New Words

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.”

Carol Olson

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14 thoughts on “New Words

  1. Very interesting, thank you!
    Do you happen to know what a ” vinegar pie” is? We have come across that several times in reading about that era.
    We appreciate all your hard work on this project!

  2. She likely meant index finger as the “first finger”. My grandmother was born in the late 1870’s, and she always wore her rings on her left index finger. Also, in Jewish culture, it was traditional to wear the ring on the index finger, and still is in some areas.

  3. Laura definitely wore her pearl and garnet on her index finger. The ring is visible on that very finger in photographs.

    Refer to the portrait of Laura and Almanzo taken shortly after their wedding (the one where they are bundled up in winter coats and she has a fur hat) and, also, the family portrait of all six Ingallses, wherein Laura’s left hand is placed on Charles’ shoulder. In that image the ring is particularly visible.
    Note that in that photograph, taken in 1894, all four sisters are sporting the “lunatic fringe,” the hairstyle which Ladies’ Home Journal will declare on the way out of fashion in their February 1897 issue.

    As for the “lunatic fringe” term, the political reference came first, and the hairstyle was christened as such much later on. The curled and frizzed bangs hairstyle was disliked by some who thought it looked undignified or “wild,” which is why it was referred to in a derogatory manner. The intent was to make a play on words, as if to equate women who wore the style with agitators and other people on the “fringes” of society and acceptable politics. Note that the style of wearing curled bangs had been around in various other decades prior to Laura’s time, but in the 1880s the style was to curl the cut bangs first, then use a narrow comb to make the curls frizz and fluff to a large volume, whereas earlier styles had stopped at simply displaying small, neat ringlets.

    Additionally, English women still use the word “fringe” nowadays to refer to what Americans call “bangs” when describing short hair above the forehead, particularly when the bangs are very heavy and straight.

    • True!! I remember as a child being quite puzzled by the word ‘bangs’ when I read american novels such as LHOTP, or the ‘little women’ books…I could only equate the word ‘bangs’ with sausages…in my part of the UK we call sausages ‘bangers’…

  4. We all enjoy your updates and blog entries as we anxiously await the PG release. I love the “lunatic fringe” reference! It would seem that in the 1980’s we teenage girls had our own form of “lunatic bangs” — Mall Bangs held in place by Aquanet. Just showing it all comes back around even if it takes about 100 years or so.

  5. I can shed light on the ring on the first finger…it is indeed the index finger. When a young woman was engaged, she was realistic enough to understand that she would very likely gain weight in the years to come. Wearing the engagement/wedding ring on the first finger would ensure that it would fit her slimmer ring finger for the majority of her married life.

  6. Laura describes the fischu as “triangular,” but the piece of lace on display in Mansfield isn’t, and Ida’s grandchildren said she was no needlewoman. Karen, Barbara Walker’s 1979 THE LITTLE HOUSE COOKBOOK has a recipe for vinegar pie (simply put, when vinegar was used as a substitute for lemon, which was harder to come by).

    • Vinegar pie is a custard pie flavored with apple cider vinegar. A quick google search showed a number of sites with recipes for it, including Martha Stewart.

  7. I also read somewhere that wearing your ring on your first finger was a Norwegian custom and since Laura and family were living in SD she was likely surrounded by that culture.

  8. I am a 46 French woman who discovered Laura’s stories in the late 1970’s (when the books were translated in French and sold in France, (maybe because of the TV serial). Later I reread them in English. The word ‘fichu’ is a French word (‘un fichu’ is a word and an object both old fashion word today) and it is a scarf. Maybe not triangular in itself, but often fold in a triangular form and worn on the hair. And the French word for ‘fringe’ is ‘une frange’ (very common word) so I suspect it came to America with some French immigrants (?).

  9. Pingback: Reflections on LauraPalooza and the International Wilder Experience | The Pioneer Girl Project

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