One of the great things for those of us who make the attempt to recreate life in the mid-19th century are the journals and diaries of the time transcribed for us for research, written by people who, unwittingly, tell us in their own words of the happiness, sadness, worries, fears, anxieties, and daily activities they experienced, helping us to emulate people of the past as close to accurate as we possibly can (with full knowledge, of course, that we can return at anytime to the *comfort* of our own modern 21st century homes).
Another major help is the wealth of photographs available to give us a first-hand account on the clothing folks wore during that time. However, these (mostly) posed photos are just that - posed. There are very few, if any, "action shots" - because of extremely slow shutter speeds, cameras could not capture movement. And, like today, when folks went to the photographer to have their image taken, they usually wore their Sunday Best, not normally their every day clothing (I do understand there are exceptions here - I'm speaking generally).
Since I began reenacting in the earlier part of this decade, I have been told (and shown) what I should wear: three button shirt, trousers with braces (suspenders), a waistcoat (vest), a sack coat over the waistcoat, a cravat, and a hat.
I do wear these items, and there are times when one cannot tell the difference from an image taken of me (with a period camera) to an original.
I am proud of that, I must say.
But, I have often wondered: did men wear this ensemble all the time, like I am told I should do? Did they dress in this manner for work as well as for play? Did they wear their sack coat indoors with just the family about?
This was very important to me, for, I feel if I am to do living history at all, I want to do it as authentically as I possibly can.
Recently I had this discussion with a friend, who pointed out a pretty good way to possibly find the answers - Currier & Ives prints.
I have numerous books of the prints of C&I, and have enjoyed looking at "scenes from the past" immensely; they take you away to another time and place. But, I never really looked at them until my friend pointed out the clothing of both the men and the women, as well as the children. Here were images showing, in great detail, everyday life in America - an America the average middle class citizen could easily identify with. And they were extremely popular in the mid-19th century. Nearly every middle class home had at least one Currier & Ives print hanging in their parlor. Americans saw themselves in these lithographs that showed "the whole panorama of our national life in the mid-19th century." In fact, C & I were known as " 'Printmakers to the American People.' A whole heritage of American tradition is caught vividly. In these prints can be found that wholesome national flavor, which makes their work the finest representation of the habits and customs, life and tastes...of the exciting era which witnessed the building of a great republic." (Quoted from the book CURRIER & IVES by Harry T. Peters.)
I chose a few prints that, although women are included, features mainly the men of the time, to show the clothing they wore in a number of different activities. This is in no way an authoritative tome by any means. It's just my own quick observations written simplistically so one can understand what I am hoping to convey. This first one shows a father - supposedly middle aged - arriving home being greeted by his family. Did he come home after a long journey? Does he have a job and came home for the evening? It's hard to say. He is, however, dressed rather typical of the average middle class man of the mid-1860's (this print is from 1868): shirt, waistcoat, ascot, sack coat, and high-waist pants, topped off by his ever-present hat. His family, too, is typically dressed for their class, sex and age. This is an extremely fine example of an American family of the mid-19th century inside of their home.
This next example, called 'American Country Life,' from 1855, again shows an average family out for a walk in their yard. As before, notice the clothing on the gentleman - roughly the same style and number of garments as the man in the previous print. If you look in the background, however, you will see the farmhands working diligently, a few without their (gasp!) sack coats and waistcoats. I have heard this was common for the working farmer. I can guarantee that when his work was done, they more than likely put on all the accouterments of a proper gentleman.
Here we have a man fishing for trout in a brook from 1862. Nothing unusual...except what he is wearing. I would have never thought that a man in this era would have gone fishing while wearing the same completed outfit he wore at his home. But here is *proof* that men did, in fact, wear everything he would normally wear while enjoying this activity. Note that he has his tie, waistcoat, sack coat, hat - and wading boots. He even has his pocket watch attached to his fob. This print in particular took me off-guard. I figured he would have had a different set of clothing to go fishing in -and definitely not a sack coat - much in the same way that fishermen have today. But, that's my 21st century sensibility creeping in. This is why I enjoy this sort of picture - it helps me to get a stronger feel for the thought and attitude of one who I attempt to emulate.
Finally, another from the 'American Country Life' series from 1855. I cropped this print in order to bring the subjects closer to the viewer. The men (father and son perhaps?) are returning home from what looks to be a small game hunt, for the one gentleman holds up a rabbit while the other carries...well, I'm not quite sure what it is, but it was once an animal and will now, no doubt, be dinner. Dressed fully as gentlemen should - even while hunting - this tells me that it was a rarity to see your typical American man without all of his apparel on. And, it seems, the same for the women of the era.
What this all does for me is to help solidify what I have read and have been told by the clothing historians. Are there exceptions? Absolutely. And there always will be. Just as in today's society. But, I believe what is presented here is the rule rather than the exception. And this can only help us, as living historians, in our presentations in showing others, as close as our knowledge will allow, life of another era.