In the book Four Mothers at Chautauqua a certain pongee coat played an important role in the story. It was because of the pongee coat that Miss Hazel Harris met handsome Burnham Roberts. It was the pongee coat that made Burnham’s mother, Flossy Roberts, realize how much Hazel’s family neglected her. And it was gossip about Hazel wearing the pongee coat that set off a fearful argument between Hazel and her aunt.
So what, exactly, is a pongee coat? And what was so special about that coat that everyone in the story seemed to notice it?
When the book was published in 1913, pongee coats were very popular, although not everyone could afford to own one. In those days women’s coats were made out of many different fabrics: serge and wool tweed were staples in cool weather; taffeta and linen in warmer months.
But in summer, when days were warm and nights were only slightly cooler, ladies needed their coats to not only ward off potential chills, but to protect their gowns, skirts and blouses from soiling.
So in summer, women’s coats had to be serviceable but light-weight and cool. Linen and taffeta were, for a long time, the fabrics of choice for summer coats; but about 1903 the fashionable world rediscovered pongee, a type of silk that originated in Shantung China over 3500 years ago.
Pongee silk was a favorite for summer wear because it was cool, soft to the touch, long-wearing, and could be bought in varying weights.
Pongee had one other advantage as a summer fabric . . . it was washable. Unlike taffeta and linen, pongee silk could go right into the laundry tub.
An expensive silk that could also be laundered was a fashion game-changer in the early 1900s. By 1905 dressmakers and garment manufacturers had integrated the fabric into their summer designs.
Pongee’s natural color was a soft ecru, which was very much in vogue; but once a reliable method for dying pongee silk was developed, the fabric could be bought in every imaginable color.
It was also available in varying weights, which meant it could be used in making everything from light-weight blouses and dresses, to parasols, belts and gloves.
It was flexible enough to lend itself to tiny “pinch-tuck” details, and sturdy enough (in medium and heavier weights) to pleat nicely in skirts and tailored jackets.
The fabric was even used to make hats. Pongee silk held shapes well; in lighter weights it was perfect for the layered scarf look so popular in driving hats.
Budget-minded consumers may have made do with shirtwaists and dresses made of gingham (which cost about 6 cents a yard) or cotton muslin (8 cents a yard). But if you wanted your summer clothes to be made of finer fabrics, you had to pay for it.
Prices for pongee silk varied widely. American-made pongee in natural ecru ran about 70 to 80 cents a yard.
By comparison, genuine heavy Chinese pongee suitable for making coats cost $2.00 or more per yard.
Pongee was available in colors, but dyed pongee cost much more than the natural ecru color. Lighter weights of pongee silk also cost more, and they were highly desired because they were used to tailor gowns and shirtwaists.
That may explain why Flossy’s pongee coat was so eye-catching. Flossy lent her coat to Hazel Harris because Hazel had nothing to wear for a drive out in Flossy’s carriage. Flossy convinced Hazel to wear her long pongee coat so it would cover Hazel’s cheap and ragged clothes.
A gossip remembered seeing Hazel riding in Flossy’s carriage because Hazel’s coat caught her eye:
“I confess that I stared, especially at her lovely coat; it attracted me almost as much as her face.”
“Her ‘lovely coat’!” repeated Josephine, dazed.
“Yes, she had on a perfectly beautiful coat, heavily embroidered. I don’t think I ever saw a handsomer one. I am very fond of pongee.”
Hazel herself described the coat as a “beautiful coat that fitted her to perfection.”
But generous Flossy believed that it was Hazel who made the coat beautiful:
“She looked lovely in it,” Mrs. Roberts said, thoughtfully. “I didn’t know it was so pretty until I saw it on her.”
A heavily embroidered, colored pongee coat, tailored so it fit close to the body, would have been extravagantly expensive in 1913, and Marion Dennis mentioned that Flossy’s coat cost $30. Compare that with the prices of pongee coats in this ad from a 1910 edition of the Omaha Daily Bee newspaper (click on the image to see a larger version):
Flossy described the moment when the carriage ride came to an end and Hazel had to take the pongee coat off:
“She slipped the coat off in the quietest way as we turned the corner into Terrace Avenue and patted it lovingly as she laid it on the seat and said to it—not to me, mind you, but to it—’Thank you, darling; you are beautiful and I have worn you for two whole hours. I shall never forget you.’ Wasn’t that original and pathetic? She is certainly a very interesting girl. I am quite determined to know more of her.”
And Flossy did get to know Hazel quite well; and since Four Mothers at Chautauqua had a very happy ending, it’s entirely possible that Hazel was one day able to own a pongee coat of her very own.