The Artifact of the Month for March is a woman’s motoring duster, a light, loose-fitting long coat. Originally, dusters were worn by cowboys in the 19th century in the American West, to protect their clothing from trail dust.   At the turn of the twentieth century, both men and women wore dusters to protect their clothes when riding in open automobiles.  Dusters were sometimes referred to as car coats or motoring jackets.

Jerry Moon of Colchester donated the duster to the museum.  Moon tells of discovering the duster in a chest full of clothes, when he moved into his father’s house.  The Moon family has lived in the McDonough/Schuyler County area for five generations.  Moon found the chest in the basement, and thinks his mother had saved the clothing. The chest had been sitting untouched for the past 60 years. Moon believes the duster probably belonged to a female relative who lived in the McDonough County area around the turn of the 19th century.

When the automobile was first invented, riding in a car was very different from what it is now, and protective clothing was needed. Early autos were totally open and had no windshields, no side windows, no rear windows, no doors, no roof, and rain, wind, and cold air could soak or chill motorists.  Later automobiles with windshields and tops still left riders vulnerable to dust and oil splatters. Road conditions did not help to make driving comfortable.  Riding in open and semi-open cars over unpaved country roads covered everyone with clouds of dust and dirt on even a short outing. Between 1900 and 1910 specially created protective driving clothes became popular for both men and women, and the duster was especially popular as a way to protect clothes from everything kicked up from the car.

Early motoring clothing was not only practical, but also very stylish.  Other types of outerwear, as well as a whole array of special hats, goggles, gloves and other driving accessories were created to address the need to protect drivers and passengers. There was a short-lived craze for driving clothes that emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The people who could own early cars were the wealthy, and they had the money to spend on specialized clothing. Owning a duster or motoring jacket quickly became a status symbol, indicating the wearer owned, or knew someone who owned, a car.

The loose-fitting duster at the museum is 44 inches long and is made out of lightweight linen fabric. This duster would have been worn in the warmer months; in colder weather a heavier type of car coat would have been worn.  The 14 inch wide sailor style collar on this duster was a popular style during the early 1900s. Some linen dusters had fancy linings and trims, but the museum duster is unlined linen with simple trim.

Due to changes in cars after about 10 years, the motoring duster became obsolete. By 1927 over 80 per cent of the cars produced in America were closed-in with windows, doors and a roof, as compared to 10 per cent in 1919. The change meant motorists no longer needed to cover themselves up in protective clothing to go for a drive.  This motoring duster illustrates a part of automotive history in the early days of the “horseless carriage.”

This duster also shows a part of fashion history.  The label inside the duster is from the Standard Mail Order Co. – New York City.  This duster shows the 1900’s women, all over the United States, had access to shopping for the latest styles, thanks to mail-order houses. This duster from New York City found in Colchester, Illinois, illustrates that local residents in the year 1910 were using mail-order houses to shop for the latest fashions.

Little remembered now, the company that produced the duster, the Standard Mail Order Company, was once one of the giants of the mail-order business, similar to Sears and Roebucks and Montgomery Ward’s. The mail-order business was pioneered by the Montgomery Ward & Company established in 1872 in Chicago and by the Sears, Roebuck and Company founded in 1893. The mail-order business really began to boom beginning in 1896, when mail could be delivered via Rural Free Delivery (RDF). With RFD, mail-order businesses could serve almost everywhere in the US.  Mail-order houses were farm families’ links to shopping outside their own local sources. Regardless of geography, rural Americans could purchase “store-bought” goods, manufactured goods mass-produced in factories.

The mail-order houses offered convenience to customers who would typically have had to take a trip to town to buy something. Mail-order houses catered to the entire country, and their inventory included a large variety of products. The mail-order houses bought merchandise at reduced rates from wholesalers and were able to offer competitive prices. Fashions were no longer restricted to middle- and upper-class city folk with access to department stores; rural customers became aware of new styles almost as soon as they were produced in the big cities.

Jacob Rubel, the founder of Standard Mail Order Co., New York City (the producer of the linen duster),  was an astute businessman who saw a unique opportunity in the mail-order business.  In 1913, he wrote an article entitled, “Developing a Mail-Order Market Overlooked by Big Houses” in Printer’s Ink – A Journal of Advertisers.  In this article, Rubel shares his story of creating his own mail-order house.  He tells of starting his business in New York City in 1899 and how within four years, it grew to a thirteen story building with a floor space of ten acres. His continued to expand his business, and in 1914 he opened another 12 story building on 55th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.

Rubel’s success was due to his discovery of a market overlooked by the big mail-order houses like Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck.   The SMOC focused on getting bargains to sell, such as mill ends, odd lots, slightly smaller production runs. Items the mills wanted to get rid of, SMOC could get for rock-bottom prices.  The SMOC also focused their advertising towards small towns and rural regions, places where customers were looking for bargains of low-priced women’s, men’s and children’s clothing.

SMOC was purchasing smaller lots and could not offer an inexhaustible supply of their merchandise. As a result, they developed a new twist to their advertising.  The big mail-order houses produced a catalog every six months. A customer could peruse the catalog at leisure and order when the fancy struck them, and they would know the item would be available.  SMOC marketed themselves as a department store bargain counter -by mail. They offered merchandise as “limited supply,” only until they were bought out. They started to issue their catalog every six weeks and instead of calling it a catalog, SMOC called it a “Bargain Bulletin.” The company’s promotions emphasizes to the customer that the merchandise was available for a short time only, so they had better order right away, and get the bargains while they lasted.   The bulletin was printed on cheap paper with editions running into the millions. These mailings illustrated to the customer that the emphasis was on offering bargains, not on printing a big catalog.   The success of the Standard Mail Order Company could be measured in the number of orders they received. In 1914 they received 25,000 pieces of mail every day.

Someone in Colchester buying a linen duster from New York City in the 1900s might sound like it would have been an isolated instance but it probably was not.  There were probably many women in Colchester, Macomb, Adair, Bushnell, and all the other towns in McDonough and surrounding counties, wearing New York City fashions they had purchased from a mail-order house.  In 1910 the garment industry in New York City produced 70% of the nation’s women’s clothing and 40% of the men’s wear.

The Standard Mail Order Company no longer exists. In 1920 it merged and became a part of Perry-Dame & Co. Buying fashions made in New York City today is not as easy as it was back in the 1900s.   Up until the 1960s, 95% of clothing sold in the U.S. was manufactured in the Garment district of New York City; now most companies have moved overseas and the number has decreased to approximately 3%.  This linen duster serves to give us a glimpse into not only local history, but also tells us how mail-order houses brought fashion to all parts of America in the beginning of the 20th century.

The motoring duster was on display at the museum March 1 – 31, 2014. Research assistance for this Artifact of the Month provided by Dr. Carmen Keist, Assistant Professor, Dietetics, Fashion Merchandising and Hospitality Dept., Western Illinois University.

Article by Heather Munro