This Valentine’s Day, perhaps you’re looking forward to a special outing with a loved one. You might dress up, or you might bundle up, depending on the temperature outside. In any case, you likely won’t be decked out in fashionable furs like this couple, who dressed for the winter weather in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa circa 1889. This cabinet card photograph comes from an unidentified antique album featuring a family of Swedish immigrants.1 The photographer – J. E. Johnson of 705 Fourth Street in Sioux City – operated his studio from at least 1887-1891.2
A newspaper column in a nearby community in South Dakota reported in 1888, “It is a lively competition between the comparatively old-fashioned sealskin cloaks and the newer, more picturesque wraps that reach to the ground.”3 The unidentified woman pictured here wears a toggle-fastened coat with a fur collar and cuffs, and she sports a striking fur cap that immediately made me think of one worn by Laura Ingalls Wilder in a photograph taken in the latter half of the 1880s. Her outfit is completed by a pair of fitted gloves, and a pleated skirt extends below the hemline of her coat.
The unidentified man wears a toggle-fastened overcoat of heavy cloth that reaches below the knee, also trimmed with a fur collar and cuffs. He tucks a bare hand into a pocket; the other grasps the spare glove and his bowler hat. Visible beneath his coat are distinctive striped pants. While flipping through Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer, an excellent reference for dating nineteenth century photographs, I spotted an example of another young man wearing striped pants in a photograph dated 1889. In fact, he leaned against what appeared to be the very same pedestal. As it turned out, it was. The photograph of a young man in striped pants featured in Dressed for the Photographer was also taken at the Johnson studio in Sioux City.4 Apparently, striped pants were at their peak in popularity at this time!
The couple pictured here seem relatively young, and perhaps were recently married. If they, like others in this album, were Swedish immigrants, they may have shared copies of this photograph with family members who remained in the old country. Even if they weren’t dressed for a date in the modern sense of the term, they certainly look prepared to take a romantic stroll downtown!
1 Unidentified Album of a Sioux City, Iowa Family from Varberg, Sweden, ca. 1870-1900; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.
2 “U.S, City Directories, 1821-1989,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 February 2014), entry for J. E. Johnson; citing “R. L. Polk & Co.’s Sioux City Directory, 1887 (R.L. Polk & Co., 1887),” 464, and “U.S, City Directories, 1821-1989,” database, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 February 2014), entry for J. E. Johnson; citing “R. L. Polk & Co.’s Sioux City Directory, 1891 (R.L. Polk & Co., 1891),” 759.
3 Joan Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997), 384.
4 Severa, Dressed for the Photographer, 450.