By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
Two gentlemen, trouser tycoon Levi Strauss and hat maker John Stetson of Philadelphia, both had their names associated with their products — the Levi trousers and the Stetson hat — and neither minded at all.
But Amelia Jenks Bloomer would much rather be thought of as a temperance reformer, women’s rights editor and suffragette. She would not be happy with the constant connection to an odd article of clothing which became inadvertently associated with her married name: Bloomer.
Born Amelia Jenks in Cortland County, N.Y., in 1818, she became a teacher in the local public school system and later a private school tutor. In 1840, she married Dexter Bloomer of Seneca Falls, N.Y., where they were to live until 1853. A clue to her future interest was that during the marriage ceremony, the word “obey” was left out. Her husband, an attorney, was also the editor of one of the county newspapers.
It was not long before Amelia began to contribute articles advocating temperance and served as the editor of a paper called The Water Bucket. By 1847, another temperance paper was begun and soon Amelia became both editor and publisher. It lasted for six years in New York, attracted a large audience of women and was widely circulated.
By 1851, Amelia was a popular and wideâˆ’ranging speaker on temperance and women’s rights. She found a large and appreciative audience wherever she went, from New York to St. Louis.
Her travels soon led her to travel to England in 1851. Rumors had come from America of a movement for more rational dress for women. Amelia came to England to spread her plea that women adopt a more sensible mode of dress consisting of a simplified bodice, a fairly ample skirt reaching well below the knee, but underneath it baggy trousers reaching to the ankle and frilled with lace at the bottom.
Earlier, a friend had designed the intriguing outfit, and to offset what had become a “sign of radicalism,” Amelia publicized the outfit and members of the women’s rights movement adopted the style. Though not the originator, she adopted the style and wore it for six years or more, so the word “bloomer” came to be associated with an article of clothing.
This attempt at reform of women’s costume in England provoked excitement and often ridicule. Midâˆ’Victorian men were outraged and the magazine Punch brought out cartoons showing men in complete subjection to their bloomered spouses. The upper classes refused to have anything to do with the idea of this change. Amelia, one could say, got her revenge 50 years later when ladies would adopt bloomers for bicycle riding.
Dexter Bloomer seems to have been unusual for his time because he respected his wife’s interests and gave her opportunities that were often denied to women. When he became editor of the Seneca County Courier, he had allowed her to contribute articles to his paper on political and social topics.
Amelia had, in 1849, begun her own monthly publication devoted to temperance articles and promoting literature. Called The Lily, it soon expanded to include education, marriage laws and women’s rights. This publication probably established her as the first American women’s magazine editorâˆ’publisher. She also opened her own public reading room to accommodate women whose husbands would not let them read The Lily and other feminist publications.
When her husband became postmaster, Amelia became the deputy postmaster, unusual for the time. Famed feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were to choose Seneca Falls as the place to hold the famous Women’s Rights Convention.
In 1854, the Bloomers moved to Ohio and a year later The Lily was sold and eventually was no longer in print. Soon they were to move to Iowa. Amelia continued on with her church activities and social work . During the Civil War, she was a volunteer and participated in relief work. She remained the rest of her life an active and dedicated volunteer and was as always a leading disciple of change.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.