Friday, February 8, 2008

Dye, Baby.

I found this wonderful old postcard on ebay ages ago and bought it because it was so characteristic of late Victorian manners. My friend Joan Kiplinger, who manages the list Vintage Fabrics, , confirms that the date of the card is likely late-1880s. We see a lady professor giving a class in "Economy." Her students are lined up like brightly-colored parrots and they listen attentively as she lectures them: Now, young ladies, you see how successful I have been with the DIAMOND DYES. In no other way can you so easily economize as by re-coloring faded or dingy articles by their use. That's a mouthful!

The teacher herself wears a dove gray dress but I suspect the shade has faded from mauve, the most popular color of the age. Notice that the items on the clothesline are all generic household cloths, with the the exception of the socks. Likely it would have offended Victorian sensibilities to show a dress, or, God forbid, a petticoat or bloomers on the line!

This card was designed to appeal to everybody: traditional women (the young girls are panting to be married-) and even the new up and coming "career woman," as represented by the teacher. But rather than just say, "Oh, go dye that old dress and have fun with it-" the blurb comes across in a rather Puritan tone. Read between the lines: You will be successful like me if you use these dyes. You will save money if you use these dyes. Then again: It's easy--(because you're obviously young and stupid!) and finally, No other thing you could do would have this great an effect.

A company couldn't get away with this hype today but in the late 1800s, overblown verbiage was common. What's ironic is that actually the whole dye industry was going bonkers at this time and producing lots of dyes that later changed color or faded completely! Congo Red, patented in 1885, faded to a sad shade of pink on cotton fabrics. And there's a green, called Fugitive Green now by textile scholars, that was an eye-popping yellow-green when it first came on the market but faded to a downright dismal khaki. You'll probably see it on ebay when a late 19th century applique quilt comes up for auction. The seller will write, " The color scheme is an unusual combination of red, beige, and yellow...." Ah, no. That quilt was red, green, and yellow when it was first made!

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