ASSOCIATES (2014, March, v. 20, no. 3)


Be It Ever So Humble…

Sue Knoche
Medical Library Assistant
ETSU Quillen College of Medicine Library, Johnson City, TN

Do we truly appreciate the simple inventions/gadgets that have been around for years? I typically ask this question each time I dress in my 18th century attire for historic events referring to zippers or buttons. I live in upper east Tennessee where in 1770 the first settlement beyond the boundaries of the original 13 colonies was established. Numerous historic events or re-enactments take place each year at the state park, which was built in 1975, where a replica of the original fort stands and provides the feeling of stepping back in time. Many, many years ago an incident happened during the outdoor drama where three women including myself, were at the far end of the stage standing by a campfire to simulate cooking. One of the women unaware she was standing close to the fire, in a matter of seconds her long skirt made of synthetic fibers caught fire and severely burned both legs plus embedding plastic fibers in her skin. We furiously worked to douse the flames trying not to disturb the production still in progress; but amidst the smoke or smell of burned flesh surrounding us she insisted on finishing the act. Fortunately it was near the time for the raid on the fort that afforded us the opportunity to help her run inside, then to the car seeking medical help at a nearby hospital emergency room. Each of the melted fibers had to be surgically removed, as well as treating the burns; but, she was okay in just a few weeks and continued to participate in events. Now all clothing items worn must be constructed of cotton, linen or wool and inspected for authenticity and safety reasons. Most outfits have ties, straps or require pins for closure, and the old fashioned black hosiery requires a little finesse to put on. I often wonder how the women did it back then without any modern conveniences like ‘pantyhose’ or a simple washing machine to clean clothes instead of using rocks in a creek, but they did what they had, with what they had available. To achieve the transformation to become a lovely 1770’s maiden takes about 20 minutes to accomplish. Some ladies wear stays or lace up bodices for their attire, which is perfectly acceptable, but generally it can take longer to dress and not as flattering on me or a look I want to achieve.

At one point I asked the historians when the zipper was invented to make dressing a lot easier, especially for the men who have many buttons where zippers are now common. Some had theories but nobody was sure, so being the library staff professional I am a little research was in order. Who knew the common zipper has a complicated history that took several dedicated inventors to accomplish it? Elias Howe, who invented the sewing machine in 1851, applied for a patent for the ‘Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure’. Apparently he was so involved in the sewing machine, this idea was put aside; but, 44 years later Mr. Whitcomb Judson marketed a ‘Clasp Locker’. A device similar in design but in a complicated type hook-and-eye fastener that made its public debut at the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair, with little commercial success. Next, Gideon Sundback (a Swedish-born man who immigrated to Canada) was an electrical engineer hired to work at the Universal Fastener Company. In December 1913, he improved on the original design by increasing the number of fastening elements and it worked. The patent was issued in 1917 as a ‘Separable Fastener’ but still not in commercial use. The B.F. Goodrich Company decided to use Gideon’s fastener on a new type of rubber boots or galoshes plus tobacco pouches and renamed the device ‘the zipper’. A sales campaign for children’s clothing in 1937 caught the attention of French fashion designers who raved over the zipper which they could incorporate in men’s trousers, as the “newest tailoring idea for men.” Thousands of zipper miles are produced daily to meet the needs of consumers, but for 18th century attire; pins or ties are the way to go.

Buttons have been around since the Bronze Age, but not as a cloth fastening tool but for centuries more as an ornamental, artistic type form or worn as brooches. Made of various natural substances such as bone, wood, metal, shell, pearls, etc. it seems the button was considered more a status symbol of the wealthy or to make clothing fit tighter to show off a woman’s figure or man’s physique. France started manufacturing/exporting metallic buttons around 1775 for revolutionary war uniforms and in 1812 Americans started producing buttons mostly made of brass. Although, buttons were around during the 18th century and worn by men, generally handcrafted from simple materials from the land, buttons were not used in women’s clothing till a later period in time. Buttons were mass produced in America in the late 19th century at a time when buttons became less precious and more practical in the fashion industry, especially in the 20th century with the introduction of a new substance called ‘plastic’.

Someone once said, history is knowledge of where we have been to teach us where we may go in the future…