November 1, 2009

What is a Mantua Maker?



     A newspaper article about skillfully creating imaginative Halloween costumes reminded me of past days when I made our family’s Trick or Treat and Halloween parade outfits. It also reminded me of the hours I spent sewing clothes for my family—I believe the “hat” I wore back then was known as “seamstress.” Tailor might have been an appropriate title also, since I made suits for my husband and son, and coats for myself.

To view a couple of photographs taken at the time I wore the hat “mantua maker,” click on: &

     These memories came to mind when I came across the term “mantuamaker” in the book A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary,  1785-1812*. Just what was a mantuamaker, I wondered, as I moved myself over to the Internet to find out.

     Mantuas, a loose gown worn by women, in the 17th and 18th century, were called a mantie or mantua, from the French word manteau.***

     Mantua makers are found on the United States census between 1790 and 1910. However, their history evolves much earlier, according to one web site***. The very last Boston woman to claim the title of mantuamaker in the city directory pages was Rebecca Goodwin Major, who closed her shop in 1845.****

     The mantua, which became stylish in the 1600s, was somewhat fitted in spite of its looseness. It was worn over a petticoat and was open down the front. A true mantua does not have a separate skirt and top, but uses a single piece of fabric from the shoulder to the floor. Their construction is quite tricky, using few, if any, cuts. Depending on the style of the day, the fabric could be longer in the back, almost train-like. Its open front exposed the shirt of the lightweight petticoat, often made of silk. It was often worn with a stomacher, an elaborate, decorated, ornamental piece shaped in a V, which created the illusion of a slim waist.

     Although this style may have begun as a casual garment, it was usually constructed of sumptuous material, eg. damask or brocade, and worn for dressy occasions. ***

     Of course, mantuas were sewn by mantua makers.

     During the mantua’s popularity, women gained the legal right to produce them. Previously, the law only allowed women to make underwear, while only tailors were allowed to make upper class clothing and corsets. ***** By the mid-1800s, the women-owned businesses were listed in business directories across America as mantua makers, even though, by this time, the shops no longer made mantuas. Eventually these seamstresses began calling themselves dressmakers,** and the term mantua maker faded from American culture.

     By the mid-1800s, American towns listed mantua makers in their business directory. Mantua makers existed as women-owned businesses. The women set up shop as dressmakers under the mantua title, even though they no longer made dressy gowns.

     At one time, I made fancy dresses for a client—a gold lame piano recital dress (graduate school), a wedding dress, and bridesmaid dressed. I figure that that made me akin to a mid-1800s mantua maker.Today I do little work that can be defined as mantua making or dressmaking. However, my wardrobe still contains items from my seamstress days, back when I never knew the term mantua maker.


*A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich










History reridden—The Pony Express

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