Gina Danna: The Frugal Housewife

The Fillies welcome historical author Gina Danna to the Junction. She has a giveaway at the bottom so leave a comment to get in the drawing.


Last winter in Texas, it was cold enough I pulled out my favorite Polo sweaters to wear and found holes! Moth holes! I pulled a couple more & the little buggers were chomping on most of my Polo and Izod sweaters. They love wool and here they’ve got good – expensive – taste but oh I was sooo mad! What do people do today when this happens? After muttering a few colorful metaphors, the sweater gets tossed, as we’ve become a throwaway society. Broken, buy new! But that’s not how people used to be…

For centuries, many people did not have the wardrobes we have today. Unless you were rich, the majority had a few articles for everyday and one dressy piece for church. During the time of the American Civil War, a great deal of men’s clothing was made of wool. Pants, frockcoats and waistcoats were wool. Why? Because wool is a great durable fabric. Made of tightly woven fibers, it held dirt, mud, and anything else on the surface unlike cotton, which absorbed it. If mud got on wool trousers or skirt, it’d be allowed to dry then a fabric beater, like a carpet beater, would be struck on the item and the dried wool would flake off.

For ladies with those long skirts that hit the floor, what did they do to make them not fray or mar with dirt? Many put a ruffle around the bottom and it took the filth off the streets, sidewalks and home. If it didn’t wash out, the ruffle was torn from the skirt and a new one attached. A new ruffle made of another color or new trims, made the skirt look new. Or they lined the bottom with twill-tape, sewn on the inside so only a glimpse of it showed on the hemline. Colored to match the skirt, this piece saved the hem from dirt and once it was beyond redemption, it was an easy to remove and cheap to replace.

During the Civil War, Southern ladies had to become the Frugal Housewife and find alternatives as the Union naval blockade kept imports out. Therefore, fabric from the North or England wasn’t available, neither were many notions such as stays for corsets, etc. So they redesigned what they had. Fixed their hoops by narrowing them or reverting to corded petticoats. They streamlined their skirts, cutting fabric to repair another area, thus making the skirt not as wide as fashion dictated. Pagoda sleeves were made narrow, cuffs and collars made from other scraps and they reversed the fabric to give it a ‘fresh’ appearance. Women already used shank buttons on their bodices. These buttons were not truly sewn on but the shank went through the slit at the buttonhole and was held there by a ribbon that ran the length of the bodice. To give a change of appearance, they pulled the ribbon, releasing the buttons and they threaded different ones in their place. Quite the ingenious way to make one outfit look like five.

Surprisingly enough, The Gone With The Wind portrayal of using curtains for material wasn’t that far off the norm.

During this time, ladies changed clothing many times a day. During the winter, it may be 3-5 times, summer 7-9 depending. They had their morning gown, working gown, cooking dress, traveling outfit, day dress as well as one for evening supper, evening party and ballgowns. It might sound insane to change but it was a way to keep the outfits cleaner than wearing one all day.

Laundry was a nightmare – an all day affair literally. Washed by hand with a scrub board and soap, it was a task assigned to Mondays. Whites were done in boiling water, colors in cold. Dresses were roughly 7-8 yards of fabric. A big piece to wash so they deconstructed it – bodice from skirt, sleeves from bodice – so smaller pieces to scrub and to dry. Drying was on clothesline outside. Whites placed in sunlight to bleach them whiter; colors turned inside out and hung in the shade to keep from fading. Ironing was with a cast-iron iron like we see for decoration today. It had to warm enough to iron but not hot enough to burn. Regardless of societal class, when they could afford to, they hired a 12 year old to do it for them. I read an account of a lady who wore a new dress in May and didn’t wash it until August! Yet some had to be done and it was much easier to wash collars and cuffs, which get noticeably dirty.

But what about those moth holes? They FIXED them. Women learned how to sew – whether they were good or not didn’t matter. They learned it enough to be able to repair things. Knitting was also a skill majority had. With that knowledge, and using things like cedar chests, they could keep most of their woolen fabric safe.

So what about my moth-holed sweaters? When my mother was alive, she fixed them. My mother was a Depression era child. These children were educated about getting by on nothing and making things last. My mother was great at sewing. Made all my childhood clothes. I remember wishing for store bought clothes…difficult being the one with the pretty – and unique – outfit. She also knitted and for these, she knew how to get into the sweater and reknit the holes closed. Alas, I never acquired those skills…

So, I did the best I could – I used needle and thread to sew them close.

There actually is a book on how to be a frugal housewife: The American Frugal Housewife, Dedicated To Those Who Are Not Ashamed Of Economy by Mrs. Child, 1833. A fascinating read.

Makes you wonder – could you become a “frugal housewife”? I’m giving away one digital copy of RAGS AND HOPE to someone who comments. The drawing will be Sunday.

* * * *


Widower Colonel Pierce Duval only wants return to his Union command in Tennessee. A chance and harrowing encounter with a true-blue Southern belle stirs emotions he thought long buried. When her safety is at stake, how can he not help her? 

Cerisa Fontaine ran away for a new life far from her family’s awful secret. But her controversial marriage and southern drawl make her a pariah in the North. With her husband death, Cerisa is forced to seek employment at the only establishment that will accept her: a brothel.

To survive, Pierce and Cerisa embark on a journey to Tennessee posing as a married couple. But as secrets stand between them, passion wages its war within them. Do they  remain loyal to their cause, or give in to their heart’s desire?


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17 thoughts on “Gina Danna: The Frugal Housewife”

  1. Welcome it’s great to have you Gina. Happy Memorial Day.
    I do believe I’d definitely be a frugal housewife. I try to be one now, my husband laughs at me sometime because I am. Your book sounds amazing.

  2. Thank you, Gina. I really enjoyed your Frugal Housewife blog! Those ladies were so resourceful, and, of course, hardworking. I like to think I could be a frugal housewife. And I look forward to reading your Rags and Hope. I enjoy reading about the South, especially the Civil War era.

  3. My grandmother taught me how to repair clothes. I remember darning some socks. I think I could but I would not want to be so frugal.

  4. I don’t think I could be as frugal as some of them. But, I am to a certain extent. I do repair holes in my clothes when I can. I don’t wear wool, but I like cashmere in the winter and I have found holes in some of my clothes. So, many years ago, I started storing my sweaters in zip lock plastic baggies. I haven’t had any problems since then. But, I sure have a mess to steam when I pull them back out to wear the next season.

    • Good Morning i think women were taught to be frugal back then just by watching their mothers it was the way of life for most. I’m frugal now because i was taught to be. Thankyou for your blog it was very interesting.

  5. Loved your blog and now I want to read Mrs. Child’s book. Ladies really used to be frugal, it’s fascinating. I’m not a frugal person yet I need to be more frugal than most since I’m a single mother on Disabilty income without child support. I grew up not having to be frugal and I have yet to learn to be. I’d love the opportunity to read your book. A giveaway is an awesome way to find a new author to add to my go to authors list.

  6. Good Morning Gina Wonderful blog. Yes I could be a frugal housewife as I would consider myself one. I constantly try to make something last and get all I can or even repurpose items. Sometimes my hubs will get irritated and say “well you just throw That away I will give you the money to buy another”. Last winter I had a sweater that was mostly worn out I cut the sleeves out an made little sweaters for my Shih Tzus

  7. Hello. Have a great Memorial day. I live on a fixed income, I’m not married though. Thank goodness.? But I am definitely frugal….?

  8. I am a frugal person myself and try to fix things if possible. I have always been this way and have to be now. If I have a hole in my everyday close I will stitch it up and go right on wearing it. When my better close get a little rough they become my everyday clothes. So I am a very frugal person.

  9. Welcome Gina. So right about those clothes. My son is 34 now and he has been doing civil war reenacting since he was 13. He makes and sells civil war clothes for men. He has done a ton of research into these clothes. He has become a tailor in his own right. He is very respected and sought after. One day I was watching them doing their reenacting battle in 90 degree weather. I asked him, how all of them didn’t just die in those wool clothes. He mentioned like you did about the weave and how it protected them, but also that when it is hot, wool breathes soooo much better than cotton ever would. I have learned a lot about clothes from that time. His wife makes women’s clothes. She has also given me a lot of information about women’s clothes. Both avid researchers. Their wedding was civil war themed. Richard made all the clothes for all of the men. Kristen made all of the clothes, hoop skirts, corsets for the women. I made my own dress.

  10. Rags & Hope sounds like an exciting story! I do try to be thrifty as often as I can, I was raised “waste not, want not” but my sister and I still rolled our eyes when my grandmother would tell us how her and her siblings shared the school clothes, etc. And even though I try to save, I certainly don’t have the skills of these women in your post, or even my mom and grandma.

  11. Welcome, Gina! We’re so happy to have you. What a fascinating post! I wondered how they washed those long dresses and kept the filth off the hem. I can sew pretty good but neither of my daughters or grown granddaughters even know how to sew on a button. Nor do they want to learn. They toss a garment that loses a button. But sadly we’ve become a throw away nation. My mother came through the Depression and she didn’t throw anything away–clothes or anything else.

    I hope you enjoy your visit. Good Luck with Rags and Hope! Love that title and the cover is gorgeous!

  12. I try to be as frugal as I can. After all, I don’t have so much money I could just throw it away.

  13. I have been accused of being cheap. I prefer frugal. I will not throw away useful items, but will give away if I find someone needing what I am not using. I do not like sewing at all. My daughter would sew buttons back on for me at 50 cents a button. She last charged me a dollar each. This was when she was in grade school. Now 44, she does not want to sew buttons anymore.
    Loved the blog.

  14. Hi Gina, Enjoyed your blog on women’s clothing & how they repaired them. Wow! Fashion styles made clothing a big headache for them. Yes, I think I am a frugal housewife. Clothes cost a lot of money & I try to make them last. I mend them with a patch or pretty sparkle so the hole won’t show. I also dye my clothes when they get faded.
    Come & visit again at P&P soon..

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