Revisited Myth # 63: It cost the average worker a year’s wages just to buy a suit of clothes.

t_tailors3

In an effort to show how expensive clothing was in early America, it is occasionally said that a journeyman (a man who worked for wages, from the French for day: journée) had to spend an entire year’s wages to buy one suit of clothes. Well, maybe if he had an audience with the king . . .

Clothing was expensive and even the well-to-do owned only a few outfits. Gentry women often re-made their dresses by sending them out to be dyed and then attaching different trimmings. The “middling sort” may have had only two or three changes of clothing; the poor may have had only what was on their backs. But just like today, clothing was available, new and used, at a very wide range of prices. William Carlin, a tailor in colonial Alexandria who made clothes for field hands as well as the planter elite, charged £3-5 for an ordinary wool suit and £15 for a silk brocade suit. Meanwhile, a journeyman’s wages around the time of the American Revolution averaged £30-35 per year, about half of which went toward housing. 

 

 

 

kate
keegner@email.wm.edu
70.177.228.253
Submitted on 2012/07/20 at 9:12 pm
Hi, where did you get your sources for this debunking? Thanks!

marymiley
mmtheobald@comcast.net

This subject has been thoroughly examined by historians at Colonial Williamsburg and I used their information that has been knocking around for years, notably in the “Interpreter” (an in-house CW publication published from 1980-2009) of August 1992 and Summer 2003, available at the CW Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg. There is a little information about William Carlin here: http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/Autumn05/tailor.cfmElaine

elainekessinger@yahoo.com
69.255.26.102
Submitted on 2011/11/04 at 11:32 am | In reply to marymiley.
Oh YES, Please!!
We are still fighting the myth of “women made all the clothing for their families” into the 20th century. They forget (or don’t know) about the various services beyond “making a dress from draping to trimmings” that the average dress-maker would offer. They’re surprised to hear that America had a second-hand clothing market system and that clothing could be had through charity, estate sales, debtor sales, group of friends forming an exchange, garments left behind by customers of dress-makers and tailors.
The subject is much more complex than “women made clothing for their families at home.”

marymiley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.83.147
Submitted on 2011/09/23 at 8:40 am | In reply to Jamie.
Sounds like a good myth to add to my list for future debunking. Thanks.

Jamie
mommyhungry.blogspot.com
mouseion@yahoo.com
76.196.125.229
Submitted on 2011/09/04 at 8:54 pm
Thanks for this. We are fighting an uphill battle about the “myth of homespun,” that every colonial wife did all the preparation of wool or flax, spinning, weaving, and sewing of all of her family’s clothes, regardless of class, time period, geographic location, etc etc etc.

 

4 Responses to Revisited Myth # 63: It cost the average worker a year’s wages just to buy a suit of clothes.

  1. Luanne says:

    If women made all the clothing for their families, why were there tailors? I have tailors in my family history.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Wives/mothers made the clothing for some families; better-off households probably bought some or all of their clothing from professionals like tailors, seamstresses, or dressmakers (mantua makers). Tailors tended to make men’s clothing; dressmakers generally served women and children.
      Where did your tailors come from? Were they immigrants?

      • Luanne says:

        They were Dutch and German–generations before anyone immigrated to the US. But my grandmother was a “dressmaker,” and I really think she was a tailor😉.

  2. Andrew says:

    If they made £30 a year and half went to housing, that left £15, and “William Carlin, a tailor in colonial Alexandria […] charged […] £15 for a silk brocade” A case could be made for the myth, that a suit cost a years wages for a journeyman.

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