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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Ioway to Iowa

Irving Berdine Richman

published by
The State Historical Society of Iowa

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 17
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p315  A Sharp Turn

 p317  In Gotham

Bonnets, mantillas, capes, collars, and shawls

Dresses for breakfasts and dinners and balls

Dresses to sit in and stand in and walk in

Dresses to dance in and flirt in and talk in

Dresses in which to do nothing at all

In Iowa

'The good old days' have passed away — days when 'every farmer's wife could exhibit her bolt of homemade linsey, and her daughters could make it up in modest and comfortable clothing'. Not so now! Some farmers even buy their butter! — 'because the gals go to the high school and there ain't no one to milk the cows'.

'Flax is scarcely seen in all the territory. It is almost as few and far between as the dairy maids of the present day. . . . The piano and guitar have been substituted for the loom and the spinning-wheel. Indeed in our more enlightened and literary country scarcely a young man knows what 'flax' is, and would look upon the "hackle" as some barbarous instrument of torture, and the "swingle knife" as a bygone weapon  p318 of warfare. As for the distaff and the wheel, our young girls would faint at the idea of using them, believing that none but grandams and Irish were created for that purpose. The home manufactures have ceased to exist in the family circle, and fashionable do-nothingism has taken their places'.

But the sharp turn — 'Bloomers'!

'Is there', asks a dame of 1852, 'really anything immodest in a pair of pants and a short dress?' 'Bloomers', answers a wit, 'reveals the fact that woman is forked animal and not, as she seems to be, a church on castors'.

For Iowa the important fact about bloomers was that an Iowa dame-elect had brought them nationally into vogue by wearing them. Amelia Jenks Bloomer, editor and reformer, was of the State of New York, but in 1855 at the age of thirty-seven removed with her husband, D. C. Bloomer, to western Iowa, locating at Council Bluffs. There Dame Bloomer may have read:

'We [Des Moines Valley Whig] are much inclined to think that they [bloomers] are just what is demanded by the progress of the age for the convenience of the sex, but cannot decide, till we have had opportunity to observe, the effect on a beautiful woman. . . . The pantalets — white, ruffled, and neatly starched —  p319 from waist down to the ankles, are, we understand, quite full, terminating in a band three inches wide from which a ruffle of proportionate length falls over the feet. The body of the frock must fit tight and the skirts extend to the knees. The head dress is a neatly arranged turban of fine material encircled with strings of pearls. Red slippers complete the costume'.222


The Iowa of the eighteen fifties rejected bloomers, but withstood sights quite as devastating. It withstood forsooth the sight of 'fast women'. The Iowa State Fair (newly arisen in 1854‑1856) was graced by 'Ladies of the Ribbons'. 'Handsome' and mistress of 'reins and whip', was she of the White; elegant of form, fine of face, and soft of eye, was she of the Pink; 'all fired fine', 'full of spirit, full of fun', was she of the Light Blue; 'like a queen' was she of the Barred Green; 'dashing, terrific, perfectly dare-devil, rapid as lightning, object of an earthquake of cheers', was she of the Broad Blue. 'But', (so queried the rejecters of bloomers) 'is not the circus ring the place for fast women to exhibit their charms to gaping throngs, and in a few years will not women blush at the idea that their charms were exhibited to grace Horse Show or Agricultural Fair?'223

Iowans of 1930 — Iowans of the radio, of the airplane,  p320 of television, of the talking picture, of ectogenesis — Iowans of the Keokuk Power Dam, of the Mississippi River steel barge, of the tractor on the farm — turn ye to the Iowa of the Fifties! Buffalo heifers yoked with oxen; young elk hitched to sleighs; deer chased by Mississippi steamboats; passenger pigeons (now extinct) flooding the sky; prairie chickens, ten to two hundred at a time, invading settlements; towns overwhelmed by quail, quail in cellars and third stories, boys chasing them along the streets. Locomotive and telegraph but twenty and fifteen years old respectively; sewing machine, thresher, reaper, harvester — one and all in the stage experimental! Yet news! All the while news!

Great reaper trial (1854) in Illinois — the Atkins Self-raking Reaper and the Many Reaper. The former cut twenty acres in 12 hours and 40 minutes; the latter, in 10 hours and 3 minutes.224

Compressed air hurls letters through a tube at 950 miles an hour — Boston to New York in fifteen minutes. Or, compressed air car (one hundred passengers per trip), Marseilles to Avignon in four hours. Or (1854), Ohio and Mississippi Railroad with air-power locomotive — St. Louis to Cincinnati on a single barrel of fuel.

Then the electric spark. Ticking off messages in  p321 Iowa since 1848 — Burlington to Bloomington (Muscatine)225 and vice versa — the spark is now to leap the Atlantic. A company (October, 1853) to connect New York with Liverpool. Or (May, 1854), a company to connect Newfoundland with Ireland — Peter Cooper, President, Professor S. F. B. Morse, Vice President. Or (1855), the world itself is to be leaped. Editor Shaffner of the Telegraphic Magazine departs for Europe to arrange for telegraph around the world. To lay line over Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark. From Labrador to Greenland, line to be laid under water for five hundred miles, and thence to cross Russia to Kamchatka; thence along Aleutian Islands to Alaska Peninsula or Cook's Inlet; thence to San Francisco; and thence by way of Salt Lake to western boundary of Missouri, intersecting line to the East.226

And not alone the cable as submarine, but the submarine boat. A French crew of 14 breathe freely beneath the water for fourteen hours.227 Boats to be used (how?) to supply oysters from Granville to Paris.

Again: gutta percha fountain pen (one in use in Muscatine); gutta percha voice transmitter for messages from parlor to kitchen, the mistress first calling attention by gently blowing into the tube which sounds a whistle; stem-winding watch from Switzerland; revolving firearm (Porter's), thirty shots a minute;  p322 machine for typesetting (inventor has just finished setting type for octavo volume by Bancroft the historian, to be published by Harper's); galvanic printing press moved by magnets to throw off impressions with the rapidity of light; artificial ice; cement houses; yankee collars (tin) that won't wilt at 96 degrees.

Flying, too, there is, and wireless. Mr. Rufus Porter of New York, inventor of the aerial steam or flying ship, is now (1850) soliciting subscriptions to stock to aid in starting on the first voyage. Art of flying (1851) said to have been discovered by young Señorita of Madrid, Juanita Pérez. Señorita rose above 600 feet. Flying machine (1855), a box affair worked by a handle, by Don Diego de Salamanca at Madrid astonished Spaniards. Members of the Academy point out danger since malefactors can fly to roofs of houses and get into apartments. Curious to see policemen in England and France pursuing thieves in the air in order to lock them up on earth.

The New York Times, March 30, 1930: New York was guarded by its air police for the first time yesterday when the four amphibian planes were assigned to patrol duty over the skyscrapers.

Eighteen fifty-five promises all sorts of marvels.

 p323  But eighteen fifty-seven surpassed it. 'A young man of Knox County, Illinois', says the Peoria Statesman, 'has discovered a method of telegraphing without the use of wires, using the earth as a conductor. . . . He can send messages across rivers, on oceans; and vessels at sea by having a telegraph apparatus on board can telegraph back to those on land by simply letting a line from the instrument touch the water. . . . Verily, this is an age of scientific wonders!'228

Prognosticating the later eighteen fifties, the Muscatine Journal (1853) says: 'The locomotive will rush on to the west side of the Missouri and on to the Pacific leaping across the prairies. . . . Fifty years ago the entire reading matter for the world was thrown from a hand press. . . . Twenty-five years ago mechanics labored a week to produce what is now done with ease in a day. The magnetic telegraph has filled the world with astonishment. Our minds are prepared for other inventions which now appear as impossible as did the sending of a message by electricity one thousand miles in a second twenty years ago'.

Writing in 1855 the Buffalo Republic (New York) makes 'A prophecy of 1880 A.D. Opposition balloon line between New York and Pekin via San Francisco. Morning express balloon starts at 9 A.M., reaching the Rocky Mountains at 12 M., giving passengers  p324 time for dinner. Leave Rocky Mountains at 1 P.M., stop at San Francisco at 2:30, arriving in Pekin in time for early tea. From this point excursion balloons start every morning for the source of the Niger, the North Pole, and the Spice Islands. Two other [balloon] trains start every day carrying mail. . . . Express trains accommodate five hundred — all other trains two hundred. Through time, 15,000 miles, nine hours. For tickets apply at the Washington Monument six hundred feet from the ground'.

Fifty years hence (1907), says the Rt. Rev. Bishop Clarke in 1857, 'a locomotive hotel flying over a road carpeted with turf and heralding its approach with sweet music . . . through to San Francisco from Boston in four days. Fifty years hence a network underground and under the bosom of the deep will click thoughts instead of words. . . . An electric battery will light all the street lamps at once and enable all clocks to keep time . . . the author will not write by our slow process, losing his rarest fancies, but will sit down to the newest chirographical instrument and putting his fingers upon the keys will write as fast he can think'.229

The Author's Notes:

222 D. C. Bloomer's Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer; sketch of the life of Amelia Jenks Bloomer in the Annals of Iowa (Third Series), Vol. I, p673.

'Today, if one speaks of the trousered skirt, one raises murmurs of protest, cries of indignation. Cliques and boycotts are formed to oppose this invention. Groups of women are organized to issue tracts (p443)condemning this "masculine attire". . . . For years and years women have persisted in wearing the same thing. Can this last forever? We anticipate the appearance of a new style as we might await a new Messiah, and we are preparing for it. It will probably be the trousered skirt, which I anticipated ten years ago'. — Paul Poiret (Paris) in The Forum, 1928.

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223 Earle D. Ross's The First Iowa State Fair in The Palimpsest, Vol. X, pp278 et seq.; Ross's The Evolution of the Agricultural Fair in the Northwest in The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. XXIV, pp445‑480; Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye and Telegraph, August 27, 1856.

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224 For a discussion of the reaper see Carl Fish's The Rise of the Common Man, 1830‑1850, pp94 et seq.

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225 Ben Hur Wilson's Telegraph Pioneering in The Palimpsest, Vol. VI, pp373 et seq.

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226 Muscatine Democratic Enquirer, January 25, 1855; Wilson's By Wire in The Palimpsest, Vol. VII, pp233‑260.

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227 Not till 1869 did Jules Verne write Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

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228 Keokuk Gate City, May 26, 1857.

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229 Keokuk Gate City, May 11, 1857; The Story of the Typewriter, cited by Allan Nevins in his volume, The Emergence of Modern America 1865‑1878, pp422 et seq.

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