The Cooper legacy in Laramie—a nice house and dresses

Four elegant English dresses found their way to Laramie, probably in the 1920’s.  Why they were brought here is lost to anyone’s recollection.

They aren’t relics of the era in which they first arrived in Laramie.  One is likely made from silk fabric that was woven before 1775 in England, so they may have been close to 150 years old when they arrived with three English siblings.

Barbara V. (1890-1979), Richard F. (1893-1952) and John H. Cooper (c. 1895-1921) came to Laramie around 1920 from England because they had to if they wanted to cash in on an inheritance.  After petitioning the city council to vacate the alley platted for the entire city block they bought between 14th and 15th Streets on Grand Avenue, they commissioned local architect Wilbur Hitchcock to construct a California-style house for them.

Their father, Frank Cooper, had been a pioneer rancher on the Laramie Plains, though he sold his holdings and returned to England in 1904. He retained the mineral rights to his lands in the Cooper Cove and Rock Creek Valley--an astute decision as oil was discovered there in 1917.  He made plans to return to Wyoming, but died suddenly in 1918.

According to the family history on the UW website, US law at the time allowed only residents to claim mineral royalties, therefore Frank Cooper’s heirs had to emigrate if they wanted the income. John Cooper died in a racecar accident after returning to England in 1921. Barbara Cooper settled in Laramie to assure the family inheritance; her brother Richard often traveled in Africa. 

Barbara and Richard went back to England during WWII but returned to Laramie after the war.  Richard Cooper died at his hunting lodge in Africa in 1952, leaving a widow and two young children, Richard Jr. and Sylvia.  When their mother died, Richard came to live with Aunt Barbara in Laramie, and niece Sylvia visited during school vacations.

Barbara lived quietly at her Laramie home, pursuing her interests in archaeology and painting (the 1930 US census lists her as an artist).  She entertained formally for afternoon teas, a ritual for local friends and business people who visited her. Often in the 1970’s she would be seen perambulating the block on the arm of a UW student hired to assist her.

Barbara never married; she died in 1979, a few months after the death of her nephew. Her house was nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, and was formally listed in 1984. The Laramie landmark was acquired by the UW Foundation, the lot now made smaller to fix the miss-match of 15th Street south of Grand Ave., and for a UW parking lot on the west. The Cooper House is now the UW American Studies Department headquarters. 

Barbara’s niece Sylvia Cooper Mullen was the only surviving relative. Though most of the furniture, paintings and other English valuables went to an auction house in New York, Sylvia donated the dresses and an American Indian headdress to the LPM in 1980.

As often happens, the reasons why these items were originally brought to Laramie was unknown by her niece. Perhaps Barbara Cooper thought that she could reuse the fabric by having them remade into a fashionable 1920’s style, but never got around to it (or never needed such an elegant gown in Laramie).  One of the dresses had already been remade in Britain into a then-fashionable 1890’s style gown with a prominent back bustle. 

Perhaps Sylvia had enjoyed playing “dress-up” in the gowns as a child; maybe Barbara Cooper herself had done the same in England.  Two of the dresses, one of hand-painted silk, were not remade. They retain their 1750’s styling. They are designed for underpinnings of “panniers” or baskets at the sides, to accentuate the hips, and an open front to show off an elegant quilted petticoat.  They have, however, been “robbed” of what may have been very costly antique lace trim—something that frequently happens with vintage garments. 

One of the dresses is made of famous Spitalfields silk—so named for an area of London where French Huguenot refugees settled in 1690 after being forced to emigrate from France because they were Protestants.  They brought their complicated Jacquard looms with them and wove exquisite patterned silk fabrics. 

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has over 900 watercolor drawings made by Anna Maria Garthwaite (1690-1763), the most well-known English textile designer of the 1700’s.  She sold her drawings to the silk weavers, who proceeded to painstakingly set up their looms to reproduce her large-scale patterns.     

One of the treasured LPM Cooper dresses is almost certainly a Garthwaite design; it features her signature sprigs of accurately rendered garden flowers and wildflowers. They are entwined with almost no repeat of the design in the skirt of the dress. 

In spite of current offers of over $3,000 per yard for unused Spitalfields silk antique fabrics today, they were more reasonably priced at the time owing to a large number of competing fabric mills. 

However, they were still expensive fabrics.  Luckily, the practice of weighting silks with metallic salts to give them the characteristic “rustle” women liked had not yet begun. Those metallic salts caused the typical “shattering” of silk fabrics from the 1860’s and later, therefore, these silk dresses are in good condition for their age.

Another Cooper dress in the LPM collection is of a less expensive fabric, an imitation of Spitalfields silk, done by hand painting sprigs onto a white silk fabric with colors that are still vivid.  One can picture a talented 18th C. “Cinderella” painting beautiful fabrics while being paid a pittance, if anything, in return for her board and room. 

All this is pure speculation; we can only know what the fabrics and garments themselves tell us through careful examination.  But they are a joy to behold, and are true “treasures” of the LPM. 

By Judy Knight

Caption: Two of three dresses made from patterned mid-18th C. silk fabrics on display at the Laramie Plains Museum.  The dress on the left was remade in 1890’s style with a prominent back bustle.  The one on the right still shows the prominent side fullness that was fashionable in the 1750’s, though the lace trim on the dress was removed; replaced for exhibit with a more modern lace to give the effect it might have had when worn in the 1750’s.  Courtesy photo by Judy Knight, dresses donated by Sylvia Cooper Mullen to the LPM.