Working in the archives is part treasure hunt, as we search through boxes for items for exhibits, blog posts, and places to put new donations. I find that it’s a lot of fun, partially because you sometimes don’t know what you’re going to find while you’re looking for something else. A few days ago, we came across a unique and fascinating find in the collections: a dress.
We have almost 500 dresses in the Clarke Collections ranging in colors, time periods, shapes, sizes and uses. Some are handmade, others are machine made, some are two pieces like Victorian dresses, others come in one piece. This dress was in two pieces, a bodice and a skirt, with internal boning that clasped at the front. It was probably for a woman who was about 5 feet 3 inches tall, which was a relatively common height at the time. The neckline was made up on long strips of silk that flowed loosely and long strips of silk ran down the full length of the skirt. The silk was not any regular kind of silk though, but cigar ribbons, which had been sewn in layers onto a tan colored slip.
Cigar silks were ribbons that were used to bundle cigars together during processing. Smoking cigars was a popular past time during the Victorian period, and women would oftentimes collect the silk ribbons for their sewing, creating beautiful quilts from rows and rows of the silks. Cigarettes came with coupons that could be redeemed for silk pieces as well, known as cigarette premiums, which included the brand name and, oftentimes a beautiful lady or some other popular design like flowers. Collecting premiums was happening around the same time as a rise in popularity of the Crazy Quilt, which had women searching for scraps of pretty fabrics to add to their ever-growing patchwork quilts. These silks were oftentimes incorporated into other quilts, or became quilts in themselves.
This dress, however, was an unusual find. We don’t have any information on who donated it to the museum, who wore it, or why it was made. We haven’t been able to find much in terms of other dresses like this being made. Was it made to show off a silk collection like the quilts were? Or to advertise cigars sold locally maybe, in a way similar to this photo of a model for Wells Drugs decked out in a variety of items sold at the store? We may never know.
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