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Delicate Pioneer Beginnings

Collectibles: 75-year-old Norma Hamborg sees family in the intricate stitches of christening gowns. Some of the garments are on display at the Orange County Fair.


Most people get rid of old baby clothes as soon as their children outgrow them. Not Norma Hamborg. She treasures her collection of christening gowns because they were made and worn by family members. To her, just touching the handmade lace hem on one of the fragile garments is like touching the past.

Hamborg, 75, has 18 gowns once worn by her parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, including one worn by her father, Harry Wyman, born 1886. They're all precious in her eyes.

"Looking at them is quite emotional. It's the love that went into making them," she says. "They were made by mothers and grandmothers."

Hamborg has kept the baby clothes tucked away in a chest at her Costa Mesa home, but when she heard that the Orange County Fair was coming to town, she decided to share her collection with others.

Nine of her family's christening gowns will be on display in the fair's collections building Friday through July 26 at the Orange County Fairgrounds. Most date from the turn of the century, and there's a gown once worn by Hamborg herself. Several gowns are shown with their original baby bonnets, made of intricate handmade lace or crochet.

All of the garments are works of love, examples of the kind of painstaking craftsmanship not found in today's mass-market fashions. The dresses are made from finely spun cotton. They have tiny tucks, pleats and lace trim, the kind made by hand using time-consuming techniques such as tatting, in which the tiny threads are looped and knotted into a design.

The oldest gowns, from the 1800s, were sometimes worn until the child was a toddler. They have drawstring necks that expand to make room for the growing baby. Some gowns are so long they look like little girls' dresses, except for the tiny sleeves and neck holes. The long skirts were designed to drape over the arms when showing off baby.

"The gowns were for special occasions, mostly for taking pictures, because they were delicate," Hamborg says.

When she and her sister Celia Johnson of Mira Loma, visit the fair to see the collection, it's clear that they value the gowns for more than their artistry. The baby clothes are the tangible reminders of lost family members.

"It's the love and the ability of these pioneer people," Johnson says.

The gowns, they say, tell the story of their American pioneer family. Hamborg is one of nine children, eight of them girls. They were born in South Dakota on their grandparents' farm. Later the Wymans moved to Racine, Wis., where their father worked as a banker.

One gown in Hamborg's collection is covered in hand-stitched eyelet flowers; it was worn by her mother, Jennie Irene Chapman, born in 1885. Another gown, one with Jacquard stripes and an embroidered front, was made for the oldest daughter, Beth, born in 1912. The gown was passed down from sibling to sibling.

"The children came fast. Each child didn't get a gown," Hamborg says.

Hamborg, who was born in 1922, did get her own christening gown. It's a sheer dress with scalloped tatting on the hem made by a close family friend.

One simple gown belonged to their cousin Emery Phelps Chapman, born in 1919. He lived just seven months. The sisters treasure his small gown with a narrow lace inset bordering the hem.

"Some of these babies didn't live," Hamborg says softly.

The baby clothes were passed along to her from her mother and aunts. The sisters aren't sure who originally wore all of them, including a white wool cape and cap that probably dates to the early 1800s.

"These are all family," Hamborg says of the gowns. "They're hand-me-downs."

In addition to baby clothes, both sisters have saved pantaloons, chemises and adult-sized bathing suits. Hamborg has 10 more christening gowns at home, but fair rules prevented her from showing them all so she chose only the oldest ones in the best condition.

Although Hamborg knows the stories behind her collection of clothing, most who buy antique baby clothes do not; wondering who once wore them is part of their charm, and they've become highly collectible. People especially love the old christening gowns because of the fine workmanship that went into them.

"Those made around the turn of the century have become more collectible because the embroidery work was done by hand," says Jeanne Appel-Rice, part-owner of American Roots antique store in Orange. "The older gowns are usually quite long. They almost have a train on them that would drape over the arms when holding the baby up for christening."

American Roots usually has several old gowns on hand that range from about $75 to $150. People buy them and display them on walls or in shadow boxes with booties.

At the fair, Hamborg has displayed her gowns on dolls in a cradle made by hand in the early 1900s for her oldest sister. All nine Wyman children used the cradle, including Johnson and her twin brother, Charles, who slept in it together.

Today the old cradle gets taken apart and shipped all over the country, wherever a new grandchild has been born. It's a family tradition: Each grandchild gets rocked in the cradle, and often wears an old christening gown, so that the past will live on.

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