Latter-Day Saint Video Vault: Celebrate 150 Years with “Pioneers in Petticoats”

Pioneers and Petticoats
Pioneers in Petticoats does a good job catching the feel of the church when the culture of the gospel was coming in direct conflict with the culture of the world.

Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n November of 1869 President Brigham Young gathered his adolescent and young adult daughters (ranging in ages 14-22) in the Lion House and expressed the need for reform in actions, dress, manners and pursuits. President Young wanted his daughters to “set an example to the daughters of Zion that would be worthy of imitation.” This family meeting eventually became the Young Ladies Retrenchment Society—the forerunner of the modern Young Women program.

Although historians can dither about whether the official founding came later in May of 1870 when formal resolutions were presented, we are just going to call this month the 150th anniversary of the Young Women’s program and celebrate by reviewing Pioneers in Petticoats.

This film was released in November of 1969 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Young Women’s program. It was produced for the Young Women Mutual Improvement Association, by BYU Motion Picture Studio and tells the story of the founding of the Retrenchment Society through the eyes of an fictional retrenchment society president—Abigail Harper. The film is about 45 minutes so as a result this recap and column are a little longer as well.

The film opens with a narrator explaining the many changes occurring in Salt Lake City in 1869 while we see watercolor prints of this historic time. Brigham Young wanted artists to come and perform, but the completion of the railroad brought not only culture but also “saloons, pool halls and street corner loafing.” Sons had temple construction and working on the estate to busy the, but the women had “far too much time for frivolity.”

We then see a famous Lion House door handle and a bell calling the many progeny of Brigham Young to family prayer. After prayer the young women are asked to remain and President Young explains the need for retrenchment in dress, manners, speech and every action. Many of the daughters are excited for their “very own organization.” Emmy Young is not. Worried about the changes to clothing. Comforted by her mother, she leaves and goes to the sitting room to see Abigail Harper.

You get the sense that, in Abigail, Emmy sees all the best of the era. Pretty. Fashionable. Popular. To underscore this belief, Abigail shows Emmy her new dress—festooned with all the finery of the day. Emmy thinks its splendid, but is immediately saddened. She explains why to Abigail. They are to have classes in literature, health and scripture study and be an example of simplicity and modesty. Abigail teases her saying an entire generation of Youngs will have no prospects because of their simple dress.

Older Brother Carl interrupts her theater of despair by quoting Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day.” Abigail mistakes it for a bible quotation and continues to downplay the retrenchment movement as silliness. To quote the Bard again, “The Lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Carl thinks so too. “One day, Abigail Harper, you will find out how much the church means to you!” He has no time for her as he is studying to prepare for a mission. Abigail continues to flirt and kisses Carl on each cheek as she paraphrases Luke 6:29. “And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other.” Scandalous!

Abigail departs convinced she will have nothing to do with this retrenchment business. It’s only for the Youngs after all, but on the carriage ride home her Father, the Bishop of her ward has other ideas. Surprise, Abigail is to be the president of the retrenchment society in her ward! We see her mother filling in the neckline of her dress and removing all the trim. She is disheartened. “I look like a yard of pump water!” Her younger sister comes in and says “Abigail! What happened to your dress? You look like yard of pump water!” Abigail runs away in tears. Her mother shakes her head and is sure she will come through this attack on her vanity.

We then cut to a society planning meeting. Bishop Harper charges the girls with getting the word out. They propose several methods before Abigail just says to tell the town gossip in the “strictest confidence.” Word spreads. Bishop Harper stops by to see Brother Blair to invite his daughter Nellie to join the society. Neither one of them has had much to do with the church since Sister Blair passed away. Brother Blair feels like it would be good for Nelly as she is going around with some “whipper snappers.”

Later at a formal launch of the society Abigail reads the pledge/charter of the retrenchment society. She crosses her fingers as she reads the part about retrenching in dress. So THAT is how it works! I never knew. After the meeting we see the society move into high gear. They gather furniture and toys and make clothes and gifts. Abigail pauses from the service to send a photo and gift for Carl.

The young women deliver the gifts and then are pelted with snowballs by Nellie’s “whipper snappers.” Nellie looks ashamed as she sees that it is Abigail and other church members they are pelting.

Activities for the society continue: A patriotic program. Quilting as someone reads the Book of Mormon aloud. A less than tuneful recital. A lecture on Temple Marriage. Dance lessons, Exercise. They also pick fruit, serve soup and help the ill. All that service is hard, so we don’t feel too bad when Abigail takes a break by hiding a novel behind her scriptures. She also busies herself writing to Carl. She will not be put off for a mission of all things and asks him to return one of the pictures she sent him. She is excited to open a package from Carl. It is a sheaf of the many pictures she has sent Carl. He writes “Since I can’t remember which one you are please pick out your picture and return the rest.” Solid burn.

With her parents away Abigail decides to channel her rage against retrenchment. We see her dressed to the 1869s in the fancy dress she showed Emmy earlier. Her hair is all done up with ringlets for days. She is planning on going to the church dance. We see her enjoying the dance with a very nervous and awkward companion. They dance and Abigail seems to enjoy being the center of attention. The dance slows to the waltz, and her date’s feet end up catching the bottom of the dress and ripping the hem and trim out of one of the petticoats. She is mortified and the entire dance laughs at her misfortune. A bit of pioneer schadenfreude. She leaves in disgrace and walks home.

On her way she passes the saloon and meets Nellie and her friends. They recognize her for her efforts leading the retrenchment society and note how her appearance is out of step with the current church program. One of the gentleman invites her into the saloon, but Abigail hesitates. Nellie tells them to leave her alone. “Can’t you see she’s scared?” Fueled by her embarrassment she goes all in and heads into the saloon. They try to get her to drink and to learn the latest dance. She feels out of place and refuses everything. As she looks around the room, the words of the retrenchment pledge come to her mind along with Carl’s words about the importance of the church in her life.

Nellie’s friends refuse to walk Abigail home but a gallant and someone soused stranger offers to take her instead. He helps her into his carriage and they ride away, but not before she is seen by fellow ward members. I believe it was the town gossip from earlier? Abigail and the stranger make small talk but it becomes clear that something else is on the stranger’s mind. He tries to force himself on her but Abigail manages to get away and run to her front door. The stranger follows, but Nellie and her beau managed to follow her home and intervene just in time and prevent what would have clearly been rape. Nellie offers to stay with her but Abigail declines and goes inside.

As she prepares for bed her younger sister wakes and explains she is missing her cat. She also can’t fall asleep because Abigail forgot to say prayers with her. She prays for her cat and that she will be able to grow up and retrench. “Does Heavenly Father really watch over runway cats?,” she asks? “Oh yes,” Abigail says. “And runaway girls.” As her sister falls asleep Abigail looks out a moonlit window and offers a prayer herself. She asks for a second chance.

The next morning she tells the whole story to her parents and is determined to resign her presidency. Bishop Harper encourages her to talk to the members of the society and see what they think. Abigail goes to the meeting and stands before her fellow young women and asks for their forgiveness and whether they want her to be their president. Many are for resigning. One woman has a particularly large amount of venom towards Abigail. I mean we are talking archenemy level venom. As they discuss Nellie sneaks in the back and then comes to the front and speaks on Abigail’s behalf.

“I’ve been running away from everything that reminds me of mom, including the church. It wasn’t until I saw Abigail stand up for what’s right I realized how wrong I’ve been.” She emphasizes Abigail did nothing wrong (she kind of kid though) and encourages them to keep her as president. “Isn’t this society to help girls become better? Well are you here to help girls become better or aren’t you?”

There is a formal motion to keep Abigail as president, followed by a second and a vote. The archenemy nearly is the sole dissenting vote but she relents in the end. The motion carries and Abigail remains as president. I am glad that while our council meetings can be rather formal I’m glad we’ve abandoned Robert’s Rules of Order. Can you imagine? A formal debate on the merits of including Santa Claus in the ward party? You can’t handle the truth!

As her first act as an unimpeached president she proposes that each person bring a new member to the society. She says she will invite Nellie. Wow. Way to go for the low-hanging fruit. She was already there.

The film ends as the Harpers and Nellie head to General conference. Before they drive out of town they are cheered by all the young women and a band playing “In Our Lovely Deseret.” (not needed in the new hymn book). A young woman tells Bishop Harper he should tell President Young that they have the best society in the whole church!

What a film! Fashion, romance, intrigue and church history all rolled into one. Pioneers in Petticoats does a good job catching the feel of the church when the culture of the gospel was coming in direct conflict with the culture of the world. It reflects the attitudes toward women that were prevalent at the time. Did the men of the church need retrenchment at this time? Yes. But I guess not until 1875 when the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association was founded.

As I watched this film again for the first time in a long while I felt grateful for modern revelation and a new Young Women’s theme that simplifies language and emphasizes being a force for good, cherishing repentance and making sacred covenants. I’m grateful that modesty is not merely necklines and hemlines. I think this film is still a good point to remind us all of the heritage of the Young Women program. It showcases what being a young woman in the modern church can be about—ministering, supporting, and improving.

Thoughts, Musings & Trivia

  • Nathan Hale played Bishop Harper, Abigail’s Father. He and his wife Ruth founded the Glendale Centre Theater in California where numerous actors including Connie Stevens, Richard Hatch, Gordon Jump and even Melissa Gilbert got their start.
  • After retiring to Utah they founded the Hale Centre Theater in Salt Lake City which then expanded to other locations after his death. It still exists today and is known throughout Utah for staging high quality, family friendly productions.
  • His Grandsons are Kurt Hale and Will Swenson. They directed The Singles Ward and Sons of Provo, respectively.
  • The society resolutions presented in the film were different than the resolutions written by Eliza R. Snow for adoption in May of 1870. A handwritten copy of these resolutions in the papers of Zina Young reveal many textual differences, but I think the differences in the film are mostly for clarity and dramatic effect.
  • I think it would be an interesting article to compare and contrast these original resolutions with the recently revised Young Women Theme. Any takers? Tiffany of the TWIM Sisters? Put your lawerly prowess to work on that!

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