“I have bought a new dress for summer.”

Lavinia Goodell, April 24, 1871

Although Lavinia Goodell had no illusions that she was a beauty – in fact, she frequently commented that she was “plain” and many of her short stories feature ordinary looking women with uncommon intelligence – she enjoyed dressing well and kept up with current fashion trends. For most of her life money was in short supply and she sewed her own garments – after determining where the fabric could be procured for the best price. But while she was employed at Harper’s Bazar, she had enough discretionary income to splurge on new clothes. In April 1871, she made an extravagant purchase from Stewart’s dry goods store.

NEW YORK: STEWART’S, 1862. The ‘Iron Palace,’ A.T. Stewart & Company’s department store on Broadway and Ninth Street, New York. Line engraving, c1862.

Irish entrepreneur A.T. Stewart had opened his first store in 1846 at Broadway and Chambers Streets in New York. It was so ostentatious that it was called the Marble Palace. In 1863 Stewart opened what was dubbed the Iron Palace at Broadway between Ninth and Tenth Streets. It was there that Lavinia made her purchase.

 

June 5, 1871 New York Tribune

Ready-to-wear clothing was still a novelty, but thirty-two year old Lavinia must have made a visit to Stewart’s and had a special frock catch her eye. She wrote to her parents:

I have bought a new dress for summer; bought it ready made, at Stewart’s. It was imported from Berlin, appears to be very nicely made, and sets beautifully. I think the Millennium has dawned if a woman can buy a dress ready made. It saves a world of bother and worry. This is a kind of light woolen goods, grey, trimmed with three rows of ruffles, put on pointed, with overskirt, basque waist, and flowing sleeves. Cost $25.00. Considering the making and trimming this was cheap. The material was fine and durable. It will answer as between my everyday dresses and my black silk. I have a new round hat, white straw. Perhaps I told you before.

We do not have the elder Goodells’ reaction to Lavinia’s purchase, but in all likelihood they thought their younger daughter was a spendthrift. Lavinia’s starting salary at Harper’s was the generous sum of $12.50 per week, but spending two weeks’ gross pay on one garment was definitely an extravagance. We also do not have a photo of the dress, but an 1871 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular fashion magazine, featured this dress style:

When Lavinia wrote her parents again a week later, it sounded as though she may have been suffering from a bit of buyer’s remorse. She said:

I wore my new dress yesterday and today. “Feel big” in it, in one way at least, it is so full and so much trimming on it, and the overskirt so long and looped up, and large flowing sleeves. It is rather too dressy for me, and I wish I had got something simpler. I feel like a cat in a strange garret in it. It was as plain as any of them, however.

The dress was not mentioned again. By the fall of 1871, Lavinia had moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, and money was once again tight. By all accounts the Stewart’s dress was the most profligate fashion purchase of Lavinia’s life.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to her parents (April 24 and May 1, 1871); New York Tribune (June 5, 1871); Godey’s Lady’s Book 1871; https://visualizingnyc.org/essays/palaces-of-consumption-a-t-stewart-and-the-dry-goods-emporium/.

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