The birthday of Elizabeth Smith Miller, noted women’s rights advocate, long-time Genevan and one of the people credited with shaping William Smith’s plans for a women’s college here, is still celebrated in her father’s hometown. An article in the Oneida Daily Dispatch tells of the “Bloomer Birthday Party” held annually in Peterboro, N.Y.
In the article, Dorothy Willsey, trustee of the Smithfield Community Association Board explains, “It’s easy to overlook how important dress reform was, but dress was an incarceration of women. They had to wear things that were against their health.”
Miller and her daughter, Anne Fitzhugh Miller, were leaders in the Geneva Political Equality Club (formed by Anne), which focused on a variety of issues but women’s suffrage chiefly (of note, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was Elizabeth’s cousin). It was Elizabeth and Anne who arranged for the New York State Woman Suffrage Association to hold its 1897 convention in Geneva.
William Smith came to know the Millers and shared their interest in spiritualism and improving the status of women. As such, he lent his opera house to them for suffragist meetings (including the 1897 convention).
In 1909, the cornerstone was laid for William Smith College’s Miller House, named in honor of Elizabeth Smith Miller. At that time, Anne Miller wrote a note preserved in a scrapbook in the Library of Congress, in which she said, “My mother … is full of sympathy with the ideals, concerning the education of women, held by her friend and townsman Mr. Wm. Smith, and is confident the institution which he has founded will prove its great value in developing the individual capabilities of its students.”
The full story about the bloomer party follows.
The Oneida Daily Dispatch
“Smithfield throws bloomer bash”
Lynn Collier • Dispatch Staff Writer • 09/29/2008
PETERBORO – Visitors from the area and afar enjoyed an afternoon of tea and an authentic period lunch at the Smithfield Community Center to celebrate Elizabeth Smith Miller’s annual Bloomer Birthday Party.
A number of women and a few men came out to honor the icon, daughter of famous Peterboro resident and abolitionist Gerrit Smith and the innovator of the trouser ensemble that came to be known as bloomers.
Dorothy Willsey, trustee of the Smithfield Community Association Board, said that locals have been celebrating Miller’s birthday for many years. In 1981, she and a bus load of 30 other women in the community dressed in bloomers for a trip to Seneca Falls for Convention Day for the celebration.
Since then, Miller has been honored by the governor in 1989 for being “an influential woman in the state,” particularly thanks to her involvement with women’s wear of the day.
“It’s easy to overlook how important dress reform was, but dress was an incarceration of women,” Willsey said. “They had to wear things that were against their health.”
Some women at the event were clad in 19th century garb other than bloomers. Nancy Grilli and her cousin, Peggy Walsh, came from Valley Falls near Troy to enjoy the event in 1860s dresses and spoon bonnets that would have been fashionable for that day.
Grilli and Walsh are members of the Albany-Saratoga Victorian Social Club and Grilli said that she was invited by guest speaker Rosemary Fry Plakas, an American history specialist in the Rare Books Division at the Library of Congress, who gave a talk at the event on research she has done on seven suffragist scrapbooks that Miller and her daughter had compiled.
“Too often women were bypassed,” Grilli said of the recognition of women in history. “We didn’t know a lot. You’d always hear certain facts, but there’s a whole other side.”
Grilli said that she has a general interest and love of history and that when she found someone who could construct a traditional outfit from the Victorian era, it was something that she wanted a part of. Grilli also had a carpet bag, a common accessory of the period, which she joked was slightly heavy because she had placed her modern purse inside of it.
Jody Luce, a Peterboro tailor who has played a large part in the annual bloomer celebration, also attended clad in attire of the day. Luce has created period outfits since moving to Peterboro several years ago and sharing in the history of the area.
Dress reform is something that she said strikes her in Peterboro’s history.
“It is important because it’s something that we don’t think about anymore. Young girls don’t understand how important it is to have the freedom of clothing,” Luce said. “Pants weren’t appropriate. It was a woman’s job to attract a good husband and to do that, they needed to be ladylike and fit into the women’s sphere. Wearing pants was completely out of kilter.”
Most of the women at the event exercised their freedom by wearing pants and some came from as far as Virginia, Ohio and South Dakota. Debra Shattuck, of Rapid City, S.D. said that she came to Peterboro as part of her research into women’s rights and dress reform. Shattuck is also interested in how women’s baseball plays into the equation. In the 19th century, the outfit that women are said to have worn to play baseball would have been considered highly inappropriate, Shattuck said. During her research in Cooperstown and at Syracuse University, she said she wonders what the implications of playing the game really were.
“Was it really a women’s rights statement or just a kid’s game?” she asked.
Miller’s daughter, Nannie, was said to have participated in one of the first non-collegiate baseball clubs for women, Shattuck said.
Miller herself had a place in many reform circles, including women’s suffrage, and was elected treasurer when Susan B. Anthony created the Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1869. She was a staunch supporter of equal rights for all.
Food at the event was catered by the Copper Turret in Morrisville. Willsey said that the caterers strived to make authentic dishes from a period cookbook using no cane sugar, because Miller was opposed to the use of it in her own home due to the fact that it was attained through the efforts of slaves.
Copper Turret Manager Stan Smith said that when it came to recipes that required the use of sugar, like scones and cakes, they used honey instead. One place where they could not avoid the use of sugar, however, was in the lemonade. Besides sweets, there were tea sandwiches made with egg salad, chicken salad and other vegetable ingredients, as well as wild mushroom turnovers and quiche with cheddar cheese.