Sewing has meant many things, from drudgery to inspiration, to many people. For one 19th century woman, it meant freedom. Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907) was born enslaved on a plantation in Virginia (USA). When she was four years old, her mother taught her to sew. At 14 she was sent to work in another state, where she was repeatedly beaten and whipped for her “stubborn pride”.
She was hired out as a seamstress in order to make money for her owner. She saved her money and tried to buy her freedom and that of her young son, but was refused. Finally the family accepted USD 1,200 (about $33,000 dollars in today’s money), and in 1855 signed a deed of emancipation for her and her son. She wrote: “Free! The earth wore a brighter look and the very stars seemed to sing with joy. Yes, Free!” She moved to Baltimore and taught young African-American women her method of cutting and fitting dresses. She then moved to Washington, DC and gained a reputation as an excellent seamstress and modiste.
The new First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, asked her to make a dress for her husband’s Inauguration. Keckley created a purple velvet gown with white satin trim and mother of pearl buttons (now in the Smithsonian Museum (USA) collection). She became Mary’s personal dresser and confidante, and President Lincoln called her “Madame Elizabeth”. Keckley and the First Lady remained close friends after President Lincoln’s assassination; she was given Mary Lincoln's dress from the second inauguration, the blood-stained cloak and bonnet from the assassination, and some of the President's personal items. But they fell out when Keckley published her controversial autobiography Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, And Four Years in the White House.
A black woman writing about the President’s family was considered shocking, and Keckley’s dress making business suffered. In 1892, she became head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University, an African-American institution. The next year she represented the University at the Chicago World’s Fair, where she had organized a popular dress reform exhibit in the Women’s Building. Before her death she completed an intricate quilt of silk dress fabrics, left over from making Mary Lincoln’s dresses. The quilt is now one of the most popular objects at the Kent State University Museum in Ohio.
Shelley Anderson, 19th June 2020.