Storeroom Stories: An Exquisite 19th Century Dress made by Mme. Pauline Seba and Julia Bulkley


Although Charleston was racially polarized in the nineteenth century, many skilled African American artisans were able to cross those barriers and provide goods and services to a discerning clientele. Two such examples are Mme. Pauline Seba and Julia Bulkley, both prominent seamstresses in the city. The fact that they both have labels in their garments is rare for the time and indicates their prominence and success.


The rose and black silk bodice made by Mme. Seba is part of a two-piece dress that was purchased by Miss Sara C. Simonds of Charleston for her trousseau when she married Edward A. Simons in January 1890. Her trousseau also included gowns by noted Parisian couturier Mme. Ludinart and New York dressmaker J. Vauney. Pauline Seba was a prominent member of the African American community, a charter member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club in 1916, and early member of the NAACP, as well as an excellent dressmaker.


The gold silk skirt bears a Julia Bulkley label. Mrs. Bulkley was listed in the 1890 Charleston City Directory as a dressmaker at 200 Calhoun Street. The skirt was worn by either Mary Ramsey Bellinger Tupper or Marian Hatton Hallonquist LaRoche of Charleston.

This September marks the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Its mission, to tell the story of America through the African American experience, is reflected by significant holdings of African American history at the Charleston Museum. In fact, a beautiful 18th century slave-made quilted dresser scarf is on loan from this museum for their opening exhibition.