Reading the Clothes

Mary Jane Jones Alexander and John Rufus Alexander

Here is a picture of one set of my grandfather’s grandparents, the Alexanders.  For a better view, click on the picture and look at it enlarged on my flickr photo site.  John Rufus Alexander was born October 28, 1817 and Mary Jane Jones was born October 30, 1821.  Assuming this is their first baby, since it would be hard to imagine a family portrait including a baby, but not older children, I was dating this photo in late 1844 or very early 1845, just by using the family Bible dates.  The young couple was married November 30, 1843.  This child was born October 14, 1844, but died on August 12, 1845.  In order to check my theory about this being their first child, and reading as much as I can from the picture, I am looking at John Rufus’ clothing and I see the rounded cut of his vest front, combined with the white shirt collar points appearing high above the black necktie, and I see that this is the style for men’s clothes in the late 1830’s and early 1840’s.  Mary Jane’s dress, with its front opening, vertical seams a couple of inches either side of center, fitted sleeve tops with little caplets and a much larger puff below, cinched in at the wrist by cuffs, screams height of fashion in about 1839 or 40.  Starting in the early 1840’s, women’s sleeves continued to narrow until they were rather fitted on the arm, so Mary Jane’s sleeve style pre-dates that trend.  She is wearing a corset underneath which comes up high, and there is boning in the bodice below the bust.  The bodice would come down to a soft point in the center front, but that part is hidden by the baby. It would not have been unusual for her to have a day cap on her head, but she appears to have her hair pulled back into some sort of ‘do in the back.  It is significant that her ears are showing because it would have been more usual for women at this time to cover their ears with their hair.  This dress is of dressmaker quality and I wonder if it had been made for her before her marriage?  If so, it could well have been the last dressmaker-made dress she ever owned.  This couple spent their life ranching and raising children, a physically demanding life for both husband and wife, and not one which would make them financially well-off enough to afford a dressmaker.

Another son, Thaddeous Thompson, was born on August 24, 1847, followed by a daughter, Amelia Hassletine on October 24, 1851.  Below is a picture of Amelia as a child.  From the style of her hair, clothes, and jewelry, I would guess that this photo was taken in the late 1850’s.  She looks as though she could be about 7 or 8 years old, doesn’t she?

Amelia Hassletine Alexander

Throughout the 1850’s, girls’ dresses, especially their special-occasion dresses, were styled off-the-shoulder. Quite often little girls wore coral beads with their finery, and the beads Amelia wears might be coral, although they could be a darker stone.  Notice her drop earrings and her arm bracelet.  A short haircut, parted in the center, and tucked behind the ears, possibly even oiled for neatness, was popular at the time.  Amelia is my grandfather’s aunt.

Let’s take a look at Amelia’s mother again, this time as an older woman.

Mary Jane Alexander in about 1865

Based on the sleeve, collar, and skirt style of Mary Jane’s dress, I am guessing that this photo could have been taken in the mid-1860’s, although, don’t you think she looks older than 44?  Her hair looks quite gray underneath her old-fashioned cap, and her eyes look sunken, and her lips look as if they have lost their youthful  fullness.  During the 1860’s, ladies’ dresses of this style would have had hoops and corset underneath, but I doubt that Mary Jane had either hoops or corsets to her name.  There really is a discrepancy between the style of dress and her apparent age in this photo, so I can think of several possibilities.  Maybe you can think of others?  One is that, she really did sew this dress rather recently in the 1870’s or even 80’s (which is why it does not appear faded or worn), but she used a pattern that was left over from the 1860’s.  Another possibility is that this is a mid-1860’s dress which she has made herself, and she is prematurely gray and old-looking from the effects of the sun and hard work.  It could be that this is actually a little-worn dress left over from the 1860’s which she pulled out for an 1870’s or 1880’s photographic sitting.  I don’t think that the fabric looks as if it could have been worn and washed much, do you?  It appears to be cotton chintz or, at least, cotton of some sort, and that would fade badly over time.

Here is yet another photo of Mary Jane, from a later date:

Mary Jane Alexander

I am making a guess that this is from about 1880, when she was about 60 years old.  She appears to have a lot of fine wrinkles from sun exposure, and her lips have become quite thin.

Finally, here is a picture of the Alexanders out in front of their ranch house, when they are elderly, probably in the early years of the 20th Century:

turn-of-the-century ranch house

Imagine building that rock wall over time, from the supply out in the pasture!  John died in 1908, but Mary Ann lived until 1917, when my Mom was a baby.