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Ready-Made Resoures: Historic Zion’s Mercantile

It’s my personal opinion that there’s so much to be gained from creating your own historic clothing for living history and family history use, and for Trek experiences, but sometimes, it’s nice to have a few ready-to-wear resources. Recently, Deseret Book debuted a new line called “Historic Zion’s Mercantile” with a small range of items intended for trek use, sold through the stores and on-line.

Unfortunately, there are some significant problems with the products (largely to do with historic research and modern safety), and it’s important to be aware before investing in anything. I cannot recommend the Zion’s Mercantile products in general, with a few exceptions I’ll note with the individual items below.

For the Women & Girls

“Pioneer” Skirts: One significant drawback to the skirts is their width. At barely more than 70″ around, they do not begin to approach the fullness used by women and girls in the mid-19th century. This is not just a style issue; these narrow skirts prevent a person from taking a full, deep stride, and present a safety hazard in typical outdoor settings with variable terrain.

While the skirts are 100% cotton, the prints chosen are monochromatic in an era of great color and vibrancy. Only three choices in print make the trail a very boring sight, particularly in the face of the dozens of wonderful reproduced prints available for this era from quilting fabric lines.

The skirts have a very narrow turned hem, which lacks body, causing the skirt to wrap between the legs during movement. There is no length noted for “calf-length”; as this measurement varies from person to person, skirts will be either too short or too long for most people (and too long, at these narrow circumferences, increases safety hazards). Measured on my 5’5″ teenager, the skirt barely hit upper calf, making it slightly too short for the historical styles appropriate to her age, and definitely too short for adult use.

The skirts do have an in-seam pocket (a feature commonly seen in historic dresses), but the pocket opening is very small, and the pocket bag has squared corners. Squared corners are rarely seen in historic dress pockets, as they decrease the utility of the pocket; items small and even large are apt to hide in the corners.

The skirt waistband is a bulky elastic-and-drawstring arrangement found in modern track suits. Though the skirts are too slim for mid-century use, this waistband adds a sturdy inch or two around the waist. Compared to a comfortably-fitted buttoning band, this is a distinct down-grade. The skirts will be unsuitable for generous figures, as well.

As to price, you could spend the same money and an hour of time sewing a skirt from colorful, accurate cotton print, using free resources here, and get a safer, more attractive, more comfortable, more accurate result.

Sunbonnets: Though marketed as “functional and pretty”, the Zion’s Mercantile sunbonnet meets only the latter of these descriptors. The brim does not project forward far enough, or run deep enough down the sides of the face, to provide good sun protection; the back curtain is a scant 3″ long, which bares most of the neck to the sun as well.

Because the back neck area employs elastic, rather than stable, adjustable ties or tape (with or without a casing; there are many bonnet styles at mid-century), the bonnet lacks flexibility for increasing or decreasing sun exposure, the way a period bonnet does. The elastic will always default to “no tension”, pulling the bonnet toward the back of the head. When the ties are tied beneath the chin, this elastic tension produces a choking sensation.

The use of dark-dyed fabrics for sunbonnets is problematic, as the darker colors absorb radiant heat more than lighter prints.

A second style of sunbonnet, just as non-functional for shading as the main style, was on the shelves of our local store, sized for tiny girls. Reserve these for indoor dress-up, rather than outdoor situations where actual sun protection is required.

Even without a special sale on reproduction-quality fabric, a simple, fully-accurate, fully-adjustable bonnet with excellent sun protection can be made at home for about half the cost of the ready-made, in less than an hour (and it can be cute, too).

Aprons:  The textile choices in aprons expand to four, with the inclusion of unbleached muslin (in the mid-19th century period, unbleached cloth is rarely used outside of factory and mill applications, such as for sacks of feed; white, bleached cotton is more appropriate.) The aprons have a similarly scant hem to the skirts, and are a bit slim on fullness compared to mid-century aprons. With these flaws considered, this is possibly the most functional item in the entire line.

If budget is a concern, the same apron can be made for less with free patterns in the Pioneer Pack portion of this site.

For the Men & Boys

“Felt” Hat: Though the $5 cost is attractive, this faux-felt covered plastic hat is inappropriate for safe outdoor use.

Wool Felt Hat: Felt hats in the mid-19th century were made in fur felt, and used radically different construction techniques than this imported pressed wool felt option. The overall shape is not at a distracting level of inaccuracy, and the $30 price is commensurate with the apparent quality of the hat. It will be important to change out the decorative hat band, to avoid grabbing someone else’s identical hat after the dance!

Straw Hat: Straw is cooler than pressed wool felt, and the $14 price point is low. However, the brim is very wavy in the product picture, and lacks a stable, finished edge that will give the hat a lifespan of longer that one cloudburst. The brim is wide enough for sun coverage, which is good.

For All

“Pioneer” Shirt: Though the description says this shirt has a “mock” collar, it is actually a band collar. This is a thoroughly modern shirt style in a low-grade fabric (unbleached muslin) that will show every speck of grime and dust during a trek. Any youth or adult will be better served by a thrifted shirting print, plain white, or plaid button-down shirt at 1/3 the cost.

“Frontier” Shirt: In an unbleached muslin of a quality certain to go limp when washed, this shirt lacks the styling of any mid-century shirt. Button-and-loop closures are non-historic for the pioneer era, as is the shallow front placket and very slender sleeve.

“Possibles” Bag or “Satchel”: Apparently intended to hold personal items (most of which are better stowed in skirt pockets, trouser pockets, or the handcart), this very small strapped bag is one thin layer of cotton, with a folded fabric strap. Because the bag lacks structure and stability, items stored in it will, in very short order, pull down on the strap. It has insufficient structure to comfortably carry a standard clear plastic water bottle. If needed personal items cannot be streamlined to fit in dress or trouser pockets, consider constructing a simple bag of sturdy canvas.

This item seems to be very loosely based on the Fur Trade Era leather accoutrements of some mountain men, and is not an item I’ve found mentioned by Utah emigrants. Mid-19th century luggage pieces termed “satchel” tend to be in the shape that we might now call a “doctor’s bag”, with functional metal hardware, hinged top, and a very definite structure. Other “satchel” styles looked much like structured leather messenger bags, with additional leather straps and buckles to close it. The single-layer cotton item for sale lacks features in line with both Fur Trade Era possibles bags and mid-century leather satchels.

Bandanas: These are standard modern paisley bandanas in multiple colors. While they lack authentic period styling for neckerchiefs, they do have some measure of utility for sun protection around the neckline, and sweat/body oil absorption.

“Neck Coolers”: With moisture-holding beads sewn inside, these are a 100% modern item to promote some level of evaporative cooling. In the 19th century, pioneers accomplished the same thing with a dampened linen neckcloth and a breeze created by their own motion or the wind.

Journals: The journals should be classed as souvenir items only. The plain brown and logo journals have a modern spiral binding inside, with little room for writing or sketching. The closure snap is also completely modern, as is the ballpoint pen sold with each.

The leather journal does feature a true sewn-signature spine; the leather cover is what could be called “primitive” rather than historically-styled. The “twig” pencil sold with the more expensive leather journal is an example of mistaking the past for “rustic”; manufactured lead pencils of the mid-century were made in the same way modern pencils are made, with a bead of lead laid in a groove between two halves of a wooden cylinder, then glued and sanded. A plain wooden pencil of modern manufacture, with the ferrule and eraser removed, would be far more accurate to the pioneer era, which arose nearly a full century into the Industrial Revolution.

Bracelets: Again, these are souvenir only; they may be interesting memorabilia, but they are not historic in nature, which may be a consideration in meeting your trek goals.

Personal Care Items: For treks longer than 4 hours, you will need more sunscreen than is provided in the $2 bottle; a better plan is to bring large bottles and tubes of unscented sunblock from home. Please note that using hand sanitizer instead of washing with water can exacerbate sun-sensitivity in many people, and lead to sunburn even with sunblock use. Lip balm of equal “accuracy” (that is, fully modern in composition and container) is generally 98 cents a tube, retail, rather than double that.

Dishware and Utensils: the heavy use of enamelware dishes comes somewhat after the classic “Pioneer” era (1847 to the completion of the Trans-Continental Railroad in 1869), but these pieces are inexpensive and not as obtrusive as blue speckle-ware. The utensil set is comparable to any backpacking utensil set: quite modern, but could be useful in this situation. The prices are reasonable, but thrift stores will yield metal pie plates, stoneware mugs, china teacups, and plated silverware more reminiscent of what the pioneers actually used, at sometimes lower prices, too (or, bring things from home.)

 One Last Note

Finally, I find it frustrating that the name “Zion’s Mercantile”, which originally referred to the goods available through the hard work and productivity of those early Saints in Deseret, is being used for a line of items made overseas. The whole purpose of Zion’s Mercantile was to provide a fair exchange of goods and services within the boundaries of Zion during the settlement and growth of the Utah region. By using overseas manufacture, the owners of this line are at great risk of supporting the miserable and unsafe factory systems that prey upon the powerless and poor in many parts of the world (the recent tragedy of the garment factory collapse in Indonesia is not an isolated or rare incident!)—the polar opposite of the goals of the truly historic cooperative enterprise.

What you choose in your own preparations remains your decision; please carefully consider whether this particular set of ready-made options is really appropriate for you.

6 Responses to Ready-Made Resoures: Historic Zion’s Mercantile

  • Becky says:

    Wow…I was really excited to read what you had to say about the zions mercantile functionality and quality of their items. I was disappointed at how nit pickey your comments are…I’m sure most people who are trekking don’t have the same concerns you do about the exact period correctness. Unfortunately I am so distracted by your tone of negativity which seems to be towards Deseret book rather than the usefulness of their items and I think I will see if I can find a more positive forum for help.

    • Liz says:

      My comments are nit-picky because I’m highly, highly concerned with the safety of trekkers, and with the budgetary impositions on families who wish to participate.

      Since the ZCMI items fail quite spectacularly on both accounts, I don’t find it “negative” to point out the problems and give others, who are generally not accustomed to period clothing, safety, and functionality, some better options.

      In this case, historical accuracy provides safety, comfort, and budget-friendly options for families engaging in trek experiences.

      If being blunt saves a kid from a fall, horrible sunburn, heat-stroke, and overspending? Yep. I’m okay with blunt. I’ve seen the ZCMI things in action, and I’ve seen the damage to the kids at the end of the trek. Those who used better options were not damaged. That counts.

      It’s a simple reality: individuals can be safer, more comfortable, and more consistent with actual historical experiences (without being duplicate copies of the past), for less money, by avoiding the items labeled ZCMI.

      Pointing out realities is not a bad thing, even if those realities are not pleasant to hear. Critical and factual examination of products offered for sale by a business allows a potential buyer to make an informed choice in an area where they may not have any experience.

      Click over to the Pioneer Pack pages… I’ve put my (lack of) money where my mouth is on this stuff, because I care a LOT about kids and families having a good, safe experience. You’ll find free projects to provide many elements of clothing for trekking, and all of them can be photocopied and freely shared. Making some elements of clothing also gives youth and families opportunities to learn provident living skills, increase in confidence, and find their own connections to our shared history. There is no downside to doing a good job with trek clothing!

  • Catherine says:

    I appreciate the “nit-picky” of your review because I believe it to be helpful information, even though it is somewhat negative. However, I am not in a position to sew for my two sons trip in just under two weeks, so what would be helpful to know is if there ARE any sources for (reasonably) accurate pre-made clothing for those who don’t sew and those who have no time to do that even if they do.

    • Liz says:

      Catherine, absolutely! Your sons can get a safer, more comfortable, budget-friendly “flavor of history” look by hitting the thrift store for:

      * 100% cotton fabric trousers in the wide range of khaki and grey
      * A button-down shirting cotton (100% cotton, lighter-weight, lighter colors) menswear shirt with long sleeves. No changes needed for the “flavor” of history!
      * Suspenders if they have trouble keeping up trousers without a belt. It’s safest if the trousers sit above the hip bones, so this helps prevent saggy bums.
      * Bandanas–2-3, really. $1 or less–even as low as 25c at a thrift shop!
      * Wool hiking socks and comfortable hiking shoes.
      * A broad-brim straw hat, plantation hat, “cowboy” hat, etc… something with good sun coverage

      Outfitting at a thrift store is going to be, compared to the ZCMI items, *closer* to actual historic shapes, and a *lot* less money. No sewing or alteration of anything required at all!

      Hit a regular “big box” store for generic sunscreen in large bottles, chapstick. Hit housewares in the thrift store for a tin plate, sturdy white/cream ceramic mug, and silverware at pennies a piece.

        • Liz says:

          You’re very welcome! If you find brown or grey button-down “Sunday suit” type vests in wool, those can be a kind of snazzy addition, if you have a kiddo who likes to dress up. The thing with Trek is that is is not a historical reenactment, full-bore… but at least getting the flavor of the past with some out-of-the-ordinary clothing is a lot of fun, and gets the kids into a different head-space, where they’re more receptive to new learning. It’s pretty cool! Not having time or the skill-base to sew everything should not be a barrier. I have some work commitments that have me distracted for another few months, but I’ll be adding more resources with an eye toward helping wards and stakes start this whole process more easily, and sooner, so families aren’t stuck in a tight deadline!

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