Jennie Megquier — Sewing in San Francisco

Jennie Megquier’s letters from Gold Rush San Francisco record a few interesting notes about clothing. In November 1849 she wrote:

I have starched twenty shirts this evening. I tell you this to give you an idea of the amount of work I have to do. Uncle has given me a whole piece of calico, one of de laine, one balererine. I shall make it all into broad aprons as I cannot get time to make a dress and when they get dirty throw them away that is the order of the day in this rich country.

Calico is a plain weave cotton fabric, and delaine was a lightweight wool fabric with a print. What balererine is I have no idea. It isn’t in any online fabric dictionary, like this one or this. Delaine is the sort of fabric that Jennie would have ordinarily used to make a nice dress, not aprons.

Uncle had some washing done for which they charged six dollars a dozen, they looked so bad, he gave them two dollars to keep them.

Which sounds like a joke, but that’s what Jennie wrote.

A fashion plate from Godey's Lady's Book 1853.

A fashion plate from Godey’s Lady’s Book 1853.

Later she had more time to sew, and in 1853 wrote:

I was in at Mrs. Calkins today, all well, she and Mrs. Davis are making dresses all the while, I presume they have twenty five in a year, a silk dress lasts but two months at the best. I know not why but everything goes to destruction in a very short time here. . . . I have been making me a brown silk, and next week I am going to make a black one, today I have been making a pink thibet sack trimmed with velvet ribbon but I am sure I do not know when I will wear it.

Thibet was another fine woolen cloth used for making dresses. By a “sack” she probably meant a free-hanging dress with a loose waist.

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Chickens at Rancho Chico

In going through the John Bidwell Papers at the California State Library I came across this note from Edward Shackelford Darlington, a young man who briefly worked for John Bidwell in 1851. He is writing from Sam Neal’s Ranch, just south of Rancho Chico, to remind Bidwell to give the chickens water — just the sort of instruction that nowadays would be communicated by cell phone or email.

Letter courtesy California State Library, John Bidwell Papers.

Letter courtesy California State Library, John Bidwell Papers.

Darlington, who was only 19 or 20, can’t resist spoofing the etiquette of 19th century letters. It looks like something Mark Twain would write.

Here is the text, but the bare text cannot do justice to Darlington’s courtesy and flourishes.

Neal’s Oct. 24th [1851]


I neglected to tell you to have water placed in the chicken coop – also in the small pans around the house. This is absolutely necessary for the preservation of the health of the feathered tribe. – By complying with the requests herein named you will much oblige

Yours very respectfully

with great regard

Your obt servant

in great haste etc.

E. Shackelford Darlington

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How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm

. . . after they’ve seen San Francisco?

It didn’t take long for San Francisco to work her magic on Jennie Megquier. She wrote about the folks at home in Maine, “I have seen so much of things a little more exciting that I fear I shall never feel perfectly satisfied with their quiet ways again.” Then she drew this word-picture for her daughter:

Here you can step out of your house and see the whole world spread out before you in every shape and form. Your ears are filled with the most delightful music, your eyes are dazzled with everything that is beautiful, the streets are crowded the whole city are in the street. We have near us a splendid ice cream saloon which surpasses anything I have seen in the states, very large windows with magnificent buff silk damask curtains with lace like those that Newhall Sturtevant boasts so much of, two large rooms are connected by an arch hung with the same material, marble tables, floors and counters and as light as day at all hours of the night. The homeliest man in the city treated me to an ice cream there a few nights since at one dollar a glass.

icecreamparlorWinthrop Maine had nothing to compare with the ice cream parlors of San Francisco!

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A Woman’s Work Is Never Done

SIL7-89-01, 4/22/03, 4:14 PM,  8C, 3724x5398 (1956+864), 100%, A.I. Basic,  1/60 s, R46.5, G33.3, B47.8

SIL7-89-01, 4/22/03, 4:14 PM, 8C, 3724×5398 (1956+864), 100%, A.I. Basic, 1/60 s, R46.5, G33.3, B47.8

Jennie Megquier ran a boarding house in San Francisco, and the work was never-ending. She writes:

I should like to give you an account of my work if I could do it justice. . . In the morning the boy gets up and makes a fire by seven o’clock when I get up and make the coffee, then I make the biscuit, then I fry the potatoes then broil three pounds of steak, and as much liver, while the woman is sweeping, and setting the table, at eight the bell rings and they are eating until nine.

I do not sit until they are nearly all done. I try to keep the food warm and in shape as we put it on in small quantities. After breakfast I bake six loaves of bread (not very big) then four pies, or a pudding, then we have lamb, for which we have paid nine dollars a quarter, beef, and pork, baked, turnips, beets, potatoes, radishes, salad, and that everlasting soup, every day dine at two.

For tea we have hash, cold meat, bread and butter, sauce and some kind of cake and I have cooked every mouthful that has been eaten excepting one day and a half that we were on a steamboat excursion.

I make six beds every day and do the washing and ironing you must think that I am very busy and when I dance all night [she loved to go to dances] I am obliged to trot all day and if I have not the constitution of six horses I should have been dead long ago, but I am going to give up in the fall whether or no, as I am sick and tired of work.

She also sewed all her own clothes, but more of that later.

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More from Jennie Megquier

The Megquiers shipped a “portable iron house” to San Francisco, figuring it would be a good investment in a city where people were living in shacks and tents, and indeed it was. They used the ground floor for a store, and rented out the upper floor for offices.

We have a fine store which is now nearly completed, the upper part will rent for one thousand per month a pretty little fortune of itself if rents continue as they are now, but it is doubtful. Our motto is to make hay while the sun shines, we intend to sell the first good offer and return forthwith, although there are many things here that are better than the states yet I cannot think of staying from my chickens [her children] a long time, and it is not just the place for them at present, no schools, churches in abundance but you can do as you please about attending, it is all the same whether you go to church or play monte, that is why I like, you very well know that I am a worshipper at the shrine of liberty.

Jennie had chafed under the day-long church services back home in Maine, where her father was a deacon in the Baptist church. She didn’t miss that at all.

The land is very rich would yield an abundance if it was cultivated, but no one can wait for vegetables to grow to realize a fortune, potatoes are twenty cents a pound, beets one dollar and seventy-five cents a piece, tomatoes, dollar a pound but we have them for dinner notwithstanding, we have made more money since we have been here than we should make in Winthrop in twenty years, the Dr often makes his fifty dollars, a day in his practice, then we have boarders to pay our house rent, they make great profits on their drugs [Dr. Megquier and his partner].

To show you some of the profits on retail, the Dr bought a half barrel of pickle in salt, after soaking them I put up fourteen quart bottles, sold them for six dollars more than we gave for the whole, which still left me the same bulk I had at first.

Prices were fascinatingly high — everyone talked about the prices. The money came in fast, but it went out fast as well. Jennie was sure that she would go home with “an apron full of gold,” but that would take longer than she expected.

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Mary Jane Megquier in San Francisco

Mary Jane, known as Jennie, arrived in San Francisco on June 13, 1849. Her husband, Thomas Megquier, was a medical doctor and planned to practice medicine and open a drug store. Jennie knew she could make money running a boarding house, if she could just get a house. (Their name, by the way, was pronounced “Me-gweer.”)

. . . you may bless your stars [she wrote to her daughter] that you are not here at present, report says there are six thousand people here that have no shelter, but some are going and coming from the mines, so we got a small room the size of my bedroom in Winthrop for five of us with our luggage, your Father and me lie on a single mattress on the floor with one small pillow. Col. Hagen, wife, and little girl lie on a hard mattress on the bedstead  . . .

. . . some kind of provision are cheap as in the states such as beef pork flour, but vegetables are enormously high . . .We have been here three days and have had nothing to eat but beef, pickled fish, and poor flour bread.

. . . money is plenty as dirt if you have any means of getting hold of it, but we have not been here long enough to tell whether we can make anything or not, but if your Father can get practice there will be no doubt but we can get money enough in a year or two to come home, there is seven million dollars in gold dust in this little place besides thousands of coined money . . .

Jennie would soon find how to make her own way in San Francisco, where, as she wrote:

everyone must do something, it matters but very little what it is, if they stick to it, they are bound to make money.

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Chico’s 4th of July

cropped-imgp8959.jpgHow did 19th century Chicoans celebrate Independence Day? Here’s an entry from John Bidwell’s diary for 1876 that will give you a glimpse:

Tues. July 4
Warm, very – no wind. = Bells rang & cannon & anvils roared all last night – Celebration went off well – good oration by Rev. Mr Dickerman – Fireworks & ball in evening.

An oration by a public figure or clergyman was a must. That would be followed by the reading of the Declaration of Independence and at least one patriotic poem. There would have been a parade too, and the town was decked out in red, white, and blue bunting. It was a day long event, and as Bidwell notes, it started the night before, and went on well into the evening of the 4th with fireworks and dancing.

Bells ringing and cannon firing makes sense, but what’s this about “anvils roared?” How do they do that?

“Firing the anvil” was a popular way to generate noise and excitement in the 19th century. All you need are two anvils and some black powder, which you could get from your friendly neighborhood blacksmith. Here’s what you do:anvil

(I don’t recommend trying this at home, even if you do happen to have an anvil. Could be dangerous.)

Take one anvil and turn it upside down. On the underside is a hollow about the size of a brick. Pour in some gunpowder and place a fuse or a trail of gunpowder. Then place the other anvil right side up on top. When you light off the gunpowder, you will get a terrific explosion and the top anvil will fly at least a hundred feet in the air. It will come down too, so clear the deck.

You can find some examples of anvil firing on YouTube, like this one.

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