Economical Fashions and the Civil War

Scanned Image 25

Unidentified photograph of a young woman, Mount Pleasant, Iowa, ca. 1863-1865; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

This lovely carte de visite offers several indications as to its date, from both the name of the photographer, and the unique style of dress. Unfortunately, although the photograph comes from an album linked to the family of Jesse M. Smith of Mount Pleasant, Henry County, Iowa, it remains unidentified.1

If your ancestors lived in Henry County, Iowa, in the early 1860s, take note – could this young woman, born circa 1850, be in your family tree?

The slim young woman in the photograph, perhaps fifteen years of age, wears her dark hair with a center part, likely pulled back into a snood. With one hand on the back of an ornate chair, the other holds a straw hat. She is outfitted in a style distinctive to the Civil War era. Her full-sleeved Garibaldi shirtwaist is of plain muslin, accented by a wide Swiss belt. It is tucked into a skirt fashioned from an old dress, something seen often at this time when there was a need to be economical.2

Scanned Image 25 back

Stamped on the back of the photograph is the identification, “Leisenring Bros., Photographers, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.” Although the Leisenring family operated a studio in Mount Pleasant for many years, the Leisenring brothers managed it together for only a short period of time, from 1863-1867. The name was changed to reflect this joint ownership.3

After putting these clues together, this carte de visite can be dated to a narrow time frame of approximately 1863-1865. Perhaps a local soldier carried a copy with him throughout the war, or maybe the young woman simply wished to have her photograph taken in a new outfit that she had likely sewn herself. Regardless, it provides a unique study of the ways in which the economy may have impacted the fashion choices of southeastern Iowans during the Civil War.

For more unidentified photographs from this album, click here and here.

1 Jesse M. and Elizabeth Jane (Baker) Smith Album, ca. 1860-1920; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.
2Joan Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997), 222.
3 Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide: A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2005), 391.

3 thoughts on “Economical Fashions and the Civil War

  1. jimpotterauthor

    Thank you for this valuable information. I’m researching a photo of a woman. The reverse of her cabinet card identifies the studio as “Leisenring’s, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.” After reading your blog, I’m now inclined to believe that the photo was taken by a solo Leisenring, not Leisenring Brothers. I believe I’m looking at a window about 1873-1880.
    If you read this, I’m wondering why I can’t find a Mount Pleasant or Henry County newspaper online from this period. I was going to check for advertisements from this era.
    Thanks again for the help, Jim Potter, Kansas


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