To Make a Standard

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British wool bunting flag said to have been given to Tecumseh. NMAI Catalog number 23/730.

When I set out to “be” Rebecca Young, I thought I knew how flags were made in the 18th century– after all, I’ve made and seen a wide range of 18th and early 19th century items. But I was surprised when I got a look at a War of 1812 flag in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian. (This was the closest, fastest option for getting a close-up look at an original, near-period flag in wool bunting, thanks to an inside connection.)

The questions I had were:

What materials were used? (My guesses were correct: wool bunting and unbleached linen thread)
What seam techniques were used? (See below)
How was a flag assembled? (Sequence of parts; see below)

The conservator shared the flag’s condition and treatment report with me in advance, and it was helpful:

My sketch of the Tecumseh flag

“Based on notes written by Phyllis Dillon, 1977(?): The flag is constructed of 9″
wide panels of plain weave wool bunting (24 threads/inch) sewn together with french seams (approx. 1/4″ wide) using beige (white/red) and brown (blue/white; blue/blue) 2-ply S linen threads in a running stitch. The canton is constructed similarly using strips of white and red bunting with similar thread count. The hoist (approximately 1 1/4″ wide) is made from a plain weave, coarse, undyed linen folded over the raw edges of the seamed rows of bunting and stitched with a beige (undyed) linen thread; there are three hand-stitched grommets/eyelets at the corners and the center of the hoist which appear to use the same type of linen thread as the hoist stitching. (See analysis section for fiber ID). The blue bunting at the lower and upper edges of the flag are selvage edges, the fly edge is folded over and stitched with a 1/2″ wide hem.”

The date of the notes (42 years ago?) concerned me, and I wondered about the french seams. Most of what we see in the period are felled seams, so it seemed possible there was some confusion about the terminology. I’m confused about it after looking at tutorials and descriptions online, but perhaps that’s just me– in any case, the only way to answer this was to go and look.

What did I find?

Mistress V shows visitors our modern wool bunting flag

Materials
Wool bunting and silk were the most common materials used to make flags, colo(u)rs, and standards in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Colours, as advertised by Rebecca Young, likely referred to regimental colours, though a naval “colour” could mean a national flag flown by the ship. During the Revolutionary War, there were state navies in addition to a Continental Navy, further complicating the issue. (This complication also existed in the army. There are parallels today in the state National Guard units, which operate under a state or commonwealth governor, unless called into federal service. It’s your state national guard that comes to dig you out of your car in a major blizzard, but they can also be called to serve in wars, as you may recall from such debacles as Abu Ghraib.) Bunting came from Sudbury, England, and was woven in narrow strips. The strips on the Tecumseh flag are about 9 ½” seamed, suggesting that the width was about 10” including selvedges. Narrow strips are more flexible for assembly, and allow extensive use of selvedges to make seams narrower and stronger, because they’re less likely to fray.

Techniques
The running stitches in the Tecumseh flag threw me, because I’d expected back stitches, or combination stitch at least, but when I started working with the bunting, I understood. The loose weave of the bunting will pull and distort if you apply too much tension, so a backstitch would, in the end, be less useful than a running stitch. I doubt this is true of silk flags, though; silk, being more tightly woven, would better withstand a backstitch.

Because the Tecumseh flag is mounted and framed in a plexiglas case, I couldn’t touch the seams, or see the backs, and the conservators don’t seem to have photographed both sides when the flag was being treated– or at least images were not available to me. This leaves open the question of exactly how the seams were done, but my best guess based on areas of loss is that the strips were stitched together with a slight offset, like a felled seam, and then the overlap was tucked under and stitched down with a running stitch.

women sewing

This is less efficient: one person assembling an entire flag alone.

Assembly
This was probably the most delightful part of the research: figuring out how all the pieces went together. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: flags were assembled in component parts, which were then assembled into wholes. Once we were working on the flag at the museum, the reason became clear: it’s so much quicker and easier to have multiple people working on parts, with one person assembling these parts, than to have one person per flag. This is proto-assembly line work, and it existed in 18th century workshops from tailors to cabinetmakers. Specialization equals speed, and the key to making money as a contractor supplying the army was quantity.

 

Canton components: A, B, C, D , E and F are assembled; AEB and CFD are sewn together to make two long rectangles, which are then sewn to the long sides of G.

In the case of the Tecumseh flag, there are three main components: the lower three strips, the upper three strips, and the canton, which is comprised of 7 parts. Each was assembled individually; then the canton and the three shorter strips were joined, and sewn to the long lower piece. After that, the hoist was attached and the far edge of the fly hemmed. Only then was the flag finished and ready for delivery.

Describing how strip(es) were assembled to become the Fort Mifflin flag.

The Fort Mifflin flag, 13 stripes of red, white and blue bunting, ending in red, would have been assembled in strips of two and then three, and then grouped and assembled. Working with Mistress V, the greater efficiency of assembling components became clearer. This hand-on quasi-experiment clarified some questions about how military contractors worked in the 18th century– at least the ones sewing. The system had to include multiple hands, working together in a shop or doing piecework at home for assembly elsewhere. There was just no other way to efficiently make the quantities of goods– 500 linen liners for light horse caps; 293 shirts; multiple standards and colours– at the speed the army required. The quantities also suggest that Rebecca Young was not just a widow-turned-contractor, but that she had working and organizing experience before she was widowed, along with a network of contacts who, along with some of her children, helped produce these goods.

In the Flag-Maker’s Shop

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Saturday’s arrangement. Image courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution

The biggest challenge in interpreting Rebecca Young and the shop she ran was not how flags were made (an appointment at the Cultural Resource Center of the National Museum of the American Indian answered that question*), but rather how to make sewing interesting, and how to create a more interactive experience for ourselves and for visitors. Some of my favorite living history experiences involve playing off other interpreters and the public, especially when trying to convince visitors to pick a side, carry a message, or share a secret. Saturday’s set up made that harder, with Rebecca’s shop of women behind a table (we wanted to be sure to be open to visitors, and not make the dreaded reenactor circle), and with Drunk Tailor rolling cartridges in a niche.

Nobody puts Drunk Tailor in a niche.

But what we saw on Saturday– a day with 800 visitors–was that boys between roughly six and 16 skipped from Drunk Tailor to the tailors, bypassing a table of women altogether. Older men (say, 45+) visiting alone also skipped our table, while the majority of our visitors were girls and women. This was not a surprise. Children begin to develop gender segregation around ages five to six, and sewing is often dismissed as “women’s work,” as the table of tailors experienced. These cultural biases were somewhat compounded by the nature of our work.

Tailor’s Art: Containing the men’s suits tailor, the skin breeches, the women & children’s body suit, the seamstress & the fashion merchant / by M. de Garsault, National Library of France

Sunday’s set up. Image courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution

Sewing is one of those tasks that is downward-facing, internal, and meditative (until the thread tangles or snaps). It’s dull to watch, really; the exciting parts of sewing and making are draping, fitting, and cutting. Cutting. There’s something to that.

Combining the desire to interact more with our co-interpreters and the need to disrupt expectations of sewing, we rearranged the tables on Sunday, moving Drunk Tailor to our end of the atrium, postulating that his tea table and powder keg were in the yard of the townhouse, while we pushed our table closer to the tailors and against the railing, pulling our chairs to the side. We also draped shirts and fabric over the railing to display shirts and their component parts, along with bunting. While this “messed up” the atrium, it helped create a context for our work.

Sunday, workshops in a row (house). Image courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution

But the best, most participatory change was Mistress V cutting flag strips on the floor, with the help of two young boys. This literally disruptive activity (you had to walk around her) changed perceptions of what we were doing, and helped people imagine assembling a large item (a Continental Standard) in a small rowhouse room.

If we take the Betsy Ross house** as an example of a Philadelphia rowhouse, , its exterior dimensions, roughly 16 x 25, yield an interior per-floor area of not more than 400 square feet. The Star-Spangled Banner was 30 x 42 feet; a second “storm” flag was 17 x 25 feet, large enough to cover the floor of a room in Betsy Ross house.

dark wooden drop leaf table with trifid feet

Dining Table (drop-leaf, gateleg table), probably Pennsylvania, 1750-1770. Walnut, oak. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1994-20-60

While we do not know the exact dimensions of the flags Rebecca Young and her shop produced, it seems likely that any flag would have exceeded the size of a domestic table, since even drop-leaf dining tables of the period are not usually more than 52” x 41” or about 15 square feet (4.3 x 3.5 feet). The limited size of the table, and the need for multiple feet of cutting space makes it likely that flags larger than 3 x 5 feet were cut and pieced on the floor.

This combination of thought experiment and interpretive change up was reasonably successful, giving us greater understanding as we talked about assembling goods in pieces and working in a small shop while interrupting the visitor’s expectations.

*More on this another time.

**You have to start somewhere– and while I’m on #TeamYoung when it comes to flag making, Rebecca’s rented house has long been razed.

 

Research and primary source materials on Rebecca Flower Young were provided by Matthew Skic of the Museum of the American Revolution; compiled information used by gallery educators at the MoAR was compiled and provided by Katherine Becnel of the MoAR.

To Philadelphia, Again

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Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), June 28, 1781

This time, unoccupied. I’ll be representing Rebecca Flower Young at the Museum of the American Revolution’s Flower’s Artificers event this coming weekend, and to get ready, I’ve been reading research material generously shared by museum staff, as well as Marla Miller’s classic Betsy Ross and the Making of America, which mentions Rebecca Young in the context of the competitive world of Continental Army contractors in 1780s Philadelphia.

Rebecca Flower Young (1739-1819) was an older sister of Benjamin Flower (1748-1781), Lieutenant Colonel in the Continental Army. Before the war, she lived in Philadelphia with her husband, William Young, a goldsmith, and their five children. The family fled Philadelphia for Lebanon, PA in September 1777 as the British Army advanced to occupy the city; it would not have been safe for them, given their ardent Whig politics and relationship to Benjamin, commissary general of military stores. After William Young’s death in February, 1778, Colonel Flower secured a house for his sister on Walnut Street, and work as a contractor providing supplies for the Continental Army.

 

Rebecca made drum cases and shirts, cap linings and cartridges, and multiple Continental standards. From the quantities she produced– 500 cap linings for light horsemen– it is possible she hired assistants in addition to her children. Her 17-year-old son William made “five hundred dozen of Priming wires and brushes” in 1780, aiding the war effort through the supply chain rather than as a foot soldier, a condition that was likely a relief, given Rebecca’s status as a widow. She also let a room in the Walnut Street house, the boarder’s rent providing a relatively steady and reliable income.

Col. Benjamin Flower, oil on canvas by Charles Willson Peale. Star-Spangled Banner House, Baltimore, MD.

We have no idea what Rebecca Young looked like, of course, though there is a portrait of her brother, Benjamin, in his uniform, as well as a portrait miniature sold at Freeman’s.

With only written sources about her work to guide me, I have waffled back and forth about Rebecca Young’s material world. In the end, I have made a much-needed new shift and cap for this weekend, as well as a gown (that, of this writing, requires only one cuff and the skirt hem). After reading Miller on Betsy Ross, I was of two minds: first, that the material world of these women was shabby and out-of-date, given the privations of the occupation and the war-driven inflation and second, that their status as contractors gave them an income that allowed them to afford new things. Still, with five children, new anything would have been a stretch, so I remain undecided and firmly ambivalent about the appropriateness of this gown. Scissors, needles, pins: those tools are much easier to understand than personal circumstances.

We approach representing the past with preconceptions that are hard to shake: the images we have in mind are dominated by representations of people at the far ends of the economic spectrum. It’s as if we had only the Saks Fifth Avenue and Old Navy websites to help us understand American clothing today. The wildly divergent economic and material situations tell us little about the people in the middle, who make up the vast majority of the population. 

Research and primary source materials on Rebecca Flower Young were provided by Matthew Skic of the Museum of the American Revolution; compiled information used by gallery educators at the MoAR was compiled and provided by Katherine Becnel of the MoAR.

Pattern Launch

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Last weekend, I had the pleasure of teaching a bed gown workshop at Washington Crossing Historic Park, using a pattern I developed after looking at extant garments, images, and messing about with muslins for several years. What I see– and I know there are different schools of thought– is a shift in the cut of bed gowns over the course of the middle decades of the 18th century. It looks to me as if bed gowns, like gowns, start to have smaller sleeves (for smaller cuffs), and to be a little slimmer in the body.

I’m really happy with bed gown I made, after two earlier iterations (and a wrapper).

The difference is subtle from the front, but the wearing is the test. And I never wore the white one! (Though I still have enough of that fabric to make another bed gown.)

There’s less fabric across the back of the blue bed gown, and I like that better than the more full gown, which I think trends a little earlier than the style of the white one.

Looking at runaway ads, prints, and extant garments, it began to dawn on me that really, the preferred garment fabric was a print, sometimes printed linen (“washed until the flowers have faded nearly white,” in one instance) but often printed cotton, calico, or chintz. In one ad, a servant wearing a dark calico bed gown ran away with a calico gown and a calico bedgown, and must have made a colorful sight with her striped petticoat– and a small looking glass.

In another instance, a woman ran away wearing a gown and a bedgown, trick I wish I’d known about earlier, for active winter events when a cloak was a hindrance. Reading ads and looking at images in a focused way helped me realize what so many people already grasped: that bed gowns are a seriously useful garment. As one test fitter put it, “It’s comfy, like it’s an 18th century sweatshirt.” Proof that the more we consider something, the better we understand it, and the more we may come to value it.

If you’d like to make your own, the pattern is available on Etsy. Full sized paper pattern includes all sizes A to G (finished bust 30″ to 54″) and illustrated instructions.

Bonus: I got adorable squirrel-themed thank yous that liven up my desktop!

With a Down Look (as she looks for what she’s forgotten)

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The patterns and instruction packets are printed, folded, and stuffed in envelopes; the fabric is washed and almost all cut (but needs more pressing); and the car needs gas. But other than that, and loading the car and packing my clothes and irons and … you get the idea… I’m ready!

On Monday, there will be a few paper patterns to post on Etsy, so if you’re looking for a bed gown pattern suitable for 1775-1785 with step-by-step instructions and a slimmer line, check out my store early next week.