Pioneers dressed for success on the Oregon Trail

June 18, 2001 12:00 am
Nancy Harms, an interpretive specialist at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, explains the importance of bonnets to women traveling the Oregon Trail. A sign of a truly refined woman, Harms said, was the degree of paleness of her skin. For emigrant women, protecting their skin from the elements became key. Many wore gloves, long sleeves and high collars to cover their skin; to protect their faces, they used layers bonnets to guard against the sun and wind. (Baker City Herald photograph by Kathy Orr).
Nancy Harms, an interpretive specialist at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, explains the importance of bonnets to women traveling the Oregon Trail. A sign of a truly refined woman, Harms said, was the degree of paleness of her skin. For emigrant women, protecting their skin from the elements became key. Many wore gloves, long sleeves and high collars to cover their skin; to protect their faces, they used layers bonnets to guard against the sun and wind. (Baker City Herald photograph by Kathy Orr).

By BRENNA KNOWLES

Of the Baker City Herald

Interpretive specialist Nancy Harms taught visitors about 19th century emigrant clothing in the Leo Adler Room of the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center on Thursday morning.

The lecture and demonstration called From the Skin Out, was part of a series of programs offered by the trail center.

Harms said the programs were spurred by visitor questions and to help the center meet its goal of bringing a glimpse of mid-18th century life to a modern mind.

Harms said the programs help visitors understand the facts, dispel myths and prevent the Oregon Trail journey from being romanticized. She said the programs also help visitors realize and honor the strengths of the men, women and children who completed the journey.

To demonstrate how pioneers did things out of necessity, Harms displayed various dresses, pants, shirts, undergarments and bonnets and explained their significance in protecting travelers from sun, wind and dust. Harms also explained the benefits of corsets and skirts for women on the Oregon Trail.

From analyzing diary entries, Harms explained that pioneers identified themselves through their clothing.

They thought that if you wore certain outfits you were a certain type of person, Harms said.

Harms has worked for the trail center for over 8 years. Before the center, she worked with the National Park Service in Philadelphia. She became interested in period dress in college as a theater major.

To me, you understand people by understanding their clothing, she said.

Visitors Peter and Joy Durkee of Canby said that they would highly encourage other visitors to attend these programs.

I studied Oregon History in college and clothing was a subject area that we didn't cover, Joy Durkee said. The program was a lot more enlightening and educational than the names and the facts that I studied. I loved it.