Luzena and the “Languishing Spark of Womanly Vanity”

Luzena and her husband and their two little boys were on the western, downward, side of the Sierras and close to the end of the trail—

The first man we met was about fifty miles above Sacramento. He had ridden on ahead, bought a fresh horse and some new clothes, and was coming back to meet his train. The sight of his white shirt, the first I had seen for four long months, revived in me the languishing spark of womanly vanity; and when he rode up to the wagon where I was standing, I felt embarrassed, drew down my ragged sun-bonnet over my sunburned face, and shrank from observation. My skirts were worn off in rags above my ankles; my sleeves hung in tatters above my elbows; my hands brown and hard, were gloveless; around my neck was tied a cotton square, torn from a discarded dress; the soles of my leather shoes had long ago parted company with the uppers; and my husband and children and all the camp, were habited like myself, in rags.

A day or two before, this man was one of us; today, he was a messenger from another world, and a stranger, so much influence does clothing have on our feelings and intercourse with our fellow men.

Ah, the “languishing spark of womanly vanity”! Poor Luzena, to be seen in that state.

We can scarcely imagine how bedraggled and filthy one would become on the overland trek. Think of how grubby you feel after a week of camping and no shower. Then multiple that by twenty. Give yourself at best one change of clothing.

And just try to find a picture that fits this description! No woman would be caught dead having her photograph taken in that condition. Photos of women on the trail are exceedingly scarce. This picture of the Joseph Byington family is an oft-repeated one. Notice the barefoot children. What the women were wearing on their feet is hard to see. Their clothes look clean though, and I am sure this is the beginning of the trail and not the end.

Mormon pioneer Joseph H. Byington and his two families

Hollywood has given us a more appealing image:

Westward the Women with Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel

Imagine what those clothes would look like at the end of the trail. Picture the roughened hands and the sunburnt faces. Not a single woman has a bonnet or an apron. They wouldn’t last a week on the trail.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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2 Responses to Luzena and the “Languishing Spark of Womanly Vanity”

  1. Karen Marie Kitterman says:

    Fascinating!  Thank you!!!

    Sent from my iPhone


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  2. Marian Ware says:

    So interesting . I like the two photos showing the difference between reality and fiction!

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