Naperville resident’s scrapbook inspires 19th century clothing exhibit at Naper Settlement

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A fabric scrapbook kept by lifelong Naperville resident Hannah Ditzler Alspaugh has inspired an entire exhibit at Naper Settlement.

Fabric scrapbook spanned more than 50  years

Hannah was born in 1848, and her clothes-conscious writings and fabric scraps spanning more than 50 years have now taken on new life in the “Infrastructure: Creating 19th Century Clothing Then and Now” exhibit.

“That was our jumping-off point to start exploring how clothing was made in the 19th century. But then also how we think about 19th-century clothing today. So how is it made for the theater? How is it made for television, for places like Naper Settlement?,” said Dr. Andrea Field, curator of history at Naper Settlement.

Normal wardrobe from 19th-century times

The display is a look back at the styles of the time. It came together thanks to the use of dozens of garments and accessories from the Naperville Heritage Society and Winnetka Historical Society.

“One of the major takeaways we want people to have is that these were people’s clothes, and so for them it was no different than your wardrobe is for you. It’s a way to express yourself. So we kind of show off like, put your best foot forward. But these would not have been the kind of exotic costumes that we frequently treat them as,” said Field.

19th-century clothing had its dangers

Besides being fashionable, many of these garments were also dangerous, another component that’s covered in the exhibit. For example, the use of green in clothing could actually be deadly.

“Green was a very difficult color to manufacture, especially, especially to get it to stay green. And they discovered they could use arsenic to make it green. And so arsenic is really dangerous, especially for the people making the clothes it can cause sores, but it can also cause all kinds of sickness and even death,” Field said.

And hats had their dangers as well. Mercury found in some of the hat making materials is what led to the phrase “mad as a hatter.” Plus some came with a pointy prop.

“They had these hat pins that would hold them in place, but they were nine or ten inches long. So people were concerned that they could be used as a weapon on the street,” said Field.

Though the focus of the exhibit is mostly on women’s clothing, there are some men’s accessories as well. The many stories and styles of 19th Century fashion will be on display at Naper Settlement through November.

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