Dress from the Pre-Revolutionary War-Era Added to Smithsonian Costume Collection

April 23, 2008

A mid-18th-century dress made of silk grown and spun in South Carolina by Eliza Lucas Pinckney, one of the most prominent women in American history, was recently given to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History by Pinckney’s direct descendants. The dress had been on loan to the museum’s costume collection since 1912.

The three-piece, gold, silk damask Colonial dress dating from 1750-1780 is made from silk cultivated from silk worms that Pinckney raised on her South Carolina plantation. She commissioned the dress during a trip to England in the mid-1700s, and it has undergone one or more alterations since it was originally created.

"This dress has been an integral part of our collection of 18th-century dresses since Mrs. Julian James started the Smithsonian collection in the early 20th century," said Brent D. Glass, director of the National Museum of American History. "Because of Eliza Lucas Pinckney historical importance, this dress in itself is an important research tool for anyone studying women’s history or enterprise," he added.

Pinckney’s dress is an excellent example of a typical sack-back dress from the period, and it is only one of two in the Smithsonian collection that has both the original matching stomacher and petticoat. A sack, or robe à la française, has flowing pleats that fall from the shoulders, making the gown appear to be unfitted in the back. A stomacher is a decorative piece that covers the front of the corset, where the gown’s bodice edges were intentionally separated.

Pinckney’s life is woven into early North American history. She excelled in both the domestic world of women and the business and political world of men. Probably the first important agriculturist of the United States, Pinckney is best known for her work with indigo. She is credited with changing the economy of the Colonial South when, in 1741, she first manufactured blue dye cakes from the indigo plant that she successfully grew in South Carolina. Indigo was established as a cash crop that was in great demand in Europe. In the late 1700s, indigo ranked just behind rice, with 130,000 pounds in exports, and accounted for more than one-third of the value of the Colonies’ exports before the Revolutionary War.

Pinckney was well-educated, and experimented with progressive early childhood education. She studied law books and assisted her neighbors with writing their wills. She also planted oak trees with the thought of making masts for ships; and, besides the cultivation of silk, Pinckney experimented with growing flax and hemp. While her father was living in the West Indies, she managed one of his plantations. With the deaths of her father early in life and, later, her husband, she managed and ran several plantations in South Carolina. She and taught her slaves how to read.

Distinguished for her achievements and character, Pinckney was also the mother of two national figures: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Thomas Pinckney, both well-known Revolutionary War-era. Charles was a signer of the United States Constitution and Thomas was the United States minister to Spain and Great Britain (1792-1795) and governor of South Carolina (1787-1789). In 1989 Pinckney was the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum is closed for major renovations and will re-open in fall 2008. For information about the museum, please visit http://americanhistory.si.edu or call Smithsonian Information at (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).