View Full Version : 1863 Corset Size Question

10-09-2009, 11:41 AM
Richmond Dispatch.
Friday morning...December 11, 1863.

"The Yankee papers publish the letters of Mrs Morgan ordering "black stick pomatum" for the General, No. 4½ slippers for herself, and laughingly observing, upon the receipt of a new dress, that she "was a belle, and could rival the evening dresses of Mrs. McK--," ordering a "No. 21 corset," and so forth. "

No. 21? Big...small?

Carolann Schmitt
10-10-2009, 05:03 PM
No. 21 refers to the waist size of the corset not including an approximate 2" spring in at the back where the corset is laced. In other words, a No. 21 corset is cut to fit someone whose uncorseted waist measurement is approximately 23"-24".

Many years ago the noted costume historian Doris Langley Moore measured several hundred extant garments from the mid-19th century. The average waist measurement of the garments was 26". Adding 2" for spring, it appears an average waist size was 28". Using Ms. Moore's figures, that would place Mrs. Morgan's measurements as smaller than average.

10-10-2009, 10:08 PM
Thank you. I was wondering if the story was a compliment.

10-11-2009, 12:10 PM
Mrs. Schmitt,

Your comments on the average waist size is very interesting. I've never been of the opinion that people were smaller then, likely some were smaller but that was likely due to diet, region, exercise, and genetics. All of the original articles of clothing that I have are smaller at the waist than what we consider small today. My own Mother had a 23 inch waist after her sixth child was born, and before all of her children, had a 17 inch waist. I remember how insulted she was when I told people that she must have been a 25 inch waist!:(
At any rate, my rambling point is that when viewing clothing from 1850-1950 the waists often were smaller than we would find today shopping store racks now. People don't cinch, nor wear heavy foundation garments, basically letting all hang out. I'm not suggesting that everyone was smaller around the waist, that would be impossible to generalize, but that people seemed to have a wider range of size then, than we see today. So far in all my travels, I've only met one young woman who had a 18 inch waist. Consequently, in my view, I doubt that anyone can really tell what the average size was then from existing clothing today.....perhaps there was no average.:confused: It's a tough call.

Carolann Schmitt
10-11-2009, 09:48 PM
Hi, Judith -

I'm not sure I understand your comments. I didn't say Ms. Moore calculated an average waist size by measuring modern mid-20th century clothing - the period when she did her survey. She measured hundreds of original unaltered garments from the mid-19th century. I have no reason to believe that her mathematical calculations are faulty. Her conclusions are based on those results.

The number of garments I've measured is not as large as Ms. Moore's survey and the waist measurements varied widely. However, the average waist measurement of the garments I survey is very close to Ms. Moores: 25.25".

While there are some differences in size, I don't think women's bodies were significantly smaller in the mid-19th century than they are in the early 21st century. However, I do believe their proportions and silhouettes were different. Mid-19th century women wore some sort of supportive foundation garment, e.g. binder, corded stays, lightly-boned corset, more heavily-boned corset, from infancy through adulthood. A body that is continually restricted will adapt and adjust accordingly. My body will make a similar adjustment when I wear a corset all day every day for several days in a row. Unfortunately it soon reverts back to it's usual silhouette when I go back to wearing modern clothing. Supportive and constricting foundation garments are not widely worn today, and our proportions and silhouettes are much different.

However, we're not comparing average waistlines and body shapes between the mid-19th and early 21st centuries. We're discussing the research done by a noted costume historian. Is Doris Langley Moore's conclusion truly representative of the mid-19th century female population at large? I don't know. My research indicates it is within reason. We can speculate all we want; until someone else does an even more comprehensive study Ms. Moore's is one of the few that gives us some indication of an average waist measurement during the mid-19th century.


10-12-2009, 12:30 PM
Mrs. Schmitt,

Please, don't think that I was disagreeing with you, I wasn't. My only point was that from measuring clothing, it's tough to figure what size was then. As we both agree, it's difficult to speculate what "average" was then. Diet, region, genetics, age, exercise, all play factors so when you attempt to figure any average, you'd also have to know a bit about all those other things as well.
Geez, I'd hate to try and attempt what the average size is today.:confused: Let alone trying to attempt it then:D

Carolann Schmitt
10-12-2009, 02:01 PM
Hi, Judith -

If you measure a set of garments, you can determine an average of that set. That's simple mathematics. The more information you have in your survey, e.g extant garments, pattern sizing, production figures, etc., the more accurately that number will reflect what was an average of the population as a whole.

I'm not sure what historians and statisticians consider an adequate percentage to reflect a a larger set - 10%? 20%? 30%? No matter what percentage, it's a bunch of data. :-) However, if your database is large enough, I believe you can calculate a set of measurements that would indicate an average corseted waist size. Modern analysts do this all the time...and get paid handsomely for it.

In any event, Doris Langely Moore's survery is one of the few we have available to us. I've been conducting my own survey to see how it compares. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone else that has a similar survery.


11-02-2009, 10:29 PM
Ms. Judith,

Was your mother a very petite woman? 17" waist? My Goodness!

I remember you, Carolanne, showing us a roll of toiletpaper at Gettysburg and stating that it was 17" around. That is tiny for a waist.

11-03-2009, 12:28 PM
My Mother was 5'2", had a 38DDD bust, 17 waist, and 34 hip and kept a good figure all her life, but I think by the time she died her waist was 23 inches. Looking back at my four aunts, and twelve great-aunts, all kept good thin figures very close to what my Mother had.;)
Who knows, perhaps this is why I loved my Barbie doll, the doll looked so much like my family relatives.