Thimbles and Love Stitches

Four farthings and a thimble,
Make a tailor’s pocket jingle.
—Old English Proverb

During Isabella’s lifetime, sewing and needlework were part of a woman’s daily life.

In her novel Workers Together; An Endless Chain Joy Saunders’ workbasket includes a “small gold thimble and her own blue needle-case.”

A 14k rose gold thimble dated 1903.

Some of Isabella’s female characters, like Mrs. Bryant, sewed every day because that’s how they earned their living.

A sterling silver thimble decorated with Lily of the Valley.

Other characters, like wealthy Miss Sutherland, plied their needles to create fancy table linens and delicate trims, like ruffles and laces.

A sterling silver thimble and case from the 1890s.

In Isabella’s stories, thimbles were sometimes utilitarian—little more than tools to accomplish a task.

An example is in Ester Ried’s Namesake (Book 7 of the Ester Ried Series), when the president of the Ladies’ Aid Society called the meeting to order by “tapping with her silver thimble on the table.”

Other times, Isabella used thimbles help us understand how a character was feeling, as in this description of Helen Randolph in Household Puzzles:

Helen was in absolute ill humor. Some heavy trial had evidently crossed her path. She sewed industriously, but with that ominous click of the needle against her thimble, and an angry snipping of her thread by the pert little scissors, that plainly indicated a disturbed state of mind.

An antique thimble holder by Tiffany.

More often than not, though, thimbles appear in Isabella’s stories in very sweet ways. One example is in Miss Dee Dunmore Bryant, when little Daisy Bryant’s mother surprises her with the gift of a sewing box on Christmas morning:

There had been intense excitement over that box; for, in addition to the spools, and the needle-book, gifts from mother, there had gleamed before Daisy’s astonished eyes a real truly silver thimble, of just the right size for her small finger.

A child-size thimble. The case is shaped like an iron; at its base is a tape measure (circa 1890).

Another example appears in the novel, Pauline, when Mr. Curtis shows his love for his fiancé Constance by preparing a sitting-room in his house just for her:

It all looked charming to him that evening, with the departing rays of the sun glinting the needle, Constance’s needle, and touching also his mother’s small gold thimble that lay waiting. He had taken steps toward the assurance that the thimble would fit. On the day after tomorrow, when they stood here beside his mother’s chair, he would tell Constance how he had brought the gold thimble to his mother one day, and she had said, with one of her tender smiles, “I will wear it, my son, whenever I am taking stitches for you; and someday you will give it to your wife, and tell her from me that it has taken love stitches for you all its life and must always be kept for such service.”

Filigree thimble over pink frosted glass.

Sometimes thimbles play a role in building bridges between Isabella’s characters, as in A New Graft on the Family Tree.

When Louise Morgan and her new husband move in with his family, she has difficulty winning over her resentful new mother-in-law, until she realizes they have a common interest: Needlework.

Presently she came, thimble and needle-case in hand, and established herself on one of the yellow wooden chairs to make button-holes in the dingy calico; and, with the delicate stitches in those button-holes, she worked an entrance-way into her mother-in- law’s heart.

18k gold thimble, from about 1860.

Rebecca Harlow Edwards finds herself in the same situation (in Links in Rebecca’s Life). She and her new husband live in the same house with her mother-in-law, and in the early days of marriage, Rebecca struggles to find a way to fit in. So, one afternoon . . .

. . . about the usual hour for calls, she went daintily dressed in a home dress for afternoon, and with a bit of sewing-work in hand, and tapped softly at the door of her mother’s room.

“Are you awake?” she asked, “and are you ready to receive calls, because I have come to call on you?”

“Really,” Mrs. Edwards said, half rising from her rocker, and looking bewildered, “this is an unexpected pleasure! Am I to take you to the parlor, where I usually receive my calls?”

“No,” Rebecca said, laughing, and trying to ignore the quick rush of color to her face. “I am to be a more privileged caller than that. I have brought my work, and intend to make a visit. I used to go to mother’s room and make a call very often.”

The elder Mrs. Edwards was almost embarrassed. It was very unusual for her to have any such feeling, and she did not know how to treat it.

Rebecca, however, had determined to pretend, at least, that she felt very much at home. She helped herself to a low chair and brought out her thimble, and challenged her mother-in-law at once to know whether her work was not pretty. As she did so, it gave her a strange sense of her unfilial life, as she remembered that that same bit of work had been the resort of her half-idle moments for some weeks, and that yet she had never shown it to Mrs. Edwards before.

It proved to be a lucky piece of work. It gave Mrs. Edwards an idea, and suggested a line of thought that was so natural to her that she forgot the embarrassment of the situation at once.

It’s a sure bet that Isabella Alden was herself a sewer. She may have plied her needle to hem an everyday handkerchief, or she may have used her talents to create fancywork items for her home. But it’s a testament to Isabella’s skill as a story-teller that she could make a simple, everyday item like a thimble figure so prominently in some of the most important scenes in her novels.

How about you? Do you enjoy sewing? Do you use a thimble when you sew? Is it plain and utilitarian, or decorative? Old or new?

Ladies Riding Cars

By 1900 streetcars were plentiful in large cities and were an accepted method of transportation about town. But riding the cars presented certain difficulties for ladies. There were, for instance, specific streetcar rules of etiquette for women. One of the primary rules was that ladies must refrain from riding the cars during peak commuting hours of the day, so they wouldn’t hinder men on their way to and from work.

Ladies’ conduct on streetcars had to be modest and lady-like at all times. Perspectives on Etiquette, an early book by Emily Post, admonished:

On the street, in streetcars, and in all public places, if your voice or conduct attracts attention you will be considered “loud,” “common,” vulgar.

That sentiment is in keeping with a scene Isabella Alden described in her book, Workers Together, where Miss Mason, the Sunday school teacher, observed one of her students, shop-girl Hester, behaving brazenly on the streetcar.

Behold, directly opposite to her, sat the girl with the queer bonnet! Queer it certainly was. Not merely the queerness of bad taste in selection, but that worst form of queerness—an attempt at being stylish, which, in this case, resulted only in a profusion of bright, cheap flowers, mingled with yards of bright ribbon of contrasting hue, so arranged that the whole effect was exasperating to refined taste. There were more serious defects about the girl than an ill chosen bonnet. She was a loud-voiced girl, who talked much and laughed much, and was altogether so very familiar with the young man in the gay neck-tie who stood before her, holding on by the strap, that Miss Mason shuddered as she listened.

Later, Miss Mason criticized Hester to the Sunday school superintendent:

“I don’t like the girl’s appearance. She is one of the loud-voiced, gay sort; converses on the street-car in a tone loud enough to be heard by all the passengers.”

There were other rules for ladies. Miss Leslie’s 1864 book, The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners gave the following instructions:

If, on stopping an omnibus, you find that a dozen people are already seated in it, draw back, and refuse to add to the number; giving no heed to the assertion of the driver, that “there is plenty of room.” The passengers will not say so, and you have no right to crowd them all, even if you are willing to be crowded yourself—a thing that is extremely uncomfortable, and very injurious to your dress, which may, in consequence, be so squeezed and rumpled as never to look well again. 

It is most imprudent to ride in an omnibus with much money in your purse. Pickpockets of genteel appearance are too frequently among the passengers. 

If you are obliged to have money of any consequence about you, keep your hand all the time in that pocket.

No lady should venture to ride in an omnibus after dark, unless she is escorted by a gentleman whom she knows. She had better walk home, even under the protection of a servant. If alone in an omnibus at night, she is liable to meet with improper company, and perhaps be insulted.

Marion Harland’s 1914 book, Complete Etiquette advised:

One of the things that most women need to learn is the correct way of getting off a street-car, which is to step off with the right foot, facing front, which saves awkwardness in every case and sometimes, if the car starts too soon, an accident.

Why was this bit of helpful instruction so important? By 1910, women’s fashion had changed dramatically. Gone were voluminous skirts measuring three to four yards of fabric at the hemline. Instead, ladies’ skirts were close fitting with sometimes only a single yard of fabric at the hem. Called “hobble skirts”, these skirts were cinched at the ankles and often cinched at the knees.

Cartoonists lampooned the fashion, ministers decried them from the pulpit, and newspaper editors vilified women who wore them. The editor of the Monroe City Democrat in Missouri pronounced:

“Wearing a hobble skirt will make the sweetest girl resemble the stopper to a vinegar cruet.”

Women’s skirts had always posed a danger on streetcars; they got caught in doorways and their volume often blocked a woman’s view of steps and other hazards. Women often complained of the difficulty and immodesty they suffered in riding public transportation.

This newspaper photo of a lady in a wide-hemmed skirt (pre-dating the hobble skirt fashion) shows the difficulty women had climbing aboard streetcars and navigating steps that often measured 15″ to 20″ high.

But it wasn’t long before the introduction of hobble skirts had a disastrous impact on the street-car system. Cars stopped running on efficient schedules because ladies wearing the slim skirts blocked car doors while trying to hike their skirts up sufficiently to allow them to climb into the cars.

Image from the February 1914 issue of The Woman's Magazine

In subways, women were injured when they tried to step across the gap between the train and the subway platform and their feet slipped into the open space.

During rush hours, women who could not walk rapidly because of their skirts found themselves carried along by the force of the crowd behind them, or—even worse—pushed to the ground and trampled. In New York, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company was inundated by lawsuits from women who had been injured while entering, exiting or riding on cars.

Image from the June 1914 issue of The Woman's Magazine.

The problem reached such a pitch that the New York transit company designed and implemented a new model of streetcar to accommodate women. Called Hobble Skirt Cars, they were constructed lower to the ground and featured one wide, sliding door set in the middle of the car. Passengers boarded by climbing a single step that was only six inches from the ground.

New York City Hobble Skirt Cars running up Broadway
New York City Hobble Skirt Cars running up Broadway from a postcard circa 1914


Close-up of a New York Hobble Skirt car
Close-up of a New York Hobble Skirt car

The car design was a vast improvement and was so successful, more cars were ordered. By 1912 New York City ran Hobble Skirt Cars up and down Broadway and the engineering trend spread across the nation.

Photo from Chicago's The Day Book dated April 10, 1912
Photo from Chicago’s The Day Book dated April 10, 1912

The reinvented cars were a great relief for women, but their troubles weren’t over. Click on the link below to read an article from 1922—a time when women wore much shorter skirts with much wider hemlines. Even in 1922 ladies still struggled to use public transportation. The Evening World 1922-06-21 New York step height

All fashion plates in this post are from 1914 issues of  The Woman’s Magazine.

Click here to read more about “riding the cars” and public transportation in Isabella Alden’s day.