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Dressmaker Pauline Seba and Black History Month

Updated: May 15, 2022

Last year for Black History Month I wrote two posts on African American dressmakers - one on the lack of recognition for African American dressmakers pre-1900, and another on Fannie Criss of Richmond. I decided to do another feature - this time on couture dressmaker Pauline Seba (c.1858-1931). As I mentioned in those other posts, there are so few African American dressmakers and seamstresses that have been recognized, and even when they are, only the scantest details about them, their designs, or their lives are known.

Pauline Seba, like many other African American dressmakers, is a bit of an enigma, but she's also extremely prevalent in historical records as an active member of Charleston, South Carolina's African American community. Not only was she a dressmaker, or modiste as she was sometimes referred to in census records, she was an activist for Charleston's black community, seeking to improve the status of other African American women through education, social reform, and suffrage.

Born sometime between1858 and 1862, Pauline Smith was the daughter of Henri Schmidt. I recently learned from a descendant that her father changed his name to Smith, and that her mother was Native American, born on a reservation.

Pauline attended a New York millinery and dressmaking school before returning to Charleston prior to 1880. It's unclear where exactly she might have attended; however, education for African Americans doubled between 1870 and 1880, from 22 historically black colleges to 45. The first all female black college, Spelman College in Atlanta, opened in 1881.

In a way, it's sort of surprising that Pauline traveled to New York for education, but chose to move back to Charleston. The exponential amount of opportunity in New York versus a segregated and Jim Crow heavy south seems a bit of a non-question to me; however, I'm looking at it from a 21st century perspective. As far as opportunity, from the1870s into the 1920s, many African Americans moved northward in a movement that is now called the Great Migration, looking to escape the oppression and social constraints of Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws after the Civil War. Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit all had large, prosperous African American communities, bringing about a cultural renaissance that influenced music, art, and literature for generations afterwards. Another note from her descendant: Pauline was the only one in her family to stay in South Carolina after she graduated from school in New York.

Regardless of her reasons, Pauline did move back to Charleston before 1880. Surprisingly (and I'm still not exactly sure how I found her), Pauline was living as a boarder with William and Cecilia Elfe. Not only is she listed as Mary P. Smith, but she was listed as living with Charles Seba, her future husband. They hadn't yet married. Additionally, it lists Pauline as a 25 year old dressmaker, and Charles as a 35 year old mail carrier with a dislocated ankle. I think it's interesting that the census taker included that he had a dislocated ankle.

Charles and Pauline married on June 30, 1881. According to his death certificate, Charles was the son of Christopher Seeba, a German slave owner living in Wallhala, South Carolina, and Jane Deas, most likely one of Christopher's slaves.

Between her marriage in 1881 and her first entry as a dressmaker in the Charleston City Directory in 1887, Pauline most likely worked out of her house on 94 Anson St., gaining clients and notoriety. One key signifier of her growing acclaim in Charleston was the fact that she used a label on her garments to identify her business. These labels are typically found in couture garments, so for Pauline to have one of her own illustrated her success.

This label was found on the dress below in the collection of the Charleston Museum. Made for Miss Sara "Sadie" Simonds in 1889, it was one of several Paris and New York couture dresses that made up her trousseau for her marriage to Edward Simons, a prominent Charleston banker, in January of 1890.

Pauline's occupation remained steady as a dressmaker throughout the early 1900s, while Charles' position ranged from fireman, cotton weigher, keeper at the Old Folks Home, fruiterer, wheelwright, and blacksmith. Perhaps his dislocated ankle in 1880 led to his change in position. At some point the couple moved to Smith St, where Pauline continued to work out of her house. Charles passed away in 1908 at the age of 57 or 58.

After Charles' death, Pauline began to take on a number of activist positions, as well as maintaining a presence in the dressmaking community in Charleston. From 1914-1916, she acted as President of the Union Millinery & Notion Company, located at 469 King Street. She accepted young African American women as apprentices, and helped further the millinery and dressmaking trade through the company and her renown in Charleston. Artist Edwin Harleston's wife, Elise Forrest Harleston, worked as a seamstress at Union Millinery & Notion Company prior to her marriage in 1920, and may have been a part of Pauline's circle.

Pauline also became an advocate for women's education and rights. She was a founding member of Charleston's Phillis Wheatley Literary and Social Club, a group still active today, which was founded to "promote interest in literary and community work and to lift others as they climb to higher heights." They held bi-monthly literature events, and hosted several well-known African American authors and artists throughout their early history. Through these meetings, they "provided social contact for individual black women in the city . . . while quietly expanding their opportunities in the public sphere and promoting higher education for women."

In the March 1919 edition of Dry Goods and Apparel magazine, the following patronizing feature was written about Pauline's establishment:

Unique of Its Kind

In the conservative city of Charleston, S. C. there is a specialty shop in millinery and dress making, for colored people only, run by a clever colored woman, Mme. Mary Pauline Seba, who graduated at a New York school some years ago and went to Charleston to open a shop for her people where late and original fashions could be had for reasonable prices. The store she is now running is probably the only one South and is well patronized. The business is managed by a very capable colored woman of a pleasing address and a full knowledge of coming fashions. Mme. Seba has an attractive home on Smith street, with her mind ever directing the business she has created, which has resulted in a wonderful trade among the prominent colored people of the South.

Not long after, on June 14, 1919, Pauline was again featured for her dressmaking skills, this time in the National Publication of Women's Wear Daily. The review, though questionable in tone, commended her high-end specialty shop at 419 King St.

Just three days later, another article appeared in the Women's Daily Wear, this time announcing Seba’s arrest. By selling plumes made from egret feathers called aigrettes, Seba violated of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This law attempted to curb the overzealous and unnecessary killing of birds for their plumage. Throughout the 1910s, so many birds were being killed for their use on hats, many birds were becoming extinct. So much so that one ornithologist, who instead of finding birds in the grassy meadows of the wild outside the city, headed for the streets of uptown Manhattan. In one afternoon, he counted 542 hats adorned with 174 whole birds or their disembodied parts and remarked, "the more flamboyant ladies flaunted not just feathers but also the eyes, wings, and in some cases, entire bodies of birds carefully arranged with other natural accessories like leaves and moss." As a result this craze, the Migratory Bird Treaty made it "unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird," putting an end to the extravagant bird and feather hats.

According to the second article in Women's Wear Daily, Pauline was arrested for selling bird feathers, which was illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty. The Charleston Museum, who has the only known extant couture gown made by Seba in their collection, seems to think that this immediate backlash "could imply the arrest was racial retaliation for Seba's success."

While this necessarily can't be validated, what is clear is that Pauline joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) the same year. She joined alongside other Charleston African Americans including artist Edwin Harleston, Charleston's first NAACP president. Perhaps her arrest was the catalyst for her to join the NAACP, but her values were already in place. And whether it was the racial inequality served toward her in this instance or from another, she continued to fight for equality and women's education up until her death in 1931.

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