Dress Reform Convention Site

This 1857 map of Canastota, New York, shows the location of the Dutch Reformed Church (red arrow). The site is now a small municipal park. Image courtesy Joe DiGiorgio.

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Type: Unmarked Location Involved: Walker, Mary Edwards; Smith, Gerrit; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady
Location: 224 South Peterboro Street
Canastota, NY
Cause: Dress Reform

The first significant dress reform convention was held in Canastota on January 7 - 8, 1857. The National Dress Reform Association (NDRA) held the convention at the Dutch Reformed Church (organized 1833), then located on Peterboro Street by the railroad tracks. NDRA founder James Caleb Jackson presided. Speakers included Gerrit Smith of nearby Peterboro and Dr. Mary Edwards Walker of Oswego. A supportive letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton was read to the convention.

By the time of this convention, most woman suffrage advocates, including Stanton, had long abandoned reform dress, specifically the Bloomer costume, having concluded that it distracted from their mission to win women the vote. (Stanton’s letter may have been written in response to an appeal from her cousin, Gerrit Smith, one of very few activists who had advocated dress reform as an adjunct to suffrage work but continued supporting the cause after suffragists stepped away.) In any case, even when they embraced it, suffragists had never been inclined to support the dress reform cause by holding a convention dedicated to the topic. It was water-cure quacks like Jackson who succeeded the suffragists as dress-reform champions and who felt the need to agitate by means of conventions. A thumbnail history of dress reform is available here.

The 1833 church site was abandoned in 1878 due to increasing noise from the New York Central Railroad. The church moved two blocks north to a church building on 116 Center Street. That building had previously housed the Free Church, an non-denominational abolitionist congregation. Among other things, the Free Church was the site of the 1852 National Convention of the Liberty Party, the only national political convention to occur in Canastota. The Liberty Party was an antislavery party, so it should come as no surprise that the convention was attended and financially supported by Gerrit Smith.

The historical record is unclear on the relationship between the Free Church and former Dutch Reformed Church -- the latter may have succeeded the former, or they may have used the structure co-operatively. It is known that the Dutch Reformed Church reorganized in 1886 and became the Presbyterian Church Society. In some way the congregation (or congregations) active at 116 Center Street spun off the present, Methodist United Church of Canastota, a few doors south. That structure, erected circa 1903 at 144 Center Street, still houses an active congregation.

The church at 116 Center Street faced a harsher fate. By the time the Methodist church was built, it housed no congregation -- or perhaps its sole remaining congregation was the one that built and occupied the Methodist church. The empty old church was repurposed as the Grange, a fraternal organization. The Grange abandoned the structure in the 1960s; after decades of housing various restaurants, it was shuttered and acquired by the Village of Canastota. At some point it was sold to a private party who had hopes of restoring the building in some manner. In the mid-2000s it operated for a time as an art gallery. In the intervening years, none of several proposals to rehabilitate the structure has yet borne fruit.