No Pockets? No Problem!

During Isabella’s lifetime women dressed modestly. Their clothing covered them from head to toe, with high collars at their necks, long sleeves that extended to their wrists, and skirts with hemlines that brushed the floor.

An 1877 reception gown (from the Minnesota Historical Society)

With so much of the body covered, a new gown—even one with a simple design—was a big investment. The average dress in 1900 took eight to twelve yards of fabric to construct.

This day dress from 1882 illustrates how much fabric a dress required.

But even with all that fabric, women’s gowns lacked one essential convenience modern women today take for granted: pockets.

The slim silhouette of a 1913 ladies’ gown left no room for pockets.

When you think about all the things we carry in our pockets—from keys and eye glasses to reminder notes and smart phones—it’s hard to imagine life without those small but handy additions to our shirts, skirts, and pants.

Ladies fashions in 1900, from The Designer magazine.

So how did Isabella and other women of her time carry around small but necessary objects so they were always close at hand?

They used a chatelaine.

A chatelaine was a piece of jewelry with chains from which accessories were hung.

Some chatelaines were ornate and expensive; others were purely practical.

If you watched episodes of the TV show “Downton Abbey,” you may have seen Downton’s housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, wearing a plain and utilitarian chatelaine.

From her chatelaine she suspended a few essentials she probably used regularly throughout the day in such a large household: a small pair of scissors, and keys to the silver closet, perhaps, or maybe the wine cellar.

Some women customized their chatelaine for a specific purpose. For example, a seamstress or a mother who regularly found herself mending her children’s clothes might accessorize her chatelaine with needles, thread, and other sewing essentials.

This chatelaine carried (from left to right) scissors with a protective sheath, a scent bottle. sewing kit, and a whistle.

Inside the sewing kit was a dowel with thread, a small thimble, and a cylinder for holding needles.

Here’s another example of a silver-plated chatelaine customized with five sewing tools:

It was accessorized with a needle holder, a thimble, a pin cushion in the shape of a book, a tape measure, and a scissor sheath.

Artist Franz von Defregger depicted a chatelaine in his painting, The Letter (1884).

The chatelaine below was accessorized for a nurse, and contains (left to right) a pencil, an ivory notepad, pill box, scissors, tape measure, and a whistle.

A nurse’s chatelaine (from

Scent bottles were common components of a lady’s chatelaine. Because women’s corsets often left them short of breath or feeling faint from heat or exertion, a small bottle of smelling salts was essential.

A silver and crystal perfume bottle from an 1898 chatelaine.

Sometimes women filled the bottles with perfume, which they held to their nose to ward off foul odors that were common at a time before deodorants and reliable sewer systems. In such cases, these bottles were often called “vinaigrettes.”

A whistle was another common accessory. Since well-mannered ladies never raised their voices, even in times of danger or emergency, a whistle was the best way for a woman to summon help.

Many women added small bags to their chatelaines. Made of metal mesh, fabric or leather, they held handkerchiefs, coins, and eye glasses.

A silver and leather chatelaine bag from Tiffany and Co. (courtesy of

During Isabella’s lifetime, chatelaines were popular enough to draw criticism and comedy. One newspaper lamented the number of chatelaine accessories women were willing to wear, and printed this illustration of a wife who went a little overboard with her accessories:

The same publication poked fun at mothers who over accessorized their chatelaines:

But chatelaines came in all shapes and sizes. The lady in the photo below is dressed for the out of doors; her short chatelaine looks like a piece of jewelry and is accessorized with a watch and a whistle, among other things.

While many chatelaines were clipped to a woman’s belt or waistband, some small chatelaines were designed to be worn as a brooch. The young woman in the photo below is wearing a small chatelaine accessorized with a dainty little scent bottle.

Ladies in Isabella’s circle also used chatelaines. Here’s a photograph of Isabella and her family members at Chautauqua Institution. Seated left to right are Isabella’s husband Dr. Alden, Isabella, Mrs. Christensen, Isabella’s sister Julia Macdonald, Grace Livingston, and Dr. Hannah B. Mulford. Standing are Miss May Williamson and Isabella’s son Raymond.

A closer look at Julia and Miss Williamson shows that both ladies were wearing small chatelaines, although it’s difficult to make out what accessories they wore.

What do you think of chatelaines? Would you wear one?

If you had a chatelaine, what kind of accessories would you have?

A final note: Not all chatelaines were metal. An 1894 issue of The Youth’s Companion magazine published a simple pattern for a chatelaine you can make from fabric and ribbon. Click on the image below to see a larger version of the instructions.


Nettie Beldon’s Motto

Have you read Isabella’s novel, Only Ten Cents? In the story young Nettie Beldon’s health is so poor, she is unable to leave her room.

One day, her mother returns from a trip to the store with a surprise:

Mrs. Beldon produced and untied an interesting-looking roll, and spread it out in triumph on the little stand which she drew up in front of Nettie. “There, isn’t that pretty? It is exactly like the things I used to work when I was a little girl. I haven’t seen one of them in I don’t know how many years, yet I used to make them ever so often. When I saw it lying there on the counter I thought of you right away, and thinks I to myself: I do wish I could get one of those for Nettie.”

Nettie raised herself a little from among the pillows, and an eager look began to come into her eyes, while a delicate pink flush appeared on her pale cheek. “For the barrel, mother? Something that I can make?” She looked curiously at the cardboard spread out before her—very familiar material to her mother, but new to Nettie.

“What queer little dotted stuff!” she said. “What is that marked on it? Letters? Why, mother, does it read something?”

“Yes, indeed it does,” said the mother triumphantly. “Here, let me hold it so that you can make it out. They are not very plain, you know: just a pattern to be worked. Take pretty blue or pink, or some kind of worsted or silk, and work the letters so that they stand out bright and clear. They are as pretty a thing as one need have. My, how many of them I used to make when I was a little girl!” She slipped a piece of paper under the cardboard, and then held it in the right light, so that Nettie could read quite distinctly: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

She read slowly, picking out the words that wound in and out amid a sort of scroll-work.

“Why, mother, how very pretty! And how very queer! I never saw anything like it before.”

“I have,” said the mother. “Once I worked this very motto for my grandmother, and she had it framed and hung in her room. It hung there for years.”

Nettie’s mother taught her to cross stitch the letters, and soon Nettie completed the “motto.” But Nettie’s handiwork never hung on any wall in her house; instead, it fulfilled a much greater purpose in the story.

Karen, a long-time friend of this blog, found some great examples of what Nettie’s “motto” might have looked like.

What do you think? Have you ever stitched a motto yourself, or know someone who has? Are mottoes like these too old-fashioned to hang in a today’s modern home?

You can see more examples of mottoes by visiting this Pinterest page: 44 best Victorian Motto Sampler Shoppe

Thank you, Karen, for sharing these images!

You can click on the book cover to learn more about Only Ten Cents, by Isabella Alden.

“If only mother had a sewing machine!”

IVilhelm Hammershoi_Young Girl Sewing 1887n Twenty Minutes Late, Caroline Bryant’s mother supported the family by working in a canning factory during the growing season. In the winter she earned her money by sewing and taught Caroline to sew fine stitches by hand.

During Caroline’s stay with Dr. Forsythe’s family, she makes friends with Mrs. Packard, the housekeeper. One day Caroline watches Mrs. Packard use a sewing machine and wishes (with a heart-felt sigh) that she could buy a sewing machine for her mother so she can ease her mother’s burden.

Watchful Mrs. Packard, who had become a good friend to Caroline, heard the sigh. “Does your mother sew on a machine?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” said Caroline, with a slight laugh, “not very often. When she goes to Mrs. Hammond’s to sew, and to one or two other places where they have machines, she does; and this is the kind they have, and she likes it ever so much; but at home she sews by hand.”

“My land!” said Mrs. Packard, “I should think that would be hard work. She can’t accomplish very much sewing, it appears to me.”

“She does,” said Caroline firmly, “accomplish ever so much sewing. She sews hard all winter long; makes dresses and shirts and underclothing, and all sorts of things for people, taking every stitch by hand.”

“For the land’s sake!” said Mrs. Packard, “what in the world does she do it for? Nobody does that any more.”

Caroline laughed a little sorrowfully. “She does it just as we do a good many things, Mrs. Packard, because she has to; she hasn’t any machine of her own, and we children haven’t got old enough yet to buy her one; but we are going to some day. That is the first thing Ben and I are going to do.”

Mrs. Packard kept her own counsel, and Caroline went away unaware that she had said anything of special interest to anybody.

In 1893, when Twenty Minutes Late was first published, sewing machine sales were booming; and their affordability made it easy for most families to own one. No wonder, then, that Mrs. Packard was astonished that Caroline’s mother supported the family with hand-sewing.

Hand crank machine circa 1875
A hand-crank sewing machine manufactured circa 1875.
Davis domestic sewing machine circa 1890
A hand-crank sewing machine sold in the 1890s when Twenty Minutes Late was originally published


At the time Twenty Minutes Late was written, sewing machines weren’t new. They’d been on the market for many years, particularly in commercial settings; but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s when they began to be mass-marketed to consumers.Singer Advertisign 1914 edited and cropped

In 1885 The Singer Manufacturing Company began selling sewing machines directly to the public for home use. Early Singer machines featured a foot-operated treadle; and in 1889 Singer introduced an electric sewing machine to consumers.

By the late 19th century, other companies were producing sewing machines for home use, as well; and most companies allowed purchases on credit, making it easier for families to obtain a machine.

This trade card touts the Royal St. John machine as the only sewing machine that can sew forward or backward:

Royal Sewing Machine 2


An 1890 painting by Fritz von Uhde shows a dressmaker using an older “turtle back” sewing machine (so named because of the machine’s shape).

Fritz von Uhde_Dressmaker at the Window 1890


The 1908 advertisements below feature a sewing machine ingeniously marketed under the name “The Free.” The Free sewing machine was distinguished from other machines as “the only insured sewing machine warranted for life.” The company pledged to replace any machine “destroyed or injured” with a brand new machine, without cost.

Sewing Machine 1908 edited      Sewing Machine 1908 Back edited


As sewing machines became more readily available, they also became more affordable. This turn-of-the-century advertisement depicts how enjoyable—and leisurely—life can be with a sewing machine in the home.

Sewing Machine Free edited


Hans Heysen_Sewing, the artist's wife 1913

And this 1913 painting by Hans Heysen depicts a sewing machine set up beside a charming, sunny window for use by the lady of the house.


Would you like to learn more about sewing machines and the art of sewing during the 1890s and 1900s?  Follow these links for more information:

Elias Howe’s Sewing Machine – This article features a comparison of the time it took in the 19th Century to sew various articles of clothing by hand verses machine. Some of the comparisons are astonishing.

Sewing & Notions – Etui – Lovely images of vintage sewing machines and accessories.

Singer through the Ages 1850-1940 – A timeline of the Singer Manufacturing Company and its innovations.

The History of the Singer Sewing Machine – A brief history of the Singer sewing machine with wonderful illustrations.