The connection between a dress dated to the 1820s and its original owner can be elusive. Yet the unique form and material of the dress still give some indication about the woman who would have worn it. There are three facts that I had to work with: a Mrs. J.T. Hickman donated the dress, it was given in 1987, and it is listed as a Quaker dress. The lack of information and full names makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact donor of this dress and their history. But with the historical context and information that Mrs. Hickman’s grandmother may have owned the dress, a possible story of a woman’s life can be constructed.
In order to properly understand the possible donor and wearer of the plum dress, we must first become familiar with Quaker history. The Quakers, otherwise known as the Religious Society of Friends, were founded in England by George Fox (Robinson). It is a protestant denomination that emphasized the “inward light” or a direct connection to God (Robinson). They also focused on the equality of all people, despite their skin color or gender. Quaker persecution in England caused many to emigrate to the United States and also created the popular name “Quaker,” which was used to make fun of the quaking motions they made when praying (Robinson). One of the most well-known Quakers is the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn. Penn’s colony was known for religious tolerance in general (Robinson). Quaker government in the United States was considered decidedly liberal and the people of the religion were grounded pacifists who refused to participate in or fund any war action (“Quakers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey”). The tendencies toward equality explain the Quaker participation in the abolition and women’s rights movements at the forefront of change. There were also several schisms in the church in the 1800s. The first was led by Elias Hicks and the split was caused by his de-emphasis of anything but the inner light (Robinson). Many of these dissenters moved to the Midwest after the schism (Jones Lapsansky 33).
Our donor’s family enters the picture within this Quaker context. Hickman is an unfortunately common name in the United States and becomes hard to trace with only two initials. The immigration map on Ancestry.com shows a possible history of the name in Quaker history, as it was common in Pennsylvania in the 1840s, where Penn popularized the Religious Society of Friends in early America. There is also a trend toward Midwestern immigration, specifically into Kansas, which is where the Hickmans likely lived in order to donate the dress to Kansas State University. In exploring Ancestry.com, there are several J.T. Hickmans that seem promising. The most promising comes from a record in Manhattan, Kansas, of graves in Sunset Cemetery. Buried there is a James T Hickman and his wife Jossie B. Jossie B Hickman could very well be our donor, because, despite her death in 1955, she had two children who could have donated the dress in her name. This gravesite is made even more important because the plot is owned by a Mr. J.S. Hughes, whose wife donated objects along with Mrs. J.T. Hickman. These results are promising as the first generation, but it is difficult to find records beyond these gravesites. Because Mrs. Hickman mentions that her grandmother wore the dress, it is necessary to explore one generation deeper. In using FamilySearch, a woman named Mary Hickman seems like a promising match for several reasons. She is married to a John Hickman, her son is named John Hickman Jr., she was born in 1869, and her father was born in Pennsylvania, which creates a possible connection to Quakerism. It must be emphasized that Mary’s connection to the donor is complete speculation. There is no solid way to confirm if John Hickman Jr. is the father of James T. Hickman, but the dates that these people lived allow them to be good examples of the life of a Midwestern Quaker.
We know that Mrs. Hickman would be unrelated by blood to Mary Hickman even if Mary was James Hickman’s grandmother. However, it is very likely that Mary Hickman was also a Quaker and could be an accurate parallel to the unknown maiden grandmother. Quakers of the eighteenth century emphasized marriage to those within the Quaker religion (Jones Lapsansky 25). This tenet makes it very likely that J.T. Hickman and his family would also be Quakers. Mary Hickman lived in Missouri, which was possibly because of the schism among Quakers in 1927-28 (“A Brief History of the Branches of Friends”). Mary Hickman’s mother and father could have easily been part of this immigration, as her father was born in Pennsylvania but Mary was born in Missouri. Even if Mary wore the Quaker dress early in her life, it is also likely she inherited it from her mother, as the dress is dated to the 1820s and 1830s, and has obviously been repaired and altered with extra cotton cloth. If Mary’s mother wore this dress in her youth and moved to Missouri, she could have been involved with the Bleeding Kansas time period. The PBS article states, “Eli Thayer organized the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which sent settlers to Kansas to secure it as a free territory” (“Bleeding Kansas”). Quakers were heavily associated with the abolitionist movement, and friends and family of Mary’s mother could have moved to Kansas in order to fight for the end of slavery. It is also likely that the immigration of the Hickman family was influenced by Manifest Destiny, which was in full swing prior to the Civil War. Women’s rights would have also been an issue that Mary could have been involved with. Lucretia Mott, one of the founders of the women’s rights movement, created her most influential works between 1921 and 1968 (Unger). She started in abolition and quickly moved to women’s rights, which may have been a path that Mary Hickman and her mother shared, as the Friends allowed women to minister and have a space to speak and express themselves (“Rights of Women”). When Mary wore the plum Quaker dress, the religion’s pointed display of women’s equality may indicate that the dress’s restriction of movement is more related to the plain dress of the Quaker rather than restrictions on women in the religion. This is especially true when we note the extra details on the dress, like the 30 pleats on each sleeve and the small lace decoration on the waist. Both of these decorations would be considered rebellious to Quaker ideology because they go against the disapproval of adornment (Jones Lapansky 2). While the expensive material and dye creates a show of wealth generally approved by Quakers because of its subtlety, the extra accents emphasize a rebellious quality against both the restrictive religion and the ideas of what a woman should be and wear at the time.
The Subversion of Gender Restrictions Among Quaker Women
It is not hard to miss the numerous moments of speculation involved in trying to construct the life of the women who wore the plum Quaker dress. The difficulties faced by a researcher emphasize the erasure of women in records and history in the nineteenth century and today. Mrs. J.T. Hickman was recorded as a donor in the common method of using her husband’s name and surname as her own. This style of recordkeeping makes it hard to find out Mrs. Hickman’s actual name and information about her. The patriarchal method of taking a husband’s last name also erases the involvement of women because it makes finding a woman’s maiden name difficult. Unless a marriage license is present, the woman’s maiden name, and, effectively, her life before marriage, is erased. These patriarchal structures are what made Mrs. J.T. Hickman extremely difficult to pin down from her donation record. It is a bitter irony to have her life erased when her Quaker lifestyle would have emphasized women’s importance and equality. Yet there is a glimmer of hope when examining the surprising elements of the dress. The likelihood that Mrs. Hickman was involved in the women’s rights movement is high, as she could easily follow the example of the many Quaker women involved, from Susan B. Anthony to Mary Ann M’Clintock. If her life was restrictive at home because of nineteenth century ideals, her dress shows rebellion in its own way with disapproved embellishment and a display of wealth. Mrs. Hickman may have been erased from records in the typical way for a woman of her time, but the existence of her dress creates a narrative she never got to tell, one of revolution and taking back control in whatever way she could.