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Reception Dress

Selina Cadwallader (active 1870-1886)
United States (Cincinnati)
Reception Dress, 1886
Gift of Wilmar Antiques c/o Mr. Maurice Oshry, 1971.550 a-c
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Selina Cadwallader (active 1870-1886)
Reception Dress , 1886
Gift of Wilmar Antiques c/o Mr. Maurice Oshry, 1971.550 a-c

 The Museum’s Reception Dress was created in 1886, the year Selina Cadwallader died. The dress is constructed of a rich red silk faille, a ribbed, woven fabric. Consisting of three pieces: a bodice, skirt, and a chemisette or dickey, the dress reflects the fashionable style of the late nineteenth century.

The bodice has a crenellated edge that allows for an easy fit over the top of the hips. The upper portion of the bodice is covered with a sheer net embroidered with red flowers and edged with a lace ruffle. The chemisette was worn during the day and was placed under the bodice and tied around the torso to cover the upper chest and back. It was worn when one wished to be more modest, during the day for instance, when a woman would be receiving visitors. The lower neckline, without the chemisette, was appropriate for an evening event such as a dinner party.

he skirt of the dress was cut asymmetrically with a full bustle and small train. It is beautifully decorated with an inset of red-checkered damask, a rich patterned woven fabric, and trimmed with satin ribbons.


Selina Cadwallader
– Dressmaker
Birth: 1836, Ireland
Death: October 1886, Cincinnati
Occupation : Dressmaker, boarding house operator

Selina Hetherington Cadwallader was born in 1836 in Ireland , and it is unknown how or when she came to live in Cincinnati. In 1862, at the age of twenty-six, she married Morris Cadwallader at the St. John Episcopal Church in Cincinnati. Her husband, originally from Henrietta , New York , had a rather unsettled work history. When they met and married, he had already worked in the post office and as an attorney, and in early 1866, he bought a boot and shoe shop, which he quickly abandoned later that same year. By 1871, Morris had realized how lucrative hog farming could be in Cincinnati . He remained a farmer for the rest of his life.

Possibly due to her husband’s unpredictable career, Selina opened her first business in 1870. As a married woman, it was unusual for Selina to run a business, and it may have been out of necessity that she decided to do so. From 1870 to 1886, she operated both a successful boarding house and a dressmaking salon. Located in the heart of Cincinnati’s fashionable district, East Fourth Street, the boarding house and salon was easily accessible to the fashionable elite of the city. Despite his irregular career choices, upon his death in 1880, Morris left his wife Selina and three children an inheritance that was valued at approximately $110,000.

As a dressmaker, Selina was known for her attention to detail and fine workmanship. Her designs were stylish and up to date with the fashions of Paris. She catered to each of her client’s individual needs and desires and was highly respected among the elite of Cincinnati.

On one occasion, Selina was asked to create an evening bodice for a skirt made by the very fashionable Parisian designer Charles Frederick Worth. This dress, created for Mrs. Thoms of Cincinnati, consisted of a skirt and day bodice. To get full use of this dress, Mrs. Thoms also wanted an evening bodice made to match the skirt. Perhaps to save money, she purchased extra fabric from Worth and brought it to Selina to have the bodice made. This act shows the great respect the elite women of Cincinnati had for Selina’s workmanship.

When Selina passed away in October of 1886 at the age of fifty, she left her daughters an inheritance that was valued at $120,000. Having inherited a large sum of money and property from her husband, it is clear that Cadwallader was making dresses because she enjoyed the activity and not just to support herself and her children.


In its first 100 years, Cincinnati evolved from an isolated frontier outpost to one of the nation’s leading commercial centers. At the forefront of the American Industrial Revolution, the city flourished mainly due to its location on the Ohio River. Between the 1780s and the 1850s, there were few towns in the United States that offered as many commercial opportunities as Cincinnati. During this period, Cincinnati quickly grew as a center for trade and commerce, and by 1859, the city was among the largest industrial centers in the United States, second only to Philadelphia. The Queen City manufacturers were among the leading producers of pork, machinery, clothing, soap and candles, boots and shoes, whiskey, ales, books, and printed materials. This rise of industry in the Queen City also led to the development of art industries like furniture, silver, and ceramics.

The furniture industry in Cincinnati started soon after the city was incorporated, established as early as the 1820s and 1830s by artisans like James Reed and William Hawkins. The furniture created in the city during this period reflects a desire for stylish, high-quality goods. By mid-century, Cincinnati had become one of the leading centers for furniture manufacturing in the Unites States, with 120 furniture manufacturers employing 2,850 workers by 1859. The early availability of steam power and machinery in the city greatly changed the business character of the furniture industry and increased the amount of wares produced and sold. Mitchell & Rammelsberg, established in 1847, was one of the largest furniture companies in Cincinnati.

Along with the furniture industry, the manufacture of silver also appeared early in the city’s history. Around 1802, Samuel Best opened shop, promoting himself as a maker of clocks, watches, silver, and jewelry. The need for everyday wares and the taste for fancy goods rose as the city’s population grew. Soon other silversmiths came to Cincinnati from cities in the East and countries such as England, France, and Germany. The silver trade thrived in Cincinnati with over 200 businesses dedicated to it by 1850. Duhme & Company, established by German immigrant Herman Duhme in 1842, was Cincinnati’s largest and best-known silver manufacturer. The company was recognized for producing handmade objects of high quality at a time when most manufacturers produced machine-made pieces.

Art industries, like other prominent industries in Cincinnati, used steam power and mass production to increase output. During the late nineteenth century, a turn away from handcrafted work to more efficient steam-powered manufacturing and mass production led to structured processes and specialization for workers. During the first half of the century, workers would put in long hours with a piece from start to finish. Workers involved with the mass production of goods had a set schedule of twelve to eighteen hours. This allowed workers some leisure time to spend with family and friends. By 1854, the city housed over 800 saloons and beer halls, 450 card parlors, 30 pool halls, 30 bowling alleys, and a number of theaters. Often workers organized a wide range of activities to provide themselves and their families with fun, relaxation, and amusement. The impact of industrialization and the need for leisure-time activity became a popular subject for many American Impressionist painters.

After the Civil War, industry moved south across the river to Kentucky. Cities like Covington and Newport soon became part of Cincinnati’s booming metropolitan area. In 1866, the opening of the Roebling Suspension Bridge connected Ohio and Kentucky with more efficiency and convenience. Up to this point, small footbridges and ferries were the only way to cross the Ohio River. This and the construction of four more bridges before the turn of the century allowed commerce to swiftly move back and forth across the river.

The further rise of industry in the city after the Civil War caused a surge of people working and living in the city. This shift to an urban society saw a further rise in the needs of these city dwellers. The wealthy industry owners, their wives, and their families were looking to outfit themselves and their homes in the most fashionable style.

In response to the need of the wealthy women to be fashionable came the rise of the Cincinnati dressmaker. During the late nineteenth century, over 1,553 different dressmakers thrived in the city. To live up to the standards of Victorian society or expectations, ladies needed many fashionable costumes or a fashionable wardrobe. Wealthy women kept the city’s dressmakers incredibly busy. It provided women with a good income and allowed them to associate with wealthier individuals and the elite of society. It offered opportunities for travel to New York City and even Europe, and presented the chance for financial independence at a time when most women were dependent on their husbands.

In only a few decades, Cincinnati evolved from a frontier town to a booming metropolis and became one of the nation’s leading commercial centers. To this day, Cincinnati remains a center of industry and commerce. Companies begun during the city’s golden age still thrive today and have sustained the city throughout its ever-changing history.


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