Frontier Era

John Singleton Copley 002
Image: John Singleton Copley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Americana era was a time spanning the 1760`s through approximately the 1880`s. The United States had been established in 1776, and many people were moving into the unexplored frontier wilderness to forge and stake a homestead. There were many poor families, and nearly everyone either farmed or, if they were wealthy, hired farm hands. Reason: if not enough good crops were harvested, the family might starve to death during the colder winter months when the ground was too frozen to grow crops or hunt for food. This was a very difficult and demanding lifestyle; certainly not so by the choice of these early settlers and their families.

The first sewing machine was patented in 1790 in England, and was made of wood. In 1846, the Howe sewing machine was introduced. This was the first "modern" sewing machine. A pedal-type sewing machine was invented in 1851 by the Singer Sewing Machine Company, but many still hand-sewed clothing. The wealthier could afford seamstresses and tailors to fashion many garments for them, while the poorer usually wore garments sewn by the lady of the household. With all the chores of farming and the time it required, this left little time to sew clothing. Plus, fabric cost hard-earned money, so many poorer people owned only one or two suits of clothing. Survival was the main concern.

Until the world had experienced the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries with the inventions of the foot-pedal sewing machine, spinning jenny, power loom, and cotton gin, fabrics and other needful items were hand-made due to necessity.

Synthetic, or man-made fabrics were unheard of, as were zippers and electric sewing machines. Common fabrics included muslin, wool and woolen, calico, linen, homespun, and leather. The fabric we call "calico" today was not the same fabric the frontier people had available. Theirs was a cotton from India. Today, the term is loosely applied to any cotton fabric with small floral designs. Muslin was either natural (unbleached) or white (bleached). Usually only the wealthy could afford the white muslin. Fabrics of the more wealthy included damasks, brocades, satins, fancy eyelet trimmings, elaborate embroideries, and velvet. Most surviving clothing articles and paintings are of wealthy families, as poorer families could not afford commissioned paintings and fine clothing.

Girls wore long mid-calf length dresses or "frocks", often with a pinafore. Underdresses and often several layers of petticoats were worn underneath for added warmth. Corsets and stays with stiff boning were still worn. The necklines were modest, often with a rounded collar. Sleeves were usually long, but sometimes short. Girls' dresses were at least just-below-knee length. Adult women's dresses were ankle to floor length. As disposable [plastic] diapers were also yet to be invented, all young children and babies male and female were dressed in dressing gowns. This made it easier to change the child's "diaper". Aprons, half and full-bib styles, were often pinned to the dress to protect the dress from dirt when farming or cooking. Aprons, like bonnets, were more necessity than style statements.

A muslin bonnet often completed the ensemble. Bonnets were worn for utilitarian uses more so than for style. They shielded the face from the hot sun and/or wind. The ducktail back flap added extra protection.

Pantaloons, long mid-calf length underpants with drawstring waist, were worn with cotton stockings as nylon and elastic were unheard of. During the daytime, stockings were black colored. At nighttime, stockings were white or cream colored. Girls and women dressed modestly and demure throughout the Colonial and Americana era.

Shoes were leather, and laced or buttoned. They were ankle-high. Womens' were often low heeled, especially if she participated in any farm work.

A "good seamstress" stitched approximately 22 stitches per inch. This was a profitable and necessary skill during the Americana colonial and frontier eras. Mass-production in factories did not arrive until the Industrial Age in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Most people simply relied upon the lady of the household to do the sewing. Young girls were taught how to sew as well as cook by their mothers or other female family members. The family unit was a strong and respected institution during these times in American history.

Survival was the utmost concern during this era. Clothing reflected this aspect for men, women, and children. Sleeves were usually long for two main reasons: the lack of time and money to sew separate clothing for warmer weather.

Farming was definitely a necessity in order to eat and survive. Male family members who were old enough and healthy enough to farm usually began doing so at an early age, what me might consider "too young" by today's standards. Often, the women helped in the fields also, sometimes carrying their babies in a sling on their back. Women and young girls also devoted time to sewing clothing for their families and preparing meals as well as doing the laundry without aid of electric washers/dryers. Ironing was done with a heated iron as electric irons were unheard of. With no permanent press fabrics or wrinkle-releasers, clothing had to be ironed. It was definitely a tough time for women and children as well as for men.

Men and boys wore long-sleeved shirts with button fronts. The collars were usually stand-and-fall pointed or the neckline was banded with no collar. Pants were originally called "overalls", and were ankle-length. Fabrics included cottons and leather. The knee breeches of the past were still worn, mostly by older dignified men and boys for formal occasions. Button flys were used, as zippers had yet to be invented. Button-on suspenders, called "braces", were often worn.

Stockings were worn with knee breeches. Shoes and boots were leather with lacing or slip-on. Heels were low to medium height.

A cloth, straw, or leather hat was usually worn. The floppy-brimmed hat was popular for shedding rain and sun from the face. By the 1800's, men's wigs were no longer worn except by judicial court officials. Men wore their own natural hair.

Clothing reflected the lifestyle of work more than style for most early settlers. Clothing was designed to allow ease of movement and for warmth. The simple patterns also required less time and less fabric to sew than more complicated patterns with expensive lace and other trimmings. Again, money was an important consideration. It was all about utilitarian purposes for the poorer people.

Regency Era (1790-1815) and Romantic Era (1815-1830)

With the arrival of the 1800's, there was a trend towards a romantic, soft-flowing style in clothing featuring high empire-waisted dresses and coats. Sleeves were short and puffy as well as long and fitted. Classical-flowing draped was the style. Corsets soon returned after a short absence and emphasized a tiny waist. Men's styles became more fitted as well. The vest became increasingly shorter to natural-waist length and was often double-breasted. The men's cutaway coat was square-fronted to the natural waist or a bit higher with a collar and revealing the vest underneath. The back featured long tails. The frock coat and tail coat were also worn. Men's pants were close-fitting calf-length pantaloons that had evolved into ankle-length by 1800. Shirts were still white, often with a jabot and standing collar. A black or white neck cravat or stock was tied over the collar. Popular hats were the two-cornered bicorn and the top hat. Men often carried walking canes.

Crinoline Era (1840-1865) and Bustle Era (1865-1890)

With the arrival of the mid 1800's, the men's fashions were still somewhat refined much like those of the ladies. Men also wanted to portray that slim waist and full hips. Men's clothing still featured the more subtle basic colors, except for the occasional plaid trousers. Wool and cotton were still popular, as was silk. Collars were often starched heavily on white shirts. Neckwear could be a stock or string tie. Vests were single or double-breasted. The sack coat was now worn by men of higher social rank. The coat with the back tails and defined high waistline, the cutaway coat, was still en vogue. Soon, the black frock coat was seen on nearly every man of every station in life. The trousers were slimlined with narrow leg openings having straps to help keep them straight. Plaids and stripes were seen in trousers designs. Men's hair was worn parted in center or on side. Long sideburns were often seen, sometimes with a mustache. Ladies clothing emphasized a round bust and a thin waist. The bodice front was usually pointed at the waist. More modest ladies added a lace piece to the neckline of the bodice. Corsets remained to be a necessary undergarment. Skirts were full and bell-shaped at the hemline. The crinoline was a heavily starched petticoat worn until the mid 1850's when the steel-ringed hooped petticoat replaced it. Ladies usually wore their hair center-parted with tendrils at the sides. Large or small hats were worn during the daytime. The reticule (drawstring purse) was popular. Matching jewelry sets were also seen on women. Shawls and capes were still worn for outerwear.
The late 1860's brought the bustle to women's clothing. Corsets were still worn, and the slim look was en vogue. The hooped and crinoline skirts of were now gone, and there was an emphasis on thinness and height. Women's bodices emphasized the rounded bosom. Womens' shoes included laced and buttoned high-tops, and pumps with spool-shaped heels. Men's fashions included the white shirt, now more fitted, with a starched collar. The Windsor tie often contrasted to the man's suit color. Ascots and string ties were also worn. The frock coat and cutaway coat was worn in the evening, and vests, now natural-waist length, were sometimes seen with a collar. The sack coat and blazer, similar to today's styles, appeared for men. Frock coats and tail coats were still worn. Trousers were slim and ankle-length, and could have leg hem cuffs. Knee breeches were worn mostly for sports. Suit pieces matched or contrasted. The derby hat was most popular, with the top hat being for formal occasions. Many types of men's shoes were worn, including buttoned, canvas, and rubber soled.

Read about frontier fabrics at: Frontier fabrics page


  1. Danice, this was very interesting reading. Sure makes me appreciate modern conveniences, lol

  2. Yes, it does. Thank you for the nice comment :)


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