, , , , , , , , , , ,

From the Newport Herald, 6/26/1788

From the Newport Herald, 6/26/1788

It’s quite the poem, isn’t it? In October, I’ll be part of an 1800 event at work, and I will be portraying a housemaid, if not quite the housekeeper (we are still trying to sort out the domestic staff; what we can document is far too small a staff for the size of the house).

One of the things I will need is a name, and I thought perhaps I should check my instinct that “Kitty” was an acceptable name for women in the 18th century, and not just for sloops. So to the newspapers I turned, and among listings of the graduates of Philadelphia Seminaries for Girls, and ships cleared through the custom house, I found this poem. It reminded me of Mr S, and I recommend you read it aloud.

The early nineteenth-century maid. By William Brocas (1762-1837), pencil drawing c.1800 (National Library of Ireland)

So, a name: we’ll go with Kitty for now, and I can imagine building a complicated back story that pulls together all of the things I do, from running away outside Philadelphia to encountering soldiers and following them, to ending up a maid in a house in Providence. Except that what I believe about a life like that is this: It would be highly improbable, and I would look wa-a-a-y older than my actual years.

Instead of getting carried away with extreme historical fictions, let’s look at what we can know.

For one thing: clothing. Do you find yourself concerned, ever, that you focus so much upon your historic clothing? Well, you can stop. After a long and excellent conversation this week, think of this: the historical clothing you wear to events of any kind requires a lot of lead time. So you do have to think it through carefully, because every minute will count. It is also a visitor’s first impression of you, from a distance and up close. Getting it right matters, and since that takes so much time, you have to think a lot before you commit scissors to cloth. It does not necessarily mean that you’re a shallow, clothes-obsessed freak. There’s no 18th century mall to go hang out in and watch the leather-breeches boys  posing while they smoke clay pipes.

Benjamin West, Characters in the Streets of London, 1799, YCBA, Paul Mellon Collection, B1977.14.6314

I’ve just about convinced myself that the silhouette we’ve been wearing at the house and formerly at the farm is acceptable. I went looking through the turn-of-the century images I have on Pinterest and I think that a maid would have worn the fashionable silhouette. Another question is age (sigh); all the women in the Benjamin West are younger than I am.

Francis Wheatley, Cries of London. New Mackerel, New Mackerel.

This print from a Wheatley (1792-1795) is useful, though he is such a genre painter and idealizes so much that I use him with caution. (Think of how much grittier–and funny–Sandby is: I trust Sandby more.) But, what can I learn from this? One thing is that I often think and dress more like the people in the street than the people in the houses. This will happen when you spend a lot of time outdoors, with soldiers: you are one of the people in the street. It can be a bit of a trap, historically speaking, and it’s good to challenge yourself to think about another class from time to time.

Back to the doorstep: what I learn here is that I need a white apron that I haven’t spilled on, a white kerchief, and a fancier cap. That cap will tie under my chin, because that’s the cap I see in Providence most often, and that’s the cap that will stay on. I’m not sure if these are maids–I think they are– but they’re women in a brownstone city house. And I can see from the clothes around me that they’ve been made for a woman who sells milk in the street, or works on a farm, or cooks over a fire. They’re not what the richest man in Providence would want his maid to wear answering the door.

You’ll have noticed, too, the different waistlines. The drawing from the National Library of Ireland and the Benjamin West have higher waistlines than the women in the Wheatley. Some of this will depend upon the available corsetry: I have stays that will work for the higher waistline, and I have stays for 1770.  I have a not-quite-right 1790s pair that need revision, but that’s not likely to happen: I have a brown and sea-green coat to make.