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Amelia Jenks Bloomer: A Yankee Woman Goes to Iowa

Amelia Jenks was the daughter of Ananias Jenks, who was born in Yankee Rhode Island around 1786. He was a woolen clothmaker by trade who migrated, first to Oneida NY and then south to Homer, in Cortland County, on the eastern margins of the Finger Lakes. Here he operated a woolen mill and married Lucy Webb, also from Rhode Island. They had six children, of which Amelia was the fourth, born in 1818. Jenks later moved some distance north to Seneca Falls to take advantage of the waterpower available there to operate a bigger mill. Today, US 20 runs right through the town, located at the foot of one of the Finger Lakes.

The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.

Amelia Bloomer

Amelia Jenks was reasonably educated for her time and gender and, when she was 17, taught in a country school for a term. She left this low-paying job to act as governess and tutor to the children of a local merchant. At 22, in 1840, she married Dexter Bloomer, also of Yankee stock and a nephew of her employer. Bloomer, like Amelia, had also taught in a country school, but also had practiced some law and, with a partner, published a local biweekly, Whig-oriented newspaper.

She became involved with the Seneca Falls politically-active people and her husband encouraged her initiative by having her write an occasional temperance column for his paper. She found her talent as a journalist/writer and she began to write temperance articles at a regular clip.

In some ways, Amelia was a paradox: she was diminutive and quiet, but fixed in her opinions: when she was ‘toasted’ by friends and family at her wedding, she flatly refused to drink the glass of wine traditionally offered at a wedding reception; later, when she decided upon dressing and going about in ‘Turkish dress’, she did so, regardless of public criticism. She also learned to be a decent public speaker.

Over the next few years, Amelia continued to write and help organize temperance activists, temperance being her life’s cause. In 1848, she attended the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, but did not sign the Convention’s declaration, thinking it was not strong enough on temperance. After the Convention was over, with her husband’s backing and encouragement, she started her own newspaper in 1849, called The Lily.

At first, she was only going to write about the temperance issue, but, in response to letters from her readers, she soon began to expand her views to women’s issues in general. At this point, in late 1849, Elizabeth Cady Stanton appeared at the Lily’s door to volunteer to write for the paper, anonymously, as ‘Sunflower’.

When Dexter, who was active in the Whig party, became the Town’s Postmaster two years later, he hired his wife as his ‘assistant’ and she used a part of the Post Office’s facilities as a makeshift office for the paper. The Lily gradually expanded its subscriber base to a few thousand subscribers around the country. It was the first newspaper of consequence published by a woman, with content designed to express women’s concerns.

Her ideas on dress came, at least in part, from her father’s involvement in the cloth business. In 1851, she stated that the layers of clothing over tight-fitting underwear and corsets were not only hot and difficult to move about in while doing housework and shopping, but they were also unhealthy, gathering dirt and dust. She advocated, and wore, a kind of short dress over loose-fitting ‘harem’ trousers gathered at the ankle. She did not invent it. The dress caught on, with the Burlington IA Courier, being the first to call the dress, ‘bloomers’. Apparently, Amelia did not mind the controversy. During 1851, bloomers became a national fad. The Lily was swamped with letters from women all over the country asking for patterns and instructions on how to make ‘bloomers’ and The Lily responded with a 25-cent package offer for patterns and instructions.

The outfit became known to the scandalized public, first as ‘Turkish dress’ and then as ‘bloomers’ and the sobriquet has stuck in women’s fashion, not necessarily as a pejorative, ever since: listen here.

The fashion caught on quickly, but due to the severe negative public attention the clothing attracted, Amelia and most other notable suffragists eventually stopped wearing bloomers in the hopes of refocusing the public away from clothing styles and onto other social issues. She wore them for 5 years, until she arrived in Council Bluffs.

Even so, Amelia’s dress and her newspaper made her an instant celebrity. Like other notable people, she was invited to deliver lectures all across the country. In 1853, for instance, she attended the National women’s rights convention in Cleveland, and gave lectures in Detroit, Chicago and Milwaukee. The Lily achieved a circulation of 6,000 and its contributors included the best-known female writers and activists. Between the paper subscriptions and lecture fees, Amelia was, especially for a woman then, doing very well, indeed.

In late 1852, the Whigs lost the federal election and, as a Whig stalwart, Dexter Bloomer found himself replaced as the postmaster in Seneca Falls. Without a job, and after some discussion, the Bloomers decided to move to central Ohio, where a steam-activated printing press was available for a new newspaper venture. Amelia could continue to publish The Lily from Ohio.

Her paper contained opinion on issues familiar to the activists of the times and to a degree, to our times:

The Lily of 1854 seems routine to modern readers because we are so familiar with the arguments and issues that are little changed in our day: woman's place is in the home; St. Paul was a sexist; laws discriminate against married women; woman needs work or she becomes an "insipid drone,'' prepared only for an "aimless frivolous life, a mere butterfly existence."    After a century, the issues and complaints are fundamentally the same. The issue of equal employment and wages raised in 1854 bears witness to this fact.

Before a year had passed, Dexter had run into difficulties with his new local partner and he resurrected a dream of his to go west into Iowa. He purchased a homesite in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and prepared to leave for there. It would be illogical to suppose that Amelia would have been happy to leave Seneca Falls for Mt. Vernon OH and then just the next year move on to far western Iowa, leaving the excitement and visibility of lecture tours in the East, but she followed Dexter to the frontier.

Another part of the problem that led to their departure was that, during 1854, public concerns had shifted away from temperance and women’s issues to ones dealing with the immigration of Irish Catholics and other Europeans plus the perceived extension of slavery northward via the Kansas- Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision. Women’s issues were back where they started.

So, by late 1854, however, it was apparent that The Lily’s editorial interests were being pushed aside in the national consciousness. Amelia recognized another difficulty: if she were to follow Dexter west, there would be little regular contact for her to maintain control of The Lily, so, in 1855, she sold it to an Indiana woman. Amelia stayed with it for much of the year, but, after she left, the new owner struggled to maintain its appeal, though it lasted for a few more years.

Another incentive for Amelia to move was the political decision by Iowans to give women property rights equal to men, as well as making them joint guardians of children with men. After six years of publishing her paper, she was willing to make a career-change.

Dexter and Amelia made their way west in early 1856, after spending most of the winter visiting friends and relatives. They traveled by train to Chicago and then on to Alton IL, where they caught a steamboat that took them down to St. Louis, where they visited suffragist friends until the ice broke up on the Missouri River. Then, it was up the Missouri River toward Council Bluffs and their new home. While on a stopover on the trip upriver, Amelia agreed to provide a lecture on women’s rights to interested passengers and locals. She got out one of her best ‘bloomer’ costume and spoke to a packed house in the St. Joseph MO courthouse.

The economy fluctuated wildly between boom and bust and the Bloomers suffered from the recession of 1857. In 1861, other business opportunities arose as the Mormons, some of whom who had settled in the area in the late 1840s, were called west to their colony at Salt Lake, leaving in many cases their somewhat developed property behind.

Amelia, restricted by lack of opportunity, chafed under the housekeeping role that she had to adopt, given the lack of alternatives on the frontier. She wrote to The Lily a couple of months after arriving; “I judge that the Spirit of Reform does not dwell here; if so. I have not found it out.’ 

A year after they arrived, Amelia joined The Good Templars Lodge, a temperance organization, as a charter member, but its work seemed ineffectual. She also gave lectures locally on women’s rights and was a frequent letter-writer to the local newspaper. She was approached by a member of the Nebraska Legislature to deliver a lecture to their Legislature about this topic, which she carried off impressively in front of a standing-room only crowd. The Council Bluffs paper, which covered the event and said, ‘Mrs. Bloomer, although a little body, is among the great women of the United States. Her only danger is in asking too much.’

In 1857, a year after the Bloomers arrived, they adopted two of the 5 children of a Welsh Mormon convert whose wife had died while on the trip from Wales to Mormon Idaho. The boy was 5 and the girl was 14 and the other 3 were taken in by other Council Bluffs locals. Presumably the father was to call for them, if he could, after he had settled in Idaho.

Shortly after the Bloomers were settled, another newcomer, land surveyor Grenville Dodge, was asked by the Rock Island Railroad to survey a line from the Mississippi River to the Missouri River, passing through or near Council Bluffs. Dodge had also decided, like the Bloomers, in 1855, to settle his family there. He soon became acquainted with an Illinois railroad lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who had come west in 1858 to look at the proposed transcontinental railroad route. Lincoln also visited Council Bluffs to make a campaign speech in 1859, where the Bloomers must have met him.

Meanwhile, Amelia began to be to be active, advertising herself to Eastern women as a trusted land agent, who would, if they sent their funds, make purchases of good land for them. The incentive was that women could own property on their own in Iowa. She was also the first woman to speak out publicly for voting rights in Iowa.

In 1869, she went to New York City to participate in a women’s rights convention. It was the first time she had been ‘back home’ since they had left for Iowa in 1855. She had a seat of honor at the convention. Also, In1869, a group of Dubuque women formed the state’s women’s rights association after they heard Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton speak in Galena IL.

During the Civil War, Amelia helped found the Iowa Soldiers’ Aid Society, where she became acquainted with Annie Wittenmyer. The local women formed a Soldiers’ Aid Society there in response to a letter sent out to them by Annie Wittenmyer and electing Amelia as President.

At the beginning of the Civil War, a Union regiment was stationed in Council Bluffs. Its first request to the Soldiers’ Aid Society was to make a flag for Company A. In August, Amelia presented the flag on behalf of the women and gave a patriotic speech. She also warned them to stay away from vice and especially strong drink.                  

She encouraged young women to study at The University of Iowa, then the only school of higher education in the State where women could enroll.

Though she became President of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association from 1871-73, there came a denouement. In the 1870s, many other Iowa women became active in the women’s rights movement and Amelia found herself honored in the East, but shunted aside in Iowa, as the population and the activism in Iowa was located in the eastern part, not in the West of the State.

She and her husband always were of modest means and that meant that travel and lodging to go to meetings in eastern Iowa were sometimes out of reach. Dexter could not do better than a ’decent’ level of income, while many of the Iowa feminists were well-off and had high social standing in the eastern and central parts of the State.

Also, Amelia tended to suffer from social inferiority, illness and a certain lack of humor. Her access to the women of national standing was better than the  eastern Iowans, which only raised more jealous feelings. She was continually active and generally included in the Iowa feminist movement, but was honored rather than powerful. She died in 1890 at 72, having celebrated she and Dexter’s 50th wedding anniversary four years earlier.

This blog is excerpted from the upcoming 3rd volume of The Yankee Road. To read more, get Volume 1 here and Volume 2 here.