The loose fitting style of trousers known as bloomers took their name from women’s rights activist Amelia Bloomer, born May 27, 1818, in Homer, New York. Bloomer wasn’t actually the creator of the style, but she was the reason it exploded in popularity in 1851—and her impact on the women’s rights movement went much further than inspiring a fashion revolution. Here are a few facts about Amelia Bloomer, covering her role in bloomers and beyond.
May 27, 1818, Homer, New York
December 30, 1894, Council Bluffs, Iowa
1. Amelia Bloomer began writing about social issues at her husband’s encouragement.
Amelia Jenks was working as a governess when, in 1840, at the age of 22, she married Dexter Bloomer, one of the owners and editors of the local Seneca County Courier. Dexter believed that his wife “possessed the power of expressing her thoughts on paper with both ease and grace,” he wrote in 1895’s Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer. After some encouragement, Amelia turned her hand to writing about politics and social issues and her articles were published—albeit anonymously—in local papers.
2. She attended the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention.
The Seneca Falls Convention was held on July 19 and 20, 1848, and facilitated the discussion of women gaining equality in the United States. Bloomer attended, but she didn’t sign the Declaration of Sentiments, which outlined the demands for women to gain equality in marriage, employment, religion, and politics. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass passionately argued for the inclusion of women’s right to vote in the declaration [PDF].
While Bloomer’s name is absent from the signatories—some theorize because it took focus away from the temperance movement—her husband later noted that “the principles promulgated in those documents began to have an effect upon her thoughts and actions.”
3. Bloomer was a dedicated advocate for temperance.
Bloomer was opposed to alcohol and joined the temperance movement in the early 1840s. She attended conventions, served on committees, and wrote for the temperance paper The Water Bucket. “Another cannot make cake fit to eat without wine or brandy. A third must have brandy on her apple dumplings, and a fourth comes out boldly and says she likes to drink once in a while herself too well,” she wrote in one column in the paper. “What flimsy excuses these! brandy and apple dumplings, forsooth! That lady must be a wretched cook indeed who cannot make apple dumplings, mince pies, or cake palatable without the addition of poisonous substances.”
Despite her enthusiastic participation, Bloomer was frustrated with the limited role women were forced to play in the movement.
4. Bloomer founded The Lily, the first American newspaper by and for women.
Eager to share her views, in 1848 Bloomer started a temperance paper, called The Lily, to be distributed to the Seneca Falls Ladies Temperance Society. When the society’s interest in publishing The Lily began to wane, Bloomer took control and launched it as a fully-fledged newspaper on January 1, 1849.
“It was a needed instrumentality to spread abroad the truth of the new gospel to woman, and I could not withhold my hand to stay the work I had begun,” she later said of starting the paper. Although her own early writings had been published anonymously, by 1850 Bloomer’s name proudly appeared on The Lily’s masthead.
Early issues of The Lily focused on temperance, but the paper was a gateway to Bloomer’s vocal advocacy for women’s rights. This widening of The Lily’s scope is partly due to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leader of the women’s rights movement in the U.S., who wrote for the paper.
5. She popularized bloomers in 1851 after writing about wearing the style in The Lily.
The long and heavy skirts women wore in the mid-1800s were uncomfortable and impractical, prompting calls for a change in style. The Seneca County Courier ran an article in 1851 that suggested women switch to a shorter skirt worn over Turkish trousers—loose pants that gathered at the ankle.
Bloomer took up the idea in The Lily; shortly afterwards (and completely coincidentally), Elizabeth Smith Miller arrived in town to visit her cousin Stanton wearing the outfit. Bloomer decided to, in her words, “practice as I preached” and announced her adoption of the trousers in the April edition of her newspaper. She unwittingly started a new fashion craze, inspiring countless women to wear the style. Various names were coined for the trouser and skirt combo, including the “Bloomer Costume” and “Bloomerites,” but the one that stuck was “Bloomers.”
6. While bloomers were popular, they were also controversial.
Bloomer said she had no idea “my action would create an excitement throughout the civilized world, and give to the style my name and the credit due Mrs. Miller … I stood amazed at the furor I had unwittingly caused.” Before the reform dress controversy The Lily had a circulation of 500 per month; afterwards it rose to 4000.
Although merely born out of a desire for practicality, bloomers became—for better and worse—a symbol of feminist activism. Gleason’s Pictorial, for instance, wrote that “the model bloomer leaves her poor young husband pouting and weeping at home,” while leaving her children “entirely in charge of her husband.” In addition to the negative press, Miller recalled that the outfit attracted “much gaping curiosity and the harmless jeering of street boys.” However, her confidence in the outfit was bolstered by Stanton asking, “The question is no longer, how do you look, but woman, how do you feel?”
7. Bloomer introduced Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to each other.
In May 1851, just one month after the bloomers edition of The Lily was published, Bloomer, Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony ran into each other on the street. Bloomer, who was friends with both women, introduced the two, starting a friendship that would change the course of history. Working together, Anthony and Stanton helped advance women’s rights in America, founding the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, among a raft of other accomplishments.
In 1999, a statue commemorating the important meeting between the three women was unveiled in Seneca Falls. Both Bloomer and Stanton are sculpted wearing bloomers.
8. Bloomer wore bloomers for only a few years before switching back to skirts.
Bloomer wore trousers for several years but eventually hung them up and went back to wearing long skirts. This was partly because the invention of the crinoline made skirts lighter and more comfortable, and partly because she felt bloomers were distracting from issues of “far greater importance—the question of woman’s right to better education, to a wider field of employment, to better remuneration for her labor, and to the ballot for the protection of her rights.”
9. Although best remembered for bloomers, Amelia Bloomer also earned a place in the wider history of gender equality.
In 1854, Bloomer sold The Lily—she and her husband were moving to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which didn’t have the necessary facilities to publish it—but she continued to fight for women’s rights. Notably, she was a founder of the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association and acted as president of the association between 1871 and 1873.
Bloomer died in 1894, at the age of 76. One year later, her husband published a biography, Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer, to record her place in the history of the women’s rights movement. She was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1975 and 1995, respectively.