By Rita Shelley

This story started as one about several dresses in the DCHS textiles collection.

When Collections Coordinator Natalie Kammerer proposed the idea of delving into the history of several of dresses in the Society’s archives, she explained that they had been worn during Omaha’s Golden Spike Days in 1939. The Spike Days had coincided with the much-anticipated release of Cecil B. DeMille’s movie about the original 1869 driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point. Aptly named Union Pacific, the movie premiered in Omaha’s Orpheum and Paramount theaters. Thus, the entire city got behind an ecstatic welcome of the movie’s actors and the premiere. The celebration, I was to learn, rivaled the epic proportions for which DeMille was known. Evocative of railroad worker and townspeople “extras” employed by DeMille, thousands of “pioneer” Omaha women — and their dresses — played important roles in the lollapalooza of the movie’s premiere.

In an 1869 ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, a crowd of thousands celebrated the joining of the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the American West, connecting the Union Pacific Railroad to the Central Pacific Railroad. The 1869 ceremony was celebrated with the 1939 release of the movie Union Pacific and Golden Spike Days. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

“How quaint,” I thought while (cotton glove) handling the calico dresses with their sunflower buttons, fussy fichu collars, and yards of rick-rack trim, not to mention matching bonnets. I wondered whether seaming, sleeve setting, collar attaching, waist gathering, and hem finishing had changed in the 80 years since the dresses were made or in the five decades since I’d aced 8th grade Home Ec.  Would the products of a 1930s iron horse Sears machine compare to what I can produce on my Swiss engineered sewing computer that cost more than (gulp) my first car?

With both awe and disappointment, I discovered that garment sewing methods have not changed. If you studied the inside of a dress I sewed recently (sans ruffles and rick-rack), you wouldn’t see a difference in technique. As to how the quality from today’s computerized machines compares to that of 1939, a modern machine feeds fabric more smoothly and stitches more evenly. But the Golden Spike dresses are as solidly seamed as if they were made yesterday.

For DeMille, future director of The Greatest Show on Earth, whose genius was bringing the spectacular to the screen, Union Pacific was another resounding success in a career of film after blockbusting film. But more importantly for Omaha, 1939 answered UP President William Jeffers’ call to action, to “convince the people that they are capable of making Omaha a greater, more progressive community.” If an east coast Atlantic magazine journalist could allege that Omaha’s days of glory had long since departed[1] he’d better prepare to answer to thousands of ladies in pioneer costumes first. Men in ¾-length double-breasted frock coats, brocade vests, gingham shirts, ascot ties, souvenir canes, false beards, and golden spike cuff links were a force to reckon with as well.

The movie starred Barbara Stanwyck as a good-hearted woman with an Irish brogue who stands by her man, Robert Preston, as the charming but train-robbing man who breaks her heart, and Joel McCrea as the law-enforcing, buffalo-taming good guy who doesn’t get the girl. An army of swarthy but good-natured-in-spite-of-endless-backbreaking-toil workers build the UP ribbon ever westward, one spike at a time, all the way to Utah. The movie scene depicting the ceremony featured a replica of the 17.6-karat gold original spike, property of Stanford University.

Filming locations ranged throughout Utah and California, including Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. The scene in which Joel McCrae shushes a bull buffalo from the safety of a train car was filmed in Utah and superimposed by a skillful editor against a background of a grazing herd that had been filmed in Oklahoma.[2] DeMille’s sprawling late-Depression-era canvas declares independence and the power of patriotism over adversity. It recalls a time of clarity and hopefulness, after the Civil War had nearly torn the country asunder and President Lincoln (who in 1862 had signed the transcontinental railroad into existence) had died. Yes, [White] America was united. Nothing but blue skies up ahead. The hard work was done.

For their own part, Omaha’s captains of industry readied for the massive local production with committee assignments. Committee chairs included Walter Byrne, general manager of MUD; George Brandeis, president of Brandeis Department Store; James Davidson, president of Nebraska Power Company; Frank Fogarty, a Chamber of Commerce Commissioner who later would be general manager of WOW; J.M. Harding, assistant publisher of the Omaha World-Herald; Ford Hovey, executive director of Occidental Building and Loan; J.J. Isaacson, activities director for Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben; Morris E. Jacobs, president of Bozell Jacobs advertising firm; Arthur A. Lowman, president of Northwestern Bell Telephone; J.F. McDermott and E.F. Pettis, vice presidents of First National Bank; E.L. Moser, a contractor; Bert Murphy, president of Andrew Murphy & Son Chrysler dealership; Cecil Slocum, a trader for Burns Potter investment bankers, and A.A. Westergard, owner of an insurance agency. Mrs. Dorothy Wickham, vice president of National Construction headed the “women” committee.[3]

As I studied the women’s costumes, I tried to imagine hordes of working-class women finding precious time and money to devote hours to making dresses, all cut from the same cloth and the same pattern. I also found it difficult to picture upper class women suddenly taking up sewing.  Then I read that Francis Matthews, Chamber of Commerce president, and W.O. Swanson, Nebraska Clothing Company president, had overseen the sourcing of women’s costumes. Thousands of $1.40 dresses were ordered in 13 color combinations and with white organdy bonnets trimmed to match. Orders for thousands of dresses were placed at Kilpatrick’s, Brandeis, Nebraska Clothing, and Beaton’s.[4]  Somewhere in America, a small army of garment workers were bent over factory machines. Their cumulative 100,000 hand-stitched buttonholes required surgical precision; there is no record of who these invisible workers were. 

Matthews and Swanson had no idea what furor would transpire. In late March, they announced that no more orders would be accepted. It was getting too close to the deadline for getting them done in time; 15,000 had already been ordered. I can only imagine Swanson’s near despair when only two weeks before the big event, he hung up after a “long distance phone conversation with the manufacturer of the Union Pacific world premiere 1869 dresses.”[5] The shipment was late, but 90 percent of the full shipment was guaranteed to arrive within days, Swanson assured World-Herald readers. The Central Dress Depot would probably open Monday morning. Definite announcement would be in the Sunday paper and over the three Omaha radio stations.[6] On April 17, a scant 10 days before the premiere, the workers at the dress depot (the location is not given) opened for business. By 9:30 a.m. on a cold, rainy morning, 350 women were already waiting in line. Until all orders were filled, the depot would be open every day until 6 p.m. Once again, reassurance came from Mr. Swanson at the Nebraska Clothing Company: For every ticket, there would be a dress.[7]

Annie Doyle was a merchandise manager and buyer for six Kilpatrick’s department store departments when she modeled her costume in downtown Omaha. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Twelve Kilpatrick’s department store saleswomen modeled the costumes they wore for Golden Spike Days that could be ordered from their store. Pictured: Anne Solka, Lavaughn Smith, Mary Sullivan, Ruth Turner, Alberta Walker Anders, Irene Burger McDonald, Ruth Pierce, Mildred Letovsky, Cloris Short, Bess Maly Huxford, and Alice Cosson. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Women who couldn’t or chose not to shell out $1.40 could instead DIY with four yards of “percale, 36 inches wide fast color in historical prints 19c per yard”[8] and six yards of rick rack. In the long run, homemade dresses weren’t the best value though if their owners wanted to enter to win round-trip Pullman tickets to California. The winner of the Queen of Gingham championship at the Ak-Sar-Ben Coliseum was to be recognized on the fourth day of festivities. Chairman George Brandeis would award the winner, but no official costume, no prize. Men could also compete for the best beard, the blackest beard, the reddest beard, as well as the most ridiculous and the most becoming.[9]

Two ladies in downtown Omaha modeled their brocade costumes during the Golden Spike Days celebration. Unlike “pioneer” costumes worn by thousands of women, these costumes likely were the work of a professional tailor. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Top hats, frock coats, vests, and canes were in demand during 1939’s Golden Spike Days. Image source: Douglas County Historical Society collection.

In the days leading up to the premiere, a city auditorium exhibition displayed the original spike in an “honored niche.”[10] The spike was enclosed in glass, guarded by railway agents and police. It had been in a Wells Fargo vault in San Francisco since 1869. As part of the exhibition, an “Indian Village” was set up on the courthouse lawn.[11]

Stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans featured in De DeMille’s movie were also present in 1939 Omaha. These thirty-two members of the Sioux tribe performed dances and demonstrations for festival-goers; four of the men are pictured above. Image source: Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, Douglas County Historical Society collection.

Then came the parade that must have astonished even DeMille. Cue the floats recalling settlement of the Great Plains! The Lewis and Clark expedition, Omaha being built, Abraham Lincoln at Council Bluffs, the Colorado Gold Rush, and rails following trails! Omaha’s first railroad depot, the Golden Spike uniting  America, and the prairie being broken! The mounted police and the 22 bands! The horse drawn Brougham carriages carrying UP president William E. Jeffers and Board Chairman W.A. Harriman! The university students dressed as Native Americans, the Mormons arriving at Winter Quarters, the Prairie Schooner with families and riflemen! The bearded iron workers, the pony express riders, prospectors marching with burros and packs, Civil War soldiers afoot and 4-H boys dressed as farmers![12]

At last came the movie premiere. Omaha’s fete “eclipsed” Hollywood, a news headline declared:

For the multitudes assembled on Douglas Street, the show began shortly before 8 o’clock, when private cars and taxis began arriving with visitors, guests and Omaha elite. It was a fashion parade in which all imaginable types of costumes and all imaginable combinations of costume were in evidence.

Waves of applause greeted the most spectacular shots of the film, such as the wrecking of a train by the Indians, the destruction of an engine in a snow slide, and the dramatic scene in which the gallant little engine, “General McPherson,” carried the troop of rescue soldiers across the blazing Dale Creek bridge.

Audience reaction was marked to such emotional high spots as when a young Irishman about to send to the old country for his wife was shot to death by a gambler; when old Monaghan, engineer and father of the heroine, was killed in the snow slide, and again in the faithful reproduction of the ceremony at the driving of the Golden Spike.

The only hitch in the evening occurred when the sound system blew a tube and the dialogue was barely audible for a couple of minutes.[13]

When the financial impact of the celebration was tallied, it was reported that, in addition to 200,000 parade-goers, 40,000 people saw the premiere and 15,000 more saw its second showing. 40,000 women and 25,000 men wore costumes.[14]

Wearing the dresses, a newspaper columnist observed, served several causes, not the least of which was honoring the railroad’s 40,000 employees: “When those two steel ribbons were laid eastward and westward, 10 May 1869, the destiny of the west and middle west was fixed. …Thereafter products of the machine could be carried across the continent and products of the land carried back….when we wear calico dresses of uniform pattern, when we celebrate the laying of the golden spike and the picture premiere, we do something for our souls,” the columnist wrote. “We revel in pageantry and have a whale of a good time.”[15]

Meanwhile, smaller-type headlines began to hint at what was ahead. Britain drafted 20-year-old men for the first time in modern history as a warning to Italy and Germany. Czecho-Slovak officials defied an order to surrender the country’s consulate general to German authorities. A Polish woman was imprisoned for slandering Chancellor Hitler. On the morning of the Union Pacific premiere, a prominent World-Herald headline reported that Hitler had scrapped treaties with Britain and Poland.

Two other blockbuster movies were released in 1939: Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz.

The suggestion was made that costumes should be kept on hand for a future Golden Spike Days. As it turned out, the costumes wouldn’t be needed again for a very long time.

[1] Footnotes. Lincoln Star. 26 June 1938, p. 5.

[2] Union Pacific. Union Pacific (1939) Filming & Production. IMDb,

[3] Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, 1939. p. 3. Douglas County Historical Society archives.

[4] “Gals, If You’d Get a Fellow, Wear Bright Red, No Yellow.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 8.

[5] “‘69 Dress Depot May Open Monday.” Omaha World-Herald. 12 April 1939, p. 4

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Distribute 1869 Dresses Tuesday.” Omaha World-Herald. 17 April 1939, p.1.

[8] “Golden Spike Dress Prints.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 18.

[9] “Gingham Gals, Whiskeroos to Win Trips.” Omaha World-Herald. 16 April 1939, p. 18.

[10] “Spike Given Honor Niche at Exposition.” Omaha World-Herald. 25 April 1939, p. 77.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Golden Spike Days Souvenir Program, 1939. p. 16. Douglas County Historical Society archives.

[13] “Hollywood Is Eclipsed by Omaha Fete.” Omaha World-Herald. 29 April 1939, p. 3.

[14] “No Fooling! ‘Twas a Big Celebration.” Omaha World-Herald. 30 April 1939, p. 1.

[15] “Dear Mary Lane.” Omaha World-Herald. 29 March 1939, p. 15.

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