Smithsonian - National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Costume Collection - Women's Dresses

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Dress, 1-Piece - click to enlarge

Dress, 1-Piece - click to enlarge

Dress, 1-Piece - click to enlarge

Click photos to enlarge.

Dress, 1-Piece

Catalogue number: CS*221532.001

Date: 1840-1850

Maker: Unknown


Work dress; white, brown, and two tones of blue check heavy cotton; center front opening with white glass buttons on right side and five worked buttonholes on left; round neck, slightly dropped in front, faced with self fabric to imitate piping; inset waistband with worked buttonholes; bodice slightly gathered at either side of center front at waistband; bodice front extends slightly into back at shoulders and side seam; back cut in one piece and gathered into waist at center back; unlined except for inset waistband, which is lined with white wool flannel; long narrow sleeves cut in two pieces, with slit and worked buttonholes at wrist; unpiped armscye (armhole); pleated skirt with narrow foldover hem.


According to family tradition, this dress was made between 1842 and 1848 by Macklahana Hackler Wright at her home in Grayson County, Virginia. Grayson County sits near the North Carolina border between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. Her father had been part of the wave of Pennsylvanians who traveled down the Shenandoah Valley in the 18th century. Born in 1817 she married James Wright, a local farmer, in 1842. Over a period of 18 years she bore nine children-eight of whom lived to adulthood. U. S. Census records reveal quite a bit about their lives. In 1850, James was listed as being worth $1,000. He owned two adult and two small children as slaves. By 1860, James had tripled his worth and owned more slaves - six adults and six small children. Additionally, they had extended family living with them, some of whom were female relatives who most likely helped Macklahana in child rearing and household chores.

By 1870 and early Reconstruction, when we might expect their fortunes to decline, they were worth twice as much as in 1860. Local history provides part of the answer. Grayson County, in its remote locate, escaped most of the ravages of the Civil War and became a lumbering and railroad center. Macklahana was clearly the mistress of a prosperous household. There is a question about the date of this work dress. The cut of the sleeves, in two pieces, is typically not seen in women's dresses until the 1860s. Yet the story that came with the dress, that it was made in the 1840s, seems more likely, as this coarse fabric work dress would have been more appropriate to her young married life than the later very prosperous years. Exhibited in the Hall of American Costume from 1964 to 1973 (shown with embroidered brown silk apron to cover large fruit stain on the dress).

Credit: Gift of Mrs. Charles D. Collins