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1857 Promenade Dress

Promenade dress worn by Hannah
Billinghurst of Juneau, Wisconsin, 1857.

(Museum object #1955.1449,A)

As wife of United States Congressman Charles Billinghurst in the mid-nineteenth century, Hannah Billinghurst of Juneau (Dodge Co.), Wisconsin would have been expected to attend state functions appropriately dressed in fashionable, elegant, but conservative gowns. This green moiré, black and white striped silk dress shows she accomplished this requirement with aplomb. Unfortunately, today we cannot be certain to which specific event or events she may have worn it.

In 1955, when the dress came to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the donor called it Mrs. Billinghurst's "inaugural" gown. Charles Billinghurst was known to have attended the inauguration of President James Buchanan in March 1857, and curators immediately assumed she had worn it to that event. Further research has debunked this conclusion. The Wisconsin Historical Society's Archives includes a letter dated March 3, 1857 from Charles in Washington, DC to Hannah in Juneau describing the chaotic burst of celebration surrounding Buchanan's inauguration. He may have wished she could have joined him for the festivities, but Hannah was around 8 months pregnant at the time. She gave birth to their second son William on March 31, 1857.

Could the dress still have been worn to an inauguration? No definitive proof has been found, but Hannah may have attended Wisconsin's gubernatorial inauguration held in January 1858 when Alexander Randall became governor or two years later when he was re-elected. Both Randall and Charles Billinghurst were Republicans, so the Billinghursts would likely have been invited to the events. After that Hannah's dress would have been out-of-date and inappropriate for such an important function.

Before becoming the wife of a prominent lawyer and United States congressman, Hannah had lived an eventful life. Born on October 26, 1832 in Queensbury, NY, near the Vermont state line, to Hiram Barber and Salome Seelye, she experienced loss at a young age when her mother died in June 1839. Her father, a judge and lawyer, remarried the next year but divorced his second wife in 1843 when she did not want to venture west with him. Judge Barber moved to Wisconsin without her and purchased a significant "tract of timber and virgin land" in Dodge County, immediately entering into the lumber trade. He built a log cabin on the property and sent for his children.

Hannah had been enthusiastically looking forward to the move. At age eleven she wrote her father, "I had rather go there - to Dodge County - and live in a log house two years than live here, if I had to eat on a wooden plate and hang my bonnet on a peg drove up to the side of the house." She got her wish, moving to Wisconsin in 1844.

Despite living a hardscrabble life in a log cabin, Judge Barber did make sure Hannah completed her education at a seminary in Milwaukee (later known as Milwaukee-Downer College). In 1850 he left the lumber business to build and run a hotel, Juneau House, in the county seat. Perhaps it was in Juneau that she met the popular and handsome lawyer Charles Billinghurst. They married on June 26, 1853 in Milwaukee and moved to his Dodge County home in Oak Creek.

Although Hannah lived in a near wilderness, she seems to have been aware of the latest styles, possibly seeing them in magazines like Godey's Lady's Book. Her surviving dress, which she may have made herself, has all the necessary fashion elements of the late 1850s including the full skirt worn over a hoop, and the fitted bodice with a high, rounded neckline, long peplum (a flared extension of the bodice that covers the hips), and full "pagoda" sleeves.

The dress is such a classic of the period that in 1976 the Wisconsin Historical Society staff took a pattern from it as part of a Bicentennial project called Patterns of History. As part of this project, staff took measurements from five dresses in the Society's collection, resized and graded them into patterns, printed each pattern in three sizes, and then offered them for sale to the public. Over the next several years, four more patterns were added to the line. In 1999 the Historical Society re-issued the 1857 pattern in a new and improved format with better directions and more illustrations. Read more about the 1857 dress and late 1850s fashion or purchase a pattern of it from our website.

[Sources: Charles Billinghurst Papers, Wis Mss RG, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives; State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Collections, vol. 27 (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1919), pp. 758-759.; The History of Dodge County (Chicago: Western Historical Co., 1880), pp. 655-656]

LAB


Posted on March 15, 2007

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