How torn Mary LeDuc must have felt between extravagance and necessity when assessing her social position and need for proper dress. She was anticipating her husband’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce under President Hayes in 1877. The LeDucs had left their home in Hastings, Minnesota. While Gen. William Gates LeDuc served in the Civil War; his wife, Mary, stayed with her parents in Ohio.
Correspondence from the LeDuc family in the Minnesota Historical Society’s manuscript collection is filled with letters between Mrs. LeDuc and her daughters agonizing over frugalities as they alter bonnets and dresses, purchase fabric, ribbons and notions and seek an inexpensive dressmaker or milliner. “I had my silk bonnet all made over on Monday – new shape – Papa thought it was a new bonnet – with satin and dark cardinal plush and two big roses – I think it verypretty, it will do for dress bonnet all winter – only cost $4.25. ”
When General LeDuc was in Washington lobbying for his appointment, Mrs. LeDuc was living with her parents in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Their daughter, Minnie, was living in New York and had found a reasonable dressmaker in Miss Jane E. Turner. Miss Turner’s invoice of September 28, 1877 for one black silk and one brown velvet dress came to $128.33. Minnie’s excitement in receiving delivery of these dresses for her mother is in her letter, “Your dresses came Saturday and are lovely. I did not unfold them much fearing I could not pack them again. I should think both would fit you nicely. The front of the brown skirt is particularly pretty. “ She mailed the package to Mrs. Leduc after she arrived in Washington.
Mary’s letter back to Minnie, described an invitation from the White House. “I wore my brown silk out yesterday for first time, called on Mrs. Hayes after dinner.” The brown velvet and brocade reception gown must have felt very extravagant.
Florence wrote to her sister, Minnie, “[Miss Turner] has made two dresses for Mamma and they are lovely. She is a true artist. I’ve never seen any dresses at any time that could equal those made by her.”
This dress was donated by the LeDuc family in 1920 and remained unidentified until the photograph, dress, invoice and letters were brought together after research by Society collections staff and volunteers.
Special thanks to MNHS textile conservator Ann Frisina for her working in bringing this dress to life on a custom mannequin.
Linda McShannock, Associate Curator