[Here's the latest installment in the Women's Work is Women's Art series, this time by Eberle. By the way, for you Googlers, the woman Eberle's writing about, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly sometimes has her last named spelled Keckley]
Behind the scenes, or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House was written by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly in 1868. In this memoir, Elizabeth stated that President Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln often discussed matters of state in her presence, and she gives the gist of some of these conversations in ways that could easily be construed as presenting her own political opinions as well as her personal judgments. Not surprisingly, the fact that Elizabeth seemed to be placing herself on the same level as the white family in the White House created a scandal—the book was extremely controversial and efforts were made to suppress it. Elizabeth’s remarkable journey from slavery to the White House would probably have gone completely invisible in recorded history if she had not published this book.
Born as a slave in Virginia in 1818, Elizabeth purchased her freedom in 1855. She achieved her legal freedom and her position in the White House as personal modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln through her genius for dressmaking as well as for social interaction. Fashion in upper class American circles denoted many layers of meaning in the struggle for social power, and the competition for a celebrated dressmaker was a tooth-and-claw affair. Elizabeth obtained her introduction to Mary Todd Lincoln as a bribe from a would-be client whom Elizabeth had turned down. At the first meeting with Elizabeth, Mary asked her to become her personal dresser and dressmaker. A close and complicated friendship arose from this intimate connection.
As an aside, “dressmaker” was a term created in the early nineteenth century, when the practice of having customers select dress designs from sketches rather than from completed clothing became common. Before the availability of off-the-rack clothing, women who did not make their own clothing at home employed a local dressmaker who adapted designs from printed fashion plates. Dressmakers were also called modistes or mantua-makers. The term modiste carried a desirable Parisian whiff of elegance.
Elizabeth was no stranger to power struggles and the abusive complexities of interracial dynamics of the time. She lived in a household where the father of the white family was also her father, and her presence in the family was a powerful one though she suffered much abuse from the legitimate relatives of her father. Her only son was the result of a sexual relationship forced on her. That son was white enough to enlist in the army before it became legal for black men to enlist— she was not white enough, however, to receive the pension for which she was eligible after his death on the battlefield, and went through a long process involving a statement that she had been legally married to a white man before she did receive her pension.
Both Elizabeth and her mother learned to read and write although doing so was explicitly illegal at the time. Sewing for the family made part of their duties, and Elizabeth began gaining some reknown for her dressmaking while still in slavery. After obtaining her legal freedom, she moved to Washington and successfully navigated the social circles of the wives of the leading men of the times as part of her dressmaking business. Her book as well as her life shows a keen understanding of the dynamics of power struggles.
Dress symbolized a great deal on the female side of these political struggles. Mary Todd Lincoln, for example, enjoyed the notoriety of the fashions she chose to wear which included off-the-shoulder dresses and low necklines. Her behavior too was criticized for being insufficiently demure—she did not hide her political opinions.
Elizabeth used her celebrity status to start the Contraband Relief Association, which provided aid to former slaves who fled to Washington for safety. She received frequent donations for this fund from the President and the First Lady. After the scandal following publication of Behind the Scenes, Elizabeth’s dressmaking business declined. She died at the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington—an institution she had helped to establish.
© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009
Pix from Top
Title Page from Behind the Scenes
Portrait of Keckly from an early edition of Behind the Scenes
A dress designed by Keckly for Mary Tood Lincoln, now on display at the Smithsonian