Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Tax on Hoop Skirts?

Sometimes in my librarian job I get to look at some really fun things. A few weeks ago we received a trial subscription to a database called American Periodicals Series Online. A company called ProQuest has scanned and digitized magazines and journals from about 1740 to the early 1900s. The publications cover all kinds of subjects--medicine, politics, you name it. They also include popular magazines and ladies' journals.

So I did a search on fashion and limited it to a date range of the late 1700s to early 1800s. I came up with lots of interesting stuff, including a hilarious letter to the editor in The Lady's Magazine and Repository of Entertaining Knowledge, November, 1792, "On the Universal Fashion of Wearing Hoops." The poor writer laments the fact that every woman from low-born to high has been coerced into wearing "useless" and "greatly inconvenient" hoops.

Why is this man so concerned about a woman's fashion? Because he has four daughters--and they're about to bankrupt him. Not to buy the dresses and hoops, but because of how it's affecting the rest of their lives. "At first their hoops were small," he says, "and consequently less inconvenient, but they are now grown to such an enormous size that I must be obliged (if they do not retrench them) to leave my house on the account, as the rooms, where we could formerly move very conveniently, are now too small to admit of our stirring, without incommoding each other. The stair-case, which is rather narrow, is become (if not wholly useless) extremely dangerous to the female part of my family, as they can neither ascend, nor descend in any other direction than sideways."

To help alleviate the strain on society, the writer proposes a tax on hoop skirts, which I don't think ever happened.

Next I read an article from the July 11, 1807 Lady's Weekly Miscellany, in which a writer also lamented the unbecoming fashions of the time, especially hats. "Ought not the figure of the head to be oval? Should not every thing which alters this figure, be considered as detracting from nature? What then are we to think of those bonnets that project both before and behind, and give the head of a woman, seen in profile, the form of a hammer!"

Oh, how I would love to sit and read articles from these fun magazines. And if you're a writer of historicals, what a fabulous resource this would be! Just think of the details, the atmosphere you could add to your story after reading such cozy articles from the time period of your novel.

Alas, we weren't able to purchase this database. Too expensive. But it's a great reminder of what's out there in college libraries that you won't be able to find on the free Internet. If you have a large university near you, in particular, check it out sometime. Often you can go in and pull up gems like these on their computers.