Back to School with Doris Farrand

August is back-to-school month for students across America, much as it was in Isabella’s lifetime. As teenagers prepared to fill their days with classes and studies, they also prepared their wardrobes.

Young woman reads a thick book open on top of two other thick books. In her hand is a pencil.

Isabella knew what it was like for girls and their parents to shop for new wardrobes and school supplies. In the late 1800s/early 1900s, the right hat and a pair of new gloves were essential for a high school or college student. Luckily there were plenty of articles in newspapers and magazines to help students and their parents solve their back-to-school fashion dilemmas.

Article headline from a 1907 fashion magazine: The Department of Clothes. Beneath it is a subheading: Mr. Ralston's Chat about School Clothes. Beneath it are 3 illustrations; 2 featuring young girls wearing school clothes; 1 features drawings of teenage girls wearing different styles of school clothes.
From the Ladies Home Journal, August 1907.

Isabella began her novel Doris Farrand’s Vocation with one of those fashion dilemmas:

What should college student Doris Farrand wear to a school reception where she and her classmates were being honored?

Doris was indifferent to the problem, but her sister Athalie took on the task of updating her wardrobe, because …

“unless somebody else planned her clothes for her, [Doris] would go in rags.”

Thanks to Athalie’s efforts, Doris had a new hat to wear to the ceremony.

Drawings of "The Girl's Every-Day Hat from about 1908, featuring illustrations of eight different hat styles.

Like Doris, Miss Esther Randall (in Ester Ried’s Namesake) also struggled to stretch her college wardrobe, sometimes beyond its limits. She had a picnic to attend, and, perhaps, an evening at the theater, and she hadn’t a thing to wear. Isabella summed up Esther’s lament:

“Wherewithal shall she be clothed?”

Poor Esther’s wardrobe was so limited, she once wrote home to her parents:

I don’t think I shall accept any more social invitations. I haven’t time for them—nor gowns, for that matter. Sometimes I feel like a queer little nun in my one good dress that has to do duty on all occasions.

A teenager’s school dress, illustrated in The Ladies Home Journal, August 1907.

Unfortunately for Esther, it was the fashion for young women to wear white to their college graduation. As much as Esther dreamed of having a white dress like the ones her wealthy college friends would wear, she knew such a gown was out of reach; her missionary parents could never afford to buy her one.

Illustration of two young women wearing white gowns. The caption reads, "Pretty graduation gowns for school or college girls "to be made of sheer swiss or mull, trimmed with lace."

Like many of Isabella’s characters, Doris and Esther wore “made over” wardrobes. Doris’ sister Athalie could take an old shirtwaist, for example, and updated it with a new collar and cuffs she made herself.

Magazine illustrations of two young women; one wears a white shirtwaist; the other wears red. Displayed between them are different styles of collars and cuffs to go with either shirtwaist.

Women’s magazines of the time often gave instructions on how to accomplish it. Here’s one such article from a 1907 issue of The Ladies Home Journal:

Headline of a 1907 article in  The Ladies Home Journal titled "Last Year's Clothes in This Year's Styles."

And Esther’s mother—being a skilled needlewoman—could refresh an old skirt by adding a new band of fabric to the hem, in much the same way as The Ladies Home Journal recommended in a 1908 issue:

"A Fisherwoman's Hem." How can I lengthen a seven-gored dark blue serge skirt? Are hip yokes fashionable? [signed] Amateur.
It is not practicable to lengthen a skirt by adding a yoke. I should suggest that you add a "fisherwoman's hem" of dark blue chiffon broadcloth, if you cannot match your serge. 
The advice is accompanied by an illustration of a young woman dressed in shirtwaist and floor-length skirt standing before a full-length mirror.

But no amount of sewing or alterations could help Esther as graduation day neared. As much as she dreamed of graduating in a beautiful white gown, she knew she had only that one “good” dress to wear, which had already done faithful duty during two seasons.

Illustration of girl wearing graduation cap and gown over a long dress that reaches the floor. Her hair is styled about 1910. She holds an open book.

She knew how utterly impossible it would be to buy a new white dress—so impossible she never even considered praying about the matter. But someone else prayed on her behalf!

If you’ve read Esther Randall’s story, then you already know whether or not she ever received her heart’s desire and got to wear that coveted white dress. If you have not yet read Ester Ried’s Namesake or Doris Farrand’s Vocation, you can click on the book covers below to learn more:

Corsets at Chautauqua

Facing Miller Park at the intersection of Pratt and Morris avenues, The Colonnade was the business center of Chautauqua Institution.

The Colonnade as it appeared in 1909. You can see the vine-covered pergola on the right.


Visitors approaching The Colonnade from the south passed through a lovely, vine-covered pergola.

The pergola with The Colonnade beyond it and to the left.


The Colonnade was a busy place. Nearby was the post office, where residents retrieved and sent mail.

The Colonnade itself was a favorite place for friends to gather. It housed a grocery, a dry-goods store, a hair salon, a barber shop, a drug store, and various other merchants.

One retailer that managed to secure a prime location in The Colonnade was an establishment called Spirella Parlour, which was a genteel store name for the Spirella Corset Company.

A Chautauqua post card modified by the Spirella Corset Company to show the location of their shop at The Colonnade, Chautauqua, New York.


The Spirella Corset Company had factories established in Pennsylvania and Canada when they set up shop in The Colonnade at Chautauqua. Wedged between a ladies’ dress shop on one side and the main hall, their’s was an ideal location. The store was staffed by “skillful corsetières” (more on them in a moment).

A trade card for Ball’s “health preserving” corsets, from about 1880.


In Isabella’s time, every woman—and many girls—wore corsets. They were an essential element of a lady’s undergarments.

Trade card for the Bortree Adjustable Duplex Corset by Bortree Manufacturing Company, about 1890.


But corsets did not last very long. Their stays had a tendency to break; and since corsets were worn over only a thin muslin chemise or slip, perspiration and natural skin oils often stained the corset fabric or rusted the stays.

Magazine ad for Warner’s corsets, about 1917.


Corset garter hooks often broke, and their long lacing ribbons often snapped off. For women, access to a store such as Spirella’s on Chautauqua’s premises was practically essential, since the nearest town where a lingerie store might be found was miles away.

Trade card for Dr. Strong’s Tampico Corset.


Once a lady had donned her chemise or slip (sometimes called a shift), she put on her corset. Then she added other layers of undergarments:

Corset cover
As many as 5 layers of petticoats

Over all of that she donned her dress or skirt with shirtwaist.

Doctor and Madame Strong brand corsets touted the medical benefits of wearing their corsets.


This 1908 newspaper ad in the Omaha Daily Bee shows some of the many different undergarments women wore under their clothes.

A woman’s corset was essential; she wore a corset wherever she went, no matter what she was doing.


Of course, The Spirella Company was not the only corset manufacturer in the United States. There were many such companies, each vying for their share of the corset market.

F. C. Corset Company trade card from about 1890.


What set Spirella apart from their competition was that they specialized in custom-made corsets.

In fact, the Spirella Parlour at Chautauqua is the only known retail location for Spirella Corsets in America. Instead of opening stores, The Spirella Company hired a legion of women called corsetières who were sent to customers’ homes. The corsetières took the customer’s measurements and consulted on the correct model of Spirella corset based on the lady’s figure type.

Spirella Corset Company diagram showing the many body measurements their corsetieres took in order to achieve a perfect fit.


According to Spirella’s 1913 customer brochure:

“The secret of being well dressed lies in your figure, and your figure is made or ruined by your corset.”

You can see The Spirella Corset Company’s 1913 brochure distributed by their corsetières to customers. The booklet is filled with nice illustrations of the different models of corsets they offered, and offers guidance on how to select the proper corset based on body type. Just click here.

You can also watch this fun video that shows the many layers of undergarments women wore in the late 1800s and early 1900s:

Did you know . . .

. . .  as essential as a corset was to every woman’s wardrobe, Isabella never mentioned corsets in any of her many books and stories. She did mention shifts and petticoats, but never made mention of corsets.


Shopping with Isabella

When you read Isabella’s books, you might notice that the women in her stories were often ruled by “days.”

There was laundry day, and baking day. There was gardening day and canning day, when all the fruits and vegetables gathered from the garden were preserved.

Every week, women devoted entire days to certain tasks because they were time consuming and involved a great deal of physical labor.

Shopping in the dry goods district of New York City, 1886
Shopping in the dry goods district of New York City, 1886; from the Library of Congress


Marketing day took women out of the house from early morning to late afternoon. Unlike shoppers today who simply visit their local grocery store, Isabella’s contemporaries went from one specialty shop to another.

An 1872 trade card for a butcher's shop
An 1872 trade card for a butcher’s shop


They visited the green grocer and the baker.

A Boston bakery, 1917
A Boston bakery, 1917; from the Library of Congress


They stood in line at the confectionery and dry goods store.

Customers shopping for canned goods at a grocery in the early 1920s
Customers shopping for canned goods at a grocery in the early 1920s; from the Library of Congress


And then there were the specialty stores to visit, like the cobbler’s shop, where they purchased new shoes or repaired older shoes; and the drugstore where they shopped for lotions, salves, beauty and grooming products, and medicinal cures.

A cobbler with a customer, 1896, from Library of Congress
A cobbler with a customer, 1896, from Library of Congress


At each location they had to wait their turn for a store clerk to assist them in picking out the item they desired. With all the waiting and traveling from store to store, women spent hours shopping, even if their shopping list contained only a few items.

Kellogg's magazine ad, 1915
Kellogg’s magazine ad, 1915


But by 1900 a shift in shopping habits occurred, brought on by new products that gained a foothold in women’s buying habits. As the new century dawned, women began to buy more products designed to make their lives easier.

For example, women still visited the confectioners for fancy baked goods to serve their guests, but they were more willing to buy pre-made cookies and breads for their every-day table.

Magazine ad for Nabisco Wafers, about 1910
Magazine ad for Nabisco Wafers, about 1910


And though they still cooked a good breakfast for their families most mornings, they also knew serving cold cereal to their children once or twice a week was a time saver.

A 1919 magazine ad for Toasted Corn Flakes
A 1919 magazine ad for Toasted Corn Flakes


Another time saver: serving canned soup to their families instead of spending hours preparing soup in their own kitchens.

Campbell's soup print ad from about 1920
Campbell’s soup print ad from about 1920; from the Library of Congress


In the early years of the century, many products hit the market that proved to be convenient time-savers for women, and women began to trust the quality of pre-made products.

Trade Card for J. A. Dahn and Son Baking Company, from about 1900.
Trade Card for J. A. Dahn and Son Baking Company, from about 1900; from the Library of Congress


The more women employed pre-made products, the more time they saved for pursuits they enjoyed.

Some products that were introduced around the turn of the last century proved so popular, they are still on the market today.

Trade card for Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, 1900.
Trade card for Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, 1900; from the Library of Congress


Print ad for Ivory Soap, 1898
Print ad for Ivory Soap, 1898; from the Library of Congress


Over the years, some products were re-purposed, such as Listerine, which was initially marketed as a topical antiseptic.

Magazine ad for Listerine, 1917.
Magazine ad for Listerine, 1917.


Other products, like Wesson Oil and Jell-O are still popular and might even be in your kitchen cabinet today.

Print ad for Wesson Oil from the Ladies Home Journal, 1919
Print ad for Wesson Oil from the Ladies Home Journal, 1919


Print ad for Jell-O, early 1920s
Print ad for Jell-O, early 1920s


But the biggest change to women’s shopping habits occurred in 1916, when Piggly Wiggly opened its first grocery store in Memphis Tennessee. The store introduced a revolutionary concept: self-service.

The entrance to the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis, Tennessee, with baskets on the left and cashier on the right; from the Library of Congress


Women no longer had to stand at a counter and wait for a clerk to assist them; they simply picked up a carrying basket on their way into the store, and browsed the aisles for goods to purchase.

Neat, well-stocked shelves in the Memphis Piggly Wiggly, 1917
Neat, well-stocked shelves in the Memphis Piggly Wiggly, 1917; from the Library of Congress


The store’s concept proved to be an immense time-saver for women. With the success of their Memphis store, Piggly Wiggly expanded to hundreds of locations and became the model for today’s modern grocery store.

Sunkist oranges on display in the window of a Piggly Wiggly, 1917
Sunkist oranges on display in the window of a Piggly Wiggly, 1917; from the Library of Congress


Piggly Wiggly stores led the way in many modern innovations. You can click here to see the various ways Piggly Wiggly revolutionized the grocery industry.