Today’s Vocabulary Word Is …Posted: March 26, 2014
… Peter Thompson.
Which is a dress as well as a guy’s name, as you can see in this picture from a turn-of-the century newspaper ad. I recently encountered it in a novel I was re-reading, in which a 13-year-old girl, circa 1910, waxes philosophical about fashion:
“Clean and neat is all my mother asks, and it’s all I’m willing to give. Time enough to discard my Peter Thompson and get myself up as the queen of the May when there’s a king in sight.”
The kid had a point, and a Peter Thompson was a good way to make it. This was an enormously popular mode of children’s dress that translated either into sailor suits (for boys) or dresses (for girls). I am still trying to find a reference that will tell me who Peter Thompson was, exactly, but if you’re interested in a closer look at how these dresses worked, check out these directions from a turn-of-the-century sewing book on how to make them, including steps like soaking your material in salt water to set the color.
If you’re interested in fin de siecle New York City in general, you ‘d also enjoy the book I was reading: The Best of Families (1970) by Ellin Mackay Berlin, who was famous to a lot of people for being Mrs. Irving Berlin, but who also was a very good writer.The Best of Families is about New Yorkers who worshipped Episcopal, sent their daughters to Spence and their sons to Groton, and never met a peccadillo they couldn’t ignore, as long as the perpetrator was well-bred and discreet.
In writing it, Ellin Berlin — a millionaire’s debutante daughter whose marriage to a Tin Pan Alley songwriter was a 1920s sensation — clearly drew upon her own memories of silver-spoon life. The novel is full of the wistfulness that suffuses memories of vanished, specific things: “trolley cars and the ferry to New Jersey and the wonderful, fast, rattling ride on the Elevated; Little Nemo and Buster Brown and his faithful dog, Tige … high-button shoes and white kid gloves so tight that each finger must be laboriously worked into its separate, stiff compartment, and the wooden stick on which even naturally wavy hair was harshly twisted into sausage curls.”
And Peter Thompsons, too. Worth knowing about, if you find an old family letter mentioning one. Your great-great-aunt might have been talking about an old dress, not an old beau.