Pettiwidths: thrills and spills with Gerty MacDowell

U 13.724-6: He could see her other things too, nainsook knickers, the fabric that caresses the skin, better than those other pettiwidth, the green, four and eleven, on account of being white.

Bloom admires the profusion of underwear as Gerty leans back to follow the fireworks. Nainsook knickers, with their trimmed French lace (optional), were garments of choice for the discerning ladies of Dublin, and their less discerning counterparts. They could be obtained at Switzers, at Clery’s, and at many other stores in the capital.

"Nainsook" is "a fine soft cotton fabric, a kind of muslin or jaconet, originally made in South Asia" (OED). It is a Hindi word, and translates as “eyes’ delight”. Hearth and Home for 26 January 1899 offers:

Knickers, long cloth, trimmed embroidery, 1/11, 2/11, 3/11, 5/11, 6/6

Knickers, nainsook, very deep frills, trimmed lace, 3/9, 4/6, 5/11, 6/11, 8/3, deep hemmed frills, 2/3

The Irish Independent of 24 January 1906 carries an advertisement for Switzers’ sale:


Ladies' Long Cloth Night Dresses, Hand Embroidered, 4s. 11d. each.

Ladies' Nainsook Knickers, Trimmed Lace, 1s. 9d. per pair.

Ladies' Moreen Petticoats Black and All Colours, 3s. 11d. each.

But of more interest to the student of Joyce’s language is “pettiwidth”. Don Gifford (Ulysses Annotated) offers the comment that this is “a brand name”. At present there is no supporting evidence for this suggestion.

In fact, it is much more likely that “pettiwidth” is simply a shortening of the expression “petticoat width”, designating lengths by which petticoat fabric was sold – particularly in Scotland and Ireland. We can therefore regard it either as Joyce’s own reduction of “petticoat width” or an informal use of “petty” (= “petticoat”) with “width”.

For this use of “petty” see, for example, D. H. Lawrence’s Lost Girl (1920):

And so the little Woodhouse girls went to school in petties and drawers made of material which James had destined for fair summer dresses: petties and drawers of which the little Woodhouse girls were ashamed, for all that.

(ed. 1955), p. 6

But “pettiwidth” would not exist without “petticoat width”, and we can see this in adverts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century:

Flannels. – We are offering our Stock of Flannels at the following prices: - 7-8 Width, 6½d, 7½d, 8½d, 10½d; Kelsall & Kemp’s Famous Goods, yard wide, and non-shrinking, at 1s, 1s 2d., 1s 4d, 1s 6d, and 1s 8d; 12-4 Petticoat Widths, 3s 11d, 4s 11d, and 5s 11d.

Glasgow Herald (1879) 10 January

At Our Flannel Counter We Offer […] Lots of Cream Flannel (Petticoat Width), to be Cleared in Petticoat Lengths at 2/6 each.

Dundee Courier (1898), 26 February

The Irish Times (29 January, 1900, p. 7) advertises another sale, with scarlet flannels in petticoat widths, and again one of the widths is offered at 4s. 11d. (Joyce’s price, clearly researched) – though in scarlet, not green:

Edward Lee's Great Annual Winter Discount Sale…

48 Mary Street. Rathmines, Kingstown, and Bray…

Blankets. Flannels. Quilts…

Scarlet Flannels, petticoat widths. 1s. 4½d., 1s. 11d., 2s. 6d., 2s 11d., 3s. 11d., 4s. 11d., and 5s. 11d. per yard.

Petticoat widths broadened and shrank with the vogue, and the term was abbreviated by Joyce to lend further verisimilitude to his description of Gerty MacDowell’s evening out.

John Simpson

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