but her description is of a scar on her neck rather than what she was wearing.

Estate records also indicate the purchase of items for the children including “shoes for the children,” “childrens BLK stockings,” “cap for Isaiah,” “clothes for Cornelia” (maybe her silhouette clothes), “plaid cloak for Isaiah” and “clothes for children.”

Fashion history tells us that during the 1820s apparel was evolving from the high-waisted, flowing dresses of the early 19th century for women. Bright colors returned to fashion, waistlines were lowered, skirts were fuller, puffed sleeves puffed out and corsetry achieved an hourglass shape (though not tightly laced – that came later). Fashionable men, believe it or not, also prized the hourglass shape4. Pants were long and tight. Tail coats were shorter at the waist and frock coats were growing in popularity. One expects that port city residents knew about these trends.

As we contemplate the latest thing this holiday season, it is illustrative to remember a time – as presented in the Davenport House – where the choices were fewer, where the consumer culture was beginning and where the end of year celebrations meant sharing “a cup of kindness” and a good meal – possibly, but not probably, in a new dress.


Holiday Evening Tours by Candlelight

December 26 -30, 2011

6 to 8:30 p.m.

Admission: $8 adults in advance, $10 at the door; $5 children in advance, $7 at the door

Glistening by candlelight, the Federal-style home welcomes visitors to an experience emphasizing the end-of-year celebrations of early 19th century Savannahians, including the Davenport household, who lived in the fine brick home on Columbia Square. Light refreshments, music and skilled interpreters, who show visitors through the home, are among the highlights of the presentation.

The performance requires that guests be able to walk up and down stairs and maneuver in the candlelit rooms.


1 “The ladies of the Cabinet in their best bibs and tuckers. Most of them in new dresses just from Paris.” p. 248. Margaret Bayard Smith, Forty Years of Washington Society.

2 Mrs. C. Judah. Would inform her friends and the public generally, that she has taken a store in Luccna’s buildings, in the rear of Broughton street, where she has on hand a general assortment of HATS and BONNETS, of the latest fashions. She would also inform the Ladies that she alters and cleans Leghorn in the most fashionable style. January 19, 1820. Columbia Museum.

Hats – “While straw bonnets and gypsy hats began to be imported from Italy in large numbers, except in periods of war and embargo, New England women and girls mastered the skills of straw braiding so successfully that it is impossible to distinguish between an American and European straw hat. Indeed, the term `Leghorn’ bonnet was used for women’s straw hats regardless of their origin.” Nylander.

3 By Watts & Joyner

Tomorrow, (Thursday,) 2d inst,

Will be sold at 10 o’clock precisely, at their

Auction room, without reserve, a large and generous

Assortment of

English, French, German, and Domestic

Dry Goods,

. . .Silk Hdkfs and Shawls – thread Laces. March 1, 1820. Columbia Museum.

4 From the N.Y. National Advocate 25th ult.

Dandy Hats — Our city has been much amused with a low tripod kind of hat, made of fine beaver, and worn by our Bang ups. __ Some call the Touch, others the Gape and the Stare, the real name is the Bolingbroke. It is about 6 inches in crown, and 4 in rim, shaped like an inverted cone. It is real tippy. We yesterday saw one of the fancy dressed quite unique, blue frock, black silk Wellington cravat, buff waistcoat, Cossack pantaloons, high heel boots, black ribbon and eye glass, bushy hair frizzed and surmounted with one of these little tippy hats. He looked like an hour glass, and minced his steps along Broadway in the real Jemmy Jump style. The ladies were highly amused, and more glasses were directed toward him, than would be to the Emperor Iturbide, had he just landed; while our [boy] insensible to all this curiously danced up the street, humming the favorite air of, “Look dear mad’am, I’m quite the thing; natius hay, tippity ho!”

October 7, 1823. Savannah Republican.

5 London fashions for February. –

Opera Dress – dress of white sattin with chinamsters, set on three rows without stalks—next to hems, a clochette trimmed of crape, forming full platts or quiltings. The bust trimmed with bouffant puffings of silk net confined by bows of white satin Andalusian mantle of pink satin, trimmed with ermine without spots – a high standing up collar, lined with spotted ermine finishes the cloak. – The hair arranged in long ringlets, and ornamented with small red roses, and white Spanish bows, the latter very sparingly adopted. Necklace of two rows of very large pearls.

Walking Dress – Pelisse of gros de Naples the colour of the marshmallow blossom, festooned down the front with three large wrought buttons. Black velvet bonnet, tied with marshmallow-coloured ribbands, and crowned with a large full-bloom rose and bows of velvet. Long black Chantilly lace veil; the pelisse is made with narrow French collar, surmounted by a double frill of Urling’s lace. A double gold chain with a watch depending. Black kid half-boots, and yellow gloves.

March 26, 1824, The Georgian.

6 “After breakfast I went forth on a shopping expedition and procured most of the winter clothing for the family, self included. One article I could not get, — curls, French curls, parted on the forehead, you know how. You must get them for me either in New York or Phila. Now remember CURLS!” Margaret Bayard Smith, Forty Years of Washington Society p. 142.

7 “On most plantations for which records survive, field slaves received only two suits of clothing per year, one for winter and another for summer. A man’s winter ration usually consisted of a waistcoat with sleeves, breeches or trousers, and two shirts. A woman generally received a jacket, petticoat, and two shifts. For summer, female slaves who worked outdoors received linen petticoats to wear with their shifts; men got summer breeches or trousers with shirts.” Baumgartern.



Cornelia Augusta Davenport, 1828; Sarah Rosamond Davenport, 1828; Susannah Clark, 1828. Silhouettes. Master Hankes with Common Scissors.

Estate Inventory. Isaiah Davenport. 1828.

Fashion Plates. Davenport House Collection.

Index card box. Susan Mason Mays. 1994.

Columbia Museum and Savannah Gazette, 1820.

Savannah Republican. 1820-1828.

The Georgian. 1820.

Margaret Bayard Smith. Forty Years of Washington Society. T. Fisher Unwin, London. 1906.

Mrs. Basil Hall. The Aristocratic Journey: Being the Outspoken Letters of Mrs. Basil Hall, written During A Fourteen Mouths’ Sojourn in American 1827-1828. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 1931.


Lynne Zackek Bassett. Textiles for Regency Clothing 1800-1850: A Workbook of Swatches and Information. Q Graphics Production Company, Arlington, VA. 2001

Linda Baumgarten. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia. 2002.

Jack Larkin. TheReshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840. HarperPerennial. 1988.

Jane Nylander. OSV Documents – Notes on 19th Century Clothing. 1980.

Blanche Payne. History of Costume: From the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York. 1965.

Timely Tresses. Georgian and Romantic Era Fashion Plates, 1820-1839. 2008

Ackermann’s Costume Plates: Women’s Fashions in England, 1818-1828. Dover Publications, New York. 1978.

Joseph Frederick Waring. Cerveau’s Savannah. The Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, GA. 1973.

See additional research on 1820s Clothing