Gloves have been around since the time of antiquity and were once called “the clothing of the hands.” One writer described gloves of the 1800s as “an object of luxury, elegance, and refinement,” and there were even etiquette rules associated with them. However, gloves were worn for many other reasons than as fashion statements. They were also worn for practical reasons such as comfort or protection from the elements and for recreational reasons, such as when driving, skating, or playing croquet. One source noted that new styles of gloves were appearing every year with elastic wristbands being one of the latest fashions of the early 1850s. Gloves also came in variety of colors and were produced from a variety of materials that ranged from beaver, calf, or lambskin to cotton, worsted, or silk.
Popular gloves of the 1800s included leather gloves because everyone wore them, including Napoleon Bonaparte who “was fond of pulling off and leaving off his gloves … [because of what he referred to as his] ‘aristocratic’ hand[s].” Another reason for their popularity was that “gloves were one of the few gifts a man could give to a single woman he was not engaged to marry.”
Most leather gloves came in a variety of colors, with some being washable and others not. Leather gloves were also versatile with some were worn for dress, others for daily wear, and still others for manual labor or for recreational purposes. Additionally, leather gloves were sometimes lined with fleece or fur and cuffed with fur. A list of the types of gloves in leather and their characteristics follow:
- Beaver gloves were a cheap leather glove that came in numerous colors. These gloves could not be washed and most beaver gloves sold in England were manufactured in Hereford, a cathedral city and civil parish that lies on the River Wye and is approximately 16 miles (26 km) east of the border from Wales.
- Doe skins were thick, strong, and soft gloves that could be cleaned and washed on a regular basis.
- Kid gloves were considered the most desirable of all gloves. They were imported from France and their softness, elasticity, and thinness fit a person’s hand as if they were a second skin. Upper class people of the nineteenth century usually always owned at least one white pair of kid gloves but they could also purchase them in a variety of colors.
- People who sold and wore Lambskin gloves often claimed they were kid gloves. In reality, however, these gloves were not from France but came from Worcestershire in England. They were cheap imitations being made from much thicker leather than kid gloves.
- Sheepskin gloves became available in the 1850s. They were primarily white and chiefly worn by army men.
- Tan leather were cheap gloves, but they were also the most serviceable of all the leather gloves. These gloves were used for driving, riding, or gardening and came in either a tan or bark color.
- Woodstock gloves were a superior kind of soft leather made from lambs. Besides being available in white, they also came in many colors. Additionally, these gloves could be washed and were primarily manufactured in Oxfordshire.
Besides the leather gloves, there were numerous types of gloves of the 1800s made from fabric or materials that included thread, cotton, silk, worsted weight, and knit materials.
- Thread gloves were sometimes made from unbleached yarn but were usually made from linen or cotton. Linen gloves were the gloves “properly known … by the name of thread gloves,” but people regularly tried to pass off cotton thread for linen thread. One advantage to these gloves was they washed up nicely and were remarkably cool in summer.
- Of all the gloves, Cotton gloves were the cheapest glove. These gloves had the advantage of being warm and, therefore, were used for common wear. Cotton gloves came in many types and colors. One type of popular cotton glove was the Berlin, and although originally imported, by the 1850s, it was produced in large numbers in Nottingham and Leicester to the point they had “almost driven away the common beaver [gloves].” Jean, Satteen, and Cambric Gloves were also made from cotton but these gloves were worn only by women. Jean gloves were long wearing, whereas satteen and cambric gloves were just cheap gloves.
- Silk gloves came in varying qualities with the quality determined by “weight and … neatness of workmanship.” Among the preferred silk gloves of the mid 1800s were French white silk gloves. They were extremely well made and, in fact, were considered “the best.” A figured silk net glove worn in the mid 1800s that was commonly worn by ladies was noted to be “extremely elegant and cool in summer.” Good Housekeeping, an American fashion publication, noted in 1888 that “the most luxurious fabric gloves are of sewing silk with seamless fingers and Jersey openwork wrists … usually eight button in length and … in tan shades, golden browns and black.” In comparison, spun silk gloves were remarkably cheap even though they came in white, black, and other colors.
- Worsted gloves also came in many varieties, and although they were not as elegant as other gloves, they were extremely warm and popular for cold weather. Some worsted gloves were made from lambs’ wool and others from Shetland, but both were extremely soft and warm. Among the cheapest worsted gloves were German ones.
- Dutch knit gloves were extremely long wearing gloves that were plain, lined, and warm.
Because there was such a wide variety of gloves, the elements of good gloves of the 1800s were described in this fashion:
“The good qualities of gloves are strength, warmth in winter, coolness in summer, elasticity in fitting well, and to be well sewed in the seams.”
Additionally, as “nothing look[ed] worse than shabby gloves,” and because white and light-colored kid gloves were particularly popular for full dress, balls, and sophisticated social affairs, there were numerous instructions about how to clean and care for kid gloves. One method for cleaning kid gloves included washing the gloves while they were on a person’s hand in “spirits of turpentine” until they were clean and then hanging them to dry. Another method called for dipping a brown piece of cloth in milk, rubbing from the opening to the end of the fingers, and laying it out to dry. There was also a third method:
“Make a strong lather with curd soap and warm water, in which steep a small piece of new flannel. Place the glove on a flat, clean, and unyielding surface – such as the bottom of a dish, and having thoroughly soaped the flannel (when squeezed from the lather), rub the kid till all dirt be removed, cleaning and re-soaping the flannel from time to time. Care must be taken to omit no part of the gloves, by turning the fingers, &c. The gloves must be dried in the sun, or before a moderate fire, and will present the appearance of old parchment. When quite dry, they must be gradually ‘pulled out,’ and will look new.”
There was also this advice:
“[Gloves] require a little management. A good glove with outlast six cheap ones with care. Do not wear your best gloves a night, the heat of the gas, &c. gives a moisture to the hands, that spoils the gloves; do not wear them in very wet weather; as carrying umbrellas, and drops of rain, spoil them.”
-  The Lady’s Book, Vol. 1, 1830, p. 85.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 86.
-  “Pair of Gloves,” at V&A Collections.
-  Webster, Thomas, etal., An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy, 1852, p 1020.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Good Housekeeping, Vol. 7, 1888, p. 104.
-  Webster, Thomas, etal., p. 1020.
-  Philip, Robert Kemp, Enquire Within Upon Everything, 1869, p. 288.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.