Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley is best known as Mary Lincoln’s confidante and dressmaker. She is also the author of Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley, Formerly a Slave, But More Recently Modiste, and Friend to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868)
Elizabeth Hobbs was born into slavery in 1818 to Agnes and George Pleasant Hobbs on the Col. Armistead Burwell farm in Dinwiddie County, Virginia (although her biographer Jennifer Fleischner claims that Col. Burwell was actually Hobbs’ father). Since Agnes and George were married “abroad,” the family did not live together, with the exception of a brief time when George lived on the Burwell farm. When his master moved to the west, George Hobbs was permanently separated from his family.
When Elizabeth was fourteen, she was sent to live with her master’s eldest son, the Reverend Robert Burwell, and his wife in North Carolina. During this time she endured whippings and beatings from the village schoolmaster, a Mr. Bingham, ostensibly to subdue her “stubborn pride,” as she later wrote. At age twenty, Elizabeth became pregnant as the result of a rape, and her only child, George, was born in 1839.
After the birth of her son, 21-year-old Elizabeth was sent back to Virginia to live with her master’s daughter, Ann Burwell Garland, and Ann’s husband, Hugh. From Virginia, she accompanied the Garland family when it moved west to St. Louis in 1847. K
There she began work as a seamstress and dressmaker, skills she had learned from her mother. Her work helped support the entire Garland family.
Hobbs’s reputation as a skilled dressmaker grew quickly and her patrons soon included some of St. Louis’s most elite citizens. While in St. Louis, Elizabeth became reacquainted with James Keckley, whom she had known in Virginia, and consented to marry him on the condition that Hugh Garland allowed her to purchase her freedom. Although not yet free, Elizabeth Hobbs married James Keckley in 1852 but only after Garland agreed to a purchase price of $1200.
With assistance from some of her affluent patrons, Elizabeth Hobbs was able to buy her and her son’s freedom on August 10, 1855. But the marriage partnership turned out to be a failure. Elizabeth Keckley separated from her husband and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1860 after James Keckley falsely claimed to be free. By that time she had paid back all the money she had borrowed.
According to blackpast, In Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Hobbs built a successful dressmaking career becoming acquainted with Mary Lincoln, whom Keckley met on President Lincoln’s first day in office. Her work for and friendship with Mary Lincoln permitted her a unique view of events during this era which she chronicled in Behind the Scenes (1868). Keckley also became a prominent figure in D.C.’s free black community, helping to found and serving as president of the Contraband Relief Association, which later became the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldier’s Relief Association.
Elizabeth Hobbs briefly lived with Mary Lincoln following Lincoln’s death, but her relationship with the first lady soured with the release of her book, in which she revealed personal information about living in the White House.
The negative reaction to the book in D.C.’s white community also affected Keckley’s ability to earn a living. Finally in 1892 at the age of 74, she took a faculty position at Wilberforce University in Ohio as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley died in May of 1907 while living at the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children in Washington, D.C. Keckley’s son, George, preceded her in death, dying in 1861 while serving in the Union army. A purple velvet gown designed and made by Keckley and worn by Mary Lincoln at her husband’s second inauguration can be viewed at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.
Below is an excerpt of Smithsonian museum interview about the life of Elizabeth Hobbs.
Are Elizabeth Keckley designs plentiful today?
Not that many still exist actually. And even with those pieces that do exist, there’s a question as to whether they can be attributed to Keckley. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a Mary Lincoln gown, a purple velvet dress with two bodices, that the first lady wore during the second presidential inauguration. There’s a buffalo plaid green and white day dress with a cape at the Chicago History Museum.
At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, you’ll find a black silk dress with a strawberry motif that you’d wear to a strawberry party, which was a 19th-century Midwestern picnic tradition, but it’s disputed as to whether or not it’s a Keckley. Penn State has a quilt that Keckley made from dress fabrics, and other items are floating around in collections. For example, Howard University has a pincushion with her name on it.
How did she build such a thriving business as an African-American woman in the mid-1800s?
She was very skilled at building a client network, which was very notable considering she was a black woman and previously enslaved. She consistently made friends with the right people and got them to help her, which was not only a testament to those people, but also to her. She had incredible business savvy.
Elizabeth Keckley was an incredible businesswoman and was also known for her beauty.
In her memoir, she recalls that people thought she was beautiful. The Washington Bee, the African American newspaper, treated her like a black socialite within the African-American community. She dressed well—she was not gaudy or showy, but more pared down and refined. She was known for being elegant, upright and appropriate—the Victorian ideal.
How long would it take for Keckley to make one dress?
I’m not exactly sure. Maybe two, three weeks. To drape the fabric, cut the fabric, use a sewing machine on some parts and hand-stitch others. Also, remember—she was making multiple dresses at a time, and by the time she was a successful dressmaker in Washington, she also had seamstresses working with her.
What was Keckley most known for amongst women in Washington who wanted a dress from her?
Her fit and her adeptness when it came to draping fabric on the body. She was known to be the dressmaker in D.C. because her garments had extraordinary fit.
What were the dressmaking tools she would have been using at the time?
A rudimentary sewing machine, which is at the Chicago History Museum, pins, needles. She may have measured with inches but because that system was so new, she could have used another marking system for measurement. And she may have used a drafting system that came out in the 1820s for patternmaking.
How much was Keckley earning at the time when she was making dresses for Mary Lincoln?
When Keckley first moved to D.C. and worked as a seamstress for a dressmaker, she made $2.50 a day.She recalls in her memoir that when she became a dressmaker, she made a dress for Anna Mason Lee who was attending a reception with the Prince of Wales in 1860, which was a very high society event in D.C. Captain Lee gave Keckley $100 to purchase lace and trim for his wife’s dress.
So while that doesn’t quite speak to how much she was earning, it does put things in perspective and speak to the level of cost and the timeline of moving from a seamstress to a dressmaker. In fact, when she bought the trim from Harper Mitchell, the trim store, for Lee’s dress, the shop gave her a $25 commission for the purchase. That $25 was already ten times what she was making as a seamstress when she first came to Washington. Working as a dressmaker was the highest-paying opportunity women had during that time period, and Keckley’s dresses were known to be very expensive, the envy of women in Washington.