Girls in White

Part one of an elegant history of Bonneville women

Published online: Feb 01, 2020 Looking Back Linden B. Bateman
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During a 37 year career as a history teacher, I was constantly searching for class projects which brought life to the past—something far beyond just reading a textbook. And so it was in the spring of 2001, when a student approached my desk with a long narrow carton. I could tell from her excitement that it must contain something very precious, and from its dated postage stamps, also something very old. My student informed me that it contained a mail-order gown worn by her great grandmother at her wedding in 1932, the year postmarked on the carton.

Upon carefully opening the container, we found, wrapped in tissue, the faded remnants of a floral bouquet carried by her ancestor at the wedding. Following the ceremony, and after being worn for possibly only an hour or two, the dress and flowers were carefully returned to their carton and almost forgotten. We both trembled slightly when realizing that the carton had not been opened for 69 years and then lost our breath completely when viewing the stunning and very expensive satin gown in its completely new and mint condition, worn only once. 

History did indeed come to life that day when the dress was modeled by the tall elegant great granddaughter with long flowing hair and rosy cheeks.

That wistful experience was part of a project I sponsored every year for junior girls in American history classes at Bonneville High School. Students received extra credit for finding vintage wedding gowns, at least 50 years old, which could then be modeled by the girls.  Black and white photographs were taken at historic locations in town, such as the G.G. Wright mansion on Ridge Avenue, with its rich antique honey oak interiors, or along the Snake River greenbelt with cascading falls as a backdrop.

Starting with the first year of the project in 1990, hundreds of photographs of girls wearing gowns were taken, many of which were over 100 years old. The photographs were displayed in class exhibits each spring. Looking back to those days, I now realize more than ever that the main value of the project was that it connected students to their family history. It was not uncommon for girls to model gowns originally worn by ancestors going back four generations.  Even now I occasionally meet former students who express gratitude for being re-connected to their family heritage and for the event photographs they still possess.

Some of those photographs may be included in a film, “Idaho Women in White,” now being created by the Bonneville County Heritage Association. The film will be featured in a free 2020 Idaho Day celebration which will be held at the Colonial Theater on March 4 at 7 p.m..  The theme will be “Inspiring Idaho Women” and marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granting American women the right to vote.

During that period, and extending back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was high fashion for women to wear white dresses at formal gatherings such as graduation ceremonies or important community gatherings or social events. That included women of the suffrage movement who often paraded or attended rallies in white dresses. The film being created by the Bonneville County Heritage Association will be a blending of art and history. It will feature beautiful photographs of women in white from those early times in different formats, and also features short biographies of prominent Idaho and Bonneville County women.

 It will whisper to us from elegant days long ago and will be a tribute to all Idaho women

Look for Part Two: Women in White in next month’s issue.


Want to read more from February's issue? Click here!


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