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

Click photos to enlarge.

Dress, 1-Piece

Catalogue number: CS*056430

Date: 1800-1815

Maker: Unknown


Empire style; white sheer cotton with allover small embroidered dots; rectangular band over bust; slight gathering of band below bust; side piece extending far into back; back bodice piece; center back opening with hook-and-eye closure at waist; bodice gathered near center back; narrow band extends over shoulders and connects front and back; drawstring casing and drawstring across top of bodice front; separate drawstring casing and drawing on back; short sleeves with drawstring at opening; skirt heavily gathered at center back; linen tape on inside waist seam to strengthen seam; foldover hem.


Ellen Maria Byrne Maher owned this dress in the early 19th century. Born in 1782, she was the daughter of a book and stationery store owner in Philadelphia. In 1803 she married Pierce Maher, her brother's business partner at St. Augustine's Catholic Church in Philadelpia. Four years later they separated due to his abusive behavior. When her father died, he left money to all his children with the specific stipulation that Pierce Maher or his creditors could not have access to any part of Ellen's inheritance. When Ellen's sister, Ann, and her husband, Francis Clopper, decided to move to Maryland, Ellen went with them. The area they moved to, Seneca, had a large Catholic population. Once each month a priest from Rockville would travel to the Clopper residence to offer mass to the local families. Eventually, Francis, who was a Protestant, donated a portion of his property for the construction of a church. Ellen provided the funds for its construction. The church was completed in 1835 and is still standing. She died in 1858 and is buried at St. Rose Church Cemetery in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

The dress itself is typical of early 19th century dresses. Most often dresses were white and had short sleeves even for daytime wear. While it is difficult to know the precise history of this dress, Ellen Maher most likely brought it with her from Philadelphia to Maryland. It was exhibited in the Hall of American Costume from 1964 to 1973.

Credit: Gift of Mary A. and Rose Hutton