Miss Dorsey's Duster

Norah Worthington, Fashion Archives Intern, Summer 2018

One of the strengths of the Fashion Archives at the Maryland Historical Society is that you can find almost anything there. There are hats and fans, tailcoats and wedding dresses of every era, ball gowns and uniforms. Whatever kind of clothing you might want to study can be found in the collection. It is the story behind the pieces however that really bring the clothing to life.

Sometimes a workaday garment can be a window to an unexpected story. Miss Dorsey's duster was just such a find.

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Man's Linen Duster, circa 1900, linen, plastic, Maryland Historical Society,Gift of Mrs. James Hooper Dorsey

The linen jacket looked older than 20th century, more like a steam punk lab coat than anything else. It buttoned like a man's coat, left over right, with a breast pocket and side pockets, center back vent. It all seemed pretty run of the mill, until the extreme mending on the jacket became apparent.  The darning on the body and sleeves was careful and thorough. Whoever wore it, wore it well.

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Detail of front and back collar mending 
Man's Linen Duster, circa 1900, linen, plastic, Maryland Historical Society,Gift of Mrs. James Hooper Dorsey

 

Was this some Civil War doctor's jacket that saw hard field use? Some starving student doing lab work at Hopkins University or Hospital?

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Detail of sleeve mending 
Man's Linen Duster, circa 1900, linen, plastic, Maryland Historical Society,Gift of Mrs. James Hooper Dorsey

The Maryland Historical Society ledger detailing of the gift reads "Linen duster of Miss Sallie Webster Dorsey, State Librarian under Governor Goldsborough, circa 1900." Gov. Goldsborough served as 47th governor of Maryland from 1912-1916. He was also the Comptroller of the Treasury from 1898-1900. So, the duster came with Miss Dorsey to the job some 14 years later. Who was this woman, and what did it mean to be State Librarian?

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image from Find A Grave Memorial 70295243. Reprinted in John William Leonard's "Woman's Who's Who of America 1914-1915" New York, The American Commonwealth Co. p.254

Miss Sallie Webster Dorsey appears in the "Woman's Who's Who of America 1914-1915." In her entry, her gold medal for composition at private school in Baltimore foreshadows her contributions to the Maryland press, including the Baltimore American, and Dorchester County newspapers[1]. She was one of the original members of the Women's Literary Club of Baltimore and was active in the DAR and Women's Club of Cambridge. The article also mentions her charity work, and interest in the Old Trinity Church in the Dorchester County parish.

As  a member of an old Baltimore family, she shows up in the Baltimore Sun newspaper social pages, noted in 1886 as wearing "white satin" [2], but by the new century, she was much more known for her public service. February 1, 1912, the Sun reports  she was the best-endorsed applicant, (as well as a "close friend of the governor and his family") and would be paid $1500 per year. "Miss Dorsey was summoned to the executive office this morning, and when she came out her face was wreathed in smiles. She called out to several friends 'I have got it! I have got it! Isn't it grand?'" It was noted that appointing a woman to the position had been the practice for several years[3]. In spring of 1912, she was sent by the governor to the Southern Sociological Congress and during World War I she was a member of the state's Council of Defense.

So what was the glamorous job of State Librarian like? The Library at the time was located in the Court of Appeals building across from the State House in Annapolis. The collection was 75% legal matters, mostly for the use of the legislators. In the other 25% of the collection were books of general reference, including a complete set of John James Audubon's "Birds of America"-  a collection begun in 1833, directly from Mr. Audubon himself. In 1914, Miss Webster writes in the National Associations of State Libraries that "nothing of special note occurred the past year" except the printing of vol 33. of the Maryland Archives by the Maryland Historical Society, the"custodian of the colonial and revolutionary records of the state"[4].

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Photograph from "Maryland State Library Evokes Images Out of the Past" by Earl Arnett, Baltimore Sun, October 15, 1969.

One part of Miss Dorsey's  report to the American Library Association of the same year strikes an all too familiar note for this summer's Maryland Historical Society Fashion Archive interns; she reports "Owing to congestion... an entire floor of steel casings, containing shelving, has been installed in the library. During the summer a thorough reorganization will take place and a general shifting of books will be made, so as to relieve the congestion and better facilitate the general work of the library"[5].

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Sounds like the kind of work requiring a linen duster.

Thank you for additional research from Julie Saylor, Library Associate II, Maryland Department, Enoch Pratt Free Library, State Library Resource Center

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References

[1] John William Leonard, "Woman's Who's Who of America 1914-1915" New York, The American Commonwealth Co. p.254

[2] Baltimore Sun, January 26, 1886. "Some of the Dresses: The Beautiful Gowns and Brilliant Ornaments Worn by the Ladies"

[3] Baltimore Sun, February 1, 1912.

[4] National Association of State Libraries, Proceedings and Addresses vol.17, The Association 1914.

[5]American Library Association, Conference, 1914, p.314

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Blue Linen Shirt, linen, plastic, private collection of the author