The Fourth of July tends to draw our attention to that stalwart group of well-dressed, reasonably affluent, extraordinary men who crafted a document that began what one historian later called the "Age of Democratic Revolution."
We call it the Declaration of Independence.
Contrasting with the wigs and waistcoats of the Founding Fathers, we often retain an image of the people who were living on the edge of the frontier in those days as people who never bathed, dressed in the same clothes year-round and were uncouth to boot. Neither set of images is entirely accurate.
I will leave it to others to dwell on the clothing disparities of the founders of our country. In this column, we will focus on the fashions of the people who were the original pioneer settlers of central Ohio -- and dispel a few myths.
Pioneer people did bathe with relative frequency. Rivers and streams in those days were clear and clean and as tempting to people then as they are now on a hot day. In addition, people did have more than one change of clothes and were wont to change them when they got dirty. As for uncouth, suffice to say couth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Frontier Franklinton was laid out by pioneer surveyor Lucas Sullivant in 1797 at the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers. The town grew slowly at first but was a bustling village of several hundred people by the beginning of the War of 1812. Some of the early residents came from families of "property and standing" and arrived in Ohio with clothes and furnishings befitting their background. Many others were from families of modest means who had been following the moving frontier for more than a couple of generations.
What these people came to share was an understanding that if they had not been far from the markets of colonial America before, they certainly were now. The clothing they commonly wore was a reflection of what was available in their world.
An account written more than a century ago described what these people wore:
"Eastern fabrics were so scarce and expensive as to be beyond the reach of most of the settlers. Deerskin, flax and the fiber of the nettle were therefore used in the fireside manufacture of materials for clothing. By the mixture of flax and wool, when wool could be obtained, a coarse cloth was made called linsey-woolsey. 'Sheep's gray' was a compound of the wool of black sheep and white. The spinning wheel, kept constantly going, furnished the yard from which woolen and linen cloths were woven.
"Deer hides were first thoroughly soaked in the nearest running stream, then scraped and dried. They were next tramped in a leathern bag filled with water mingled with the brains of wild animals. After each tramping, the hides were thoroughly wrung out. To keep them soft they were sometimes smoked. Finally, they were colored with ochre, rubbed in with pumice. A single family would sometimes dress as many as a hundred deerskins in this way, in the course of the winter. To manufacture the buckskin thus produced into gloves, moccasins and other articles of clothing, furnished useful occupation for many a leisure hour in the wilderness solitudes.
"A buckskin suit over a flax shirt was considered full dress for a man. The outside masculine garment was a hunting shirt, with a cape around the shoulders and a skirt nearly to the knees, the front open, with heavy foldings, on the chest, and the whole fringed and belted. Trousers of heavy cloth or deerskin were worn or, in lieu of them, deerskin leggings. Women who were so fortunate as to have shoes, saved them for Sunday use, and carried them on the way to church until they neared the 'meetinghouse,' when they sat down on a log to draw them on. The men went barefoot, or wore moccasins. Their buckskin clothes were very comfortable when dry, but just the reverse when wet. Hats and caps were made of native furs."
What the author does not mention is that buckskin stretches when it is wet and tends to contract as it dries. Uncomfortable is one word for what this can be when wearing it. The account continues:
"A typical belle of the wilderness has been thus described: 'A smiling face, fresh but dark, a full head of smoothly combed hair tied up behind in a twist knot; a dress made of seven yards of linsey-woolsey, closely fits the natural form and reaches to within six inches of the floor. It is fancifully and uniquely striped with copperas, butternut and indigo, alternating. The belt is made of homespun but colored with imported dye, and a row of buttons down the back is also set on a bright stripe. Heavy cowhide shoes conceal substantial feet and shapely ankles.' "
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.