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.

Pilgrimage

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Former President Barack Obama Oil on canvas by Kehinde Wiley, 2018. National Portrait Gallery (Washington, D.C.)

Note: This was written some weeks before the Kim Sajet’s piece in The Atlantic appeared. Upon reading that, I decided to publish this essay.

Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of President Obama hangs on a partial wall fronted by a velvet rope. Stanchions create an approach to the portrait, and people are lined up as if they’re waiting for communion, waiting to approach an altar. Which they are. The portrait is more vivid, more alive, in person than in print or online. The line of people–still long, still rapt, months after the painting was installed– is as moving as the portrait itself.

I knew I would like the portrait because I like the artist. The first Wiley I saw was at the MFA Boston, John, 1st Baron Byron hangs in a long hallway of a gallery, the chinoiserie background red and vibrant, loud the way 18th century wallpaper could be. Tendrils wrap around the subject’s legs, flat against the navy blue chinos, and without regard to the light that reflects from his palm. It stopped me in my tracks.

John, 1st Baron Byron. oil on canvas by Kehinde Wiley. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.2013.633

Obama’s portrait pricked my eyes with tears, not only for what I missed– the cool intelligence, the restraint, the reasonable domestic policies–but for the line of supplicants. There was a crowd of people who were moved the way I was moved, by the representation of a person. They were moved because of what the painting stood for, and how it represented the embodiment of an idea.

Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” portrait collage captures the beginning of the idea, Wiley’s portrait the mature realization. A copy of Fairey’s 2008 poster hung in my Providence living room, flatter than the original collage, stylized to a near caricature. Wiley’s portrait would suffer as a poster, print rendering the floral background lifeless, draining it of the light that saturates the portrait in person. The portrait glows on the gallery wall: Wiley has captured “hope” in paint and made it feel alive.

HOPE, by Shepard Fairey. Screenprint, 2008.

That light and life captivate viewers and draw them to the painting; they respond not only to what they know it represents, but to how the idea and accomplishment are represented. Watching people get in line to see a painting– no other presidential portrait, no other portrait, captured people’s attention and interest this way– proves not the popularity of a past president but the power of an object.

Wiley’s portrait, suffused with light, may be a modern altarpiece to the cult of celebrity, drawing crowds to worship an idol created by the media. Or it may be the physical representation of quintessentially American ideals of equality and progress, depicting a god of the mythical post-racial present. Or perhaps it’s a superficial representation of a superficial success, thin paint to match a thin pre-presidential resume. How we interpret an object is colored by our biases, but our response is not: our response is intuitive and automatic. That’s what I see in the queue to view Wiley’s portrait: people responding instinctively to beauty.

Sometimes I forget that no matter how interpretation and meaning layer an object, the first response is instinctive. It may be so fast we (almost) miss it, an impulse leaping across a synapse, but it is often the most honest response; the one we need to pay attention to so we can better understand how an object is presented to us or the public. The power is intrinsic to the object, whether an inlaid table or a portrait: the maker speaks to us through the object. Wiley’s portrait and the crowd who came to see it reminded me of that basic truth: the power is in the object. A curator’s label and presentation are secondary to the immediate response of the viewer to the object. There’s nothing like the real thing.

A Bonnet, Universally Acknowledged

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Print made by James Caldwall, 1739–1819, British, A Ladies Maid Purchasing a Leek, 1772, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a bonnet existed in the 1770s, it was black taffeta” has long been the rule reenactors have followed, particularly those wanting to adhere to the strictest standards of well-researched impressions based on primary source documents and period material culture. Truth examined is more subtle, showing that bonnet colours, materials, and shapes varied from decade to decade—and year to year—and that these factors seem to have varied by region. What worked in Boston would not be comfortable in the Carolinas, and people adjusted accordingly.

I was asked recently about Boston-area bonnets in the first half of the 1770s. My impression of this decade is that it is one in which there is a stylistic change in women’s headwear, as the “sunshade”* and “Bath” bonnet terms fade from use, giving way to plain “bonnet” or “chip” bonnets. These appear to have been made from “bonnet paper,” seen in both blue and white** in newspaper ads, though prints and paintings show brims in both boned and paper forms.

The Rival Milleners. Mezzotint after John Collet, 1772. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1955-125

Brim shape and bonnet material— fabric and colour–  vary by period (and region). So let’s look at Boston in the first years of the 1770s. One tricky bit is that there are fewer indentured servants and enslaved people in Boston than elsewhere in the American Colonies in this period, so runaway ads are scarce, giving us fewer clues than we get in Pennsylvania and points south. Still, there are plenty of ads to help guide us.

As early as 1769, we see color variations, with the mention of “black, blue, green, white, and crimson bonnets” in Caleb Blanchard’s store. The year before, Joshua Gardner and Company advertised “black, pink, blue & crimson sattin hats and bonnets.” That means that on the streets of Boston and environs, by 1775, you’d see half-worn black, blue, green, white, crimson and pink satin bonnets.

The best statistics around for bonnets are currently tabulated for Pennsylvania, and definitely show the preponderance of bonnets are black (52 of 75 tabulated, or 69%). So don’t give up on black silk bonnets! They are the most common color. If we extrapolate these statistics, for a Pennsylvania event in the 1770s, of every 10 bonnets, seven should be black, one should be white, one should be green, and one should be blue. In larger groups, we’d also see red and brown bonnets, but again, just one in 20 or 30.

The Boston Gazette, April 4, 1774. Benjamin Franklin’s sister advertises “Sattins of the newest Fashion… for Bonnets.”

“A few sarsnet taffety bonnets,” in the Boston Evening Post, September 28, 1772.

For Massachusetts, statistics are more difficult to compile, given the dearth of runaway ads and the fact that I haven’t yet dived into inventory and probate records. Merchants’ ads give us some clues as to materials, and one thing I find is that “sattin” shows up, as well as “sarsnet taffety” or pelong. Sarsnet or sarcenet was a “think transparent silk of plain weave,” according to Textiles in America. Thicker than Persian, sarcenet was woven both plain and twill, and could be plain or changeable. Pelong is a kind of silk satin, again according to Textiles in America, and in The Dictionary of Fashion History, described as a kind of “thin silk satin,” but I have also seen it described as a ribbed silk. Joshua Blanchard advertised “Pelong sattins of all colours” in 1768. Where does that leave us with materials? Probably with the need for more bonnets to be made of silk satin than of silk taffeta, though the proportions are difficult to calculate yet.

Miss Theophila Palmer (1757-1848), oil on canvas, attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds ca 1770.

What about shape? For those dressing a la mode, we are past the deep-brimmed, small-cauled “lampshade” of the 1760s, and into a smaller, tighter bonnet with a larger caul and more trimming. In the portrait of Miss Palmer, we see how the brim stands away from the face, and the caul or crown poufs up. “A Lady’s Maid Purchasing a Leek” and “The Rival Milleners” (aee above) both depict women in similarly tight-brimmed and round-crowned bonnets trimmed with bows. These are shapes that I am confident appeared almost universally (with variations) in the American colonies in the first years of the 1770s. Now, there are different shapes to be sure, but these seem to predominate. I do think we need to see more brims that wrap around the head, as seen in the 1774 mezzotint of George Whitefield (Anglo-America’s most popular preacher) and his followers.

Detail, A Call to the Converted. Publish’d April 15, 1774, by W. Humphry . Lewis Walpole Library, 774.04.15.01+

So what’s the take away, if we are looking specifically at Boston and environs in the first half of the 1770s?

  1. Most bonnets (70%) were black, but a few white, green, crimson, and blue were seen.
  2. Most bonnets were made of silk satin, with others of taffeta or sarsnet (sometimes twilled silk).
  3. Most bonnets would have a shorter, higher brim that curves across the face just above eye level, with a high, rounded crown/caul and bow trims.
  4. Bonnet brims would vary between bonnet (paste) board and boned

Each place has a local style– which, if you think about it, is still true today. When I stand on the Metro platform in the red wool coat I bought in Providence, these folks know I’m not from here. The way we dress for the past should reflect the place and the time we are representing as best we can. And that means we need accessories to match those times and places, as well as clothes.

And yes, full disclosure, I sell researched bonnets on Etsy. If you want a bonnet for a particular time and place, that’s what I make.

* Known on this blog as “lampshade”
** Nope, don’t know what that means yet, haven’t looked into it