I find myself returning North American Women’s Letters and Diaries (NAWLD) repeatedly when seeking firsthand observations and descriptions of historic dress. The database is only available to educational institutions, but many libraries provide access to it as part of a package with other Alexander Street Press databases, and free trials are available to librarians and faculty members. The vendor describes it as “the largest electronic collection of women’s diaries and correspondence ever assembled. Spanning more than 300 years, it presents the personal experiences of hundreds of women . . . the writings provide a detailed record of what women wore, what they ate, what they read, the conditions under which they worked, and how they amused themselves.”
Users can browse or search by a wide rage of fields specific to the content, such as Age When Writing, Where Written, When Written, Historical Events mentioned, etc.
The scope of coverage is 1675 to 1950, and simple keyword searches reveal the frequency with which women recorded information about the clothes they wore and their activities relating to sewing and craft. Over 5,000 documents mention “dress,” and over 2,000 provide accounts of needlework. When attempting to determine the origin of the “tea gown,” I found a range of diaries and letters providing context to the term and, in some case, describing fabric, cut, and trimming. In 1892, 29 year-old Josephine Peary hosted guests for an evening at her home. “At 9 P. M. I dressed myself in a black silk tea-gown with canary silk front, covered and trimmed with black lace, cut square in the neck and filled in with lace, and having lace sleeves,” she wrote. “[My guests] all looked especially nice and very much civilized, most of them actually sending in their cards. They were all dressed in ‘store clothes,’ although one or two clung to their kamiks.”
If you find one diary that interests you in particular, I recommend reviewing the database’s source information for that diary entry or letter, and tracking down physical copies. In some cases, the documents in NAWLD are samples of a larger collection of personal papers housed at libraries or archives. And finally, since transcriptions are no substitute for seeing handwritten words on yellowed paper (and getting used to reading cursive again), make sure to check out scanned documents in the showcase.
You can learn more about North American Women’s Letters and Diaries via Alexander Street Press. This vendor also offers a Social and Cultural History package which includes Black Thought and Culture, British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries, American Civil War Letters and Diaries, and more.