Happily Ever After: 1858

If you regularly keep up with the History Museum’s Instagram account or on Facebook, you may have noticed that we have recently installed a new exhibit, which opened on June 3rd.  Titled ‘Happily Ever After,’ museum’s curator Ashley Webb has scoured through the museum’s collection to find a number of wedding related lovelies: dresses, tuxes, veils, shoes, cake toppers, and much more.  Once a week, she’ll be joining us with an in depth look at some of the magnificent items in the exhibition.  Today, she’ll be introducing us to one of our earlier dresses, and possibly one of the more colorful ones: an antebellum wedding dress from 1858.


It’s not often a small institution such as the History Museum can say they have textiles from before the Civil War.  Just like historic homes, early textiles are a rare sight.  Because they were worn often and washing was a laborious and harsh process- historic costumes don’t often survive.  Usually after a very short lifespan, clothes ripped or suffered irreparable damage to be tossed or re-purposed for rags.  If an outfit did survive the life its owner, they sat in attics or basements quickly deteriorating from being exposed to the elements of light, temperature, humidity, and insects.  Sometimes they were lost in a move or forgotten.

This is exactly what happened with this 1858 red and black silk wedding dress.  Donors Melissa Kloss Barnhart and Bridget Gale Barnhart Opazo found this in Helen Gale Kloss’s attic with the note ‘grandmother’s wedding dress’ attached to the box.  While showing minor symptoms of wear and tear, along with silk shattering in a number of high stress areas, this dress is in great condition for its age.  Some areas are more precarious than others, which is to be expected, as the construction of many older dresses use heavy material to maintain the desired silhouette of the time.

Melissa Adeline Spalding, daughter of Warren and Statira (Barr) Spalding, wore this dress at her marriage to Edmond Escourt Wilkins Gale.  Both Melissa and Edmond were residents of New York, with Edmond immigrating with his father to the US in 1847.  Most likely a day wedding, the ceremony took place in Melissa’s New York home.




While there are many styles of dresses throughout the 1850s and 1860s, they generally fall within two categories: day dresses and evening dresses.  Large hoop skirts and tight corsets reigned, hoping to accentuate the waist.  Evening dresses prior to and during the civil war employed off the shoulder, scooped necklines, with lots of frills and flounces.  The only frill on this dress is the lace at the cuff of the sleeves.  Alternatively, day dresses covered the body, with conservative necklines and bright patterns.

Although Melissa’s dress is made of dyed silk, a new and relatively expensive commodity in 1858, Melissa’s family was probably not extremely wealthy.  While the dress is fancier, it shows several areas of mending, suggesting it was worn on several occasions after the wedding.  A large horizontal rent mars the front of the skirt, about 8 inches below the waist.  It was stitched together inexpertly, and clashes with the vertical stripes of the fabric.

The buttons lining the front of the dress are made of a polished jet, which was often used in mourning jewelry throughout the second half of the 1800s.  These buttons add yet another element of beauty to this striking dress.


The sleeves, known as pagoda style, extend outward at the elbow, allowing for a low sloping shoulder line, and a fitted contour at the upper arm.  Both of these also attracted the eye to the wearer’s waist, accentuating the created space between the upper arm and triangle shape of the upper body.  Extra fabric, usually of silk, lace, or alight wool was worn under the pagoda sleeve: the fuller the sleeve, the fuller the undersleeve. These undersleeves created the bell shape and allowed the sleeves to puff outward.


cage crinoline

Cage crinoline from the 1850s


Another reason I believe this dress was worn more than once is because of the channel sewn into the lower half of the lining of the skirt itself.  Instead of wearing a cage crinoline

made of light fabric and several yards of steel boning, Melissa slid the boning straight into the channel attached to the dress, thereby making the wearer more comfortable during the hot summer months.  This would provide some shape to the skirt without the extra material!



The darker diagonal line is the channel sewn directly onto the lining of the dress.

While this dress is not as stunning as Scarlett O’Hara’s similarly striped dress in Gone with the Wind, it certainly would stand out in a crowd!



Our friends at Chocolate Paper sponsored this dress, and it will be the History Museum’s entry into the 2016 Virginia Association of Museum’s Endangered Artifacts, so stayed tuned for voting information!



Thank you to our sponsors of ‘Happily Ever After’ 

Melissa Kloss Barnhart          Sue Collins            Mr. and Mrs. William Gearhart Jr.

Dr. Nelson and Brenda Greene          Ann Drew Gibbons & Sarah Gibbons Kohler

Mrs. James G. Hull          Betty Hundley          Joseph D. Logan III and Laura B. Logan

Carolyn Ratcliffe & Judy Austin     Mr. and Mrs. Charles Morgan     Harry and Natalie Norris




2 thoughts on “Happily Ever After: 1858

  1. Pingback: Happily Ever After: 1918 | The History Museum of Western Virginia

  2. Pingback: Happily Ever After: 1950 | The History Museum of Western Virginia

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