“Now Selling at Prime Cost”

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Although I’ve portrayed a milliner before, the earliest iteration has been as a shopkeeper in August, 1804, so I thought it best to refresh my knowledge of what 18th century milliners advertised. (Deep dives into bonnets help me focus on bonnets, but necessarily what else was being sold.)

Pennsylvania [Philadelphia] Packet, January 15, 1772.


One of my favorite ads is from the January 15, 1772 Pennsylvania Packet. Mary Symonds of Philadelphia published an extensive list of goods, many of which will lead you down a rabbit hole. Three of the listings had particular appeal.

“Womens’ and childrens’ black and coloured silk, Dunstable and chip hats, and bonnets”

“Black and coloured silk” almost surely encompasses the range of colored silk bonnets seen in Boston advertisements, but what’s the difference between Dunstable and chip hats? Price, of course. What most of us think of, or call, “chip” hats should be called Dunstable or simply straw.

Chip hats like the one above in the Snowshill Wade Costume Collection, were made of plaited (woven) thin strips of wood, more like flat baskets or chair seats.

Straw hats, like the one above (also in the Snowshill Wade Costume Collection) are clearly finer than chip and do not need to be covered. The earliest description of the distinctions between hat types that I’ve found thus far is from 1815, in “An Encyclopæaedia of Domestic Economy, Comprising Such Subjects as are Most Immediately Connected with Housekeeping etc etc” which goes into some detail.


The most entertaining discussion I found was in  The Sessional Papers Printed By Order Of The House Of Lords, Or Presented By Royal Command, In The Session 4 And 5 Victoriae And The Session 5 Victoriae 1841. The recorded exchange resonates with current discussions of tariffs on imports, but the really revelatory bit is this:

Class distinctions expressed in materials and apparel are eternal.

“Tobines” were new to me (or at least forgotten) and have nothing at all to do with the bishop of Providence. Thankfully, Textiles in America has the answer: “A wide variety of dress materials from fine silks to silk and worsted, and linen and cotton combinations that have warp-float patterns of small flowers or intermittent stripes and dots.” (p 367). Once you’ve seen it, you realize you’ve seen it before.

Berch papers, Nordiska Museet.

“Childbed baskets” were also a new concept to me, but The Female Reader, Or, Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Verse; Selected from the Best Writers, … for the Improvement of Young Women illuminated the term; the current equivalent is a layette set that includes bedding, and goes beyond the crocheted sweater, cap and booties some of us came to fear receiving. (Mint green acrylic? really?)

It’s a wide range of goods for women to buy (including small accessories for the men and boys in their families), and somewhat beyond the bonnets-hats-jewelry-trimmings we typically associate with milliners. While I don’t have any plans to start manufacturing chip bonnets or making up childbed baskets, I am definitely intrigued by the possibility of expanding my “offerings.”

Making Plans….

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I have set my sights on being at Van Cortlandt House Museum’s Second Annual History and Culture Fair on Saturday, September 21. This is a bit of a stretch: It’s farther than Philadelphia, where I’m scheduled to be the following weekend at the Museum of the American Revolution– and I want tweak that impression and its material culture a bit, too. Still: setting up a ca. 1777-1780 milliner and mantua maker or merchant display has been on my to-do wish list for years, and I’m pretty sure I can pull this off as long as I modify/upgrade items already in my closet.

There are enough images to provide good inspiration and ways to start accessorizing.

Several prints  from the British Museum provide guidance.

It’s clear– as I knew already– that my accessory game requires major upping. But this is solvable! It’s not ideal, being in a situation where I can’t buy new fabric, and I don’t have the time to make up the fabric I do already have in the garment styles I need. This is no time to start a new patterning project!

So this means making accessories to upgrade a gown and petticoat already on hand and known to fit (though they should be fit-tested once again before committing!).

Which dress? Why, Nancy Dawson, of course. She’s the brightest and most stylish gown I have. Thankfully, I have upgraded my cap collection, and could even– probably– manage a new cap in the time allotted.

So what do I need? A well-decorated, possibly floofier cap, a LBB (™) of the kind worn in “The Rival Milleners”, a breast knot or bow, a new fine silk or cotton apron, and some kind of sleeve treatment.

The maid in the back of “A Morning Visit,” carrying in the tea tray, demonstrates the more understated upgrades I think I will be able to manage in the time I have. In a year, a trimmed silk gown can happen. In a month, it cannot.

The main upgrade I’d like to make is to add a red silk quilted petticoat, since they appear in so many prints with cotton print gowns, including a print of Nancy Dawson herself.

Miss Nancy Dawson, aquatint print. Victoria and Albert Museum. E.4968-1968

I almost assuredly have red silk in my stash: the question is, can I find it, back it, and quilt it in time? Probably not. So there are choices to be made, like the sensible one of simply upgrading sleeve finish and apron and adding bow knots.

Those are just the upgrades I hope to make to my personal kit! I need a dome top trunk (underway; I need the one I have for Elizabeth Weed), and there are inventory items to make that have been on the list for a while.

All of this has to get done while I’m splitting my 55-60 hour weeks between commissions and a retail gig (which I am trying to streamline!).

Once again, I start down the path of madness. Won’t you join me? I think it’ll be a blast!

Memento Mori/Memento Vivere

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Late August is the time when kids go back to school, and nostalgia  grows for summers past and the months just gone, and for what you didn’t get done that you wanted to. It’s a time for transitions and remembering, when we’re on the verge of a fresh start. Even at my age, decades out of school, fall represents a fresh start, a time to begin something new. Now it’s more painful to drop my son at the airport than it was to take him to his first day of kindergarten: I won’t see him again until Thanksgiving or Christmas, depending on his class schedule. So to distract myself, I turned to a new-old project: the circular reticule with a pasteboard center.

I’ve been working on a version of the abolitionist reticules made in the 1820s, but recently came across some delightful earlier reticules offered by Skinner, one of a lady and a lamb, and one a Memento Mori.

My disused painting skills just stretch to the naive style of early nineteenth century schoolgirl painting, though it is hard to capture the full style when one has a modern eye. (Once you’ve seen Picasso and Warhol, can you ever go back?)

If/when I make another of these, I’ll definitely make some changes in techniques and materials, starting with the inscription. (Where is my historically correct ink? Where are the pen nibs?) For now, though,I’m happy enough and even ok with the off-centeredness of the painting on the circle. Lesson learned: do not rush through a project without planning all the steps.

I figure I’ll even it out a bit when I attach the bag.

I still have to paint the opposite side, and then decide what silk to use for the bag (I have some embroidered silk that I’m saving for a 1790s ball gown, but should have enough for a bag) and whether or not to line it. The catalog descriptions don’t mention linings, and the images appear to show only a layer of silk, with no lining.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around an unlined anything, and for embroidered silk, a lining will help keep whatever I’m carrying from tangling in the threads on the wrong side of the fabric.

This isn’t a quick project, and I have to put it aside to work on commissions, but it does give me something to look forward to working on– a small memento vivere, if you will.

Women in Business

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One of things I’ve struggled with in living history is reconciling my own life as a 21st century working woman and feminist with interpreting the lives of 18th century women.

Mrs. James Smith (Elizabeth Murray)
John Singleton Copley (American, 1738–1815) 1769

It takes a while– and a bunch of reading– to get past the notion that these women lack agency in their own lives. Sure, there are notable exceptions: Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and Elizabeth Murray, but those wealthy Boston women aren’t the kinds of women I’m interested in portraying. What about more everyday women? What about the women more like me? They’ve proven harder to find, but not unfindable–though even they, by dint of being findable, are more exceptional than the vast majority of 18th century colonial American women.

Elizabeth Weed carried on her husband’s business as a pharmacist, noting that she “had been employed these several years past in preparing [his receipts] herself,” and was therefore well-equipped and trustworthy to carry on in his business. Rebecca Young advertised as a flag maker, and as a contractor, made flags, drum cases, cartridges and shirts for the Continental Army, thanks to her brother Benjamin Flower’s position as a Lieutenant Colonel.

In researching Elizabeth Weed, I read about other women running businesses in Philadelphia, and practicing as “doctoresses” in nearby New Jersey, demonstrating that Mrs. Weed operated in a context of other successful women, including some practicing medicine, or at least “medicinal arts.” What I would really like is to track down the records of a mantua maker or milliner in 18th century America, and not only because I make and sell gowns and bonnets, but because in doing so, I’m carrying on with the kind of work that my grandmother and great aunts did.

Elsa, Studio Portait ca 1935

For fifty years, my grandmother ran a dress shop in western New York state, dressing the women of Jamestown and the surrounding counties in fashionable and flattering clothes. My aunts made hats and accessories in their own shops, completing the look. I come from a family of makers (including a great-grandmother who made her own shoes), who care deeply about fit and helping people look and feel their best. My grandmother ran a successful shop for fifty years, until she sold it in the mid-1970s. I have many fond memories of sorting costume jewelry upstairs, and gift-wrapping boxes in the basement, with a rack of ribbons in all colors handy on the wall.

She was exceptional in her own way, though you will be hard-pressed to find much (if anything) about her on the interwebs, but maintaining a business through the Depression and World War II was challenging. She gave back, as a member of the YWCA and Women’s Hospital boards, recognizing the importance of sustaining the community you’re part of. When I portray Elizabeth Weed or Rebecca Young, or the Hawthorns of Salem, I think about my grandmother. Maybe it’s a step too far to say the living history work I do or the business I’ve started honors her and the other working women of my family, but I like to think that it helps make visible women who, though now forgotten, were as important to their own communities as she was.

Failure is Always an Option

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Or, if not failure, at least screwing up.

The big cold box….

In my more exhausted moments, I make interesting mistakes and choices. Once, I engaged in an argument at work in which I repeatedly used “orange” when I meant “blue.” Another time, I lost the word “refrigerator” and had to coin the phrase “big cold box where we keep the food.” My brain is an interesting place.

When I sat down to start on a commission for some officers’ white linen sheets to be 60” x 85” I was tired. I chose not to do the math on paper as I measured, but in my head. And using a 60” tape measure, I measured and marked 60” and then added 16” to make up 85” plus seam allowance. Yes, I measured 60 + 16 = 85 finished inches.

Obviously not.

Round two of thread pulling to cut the second sheet correctly.

But it was not obvious to me until I held the fabric up, ready to iron, and realized it was just a little bit longer than I am tall. Since I am not 7’ tall, something was clearly wrong. I dropped the fabric to the ironing board, messaged Drunk Tailor, and took to bed in mortification and hope of a nap.

I tell you this story not just to make you laugh, bring you a modicum of schadenfreude, or to make plain that we all screw up sometimes, but to remind you that mockups are good, and so is math on paper.

Really, I’m not sure how this happened. But there it is: upside down.

Starting a project without laying down some ideas on paper or making a muslin is a quick trip to madness, or at least dismay. Creative problem solving will undoubtedly result, but that’s energy you could put into planning your next project instead of salvaging your current one (as I have salvaged my sheet).

Here are some measures I’ve learned to take to prevent repeating hilarious mistakes:

  • After hemming skirt fronts that put pocket slits upside down, I now pin notes to the panels so I know which make up the left, and which the right sides of the gown skirts.
  • I have been known to mark linings extensively in pencil or chalk; I sometimes pin notes to sleeves to denote left and right, front and back, especially if I cut pieces long before I will get around to sewing them.
  • I make lists of which pattern pieces I need and must cut, and then tick them off as I go, to make sure I have all the pieces I need.
  • To make sure I’ll have enough fabric and can minimize piecing, I will do a rough layout of all the pieces before I do actually cut anything.

It is by no means an extensive list, but once you know the types of mistakes you are most likely to make, you can take measures to prevent them. You know, like measuring twice and cutting once, or doing math on paper to double check your work.