, Salem, MA

Local News

December 5, 2012

Exhibit looks at women's struggles, victories


“My impression is,” Leavell said, “she was on call night and day.”

In what is probably one of the most remarkable features of the exhibit, you can almost see the women themselves, thanks to the Historical Society’s huge collection of clothing. Remarkably small dresses (and even underwear) put lovingly on display cover the years after the Revolution to post-World War II. Hoops, frills, bustles and waists that modern women would die for — or die from — are displayed in each of the exhibit rooms.

Leavell and dress curator Lyn FitzGerald wince at the thought of the corsets and ties required to get into and stay in them.

The wide dresses were also prone to catch fire while women were cooking. “And a lot of ladies died a horrible death because of them,” FitzGerald said.

“It was mostly men who dictated the fashions,” Leavell said. At the same time, the growth of the leather industry was ending the era when men and women worked the farm together. Now, they disappeared from one another throughout the day. In some cases, Leavell added, “women became accessories for wealthy men.”

And they soon dressed accordingly, with bustles and bright colors.

The men who ruled Peabody — or South Danvers before that — have gotten plenty of mention over the years. After all, Leavell indicated, the city is named after financier and favorite son George Peabody. But the exhibit, housed in a half-dozen rooms in two buildings, shows the extent to which it was remarkable women who held the place together.

Eunice Cook, a prime example, founded the South Danvers Ladies Soldiers’ Aid Society on April 24, 1861, just two weeks after the guns were fired on Fort Sumter, sparking the Civil War. Hers was one of the first organizations of its kind and the beginning of a massive, national network of women’s groups dedicated to relieving the burdens on soldiers and their families.

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