Laura J. Ping was a 2021-22 Diamonstein-Spielvogel Fellow at The New York Public Library. Ping earned her PhD from The Graduate Center, CUNY in 2018 with a focus on American history and a minor in women’s history. Ping’s current book manuscript, Beyond Bloomers: Fashioning Dress in Nineteenth-Century America analyzes the cultural and political impact of women’s clothing and dress reform during the long 19th century (1789-1914). Ping’s article based on this research, “A Tale of Two Bloomer Costumes: What Mary Stickney’s and Meriva Carpenter’s Bloomers Reveal about Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform,” was published in Dress in 2021 and she is currently writing a co-authored biography of education reformer Catharine Beecher, which is forthcoming from Routledge Press.
The Smith family papers are housed in the Manuscripts and Archives Division at The New York Public Library. The most well-known member of the Smith family was the abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who is remembered as being one of the “Secret Six,” a group of men who anonymously funded John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Among historians, we also joke that Smith’s papers are notable because his handwriting is so difficult to read. But I wasn’t in the Library to look at Gerrit Smith’s writings. Instead, I was there to see those of his daughter Elizabeth Smith Miller.
Miller is best known for having introduced Amelia Bloomer to the short dress and Turkish Trousers that would become the uniform of the dress reform movement and popularly known as the bloomer costume. Bloomer always credited Miller with being her source for the bloomer costume design. Miller’s father, Gerrit Smith, was also passionate about women’s dress reform. Yet for Elizabeth Smith Miller dress reform was a brief phase within her reform work. By her own admission, she wore the bloomer costume for several years and then abandoned it because she missed beautiful clothing. She likely would have described herself primarily as a suffragist. Yet, Miller’s name is inexorably tied to dress reform.
In my research on the dress reform movement, Elizabeth Smith Miller has been a shadow. There is no archival collection in her name; her papers are cataloged under her father’s name. She is well known for her role in inspiring dress reform, but few of her writings mention the movement let alone how she felt about being credited as its founder. Did the dress reform movement play a role in Miller’s later life? Or was she content to let it be part of her past? My search for answers to these questions led me to the Smith family papers at The New York Public Library.
Most of Miller’s correspondence in this collection was written to her rather than by her. Among these letters, the correspondence of S.W. Green stands out. S.W. Green was Samuel Worcester Green. His career had been as a printer, one half of the firm John A. Gray and Green Printers. He was also a childhood friend of Elizabeth Smith Miller.
Green’s letters to Miller were written when the two were elderly. Some of their correspondence reflects this stage of life. They discussed the afterlife and loved ones who had passed. Based on a letter in which Green quoted Miller’s correspondence to him prior to answering, she had asked, “Shall we meet [deceased relatives] again? What do you think?” Green replied practically, citing science, and explaining “All the analogies seem to me to point to a negative answer.” Yet Green was sentimental in other ways. He shared memories of Miller’s parents and described his children's and grandchildren’s lives. These letters provided insight into a relationship based on reminiscences, but they captured my interest for another reason. Samuel Green wrote his letters on Jenness Miller Monthly letterhead.
The Jenness-Miller Monthly was an American magazine dedicated to dress reform. Its editor Annie Jenness-Miller had designed her own system of reform clothing based on the loose-fitting underwear—known as sanitary or hygienic underwear—promoted by the American health reform movement and the flowing gowns of Europe’s aesthetic movement. Despite having the same married name, Elizabeth Smith Miller and Annie Jenness-Miller were not related. It is unclear if Elizabeth Smith Miller knew of Jenness-Miller or her system of dress reform, although it was advertised in health and fashion periodicals. Samuel Green would have been familiar with the magazine, however. His son William’s firm printed the magazine.
What does it mean that Samuel Green wrote letters to one dress reformer on another dress reformer’s letterhead? Or that his son’s business printed a well-known dress reform periodical? Superficially, nothing. Green neither asked Elizabeth Smith Miller about dress reform nor referenced it in his letters to her. The closest he came was an 1896 letter in which he explained why his stationary had changed. “I am back in Will’s printing office again, as you may notice by the heading of the sheet,” he wrote. “He (Will) sold the Jenness-Miller Monthly, and I am here.” And yet, it seems unlikely that two dress reformers of different ages and living in different parts of New York would have an acquaintance in common. The key to understanding the link may be in the reform affiliations of Green and his family.
Samuel Green’s father, Beriah Green, was the second president of the Oneida Institute. While this school was a short-lived antebellum institution, it was influential in training abolitionists. Under Green’s supervision, the school began admitting Black students in 1833. Gerrit Smith was one of the school’s donors, which is presumably how the families knew one another. Samuel Green also seemingly shared his father’s anti-slavery politics. The New York Public Library’s collection reveals that his firm, J.A. Gray and Green, printed anti-slavery literature and sermons. They were also the firm that printed Susan B. Anthony’s newspaper, The Revolution. It seems likely that Green was reform-minded if not a social reformer, himself.
William Green is more of a mystery. Unlike his father’s firm, there aren’t records referencing the types of documents his business printed. He was, however, involved in protecting the interests of printers and their trade. In 1898 he was listed as the chairman of the Typothetae Committee, the national association of master printers. By 1918 he was the organization’s vice president. Other records show that he was a director of the New York Printers and Bookbinders Mutual Insurance Company. William Green’s interests in the business of printing are clear, but his link to women’s rights is vague. This suggests that printing the Jenness Miller Magazine was simply part of his business and not a reflection of his personal politics.
Thus, Samuel Green’s use of Jenness Miller Monthly letterhead in writing to Elizabeth Smith Miller appears to be a coincidence. However, it is no coincidence that as the children of abolitionists both Green and Miller were involved with social reform as adults. Perhaps this legacy of reform influenced William Green’s business as well. A stronger conclusion can be drawn, however, from the lack of information about dress reform in Samuel Green’s letters to Elizabeth Smith Miller. The lack of reference to the dress reform letterhead on which Green wrote his letters reinforces what other written sources imply; Miller was not actively engaged with the movement with which she is most associated. Her feelings about the evolution of the dress reform movement, however, remain a mystery.
1. It is likely that Miller based the short dress and trousers on either the clothing worn by female members of the Oneida Community or water-cure reformers. She also specifically identifies her style of trousers as Turkish Trousers, a style based on Ottoman women’s clothing and worn in the United States and Great Britain. Miller may have been familiar with the style through masquerade balls, or she may have read 1849 newspaper coverage describing the scandal caused by the actress Fanny Kemble when she wore Turkish Trousers in public. Amelia Bloomer published an article on Kemble and her clothing in The Lily.
2. Elizabeth Smith Miller, undated letter, Smith family papers, Folder: Misc., Box 2. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
3. The Library of Congress has digitized the suffrage scrapbooks kept by Miller and her daughter, Ann Fitzhugh Miller.
4. S.W. Green to Elizabeth Smith Miller, April 12, 1895, Smith family papers, Folder: Letters 1895, Box 2. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
5. S.W. Green to Elizabeth Smith Miller, May 16, 1896, Smith family papers, Folder: Letters 1896-1897, Box 2. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
6. The Printer and Bookmaker, vol. xxvii, no. 1 (September 1898), 285.
7. Typothetae Bulletin United Typothetae of America (Indianapolis: United Typothetae of America School of Printing, 1918), 8.
8. Documents of the Senate of the State of New York, vol. XX, No., 33, Part 5 (Albany: J.B. Lyon & Co., 1916), 682.