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Gold Rush Shawl

Chinese silk shawl purchased in California during the Gold Rush by Joseph Stroebe of Winnebago County, Wisconsin in 1855.
(Museum object #1960.10)

In the midst of the California gold rush Joseph Stroebe of Winnebago County, Wisconsin went west in 1854 to seek his fortune. He returned home a year later with a sizable gold "strike" and an extraordinary silk crepe Chinese shawl as a gift for the woman he wished to marry. Just over one hundred years later Joseph Stroebe's descendants wrote a family history, the Stroebe Story, which included a chapter devoted to the adventures of the Stroebe brothers, Ben and Joseph, and their friends, the Weimar brothers, during their trip to California. The shawl that Joseph bought in 1855 received pointed attention in this chapter, since it played an important role in his future.

Joseph wished to court a sister of his dear friend Wilhelm Weimar, a young woman of sixteen named Franzisca. According to the authors of the Stroebe Story, this "flirtatious and vivacious" young woman had "romantic ideals of the man that she would like to spend her life with." Joseph knew he was not her ideal by any means and realized he had to make a special effort to recommend himself to her. While in Sacramento shopping for supplies, Joseph spied the beautiful silk shawls that Chinese vendors were selling and spent $100 worth of gold dust to procure one for Franzisca. Knowing his sister's love for fine things, Wilhelm encouraged Joseph in his purchase predicting she would be impressed by the silk shawl, "Franzisca never saw anything like this Joseph. You think she has eyes. Wait."

Sadly, Wilhelm died on the long return journey from California to Wisconsin in 1855 and did not live to see the fulfillment of his prophecy. Despite the sorrow of losing his good friend, Joseph's decision to go to California was a wise one considering the outcome of his venture. He had made a gold strike large enough to make his prospects as a suitor enticing to Franzisca's mother, and the beautiful shawl made him more desirable to Franzisca herself after Joseph presented the shawl to Franzisca as a Christmas present in 1855.

Having spent a small fortune on the high quality silk shawl for his beloved (with a value equivalent of over $2400 in 2006 dollars), it is no wonder that Franzisca was dazzled by Joseph Stroebe's gift. She quickly agreed to marry Joseph, and the couple wed a few months later on March 16, 1856 in a stone church in Dheinsville, Wisconsin. At the wedding, Franzisca wore her shawl as her "crowning glory."

The shawl captured the attention of more than just Franzisca. Women of the area "hurried their work to be able to drive long miles to see it." What they found was a square crepe silk shawl in a natural beige color embroidered with grape and floral motifs. They likely marveled at the leaves worked in various greens, the grapes in several shades of blue and white at the four corners, the light brown tendriled vines connected to white flowers along the border, the small white flowers scattered across the center, and the deep knotted fringe of matching beige silk at the edges.

Chinese silk shawls had been popular for several decades in Europe, where they were seen as desirable souvenirs from the mysterious Far East. By the 1850s silk shawls had become a major export from China to Europe and North America. Although made in China, the embroidered elements on the shawls ranged from traditional Chinese designs, including dragons and pagodas, to motifs that were quintessentially eighteenth-century European, such as roses or grapes. By the late nineteenth century the popularity of the shawls declined in most western countries, in part because of the over-saturation of silk shawls in the market, as well as a major change in women's fashion.

The mode of fashion and the fluctuation of skirt shape dictated the prominence of decorated shawls. The wide hoopskirts of the 1850s and 1860s advantageously displayed elaborate embroidery and intricately knotted fringe, allowing the bulk of the shawl to spread across the skirt. When the bustle became popular in the 1870s, the shawls could not drape as elegantly as before. Consequently, long shawls decreased in popularity and women turned to fitted jackets.

Joseph and Franzisca Stroebe briefly moved to Kansas in 1858, but Joseph caught malaria and the family returned to Winnebago County in 1859. Joseph passed away March 7, 1923 and Franzisca followed 6 years later in February 1929. Franzisca's shawl survived and was donated to the Wisconsin Historical Museum by her youngest daughter, Henriette (Stroebe) Bryan, in 1960.

[Sources: Stroebe Story: The Descendants in America of Wilhelm Wolfgang Gerhardt Ströbe and Anna Catherina Shübelin (Neenah, WI: Valley Press, 1959); Andrea Gyarmati Hoffman, "Unwrapping the 'Spanish' Shawl's Chinese Past," Newsletter (Madison, WI: Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, Fall 2001); Susannah Worth, "Embroidered China Crepe Shawls, 1816-1863," Dress (Vol. 12, 1986).]

MLM


Posted on July 12, 2007

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  • Clothing & Personal Items
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