By Bessie Spell Shirk.

I am indebted to Amy Miller and Ann Miller-Neilsen of Indianapolis, Indiana for contributing this sketch written by their great grandmother. This story may not be used, reproduced, or published without the consent of AMY.

This was written about Cynthia Virginia "Jennie" Dunbar. She was the daughter of John Wesley Dunbar born 1832 in Giles Co., VA and Sarah Elizabeth Houchins Dunbar b 1835 in Mercer County, VA. Cynthia Virginia Dunbar (Jennie) was the fifth child of John Wesley and Sarah Houchins Dunbar. She was born March 3, 1862 while her father John W. Dunbar was a POW at Camp Douglas during the Civil War. she married Albert Sowash. She died January 17, 1901 in Henry County, Indiana. This story took place in 1882.

Yes, Jennie must have a new dress. It was not the first time this subject had been discussed between father and mother. For quite ahwile now mother had realized that Jennie was a beauty, and only last spring, father, coming suddenly upon Jennie standing under a peach tree and twining some of the blossoms in her hair, had felt a pain so sharp go through his heart, so much did she remind him of the south he had left so long ago.

It wasn't as if Jennie was an only child, because really she was in the middle of a large family. A sister and brother had already gone out to make homes and rear families of their own, and five young sisters still left to keep mother and father busy after Jennie was properly dressed, for then, a girl's school dress must be made with an allowance for remodeling for the next time.

But now Jennie's school days were over and for once she must have a dress that was suited to her sparkling beauty.

Perhaps mother had never heard the word vivacious, and perhaps she had never given a thought to pre-natal influence, if so, no doubt she would have marveled that Jennie was as she was. For those had been dark days and Jennie had come into this world while the roar of Sheridan's men tearing down the beautiful Shenandoah Valley had been like distant thunder in mother's ears and father was far away in a prison camp near Chicago after being captured with Floyd's men at Ft. Donelson.

But nevertheless this subject of a new dress had come up, and tonight mother was reminding father that now that the fall taxes were paid and in the cellar apple and potato bins were full to bursting and she could count on her cans of fruit by the hundred, to say nothing of the butchered meat that father must take in pay for his carpenter work. Yes, now was surely the time, and father was finally convinced that this was really something on which mother had set her heart. So long before it was daylight, they were up and mother prepared the usual large breakfast for the family and as soon as she and father had eaten, they dressed themselves in warm woolen clothes and made ready for their trip into town. It was only six miles, but the old family horse was not one to travel fast and mother knew that these November days were sure to be chilly.

The farmers along the way were beginning their days work, many were in the fields husking their corn. Father waved and called good morning to all as he passed, but mother's mind was so busy weighing the merits of satin and grosgrain silk she neither saw nor heard a thing. "No, I don't believe I'd care for heavy silk, it makes a girl look too old. Now, if it were for myself.." and mother had to smile to think how foolish to be thinking such things.

Luckily, the hitching post in front of the dry goods store was not in use so father tied his horse and followed mother into the store and as it was still a little early for town people to be out, they found the store empty of customers.

Mr. Kahn, the merchant, came forward at once and shook hands with father and mother while two gentlemen clerks stood at polite attention. "I wish to buy a dress for my daughter, she is twenty," said mother. "Oh, yes indeed, we have quite a nice line of cashmeres and delaines," said Mr. Kahn, as he turned to the shelves.

"I want to look at the satin, black satin," said mother. "Don't you think Jennie is a little young for black?" asked father. "No, its more serviceable," said mother, "and besides, one never knows when it may be needed." and though her mind flashed a picture of a -----.

Briskly the merchant went up to the front shelves and came back carrying a large white box. Yes indeed, he had some lovely satin. He had bought it this summer while he was in New York and brought it right along with him - he didn't trust the wholesale house to send pieces he had selected.

"Now here is a bolt of black, one of brown, and one of wine. We seldom have a call for any other color, people buying the red or blue generally want cashmere or delaine."

"Well, I want black," said mother, her mind was firmly made up and as Mr. Kahn commenced taking the layers of white tissue paper from his precious goods she looks in her reticule for the slip of paper that the dressmaker had given her, and feeling a little more confidence in herself, she sits down at last on one of those revolving stools of which she had always been just a little bit afraid.

"I shall want 20 yards," mother said, while father could mentally see himself writing a check for $20.00 but little did he know that this was just the beginning for the merchant goes back and speaks to the young lady that acts as cashier, head clerk and assistant buyer. He feels sure her services will be needed before mother has finished this purchase. She comes forward and commences measuring off the goods, very slowly and carefully she measures and piles up the beautiful shimmering folds and some glorious dream seems to be passing through mother's mind as she watches her, some dream that is gradually turning into a reality.

Sharply she brings herself together and looks at her list. Now the lining - ordinary skirt lining would not cost so much but it would be a shame to put it into that lovely satin. No, she must have silesia - it was wider than the satin and mentally she does a little figuring - the satin was 18 inches wide and the silesia 36, and besides, much of the satin would go into the accordion pleated ruffles which would be lined in crinoline and polonaise would not be lined at all, so looking up at the young lady she says, "I will take six yards of the dark grey silesia."

"Now, how much crinoline, Mrs. Dunbar?" Mother quickly took her eyes off the glass case where she had been looking longingly at the passe-menterie. No. She would stick to the accordion pleated ruffles for trimming. Passe-menterie was expensive and the tiny beads were so prone to catch on everything. It would be alright for church and church affairs, but those country parties were apt to be a little rowdy at times.

"And a dozen stays," said mother "two for the back and four for the front, six for the sides, and be sure to give me the short ones for the sides -- those long ones can be real uncomfortable if they begin pinching under your arms."

"Now about buttons. I think I'll look at the black jet, about shoe size. I believe I'll like them better than the cut steel and they are no more expensive."

"Now some good strong hooks and eyes - maybe I'd better have two cards, they pull off so easily after the dress is worn for ahwile." "Oh, yes, and I suppose you have seen these new reeds for the back of the dress. I'll show you how they are used."

"Yes I know", said mother. "Mrs. Murphy showed me a dress she was making. You run these casings across the back of the skirt which is only a sham skirt made of the lining as though it is to be covered by the polonaise, and then you run these 20 inch reeds through them and sew tape on each end of the casing and draw them together until they make a semi circle just like a bow to shoot an arrow, then this new bustle fits inside this and fastens with a strap around the waist."

"I like this new bustle", says the young lady, "because it is just spiral springs, real fine wire. Those old stuffed bustles were so clumsy."

"Now the velveteen binding comes next on the list, do you think six yards will be enough?"

"Yes, if the train isn't going to be too long, but I do want to show you the new binding. It is called "brush binding" and is much better to keep the dust from the skirt than velveteen."

"And be sure," says the young lady in a low voice, "and see that your dressmaker lines to the knees with an inside of crinoline. She can stitch that inside the silesia before she sews the gores together." "Oh, yes. I had almost forgotten" says mother, "six spools of thread, two of cotton, two of silk and two of buttonhole twist."

And now the bundle is finally tied up and father will drive mother to the dressmaker's where he will leave her for an hour or two while he goes back to the restaurant to get a much needed cup of coffee.

Mrs. Murphy has been expecting mother so the table is ready and cleared and the precious bundle deposited. Mother removes her shawl and hands it to one of the young girl apprentices but leaves her bonnet on, her yarn mittens she asks the girl to please lay with her shawl, then she carefully unties the package. Gasps of "OH! and AH! come from the girls while Mrs. Murphy shows her approval with a nod of the head and a sweet smile, not wanting to show too much suprise.

"Well!" says mother, "I'm glad I had you take Jennie's measure when we were here last month. Now I suppose you can go right ahead and maybe it can be ready for the holidays."

"Oh! yes, Mrs. Dunbar, I have already drafted a pattern from my chart and I am going to tell you something. When I have finished this dress I'm going to give you this pattern. I usually charge fifty cents for making a pattern but I know you are a good sewer yourself, and you have several young girls and it will come in handy for you."

"Now I want to speak to you about something else. It seemed Jennie had a new corset of hers laced a little too tight when she was in here. You know there is a good deal written these days about girls lacing ----" "Oh I know" said mother, "but Jennie has a mind of her own and I did suggest one of those new corsets by Dr. Warner, but Jennie laughed at me and said they were just for invalid women. I think, sometimes, maybe there wouldn't be so many invalids if the girls wouldn't wear their clothes so tight, but it's no use talking. I don't know what these young girls are coming to anyway."

"Well, when you are ready for a fitting just drop me a card and I'll bring Jennie down, and I do hope everything goes alright. You are so well equipped for doing these things," and mother stops awhile to watch the young lady manipulate the accordion pleater and the other girl is pounding aways systematically with the pinking iron, cutting the little scallops neatly as she hits the end of the iron with a small hammer.

"Yes." says Mrs. Murphy. "I have an older woman coming in for the holiday work. I want her just to work the button holes, it is so hard on my eyes these gloomy days. Have you seen a picture of the President's prospective bride? And doesn't she wear her hair lovely. Just think, she is only twenty while he is forty-eight." and so on and so on until mother is back in the buggy and father is picking up the lines to start home again.

Many years later that black satin dress was to hang in the wardrobe in the spare bedroom upstairs along with father's frock coat and mother's black alpaca. It was a symbol that the family had finally arrived at a set goal, had left the poverty stricken days of the Civil War behind. Many were the changes the dress underwent until like all things earthly it had served its purpose.

By Bessie Spell Shirk(1951) born Alberta Lee "Bessie" Spell on July 29, 1876 in Mt. Summit, Henry County, Indiana. She was daughter of Mahala Susan Dunbar and Allen Crandall Spell. She married Charles Rosco Shirk on January 4, 1899 in New Castle, Henry County, Indiana. Bessie died on March 24, 1952 in New Castle,Henry County, Indiana.

More Stories of Henry County by Bessie Spell Shirk

THE PIONEERS - Biography of Bessie's gr-grandparents
JOHN WESLEY DUNBAR - Family group sheet of the John Wesley Dunbar family.
BIO OF J.W. DUNBAR - From the History of Henry County, Indiana 1822-1906

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