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Interesting whatever you call them: undergarments, unmentionables

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

After hearing laughter outside the Sophienburg’s collections building, I went inside and sure enough, there were those ladies that I had noticed before having so much fun: Helen Hoffmann, Georgia Banta, Virginia Nowotny, Yvonne Rahe, and Ora Mae Pfeuffer. Remember when they were refolding flour sacks? Well, if you think that was fun, guess what they were refolding this time! Undergarments. Sometimes they were called unmentionables because I guess nobody mentioned them.

These ladies were very eager to show me the collection and so they pulled out more and more boxes. We were literally surrounded by underwear (unmentionables, indescribables, unwhisperables). Although one word for underwear is “indescribable”, I’m going to attempt to do that anyway.

Not in wide use until after 1830, these garments made of cotton for summer and wool for winter were a necessity on the frontier. Wool was actually thought to have therapeutic value. For winter, petticoats were made of heavy flannel and held up with buttons made of bone. A woman’s chemise, a garment for the top part of the body was usually made of inexpensive cotton called muslin. Then there were split drawers or pantaloons made of cotton and decorated on the bottom. Sounds comfortable? Well, think again! They were starched stiff. All the women in the collection room but me knew how to make starch. Where was I when the starch was handed out?

There are a few men’s undergarments in the collection such as union suits, long underwear with the shirt and drawers cut as a single garment, like we saw Gabby Hays wear in the western movies. Of course, he always wore boots and a cowboy hat and he never put in his teeth. We looked in a 1897 Sears catalog and found that one could buy a union suit for 25¢ for men or women. I don’t care how cheap they are, I don’t want any.

There were all sorts of enhansers, like a bustle stuffed with horse hair worn under a skirt to make it poof out in the back and bustiers to make one stick out in front.

What a collection of corsets on Sophie’s hill! Since it is much harder to take away than to add to, these contraptions must have been the work of a genius or a madman. Beauty was no doubt more important than health. There is one corset in that Sears catalog that is advertised as a “health corset”. One thing for sure, you couldn’t slouch. Remember how nice Scarlett O’Hara’s posture was after she was bridled by whalebone in a corset?

Two large boxes revealed the trousseau of Mrs. Martin (Edna) Faust, who was the secretary, director and curator all in one for the Sophienburg. She was there when the Museum opened in 1932 and for the next 30 years devoted her life to the preservation of NB history. The style of the garments indicate that they were of the early 1920 vintage so corsets were gone. Delicately beautiful silk garments, hand decorated with embroidery in an era when almost all women knew how to do handwork. A trousseau, or hope chest, was a collection of linens (not only underwear) that a bride would bring with her to her marriage.

There are many other items related to clothing in the Sophienburg collection. Perhaps the oldest item is a basket of flax, the source of linen, brought from Germany by Mrs. Ernst Gruene in the 1800’s. Flax, the color of burnt steel wool, can be bleached or even dyed. It does not disintegrate the way cotton or wool does. There are also two spinning wheels and six sewing machines, one purchased in 1875 and given by Mrs. Etelka Herbst.

Today, when Victoria has no secrets, and underwear is worn on the outside instead of the inside, it certainly makes one reflect on how clothing has changed. The Sophienburg is looking forward to the day when all of the wonderful items in the collection can be on display for the public to enjoy and learn from.

A look at the J.C. Penney store in 1938. It stands where Scores Sports Bar is today. Two women are recognizable: Elsie Atgeld Schulz and Elsie Mergele Specht.