HANNIBAL, Mo. -- One hundred and fifteen yards of lace. An ice pack in a purse and a rucksack. Extra fabric to elongate and widen clothes. And a dwindling number of capable seamstresses.
Hannibal's Tom and Becky ambassadors are instantly recognizable in their 1800s period clothing, but behind the bonnets and wide-rimmed hats are women who transform modern-day seventh-graders into the beloved Mark Twain characters.
The seamstresses are the creative force behind the intricate outfits of each Tom and Becky, and they share just what goes into crafting the iconic outfits.
The beginning of Tom and Becky
The Tom and Becky Program began in 1956 when a St. Louis TV station announced it would bring 1,200 children to Hannibal to tour Mark Twain points of interest. The Hannibal Chamber of Commerce sponsored a contest among seventh-grade students to find a duo to portray Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher during the visit.
Each school in the district selected a boy and girl to participate in the contest, and the first Tom and Becky were chosen in front of the St. Louis children, thus beginning the in-the-flesh Tom and Becky portrayals.
The modern format of the contest began in 1992. The competition is open to all seventh-grade students within the Hannibal Public School District, including those in private school and those who are homeschooled, and letters to the students go out in February. Within a couple months, judges narrow the field of contestants to 10.
"The five boys and five girls prepare their costumes at this point," said Melissa Cummins, the Tom and Becky Goodwill Ambassadors coordinator at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, the program's sponsor. "Our only guideline is they be historically relevant," Cummins said of the costumes.
The five boys and five girls rotate portraying Tom and Becky throughout the year, and the official Tom and Becky, who do special appearances locally and around the country, are announced at noon July 4 during National Tom Sawyer Days.
‘No two alike'
The first part of building a Tom or Becky outfit is selecting the fabric and style. It's a collaboration between the young teens' likes and dislikes -- especially when it comes to the Becky dress -- and the seamstresses' creative visions.
"No two Beckys are alike. They either have a white or print dress, but they have so many options with those," seamstress Carla Kennedy said.
Based on the teens' suggestions, some of the seamstresses will sketch on paper what fabric patterns and colors could be used and where lace, ribbons and bows might go.
"They don't necessarily know what they want until they can see it," seamstress Lori Colborn explained.
Up next is a trip to the fabric store. The seamstress, student and his or her family go together to select fabric.
"I like for them to have coordinating fabrics, and if you go to Hickory Stick, Pat (Waelder) makes sure nobody has the same fabric," seamstress Kate Sublette said, referring to the popular fabric and gift store in downtown Hannibal.
Not all costume components are bought at a fabric store. Oftentimes, a Tom will source burlap and fabric from area Amish stores to add to authenticity to the outfit, and a Becky may search antique stores for parasols. Native American Trading Co. in downtown Hannibal donates moccasins to the boys.
Putting it all together
Once all materials are gathered, the seamstresses get to work on the costumes. There are several parts to each.
Becky has a handbag, bonnet, parasol and dress with pantaloons and a pinafore. Tom has a rucksack, britches, shirt, suspenders and little bags attached to his pants.
To create a Becky dress usually requires between 30 and 50 hours of work, and a Tom outfits take less than 15 hours.
"You can always tell who did which dress because of signature features," Kennedy explained. "For example, my signature is putting accent bows on bonnets."
"I'm kind of the pouf queen. You can never have too much lace or ruffles," Colborn said with a laugh. "I used 115 yards of lace on my daughter's dress when she was Becky."
The seamstresses agree that putting fabric on a parasol is a difficult task, and they shared that they may create a pouch within Tom's rucksack or Becky's drawstring handbag to have a place to stash an ice pack to help the youngster keep cool. They also construct the costume with the thought that the child likely will grow during the one-year tenure -- they may need to lengthen the hemline or extend the waistband.
Seamstresses have about six weeks to complete the outfits.
"Years ago during severe weather, the power went out, and my husband had to get a generator so I could work on a Becky dress," Kennedy recalled. "It's a labor of love."
At the end of the sewing process, a Becky dress, with its layers and ornate pinafore, may become quite heavy.
"I had my son come bring me it once, and he struggled to lift it," Colborn said. "When you think about how many layers there are, yeah, they're heavy."
So a Becky doesn't have to be concerned about her hair staying in period style throughout an appearance, Kennedy may attach ringlets to the bonnet.
The price of costumes -- when fabric and labor are factored in -- isn't inexpensive. They range from a couple hundred dollars to more than $500 for a Becky outfit, and for Tom, about $200 or less, the seamstresses estimate.
"We do have a program that helps cover costs of being in the Tom and Becky program," Cummins said.
‘Handful of us here'
Colborn, Cummins, Kennedy and Sublette each agree: There aren't enough seamstresses in the area.
"I only have about five ladies on a list who are available to do this," Cummins said. "But these ladies who are on the list are so wonderful and talented."
"There's just a handful of us here," Kennedy said.
But the opportunity to work with the youngsters makes the process worthwhile for the women.
"You get to see these kids grow up by being ambassadors," Colborn said.
Added Sublette: "It's great to get to know the kids and families personally."