In the course of my work making editors’ corrections to the “Pioneer Girl” annotations, I have come across several unfamiliar words. Most of these terms have simply fallen out of usage and been forgotten. Some became clear as I read through the manuscript, but others remain puzzling.
When I first read of a “lunatic fringe” in “Pioneer Girl,” for example, I immediately thought of its modern definition, which refers to a fanatical group. I was surprised to learn, as many Wilder fans may already know, that the term referred to the bangs that fall across one’s forehead. Apparently, this hairstyle was not looked on especially favorably in the late 1800s.
“Fichu” was another unfamiliar word. Laura’s good friend, Ida Brown, gave her one as a wedding gift. The vintage dictionary we sometimes consult here in the office defines a fichu as a small cape, usually made from lace and triangular in shape, similar to a scarf. I also learned that this very fichu is on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.
When Laura became engaged, she wore the garnet-and-pearl ring Almanzo gave her on her “first finger.” This one still has me stumped. Did she wear it on her index finger, or was the nineteenth-century “first finger” what we call a “ring finger” today?
I had also never heard of “lawn” in connection with a dress. Laura had a pink sprigged “lawn” dress. I have since learned that lawn is a sheer, lightweight fabric, now usually woven from cotton but, in the nineteenth century, also made from linen.
Laura’s father, Charles, would sometimes sit with the graybeards in the “Amen corner” of the First Congregational Church. I now know that those who led congregational responses or who were especially ardent worshippers would sit in that section.
In These Happy Golden Years, Laura wore her new hat, which she described as “a sage-green, rough straw, in poke-bonnet shape.” I have since learned that a poke bonnet is one with a projecting brim or front, designed to shade the face. “Pie-plant” had me stumped at first, too, but the definition of garden rhubarb makes sense.
Little did I know that working with the Pioneer Girl Project would expand my vocabulary in so many ways. I’m looking forward to solving the next “word mystery.”