Ellen and Lydia Harrison

Ellen and Lydia Harrison

By Marla R. Miller

Ellen Georgiana (“Nellie”) Harrison—a dressmaker in Pittsfield who may well have begun to learn her trade while a teenager in Springfield—is comparatively well documented because she is the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Harrison, an important clergyman and activist who served a Springfield pulpit from 1866 to 1870.  The Harrison family’s house in Pittsfield is today preserved as a historic site, and family papers are housed at the Berkshire Atheneum, but the family was also important to mid nineteenth-century Springfield, and retained ties to the city long after they relocated to Berkshire County.[1]While Reverend Harrison is well recognized for his important leadership before, during, and after the Civil War, the craft skill of his daughters is another important aspect of this family’s story.

Rev. Samuel Harrison was born enslaved in Philadelphia and freed in 1821. He worked as a shoemaker before going to school and becoming a clergyman. In the 1850s, Reverend Harrison, serving a congregation in Pittsfield, was called to Hartford’s Talcott Street Church (he declined); had he accepted, his daughters would have sat in the same pews as Mehitable Primus, a prominent dressmaker in that city.[2]  During the Civil War Harrison served as chaplain to the Massachusetts 54thInfantry Regiment; he lobbied vigorously—and successfully—to secure equal compensation for the men of that unit.  After the War, he and his family spent time in Newport, Rhode Island, but in December 1866 they relocated to Springfield, where Harrison served the Sanford Street Church (today, St. John’s Congregational Church).

This family history, and the presence of both shoemaking and dressmaking, resonates with other stories of Black craftspeople; dressmaker Mehitable Primus just down river in Hartford was the granddaughter of shoemaker Jeremiah Jacobs. Harrison spent his early life as a shoemaker, and evidence of his skill, recovered archaeologically (in an abundance of shoe tacks) was still present at the Pittsfield home he and his family occupied when he was the clergyman at the 2nd Congregational Church in that city. The same 2008 dig that turned up the shoe tacks also uncovered buttons, hooks, eyes, needles, pins, buttons, and other sewing-related artifacts, surely associated with daughters Ellen and also Lydia, both of whom became dressmakers.[3]

Ellen may have learned her skill from a dressmaker in Springfield. Born about 1852 in Pittsfield, Ellen was the oldest of the four children present in Harrison’s Springfield household.[4] She finished high school in Portland, Maine, at the top of her class.[5]  Harrison would later reflect on this period in his children’s life, and their education in Springfield, which stood in contrast to their experience in Newport, Rhode Island:

“Prior to our moving to Newport there were separate schools for white and colored pupils. At the commencement of the term these schools were merged into one; in other words, white and colored children attended the same schools. This was probably accomplished through the effort of Col. Thomas W. Higginson, of whom I have spoken in relation to another matter. He was at this time a resident of Newport and a member of the school committee. There was a strong prejudice to encounter on the part of white pupils and their parents. My children were the first to encounter this prejudice. One of them was in the high school, the first to enter. They had a spelling exercise and she spelled the school down. This enraged the boys. They made paper balls and threw them at her. The principal lost all control of the boys and my daughter was insulted by them; so, when school closed that day she made up her mind not to return. I was away from the city at the time making arrangements to take charge of the church at Springfield. When I returned I was informed of what had taken place and the gentlemen of the school board wrote me a very polite note expressing their regrets at the indignity heaped on my daughter and begging me to send her back and they would not allow it again. They intended to meet the issue then and there and not permit it to be done again. The battle was fought for others as well as for my own children. The difficulties which my children had to meet and overcome made it easier for those who came after them. There were no such obstacles to be met in Springfield. Others had preceded them and had graduated.”[6]

Ellen would have begun working at her trade when the family relocated to Pittsfield; the 1880 census found dressmaker Ellen (28), living at home with her parents.[7]  Alongside some 50 white dressmakers in 1880 Pittsfield were only two were women of color: Ellen and a 19-year-old named Cora Freeman, a fellow parishioner whose mother also listed her occupation that year as a seamstress.[8] Ellen’s career would also be short: she passed away in 1881.[9] But her younger sister Lydia–perhaps trained by her older sister–also went on to a long career as a “dressmaker and hair worker.”[10] In fact, Lydia’s story comes remarkably close to our own, as she did not die until 1954, at the age of 93.[11]  What’s more, Lydia’s daughter Bessie also went on to work as a Pittsfield dressmaker, reminding us of the intergenerational legacy of craft skill. Interestingly, though Lydia Harrison is consistently noted as having the occupation of dressmaker in the federal census, she never appeared in the city directory, while her daughter Bessie, beginning in the 19-teens, did make regular use of directory listings to alert potential clients to her skill. 

Could Ellen Harrison, who may well have shared her craft skills with younger sister Lydia, have learned her dressmaking skills while a young woman in Springfield in the 1860s?[12]  Certainly she was of an appropriate age for that kind of instruction while she was living there, a young woman in her teenage years, and there were Black dressmakers for whom she could have work.  Cornelia Tatten Smith, for instance, was working in the city at least as late as 1865 and perhaps as late as 1869, and Jane Scottron, profiled elsewhere on this website, was also present in Springfield in these years. There were likely more Black dressmakers in 1860s Springfield, though we will likely never know who everyone who was doing this work. But surviving portraits of Ellen and her sister Mary, taken in Springfield in 1870, right before they moved to Maine, give us some sense of their fashions in that moment.  [MM1] 

Historian Abena Mhoon has written about the importance of work in clothing and fashion for African American women.  “The concerns about dress with propriety and decorum,” she observes, “created important economic opportunities for African Americans. The enforced racial separation of the 1880 to 1940 era, guaranteed by the Supreme Court in the Plessey v. Ferguson case of 1896, led to African Americans maintaining lucrative community-based apparel, accessory, and hair care businesses. African Americans used their highly valued design abilities as tailors, dressmakers, seamstresses, milliners, and beauticians to create new aesthetics for their community. During this era major publications reported on the way styles were created in African American communities set the trends of the nation.”[13]  Ellen and Lydia Harrison, as well as Cornelia Tatten Smith, Jane Scottron, and many others, were important agents of that work in western Massachusetts.

Marla Miller is a historian of women and work in early America, at UMass Amherst; from 2001 to 2021 she directed the Public History program there. 

[1] For the Harrison House, see https://www.samuelharrison.org/.  Harrison’s biography is Rev. Samuel Harrison: His Life Story, as Told by Himself (1899).

[2] Harrison, p. 21.  On Primus, see Miller, “Mehitable Primus and Addie Brown: Women of Color and Hartford’s Nineteenth-Century Dressmaking Trades,” in Peter Benes, ed., Clothing New England, Proceedings of the 2010 Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife (Deerfield: Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, 2014).

[3] Hartgen Associates, “Management Summary, Archaeological Reconnaissance Survey, Samuel Harrison Homestead,” 4 June 2008, Berkshire Atheneum, p. 15.

[4] 1870 U.S. Census.

[5]On her high school achievement, see the Berkshire Eagle, 4 July 1872.

[6] Harrison, Rev. Samuel Harrison: His Life Story, pp 40-41.  Whether this daughter was Ellen or one of her sisters is unclear.

[7]1870U.S. Census. 

[8]Anthony F. Martin found 93 African American men and 106 African American women were listed with occupations; see Martin, “On the Landscape for a very, very Long Time: African American Resistance and Resilience in 19th and early 20th-Century Massachusetts” (PhD Dissertation, UMass Amherst, 2017).  Charlotte Williams Freeman (1836-1908) is only identified as working as a seamstress the year her daughter Cora was identified as a dressmaker. Freeman did not remain long in Pittsfield: she went to teach in Savannah, and died there of typhoid fever; see Berkshire County Eagle, 16 August 1888.

[9] Ellen Harrison died 24 March 1881 of consumption; her death record also calls her a dressmaker.  Her obituary, which appeared in the 30 March 1881 edition of the Pittsfield Sun, reported that “Miss Nellie G. Harrison” had been ill for over a year.

[10] Hamilton Child, Gazetteer of Berkshire County, Mass., 1725-1885: and, Business directory of Berkshire County, Mass., 1884-’85(Syracuse, N.Y.: Printed at the Journal Office, 1885), p. 310.  The 1882 Pittsfield City Directory lists a “Miss Nancy Harrison,” dressmaker, at 27 Orchard, but Rev Harrison’s family were at 30 Third; she does not reappear in 1883.

[11]Abena L. Mhoon , “Dressing For Freedom,” Black History Bulletin , January-December 2004, Vol. 67, No. 1/4 (January December 2004), pp. 26-29, p. 26.

[12] The family retained ties with Springfield. After Rev. Harrison’s first wife died in 1883, in April 1885 he remarried 47-year-old laundress Sarah Jane (Davis) Adams, of Springfield, who had moved North from her childhood community of Babylon, New York, on Long Island. Born in 1836 in Babylon Long Island, Sarah Davis made her way at some point to Springfield.   The record of her union with Rev. Harrison indicates that he was her fourth husband, making her story difficult to track.  She appears to be the Mrs. Sarah J. Adams who is listed in the city directories of 1875-77, living on Lombard Street and working as a laundress.  The last city directory to note people of color (1869) finds only one Adams household on Lombard Street, that of mulatto barber William Adams, though he wed Mary R Gaines in 1866 (Reverend Harrison officiating) and the two were still alive when Sarah J. Adams wed Rev. Harrison.  They were wed at the Sanford Street Church.

[13]Mhoon, “Dressing For Freedom,” 26.

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