During the two decades before the Civil War, visionary political and social ideas flourished throughout the United States and found particularly fertile soil in New York State. Women and men organized to abolish slavery, obtain equal rights for women and convert people to temperance. Impelled by the desire to live in harmony with nature and each other, groups of people experimented with new ways to live and work together and to care for their bodies and spirits.1
Orange County was not untouched by the winds of reform and one of its residents, Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck, devoted most of her life to sustaining the reform spirit in her community even after the atmosphere in the world around her had become less hospitable to political and social radicalism.
Lydia Sayer was born in Warwick in 1827, one of the eight children of Rebecca Forshee and Benjamin Sayer. She was an active and independent young woman and in 1849, she adopted a new form of dress which had recently been introduced into American reform circles. Lydia encountered a variety of responses to her new attire ranging from appreciation to hostility, but she wore it throughout her life and actively championed its cause for many years.2
The new costume, most frequently called the "reform dress" by its advocates, appeared on the American reform scene in the late 1810s. After Amelia Bloomer's journal, The Lily, published a woodcut of Bloomer wearing the costume in March, 1851, it came to be known as the "Bloomer" dress despite the protestations of Bloomer and other dress reformers that she was in no way responsible for its design. The costume was modeled after the dress of Moslem women and was sometimes called the "Turkish costume." While there were several variations, they all consisted of a loose fitting dress reaching to the knees or lower and, most controversial of all, a pair of trousers.3
The reform dress was promoted most vigorously by adherents of a health reform movement called "water cure" or "hydropathy" and was frequently worn by women at the "cures," health resorts which functioned as combination retreats, spas and clinics for the ailing. Water cure was one of many mid-nineteenth century health systems which challenged the prevailing practices of orthodox medicine. Hydropaths criticized "regular" practitioners for cultivating dependence on drugs and doctors and endangering the health of their patients by "heroic" practices such as bleeding, blistering, and purging. They advocated instead a preventative approach to health care and championed the three physicians: Water, Exercise, and Diet. Water, they claimed had great restorative powers and they used it in many forms: baths, showers, hot and cold compresses and a good deal of drinking.4
Hydropaths raged against prevailing notions of femininity. The ideal nineteenth century lady, promoted by mainstream magazines and gift books, was fragile, submissive and passive, a decorative ornament for the middle class household. Dominant medical views of women reflected and perpetuated this image of women by treating women as inherently weak and delicate. According to the orthodox practitioners, women's entire being was determined by her reproductive system which was susceptible to a wide range of afflictions. Female complaints often received draconian treatments at the hands of the regulars. Water cure people maintained that women had as much potential for good health as men. In the writings and speeches of water cure advocates a new image of womanhood emerged. This woman was healthy, active and knowledgeable about her own body. This ideal collided squarely with contemporary women's fashions which rendered women almost immobile and perpetually breathless. The six to to eight heavy petticoats, constricting corsets and long wide skirts seemed to the water cure reformers emblematic of the helpless, feeble state of nineteenth century middle class womanhood.
Unlike the medical establishment, the water cure movement encouraged women to become doctors. "Women, they urged, must become their own physicians and the physicians of each other." At the various hydropathic medical courses which were held in the 1850s throughout New York State, roughly one-third of the students were women.5
Water cure ideas appealed to Lydia Sayer's independent and active spirit. She soon found, however, that some institutions in her community were unreceptive to new ideas. When she applied to Seward Seminary in Florida, New York, the faculty decided at a special meeting to deny her admission unless she stopped wearing the reform dress. Lydia's "sense of right and justice was outraged." The incident demonstrated to her that women were judged by their appearance far more harshly and narrowly than men and while she had originally adopted the dress for the physical freedom it afforded, she now began to reflect on the political and social oppression of women. The action of Seward Seminary faculty, she recalled later, "anchored me in the ranks of women's rights advocates and as I left that house I registered a vow that I would stand or fall in the battle for women's physical, political and educational freedom and equality." Lydia gained admittance to Elmira Academy and when she completed her course of study she attended a three month course in water cure practice at Dr. Thrall's Hygeia Therapeutic Institute in New York City.6
Water cure practitioners were more than doctors, they were activists on behalf of a world view in which physical and mental health derived from living in accordance with the "laws of nature." Lydia embraced the lifestyle of a water cure reformer with enthusiasm, participating in various reform movements, and writing columns and letters for several newspapers while she developed her medical practice. Lydia's commitment to women's freedom deepened during the early 1850s as the fledgling women's rights movement organized and confronted the exclusion of women from the leadership of reform organizations. She moved to Washington, D.C., after she completed her course at the Hygeia Therapeutic Institute, practiced medicine, lectured widely and wrote for the Washington daily newspapers.7
Meanwhile, back in Orange County, John Whitbeck Hasbrouck, scion of the Huguenot Hasbrouck family of Ulster County, established the Middletown Whig Press. The Press combined what it called a "full and accurate compend of intelligence from all parts of the country" with earnest advocacy of the anti-slavery cause and other liberal reforms of the day. Hasbrouck invited Lydia Sayer to lecture in Orange County in 1856. After Lydia's lecture tour, John Hasbrouck offered to help Lydia establish her own newspaper in Middletown. Lydia accepted, moved to Middletown, and began editing The Sibyl, A Review of the Tastes, Errors and Fashions of Society.8
It must have been a sheer delight to Lydia, who had for years been writing articles and letters for other people's newspapers, to finally have an opportunity to fully elaborate her vision. While dress reform was The Sibyl's primary mission, the editor saw changes in women's clothing as part of a broader movement to induce people to live in harmony with nature. The Sibyl's commitment to sexual equality was proclaimed in the masthead which featured a woman in reform dress at the center flanked by women and men working together on aspects of newspaper production. Blanche Howard, the model reformer of The Sibyl's first serialized piece of fiction, had, like Sayer herself, moved from water cure to dress reform and women's rights. "Step by step had she risen in the progressive walk of reform until her awakened spirit could understand every developing beauty it presented."9
At first The Sibyl was almost entirely written by its editor but it soon became the main voice of the dress reform movement which consolidated into the Dress Reform Association in 1856. Dress reformers from around the country wrote letters and articles about their beliefs and experience as lone crusaders in a predominantly hostile world. The dress reformers and the leadership of the emerging women's rights movement disagreed sharply about strategy for achieving women's freedom and they carried on a lively debate in the pages of The Sibyl. Many women's rights activists had adopted the reform dress in 1851 and rejoiced in their ability to "lay aside our fetters and don the freedom suit." As the public began to associate dress reform with women's rights, however, ridicule and abuse of the "Bloomers" gained momentum. Cartoons of women in Bloomers usurping various male privileges proliferated and, on a number of occasions, women in reform dress were mobbed on the street. The reform dress, like "bra burning" today, quickly became a symbol of everything that was threatening about feminism, women shaping their lives in accordance with their own needs, declaring independence from male approval, and doing what had traditionally been reserved for men. The nineteenth century public recoiled in terror from the image of a world without clearly marked distinctions between the sexes.
Most women's right leaders, frustrated by the energy involved in defending their style of clothing decided to return to conventional dress. They believed that women's "miserable style of dress is a consequence of her present vassalage not its cause," and reluctantly concluded that in order to develop support for the political, social and economic changes they were proposing they had to compromise with the conventions of the day. They were convinced that most women would be unwilling to adopt a style of dress that flaunted conventional standards of beauty, while they remained economically dependent on men.10
The dress reformers were outraged by the defection of the women's rights leaders and The Sibyl called them "Arnolds to the cause of humanity, going back to the enemy's camp, rather than endure persecution for a season." To The Sibyl, women's dependent condition "must necessarily exist until she could, by her own efforts, move to be self reliant and self supporting, which she could never do with her present style of dress." The water cure tradition bequeathed to the dress reformers an emphasis on individual responsibility. Change, according to the dress reformers, began with the individual not with social institutions. "Women's strife for public power," wrote The Sibyl, "must ever remain crippled until she shows to the world that she has strength to sustain an individual character.11
The Sibyl and the dress reformers adhered to a style of reform activity that was fast fading. Like the members of utopian communities, they believed that social change would occur as a result of the exemplary behavior of reformers. If a few intrepid souls had the courage to live in accordance with the laws of nature, others would be inspired to join them and a new world of equality and harmony would be born.
While editing The Sibyl, Lydia Sayer settled into life in Middletown. Shortly after she moved back to Orange County, she married John Hasbrouck in a union which embodied both tradition and reform. John asked Benjamin Sayer's consent. Lydia wore an elaborate bridal version of the reform dress and they married themselves in a ceremony at the Sayer home. Lydia gave birth to three children but the oldest, Daisy, died at the age of two. In 1857, inspired by the ideas of the phrenologist Orsen Fowler, Lydia and John built an octagonal house, designed to afford maximum sunlight.12
Lydia's life was hectic and demanding as she combined the editorship of a semi-monthly newspaper with parenting and a medical practice. Occasionally, a dress reform colleague would come and help with The Sibyl but Lydia bore major responsibility. In 1864, The Sibyl bid its readers "Goodbye." "We have worked hard," wrote its editor, "and must rest." Lydia continued to be active in the dress reform movement, served as the president of the Dress Reform Association in 1864 and 1865 and covered its annual conventions for the Middletown Whig.13
After the civil war the political and social climate became more conservative and the dress reformers became isolated from the other social movements. The day of the uncompromising reformer, living a pure life in harmony with moral and physical principles had passed away. Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck, however, remained steadfast, and relinquished her reform dress on only one occasion, the graduation of her granddaughter, Mary Lydia Hasbrouck from Montclair High School in 1903.
Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck died in 1910 in Middletown, N. Y., after a lifetime devotee co the laws of life and equality for women. At her request she was buried in Warwick, New York.14
1. For a discussion of antebellum reform activity see Ronald Walters, American Reformers 1815-1860 (N. Y., 1798).
2. E.M. Ruttenber and L.H. Clark, History of Orange County, New York (Philadelphia, 1881). 196.
3. Edward Branch, "The Lily and the Bloomer," Colophon XII (1932), 1-123; The Lily, March, 1951, n.p.
4. Henry Weiss and Harold Kemble, The Great American Water Cure Craze, (Trenton, N.J., 1967); The Water Cure Journal 1845-1860.
5. Kathryn Kish Sklar, "All Hail to Pure, Cold Water," American Heritage XXVI (December, 1974) 64-69; Water Cure Journal, May 1851. 122.
6. Ruttenber and Clark, 196.
7. Ruttenber and Clark, 196; Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck Papers, in the collection of Historical Society of Middletown and the Wallkill Precinct.
8. Ruttenber and Clark. 196.
9. The Sibyl, July 1, 1856, 1; September 6, 1856, 44.
10. The Lily, June, 1851, 48; Dexter Bloomer, Life and Writings of Amelia Bloomer (N.Y., 1975); Ida Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony (Kansas City, 1899); Letter from Lucy Stone. The Sybil, July 1, 1859, 197.
11. The Sibyl, July 1, 1859. 577.
12. John Hasbrouck to Benjamin Sayer, July 11, 1856, Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck Papers in the collection of the Historical Society of Middletown and the Wallkill Precinct, The Sibyl, September 1, 1856. 37; Ruttenber and Clark, 196.
13. The Sibyl, June, 1864 (page number illegible).
14. Middletown Times, August 26, 1910