Artifact Corner: Silk Stockings

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a couple of pairs of silk stocking from the early 1830’s. These stockings belonged to Frances Henrietta Delord Webb, and were likely purchased for her honeymoon to Europe in 1832. We have a pretty definitive date for these stockings, because she left for her honeymoon in 1832, and she passed away from child bed fever in 1834. These stocking are a lovely pink shade, which was very common for women in the early 1830’s. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of silk stockings.

The earliest example of a stocking was discovered in a tomb in Ancient Egypt and is over 2,000 years old. The socks featured a fitted heel and a draw chord at the top, so these were some pretty well constructed garments! All of these early stockings or socks as we would classify them today were obviously made by hand. Most of the stockings and socks were made from wool. Wool is an incredible fabric, because it can keep you warm even if it gets wet. In Northern Europe, where winters can be extremely cold and wet, wool stockings helped get people through the season. Now, while wool is fantastic for the winter, it could be a little too warm for the summers, but people still needed stockings or socks. Silk is also an amazing fabric. It dries quickly, it’s lightweight and breathable, and it’s absorbent. Not to mention the stunning shine that silk fabric has. But, knitting stockings from silk was far more labor intensive than knitting with wool. Because of this, only the uber wealthy could afford them. The first documented person to wear knitted silk stockings was Queen Elizabeth I in 1560. Because each pair were made by hand, the knitter had to know the dimensions of the person’s legs, ankles and feet in order to customize them for the wearer. And because there was no elastic in this period, the stocking were held up with ribbons or garters worn just below the knee.

Silk stockings continued to be very popular amongst the upper classes throughout Europe and North America through the 18th, 19th, and early 20th Centuries. The silk stockings could be made is a myriad of colors from white, yellow, blue, green, black and pink like the ones we have in our collections. They could also be decorated with embroidery on the ankle known as clocking. This embroidery could be done with metallic thread that could pick up candle light during dances and balls as your skirts swished about. The luxury and allure of silk stocking saw it’s decline in 1939, when the DuPont company developed the material nylon. Nylon had many uses, but it’s growth in the market of women’s stockings was stratospheric. DuPont estimates that they sold up to four million pairs of nylon stockings in the United States in a single day! Nylon stockings are cheap, durable and sheer compared to their wool and silk counterparts. Thus, nylon took over the stocking industry, and the expensive silk stockings fell out of favor.

Our silk stocking are in quite good condition, likely because they were not worn very much. Most of the outfits purchased for her honeymoon in Europe were worn very infrequently, and after Frances’ passing, her clothes were put safely away. Because of that, the garments are in very good condition. There are a couple of small stains, but they are pretty minimal. They are a beautiful example of women’s fashions in the early 1830’s and we are so lucky to have them in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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