We were two costumers on holiday, savoring lunch in a vintage cafe followed by a visit to Lacis, that famous Berkeley, California, repository of delights for needleworkers, lovers of vintage clothing, and costumers.
An antique store had opened next door, so we popped in to investigate. Naturally I noticed the vintage corset lying on a table, but since extant pieces are usually cut for Scarlett O’Hara, I passed it by. A few minutes later, my companion was brandishing it about. “I think this would fit you,” she exclaimed. This alone was cause for remark, as I’m a size 18W, not an 18-inch waist.
The corset had to be late 1880s, as it still bore a paper label inside: “The MME McCABE CORSET – Trademarked – Pat. Mar. 14 82 Oct 25 87”
She held it up to me, and she was right. Even over a t-shirt, it was clearly a perfect fit.
I began to examine the corset. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in any book on historical fashion. It combined elastic bands at the back, which seemed rather modern, with cording, which I thought was much earlier.
Had it been altered, we wondered. The stitching and fabric looked consistent. There are no signs of alteration. It had spent the last twenty years in the bottom of a storage container, according to the shopkeeper. Not one to argue with destiny, I purchased the corset and we moved on to Lacis.
At Lacis the manager, Erin, confirmed that it was indeed a find, like nothing she’d seen either. She confirmed that it was reinforced with cording, reeds and metal bones, and some inexplicable grommets at the ends of the boning channels.
My next show-and-tell was with my son, the software engineer, and his wife, who’s done enough historical costuming to appreciate a rarity. The corset was in good shape for being 120 years old, but it may have had unsavory company in that container.
As my daughter-in-law and I indulged in speculation about the Aesthetic movement and tea gowns, my son was poring over his laptop. In short order he’d gone through the online U.S. Patent office, where he announced the patents were kept by number and I’d need to go though several hundred issued in the respective years to find the ones I wanted. Google Patent, by contrast, has a great search engine. He soon had the two relevant patents up. One could see at a glance that both were incorporated, though not precisely, in this corset.
The first patent was No. 254,992, issued Mar. 14, 1882 to Wm. McCabe of New Haven, Connecticut, for a “new Improvement in Corsets.”
It is clearly for the “floating panel” overlay of cording at the sides. According to the application:
This invention relates to an improvement in that part of a corset commonly called the “hip-section”—that is to say, the section which extends down the side from the arm over the hip—the object being to stay and give shape to the sections; and consists in an overlay upon the hip section proper, extending from the top down to about the waist-line, thence cut away over the hip, the sides adjacent to the front and rear section extending down to the bottom, and the said overlay diagonally corded, as more fully hereinafter described.
In the patent, the hip area has pockets for vertical stays that extend only to the curved line of the overlay. “This construction gives firmness and strength to the hip-section and allows freedom over the hip, the vertical stays serving to keep this thinner portion in its proper condition.”
The corset now in my possession has retained the panels of cording, but the two layers of fabric over the hip are stabilized by three rows of stitching in concentric circles that echo the curve of the overlay panel, not by stays.
The second patent, No. 372,162, was granted on October 25, 1887, to William McCabe of the city of St. Louis in the state of Missouri for a “certain new and useful Improvement in Corsets.”
This is “an improved manner of connecting the two body potions of a corset at the back and in strengthening the back at the edges of the body portions.”
Basically, short sections of elastic are inserted between the CB lacings and the bones, granting some ease at the top and bottom, while the waist is firmly connected by “inelastic straps” of sturdy fabric.
Again, the patent illustrations are not identical to the corset at hand. The patent illustration includes “flies” or what I would call “wings” of vertically quilted fabric whose “office is to hold the straps and strips from the body of the wearer.”
These are not found on the present corset, and I can spot no sign that they were originally present and later cut off.
Examining the McCabe Corset in Detail
The first feature one notices is that this garment is not petite: the waist measures about 38" (96.5cm).
It is made of sturdy plain-woven fabric in what may have originally been a light aqua. The edges are bound with narrow twill tape (about ½" (13mm)). The machine stitching varies slightly but is around 20 per inch (1mm stitch length). The flat fell seams add structure. The bones and reeds are slipped into channels formed by topstitching. The cording sections are a toast brown, with cording about eight per inch (3mm wide), on a white twill base.
It’s proportionate, not made to accommodate special health conditions or a Mae West bosom.
It reminds us that Victorians came in all shapes and sizes, just as we do. In the 1886 Bloomingdales catalog, for example, most corsets are waist sizes 18"-30" (46-76cm), but a few are available in sizes 32"-36" (81-91cm).
|The ½" (13mm) lace at the top is made from a rough, sturdy fiber, somewhat like sisal. There are 1" (2.5cm) inserts of cording at the top of the bosom gores.|
The McCabe corset has just enough steel boning to retain its shape. There are steel bones at the center front, over the bust, and the center back. The busk and busk bone, shown here, have a curve.
|The grommets at the ends of the bones were a mystery, but upon inspection, they seem to be holding the stays in place in their channels, as flossing would have done in more expensive corsets of the time. The text of the patent confirms this.|
Cording, which I thought phased out after the 1840s, continued to be used in corsets throughout the 1800s, especially after machines were able to mass-produce pre-corded fabric.
Although used in cheaper corsets, cording was not for the lower classes alone; the Leicestershire online museum has a lovely embroidered corset from 1887 honoring Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee that features cording. (Perhaps it was intended for women who remembered both the young Queen Victoria and the corded stays of their youth.)
Its pattern pieces would be similar to those of the McCabe corset, except that corded hip gores replace the overlay panels of the latter.
[If readers have a particular interest in the 1887 Jubilee corset, especially if you're a long way from England, let us know in the comments below. If there's sufficient interest I can visit the collection and study/photograph it in more detail for a future FR article. - Cathy]
|The overlay is not sewn down: I can slide my hand underneath.|
|Its structural lines, especially the diagonal lines of the cording, the curve at the hip and the topstitching have a pleasing “form follows function” quality.|
For all this practicality, it is an attractive corset. The fabric is contrasting shades of toast-brown and light aqua blue fabric, last year’s ubiquitous color combo.
Here is a closeup showing fabrics at join: light blue sateen, brown cording, and twill tape for binding.
There is one small patch of wear on the right hip, about where the wearer’s hip bone would have been. The cords, as seen in the worn spot, are rough, more like rope than string.
This wear might have been produced by a woman who often carried a small child on one hip, soothing a toddler while attending to her household.
It points to a woman who could afford a corset of her own but took an active role in someone’s home, whether as live-in grandmother, nurserymaid, or stay-at-home mom.
The elastic at the back has lost most of its bounce, but the reeds, stays, bones and fabric are holding up well.
The use of reeds was a surprise to me, since I associated those with Elizabethan days. It turns out, upon further reading, that reeds were used in the manufacture of less expensive corsets throughout the 19th century.
Although sturdy in construction, the corset got heavy wear in its day. The center back is skewed to the right at the bottom by about one inch.
With the reeds, cording and elastic, it has more flexibility than a more fully-boned corset. An American woman might have worn this as an everyday corset, donning a more heavily-boned, fashionable one for dressier occasions.
While I have worn it only once, for a few hours, laced gingerly due to its age, it is a most comfortable corset to wear, giving a respectably fashionable line without sending one to the fainting couch.
Since I trained in research, I had to bone up, as it were, on corsets to see where this fell in the spectrum of known examples. This is not, I should add, a proper research paper, but an account of my adventures finding out more about this unique garment.
I suspect that this corset would have been considered an alternative in its own day. As someone old enough to be a grandmother, I was happy to find documentation for less restrictive corsetry extending from the late 18th century through the early 20th. The very poor may have worn cast-off corsets, but there were manufacturers in the US and Britain, like McCabe’s St. Louis Corset Company, who were happy to provide respectability to the ever-rising middle classes of the 19th century.
Historic examples of less restrictive alternatives to fashionable corsets would include the “jumps” of the late 18th century, of which Jill Salen includes some lovely examples in her book. Jumps were a lightly reinforced center-fastening bodice worn visibly over the shift and petticoat, and under a jacket or caraco. This makes a practical, comfortable ensemble for all-day wear.
Corsets from the 1820s-40s relied heavily upon cording, often done with candlewicking that was pulled through channels after they were sewn by hand. The relative comfort of the cording would have been offset by the humungous busk at the center. The busks were removable; the ribbon that tied them in survives on many brassieres today. I would not be surprised to find women wore the corsets but removed the busks when they were at home.
Active corsets for riding and other activities appear in the 1880s, featuring elastic for mobility. By the late 1880s, “comfort waists” appear in advertising. The Rational Dress Society is formed in 1887. The Bloomingdale’s 1886 catalog lists a variety of “health corsets” and “comfort waists” for the entire family. The basic distinction seems to be that the “health corsets” looked much like regular corsets but had added comfort features, such as laces that could be loosened around the abdomen, or grommets or ventilated panels for air circulation in summer. The “waists” fastened center front, and had shoulder straps and light boning, not unlike the jumps of a century earlier. Waists came in sizes for the entire family, and would have been thought to encourage good posture in children.
I have no proof linking William McCabe to the “health corset” but concern for health was certainly in the air, and not just a whim of the Aesthetic Movement.
Who was William McCabe?
My cursory internet research suggests that the William McCabe of the seven patent applications, all related to button fastenings and corsets, is likely the William McCabe of the 1900 census, an Irish immigrant around 1872 who was a factory foreman in New York by 1880, and president of his own corset company in St. Louis by 1887. The St. Louis Corsets were carried by shops as far away as San Francisco and Atlanta. He and his wife Elizabeth had three daughters; two children died in infancy. A 1911 patent application is consistent with his earlier work. McCabe’s life is an American success story for an enterprising Irish immigrant. I have no evidence that Elizabeth was involved in the business. The “Madam McCabe” brand may have been named in her honor, or calculated to appeal to the many Irish immigrants with upward aspirations. The McCabe corset is not as lovely as the “Pretty Housemaid” with its flossing that was popular in England, but is nevertheless attractive in its coloring and lines.
Here is my attempt at drawing out the pattern. My measurements are for the visible fabric and do not include seam allowances. Allowances should also be made for the flat fell seams, as this gives part of the structure. Here are the large size pattern pieces available for download in PDF form: McCabe Corset Pattern.zip
The McCabe corset is a well-designed, comfortable no-frills garment made to take everyday wear. It reflects both the styles of 1887 and the growing concern of the US market for healthful supporting garments. Since the garment at hand is quite worn, it is not suitable for wearing. I plan to make up my own version, using contemporary supplies that are as close as possible to the originals. I should note that I have made only one corset before, and that was in a class under the watchful eye of master corsetiere Autumn Adamme. I shall recount my adventures, but if the going gets too rough, hello, Dark Garden: I’ll let the professionals take over. With the help and inspiration of this website, I might just do it.
Bloomingdale Brothers. Bloomingdale’s Illustrated 1886 Catalog: Fashions, Dry Goods and Housewares. Dover reprint. pp. 32-34, 146, 153-4. Gives a good sense of the era of this corset.
Jill Salen. Corsets: Historical Patterns & Techniques. Batsford, 2008. This glorious book crosses the Fashion in Detail series with Jean Hunisett’s deconstruction of typical patterns. It contains extant examples and patterns for jumps, a rational corset, and waists. The “Pretty Housemaid” of 1890 proves there was a market for attractive corseting for working women.
Robert Doyle. Waisted Efforts: An Illustrated Guide to Corset Making. Sartorial Press Publications, 1997. pp.155-7. More information on waists and health corsets.