QUILTS & FABRIC: PAST & PRESENT By Quilt Historian Barbara Brackman Above: Moda's Baltimore Blues

Friday, April 5, 2013

Calico Ball at the Brooklyn Fair 1864

From the New York Times in 1864

"The arrangements for the Calico Ball are nearly completed. It is to take place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Friday night of this week. The object is to aid the families of our soldiers. Everything is being done to make it a grand affair, and there is no doubt that it will be successful."

Metropolitan Fair, my current Moda Civil War reproduction collection, celebrates the fairs that women put on to raise money for soldiers' aid societies during the war. The Brooklyn and Long Island Fair held in 1864 was closed with a grand "Calico Ball," one last charity event.

At the time, people all over the English-speaking world knew what a Calico Ball was---but I needed to do a little research. My first acquaintance with the term was an invitation I found in an old scrapbook printed on a piece of fabric years ago.

Printed on a piece of calico much like this. 
Calico today means a small cotton print and it meant the same thing back then.

Calico reproduction

Calico was considered an inexpensive alternative to fancier fabrics made of silk, linen and wool.
Aunt Eliza's Star by Denniele Bohannon

It was suitable for patchwork, for everyday clothing and for inexpensive furnishings like curtains in the homes of the working classes.

There was definitely a class and fashion distinction between cotton calicoes and more elegant fabrics. Calico defined women who wore it as streetwear or to a party.

The dress may look like a cotton print
but for a formal portrait most women would
wear silk and/or wool combination fabrics.

It looks like a cotton print,
but you have to be skeptical
and examine the way the fabric drapes.
Could be silk or a wool blend.

So a Calico Ball held many meanings,
much of them having to do with condescension .

Instead of wearing one's most lavish silks to a dance, one would dress down by wearing a garment made of calicoes. This could raise money for charity just by being an entertaining social event in which the ticket costs were donated to a good cause. In New York there was the implication that members of high society "the ton," would come dressed in calico---quite amusing and a draw. 

Detail of a Calico Ball held in Hamilton, Ontario

Wouldn't you like to see Mrs. Astor dressed like her scullery maid?

A real housekeeper? 
Or a belle dressed for a Calico Ball?

And the idea of wearing calico alluded to wartime austerity---better to dress in inexpensive cottons than overdo in brocades and velvets.

At some Calico Balls held during the war or during hard times afterwards attendees had a calico dress made up to wear and then donated that dress to the poor. Skeptics noted that a fancy dress in a size 4 did the poor little good....

There was even some discussion that at midnight ladies might disrobe to give their calico away---but I cannot imagine.

George Sala explained it a little more clearly:

"At one time, I am told, 'Calico Balls' were fashionable. Do you know the nature of a calico ball? The ladies who are to attend it agree to wear only calico dresses; the colour, the design, and the trimmings being left to the discretion of the wearer. After a few weeks of the calico movement, it was found that the New York milliners were charging rather more for cotton dresses full trimmed than they had hitherto asked for silks and satins. Then the movement was modified. The ladies came in calico dresses, like so many Molly Moggs, and wore them until twelve o’clock; but at midnight the reverse of the transformation scene in Cinderella took place. The cotton-clad belles tripped into their disrobing power, whisked off their calico frocks, and re-appeared in dresses of the most expensive materials, and blazing with jewels."

The Calico Ball at the Brooklyn Fair seems to have incorporated many of these ideas. In the record of the Fair:

"The ball was given with great eclat on Friday evening, March 11th. More than half the ladies were in plain calico dresses...The Ball netted about two thousand dollars for the worthy object for which it was given. After the Ball, many of the ladies who were present sent their calico dresses to the Academy to be given to the soldiers' wives and daughters."

In the internet age I have found out so much about Calico Balls that I will have to do another post another day. See an entire newspaper printed on calico in honor of a Calico Ball in Akron at the Ohio Memory site by clicking here:

And see the whole photo documenting the Hamilton Calico Ball by clicking here:


Cynthia@aquilterbynight said...

Thank you for another informative post!

Betty Lou said...

Very interesting story, I had never heard of Calico Balls before.

WoolenSails said...

To think that they considered it a poor woman's cloth, and now we love it.


Suzanne said...

I had never heard of a Calico Ball...very informative!

desertskyquilts said...

How very interesting this was! I look forward to part two.

Kimberly Cassie @ Quilty Doodads said...

THank you so much for sharing your research with us. I love learning little tidbits of interesting history. I look forward to part 2!

Jeanie Christopher said...

Just visited the 49ers Gold Diging town of Columbia, CA and saw that the ladies had a Grand Calico Ball to raise funds for the fist school there. Your post is the only one that came up telling me what it is! Thank you!