Christmas in Dakota, Then and Now

The odds of there being a white Christmas here in Pierre are looking slim. Festive decorations abound, but the unseasonably warm temperatures make it hard to believe that we are in the thick of the holiday season. This year being my first living in South Dakota, I can’t help but be somewhat disappointed. The lack of cold, snowy weather certainly seems a stark contrast to the Ingalls family’s idyllic first Christmas in Dakota Territory in 1879. As Wilder describes it in Pioneer Girl, they enjoyed ample snow, homemade gifts, and a bountiful feast of “jack rabbit roast, mashed potatoes, beans, warm biscuit and dried apple pie with tea.” While jackrabbit would not be my first choice—especially considering the precipitous decline of South Dakota’s jackrabbit population in recent years—I don’t doubt that Wilder had, as she claimed, a “jolly Christmas” (pp. 185–186).

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A white Christmas often means bad roads, like the ones this horse-drawn plow attempted to clear in Fort Pierre, circa 1915. South Dakota State Historical Society

Jolly, at least, for the Ingalls clan. Ella and Robert Boast seemingly had a less pleasant experience. The Boasts, who hailed from Iowa, had acquired a homestead near De Smet and planned to spend the winter there. They made it to Dakota just in time for Christmas but arrived in a harried condition. As Wilder writes, due to deep snow on the roads, “they were many days later than they had planned and at last about six miles back their sled had stuck in a snow drift” (p. 185). The Boasts unhitched their horses and rode to the Ingalls house, where they warmed up by the fire. The next day, they joined the family for Christmas dinner, and the Ingalls children hastily made them presents. Things turned out fine for the Boasts, and the weather improved, too—“the snow was nearly gone” by New Year’s Day (p. 186). Of course, the denizens of De Smet would not be so lucky the following year, when they endured a winter so hard that it inspired a stand-alone book in the Little House series and at least one in-depth climatological study.

While a conspicuous lack of winter weather—or jackrabbits, for that matter—is no cause for celebration, there is a silver lining to this holiday season’s dearth of snow. Those planning to drive long distances this weekend, myself included, will not have to grapple with the treacherous road conditions that befell the Boasts.

Happy Holidays, and safe travels, from the Pioneer Girl Project.

Cody Ewert

Excuse me, your crinoline is showing . . .

For Christmas this year, the gift I most enjoyed giving was a year’s worth of old photographs that I collected while traveling across North and South Dakota, Illinois, Oregon, and Florida. I spent many pleasurable hours in antique malls and flea markets, looking for images with a story to tell that my friend, a historian who specializes in rural women’s history, would find interesting. As I was wrapping the gift, though, one of the photographs reminded me so strongly of Laura Ingalls Wilder that, in the end, I just couldn’t part with it.

Stereo Card

The photograph is a stereoscopic view called “Waiting for a ’Bus,” but I think readers will instantly see what it was that reminded me of Wilder. It’s the crinoline1 —or hoop skirt—of course, as well as the polonaise coat and the muff. These details echo Wilder’s fashion interests of the 1870s and 1880s, which she shared with readers in Pioneer Girl, as well as in her novels. At first, I thought the stereograph was from that same time period, and this particular card may date from that era, but the image itself and the fashions it depicts are older—from the 1860s. Wilder’s young aunts and her mother might have worn such dresses to the sugaring-off party in Little House in the Big Woods, where Aunt Ruby’s and Aunt Docia’s “large, round skirts” sailed across the dance floor, and Ma’s skirt was “ruffled and flounced and draped and trimmed with knots of dark green ribbon” (pp. 141-42).

But this particular stereograph, I discovered as I started doing some research, has an even larger story to tell about the follies of fashion and the prices that women had to pay when they followed it too slavishly. If you look closely at this card, which is meant to be viewed in a stereoscope that would turn the side-by-side images into a three-dimensional view, Punchyou will note that the young woman is standing just beneath a handwritten sign that reads, “A Young Man Wanted.”  And thereby hangs a tale. . . .

This view of the fashionable young woman drew its inspiration from a cartoon that appeared in Punch, or the London Charivari on December 3, 1864.  The butt of the joke was definitely the woman, who unintentionally appeared to be advertising for a young fellow or putting herself on display to attract one. In 1866, photographer Michael Burr turned the cartoon into a stereograph of a fashionable woman caught in the same position and spread the joke further in an era in which stereoscopy was all the rage.2 I missed the joke completely, being enamored of the young woman’s ermine muff, matching bonnet, and prodigious hoop skirt.

All that attention to fashion was also part of the humor, it turns out, for hoop skirts, in particular, were the cause of much mirth and satire in the press. Consider these images from the same year as the original cartoon—on April 9, 1864, the Punch cartoonist showed us the difficulty that such fulsome crinolines could cause for women on a stroll in the country. On June 18, the theme resurfaced again with another cartoon that illustrated

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how hoop skirts became a hazard on public transportation or city streets, and on July 9, the magazine published “A Man Trap,” which offered at least one ploy that would induce a man to duck into a hat shop. My favorite, however, came on October 1, 1864, with “The Safest Way of Taking a Lady Down to Dinner.” Here, the woman’s beau is forced to walk on the outside edge of the balustrade to accompany his crinolined dinner partner. In some ways, it is amazing that the fashion endured as long as it did with so much ridicule directed toward it. Even stranger, it just keeps coming back—the poodle skirts of the fifties held out by all those stiff mesh petticoats so that they would swirl around the dance floor seem to me to be just a shorter version of the same style. And have you thought about wedding dresses?

Nancy Tystad Koupal

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1. I am using the word crinoline here to mean a stiffened petticoat or caged skirt that is also known as a hoop skirt, although the term originally meant a stiff fabric of horse hair and linen that women began to use for petticoats around the 1830s to widen and fill out their skirts. Wilder had the original meaning of the word in mind when she described her wedding dress in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography: “It was plain at the top, but gored so it was full at the bottom. It was lined through[ou]t with cambric dress lining and interlined with crinolin[e] from the bottom to as high as my knees” (p. 322). For a history of the term and the fashion, see “The Crinoline or Hoop Skirt,” Victoriana Magazine, victoriana.com, and “What’s All the Hoopla?” The Ultimate History Project, www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/crinoline.html.

2. Dennis Pellerin and Brian May, The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery: Stereoscopy versus Paintings in the Victorian Era (London: London Stereoscopic Company, 2014), p. 175.

A Holiday Greeting and Best Wishes for the New Year

In 1924, Wilder wrote, “Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.”1

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“The little fur cape and muff still hung on the tree.” Helen Sewell, 1937.

No matter what your traditions, this time of year seems to hold special meaning for people around the world. On the Northern Great Plains, we gather closer and hang lights around our homes to stave off long winter nights with much the same excitement that Wilder shared over surprise visits from the Boasts or decorating her first tree. Cards are sent out and begin to arrive at their destinations, and it is this tradition specifically that has the staff at the Pioneer Girl Project thinking about Wilder’s thoughts and reminisces on Christmastime.

Earlier this week the South Dakota Historical Society Press received a card from James Pollock, an artist who lives in Pierre, South Dakota, and whose holiday greeting is decorated by a watercolor he painted this past summer at the Harvey Dunn Society’s annual Plein Air Paint Out event in De Smet. On it, the Ingalls family’s cottonwood trees stand solid against the prairie wind, and it is not difficult to imagine them covered with the blankets of snow that the state has received in the past month. Though it is not as bad as the storms of 1880 that stopped the trains from delivering the Ingallses’ Christmas Barrel, the weather does promise a white Christmas for the Great Plains, enhancing memories of times past.

From everyone at the Pioneer Girl Project, warm wishes to you and yours this holiday season.

Jennifer McIntyre on behalf of the Pioneer Girl Project staff

Wilder Tree Claim watercolor by James Pollock

Wilder Tree Claim, watercolor by James Pollock, © 2015

Originally published by the Missouri Ruralist, December 1924, and reprinted as “Christmas When I Was Sixteen,” in Little House in the Ozarks: The Rediscovered Writings, ed. Stephen W. Hines (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), p. 170.