Occupation as Liberation


, , , , , , , , ,

Philadelphia Ledger, October 10 1777

240 years ago, Philadelphia was occupied by British forces under the command of General Howe; the city was taken after a brutal campaign through the outskirts of the city, as you may recall from a few weeks ago— and this is after the Battle of Princeton, with the accompanying ravages upon the populace. This past weekend, interpreters at the Museum of the American Revolution brought the issues of occupation to life for visitors. But what struck me the most when we got home, was my cousin’s comment on this photo:

Hanging with the British and Citizens of Philadelphia

“I suppose you hang out with Confederates, too.”

Ouch, dude. That’s my partner you’re impugning.

Occupation of town/homes.

I understand that, in certain circles, British troops in North America during the American Revolution are equated with Nazis, and I understand that it’s easy to see the world in Manichaen terms (though my cousin usually does not), with good guys and bad guys. But after watching Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War series, I am reminded how (grossly speaking) “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” and while, as an America citizen, the “good” or “righteous” side should default to the Patriot/Whig cause, interpreting the other side offers room for people to question how they would have behaved in the past, and more importantly, to understand the actions of their country in the present.

There is no right answer.

Studying the past allows us to see the present through new eyes: Philadelphia in 1777 is occupied by a colonial power attempting (in part) to retain control of natural resources. Which side will you be on when the moment comes? Will you side with law and order, or will you side with natural freedoms and the rights of man (some exclusion apply; not all rights are right for you, and do not apply to African Americans, women, or American Indians, or non-property owning white men, etc. etc).

240 years later, what is the point of this hobby, these funny clothes, wandering around outside, talking to strangers? The point is that the past is always present. If we can understand the choices people faced in the past, we can understand our own predicaments better, and one hopes, analyze our options to choose better this time. We operate from a place of self-interest, even when we wish we could be idealistic, honorable. From the outside, actions aren’t always what they seem.

On Sunday (though I have found no photos thus far), I was arrested by the 17th for peddling a calico gown stolen from a room on Hamilton’s wharf, and alleged to be part of the Captain’s baggage. I tried to run, but was caught by two soldiers, and dragged away. From the outside, this looked like something bad: soldiers roughing up a woman. But I wasn’t innocent, and that’s the point: what looks like a bad thing may be a good thing. Costumed interpretation liberates us from the exhibit label, and allows us demonstrate a complicated past more quickly than a text panel can be read, and more engagingly.

When we assume that all Americans are “good,” we gloss over realities of people trying to get by when work, food, and money were scarce, and how “good” people do bad things. To play that well, you need both sides of the story. And that, dear cousin, is why I hang out with the Brits.

Living Like a Refugee


, , , , , , , , ,

At the Speaker’s House. Photo by Drunk Tailor.

When I was in middle school, we were given an assignment that is now considered inappropriate: we were asked to trace our family history or genealogy as a way to help understand historical time, stories of immigration, and the ways in which we are all American (according to the then-prevalent “melting pot” model of being American). Exercises like that are now discouraged as educators recognize the myriad ways in which people form families, though in my middle school, what was revealed was not adoptions or absent parents but the yawning chasm of class and privilege. My people are more peasant than princess, so the women I portray in living history make sense to me. They don’t wear silk. They make things, and they sell things.

Walking back from Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, PA

Portraying a refugee was a little trickier to wrap my head around. Whiny I can do– if I wasn’t teaching workshops in New Jersey this November, I’d be in 1587 North Carolina pining for England and wondering why I didn’t listen to my mother instead of marrying that head-in-the-sky Virginia colonist. What made being a refugee tricky for me was finding something to do. Obviously I shared in the cooking chores and the walk to Augustus Lutheran Church, but projecting “refugee” was tricky for me.

Looking back, I can see that straggling after a militia company may well have been enough– not wanting to leave their “protection,” not having a place to be, illustrates displacement. Even dressed as a middle-class or lower-middle-class woman, I am out of place sitting on grass or following armed men.

Displacement: I had not previously considered this as a means of provoking informed interpretation. Interpreting lack or absence can be as effective as interpreting presence. “No shoes” or “no musket:” these are easier, more obvious, but as a refugee, I had no home, no place, and no belonging. That seems even more important to understand and interpret today, at least for those of us concerned with making the past present, and the ways we can study the past to understand the present.

Reading Double


, , , ,

The mop trundler. Chambars after Penny. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford: John Johnson Collection

Photo by J. D. Kay, 2013

I love this image, and the original on which it is based. I love it so much that we’ve recreated it (in a later time period) whilst fooling about during a photoshoot.

But what does it really show? The image in the print depicts a passage in Jonathan Swift’s poem, A Description of a City Shower,

Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean:
You fly, invoke the gods; then turning, stop
To rail; she singing, still whirls on her mop.

Straightforward, right?

Well, not so fast. Thanks to the wonders of ILL, I’ve been reading The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late Eighteenth-Century England, by Cindy McCreery, and looking at prints anew. Her chapters on prostitutes and old maids are particularly interesting, and confirm some of what I had been thinking about when we use prints as documentation.

Here, in the Macaroni Provider, we have what is “Probably a portrait of some (alleged) notorious procurer; perhaps Thomas Bradshaw whose portrait he somewhat resembles.” We have a pimp, folks.

The Macaroni Provider / Macaronies, Characters, Caricatures & designed by the greatest personages, artists &c graved & published by MDarly, 39 Strand. 1772 (Vol.3). British Museum

So, with this information in hand, let’s look again at The City Shower. We have a maid– one of the few classes of women found in city streets unaccompanied, and a class of women often associated with prostitution (along with street vendors and market sellers). The fashionably dressed man recoils from the spray from her mop– is he rejected the literal filth, or the implied filth of a “maid of all work,” who may have a venereal disease? Is it reasonable to wonder if Swift is using double entendres in the lines Such is that sprinkling which some careless quean
Flirts on you from her mop, but not so clean, 
so that the mop is the woman’s pubic hair, and not so clean suggests she is diseased?

I don’t know, and absent intensive research or a time machine, I may never know. But once again I wonder how we use and understand these images, and think that they pose more questions than answers. McCreery’s book (based on her dissertation) helps get at some of these issues, and is well worth a read. (I found the Amazon review hilarious, myself, once I had the book in hand. No, it’s not a compendium of prints; it’s an analysis.)

A Vision in Vermillion


, , , , , ,

Lt. Joshua Winslow, oik on canvas by John Singleton Copley, 1755. Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Or scarlet, as the case may be.

I’m reading Jane Kamensky’s “A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley,” and just 56 pages in, I’m annoyed.

Writing about Copley’s success at painting military officers during the 7 Years War, currently at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, though not online, Kamensky says of the 1755 portrait of Joshua Winslow:

“Hanging in his quarters at Fort Lawrence, Winslow’s portrait in uniform would have served as a subtle reminder of his valuable connections. Copley’s three-quarter-length portrait lavishes attention on the young officer’s silver lace and pulsing red coat, a uniform more elaborate than the one he likely wore. The painter seemingly delights in the play of light upon shining surfaces, from the buff-colored sateen pulled taut across Winslow’s ample waist to the golden braid and tassel dangling from his silver-hilted sword.” (pp 56-57; emphasis added.)

1760-65 Uniform of Captain Thomas Plumbe of the Royal Lancashire Militia.

I missed that bit about sateen last night when I read this aloud to Drunk Tailor, so let’s roll back to the part that first set me off: the young officer’s silver lace and pulsing red coat, a uniform more elaborate than the one he likely wore.


Here’s the 1760-65 uniform of the 1st Royal Lancashire Militia as worn by Captain Thomas Plumbe.  “The oldest, most complete, British army uniform in the world, similar to the pattern worn at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and in the Wars of American Independence.”

Granted, Plumbe’s uniform is later than Winslow’s portrait, and Plumbe was a Captain and Winslow a Lieutenant, but the difference between them is rather less than, say, a private and a captain. Why does Kamensky assume that Winslow’s uniform is not the one he wore? Is it the lace? Winslow held a commission, and served as paymaster and commissary, roles Kamensky describes as “relatively modest.” Yes, Lieutenant isn’t Colonel; it’s the baby of officers, but it’s still commissioned officer and reasonably responsible (and, one might imagine, relatively remunerative if one was hooked into the Boston mercantile network). And uniforms were ornamented with tape, in gold, silver, or wool– see below, in Morier’s painting of two privates. (I further wonder whether it’s reasonable to describe a portrait of 50″ x 40″ as subtle, but perhaps it was placed in an enormous room.)

Privates, 119th (Prince’s Own) Regiment of Foot, 1762-3. Oil on canvas by David Morier. RCIN 406873 Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

From Winslow, Kamensky moves to Brattle. “As his personal, military, and commercial fortunes rose in tandem, Brattle commissioned Copley to portray him in a fanciful uniform nearly identical to the one in Joshua Winslow.” (p 58 emphasis added)

William Brattle, oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley, 1756. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Partial Gift of Mrs. Thomas Brattle Gannett and Partial Purchase through the generosity of Robert T. Gannett, an Anonymous Donor and the Alpheus Hyatt Purchasing Fund 1978.606

Fanciful? Fancy to our eyes, yes. Fanciful, no. Brattle was eventually a Major-General, so the uniform portrayed here, when he was likely a captain (same rank as Plumbe), seems pretty reasonable. If we were considering replicating a Massachusetts officer’s uniform ca 1755, we would consider Brattle and Winslow’s biographies and ranks, compare the two portraits of two men, probably both captains at this time, and, cross-referenced with Plumbe’s amazingly extant uniform and the 1751 warrant, begin to form an opinion that we would be making a coat in scarlet superfine broadcloth faced with buff, with buff small clothes, gold tape, and domed buttons. (Sateen is a weave structure, and wool sateen was not used in military uniforms.)

But that’s now how Kamensky is approaching this, of course, and why would she? She’s a historian, not a curator, material culture person, or a reenactor. Why does she assert that the uniforms worn by Winslow and Brattle are fanciful, and “more elaborate” than what they wore– without a footnote to back that assertion? And why does she then describe Major George Scott’s portrait “as the meticulously rendered uniform of his parent regiment, The Fortieth Foot” in contrast to “the fanciful, half-imagined costumes of Winslow and Brattle”? (p 58)

Major George Scott (detail), oil on canvas by John Singleton Copley, 1755-58. Private Collection

The sitters’ biographies are footnoted, but nothing appears in the notes about the uniforms. Kamensky makes a great leap to the “fanciful,” which I find curious, considering that most male portraits are rendered carefully if flatteringly, and many female portraits are made for the male gaze, and are more likely to be “fanciful” or “fancy dress.”

Grenadiers, 40th Regiment of Foot, and Privates, 41st Invalids Regiment and 42nd Highland Regiment, 1751. Oil on canvas by David Morier, 1751. RCIN 405589 Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

We are fortunate to have the David Morier image of a grenadier of the 40th to compare with the slightly later Scott portrait; I like the grenadier’s belly box, which appears on the left of Scott’s portrait and is described by Kamensky as “”tricked out for foul-weather fighting.” (p 59) Did I miss something? Were belly boxes and cartridge boxes once flap-free? I stumble over “tricked out,” too, which seemed to betray a particular lack of interest in understanding what Copley was portraying.

I find myself wondering how it is that historians and art historians can write so confidently about images without understanding the material depicted. It’s as if they are all context and no content, while many reenactors/costumers favor content over context. In any case, having encountered these speed bumps in the book, I’ll certainly be reading it with a dose of skepticism when portraits are dissected.

Adam Stephen’s Waistcoat and Gorget
Date: ca. 1754
Catalog #: 12197; 12199 gorget Accession #: 52984
Credit: Division of Military History and Diplomacy, National Museum of American History

Edited to add: Drunk Tailor reminded me after I posted this that the NMAH possesses an actual officer’s waistcoat from the 1750s. Here’s the General History note in the online exhibit: “In 1755, the officers of the Virginia Regiment received orders from Washington to provide themselves with a “Suit of Regimentals” of good blue cloth. The coat was to be faced and cuffed in scarlet and trimmed with silver; they were to wear blue wool breeches and a scarlet wool waistcoat with silver lace.”

Scarlet wool waistcoat with silver lace. Sure does resonate with those portraits of Winslow and Brattle, and makes me all the more uncomfortable Kamensky’s assertions of “fanciful” depictions.

Sticking to It


, , , , , , , , , ,

So this happened: I sold things from a stick at Brandywine, and found a thing I enjoy doing with people I enjoy being with. (It’s so hard when you want to be with people, but can’t figure out how you belong, especially when you have a need to be busy.)

Now, street peddling is a thing I’ve looked into before with mixed results. I have some hope that I can find more documentation for this line of work in the mid-Atlantic region, since it seems to suit me. It’s a chance to channel my inner Elsa, and draw on memories of my grandmother’s store while maintaining a lower-class role.

It’s a chance to work out a backstory (confusing as my approach may be to some people, it works for me) that involves leaving the Boston poorhouse with city-paid passage to Philadelphia, commentary on the difference between New England and wherever I happen to be, and observations on the effect of war on local economies. It also affords plenty of opportunity to move around a site, talk to a variety of people I know, and explore wherever I happen to be.

And when I’m done, there’s always interpretive napping.

Photo by Anna Kiefer



, , , , , , , , ,

Band Box Seller, pen and watercolor by Paul Sandby, n.d. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 67.18

It has been a long time since I participated in a traditional “reenacting” event, the kind with tents and pew and kettles and a TWD but here we go, borne back into the past to where it all began, more or less. I remain as uncomfortable as ever in the camp follower role, constantly questioning the likelihood of my being a follower, and the activities I would participate in. It’s a historical personality disorder, trying to figure out who one was, complicated by all the modern politics of gender roles, relationships, and unit rules.

Now that I’ve switched sides, Bridget Connor is no longer open to me. By nature I’m a townie, happiest in a mercantile endeavor if I’m not able to take on the role of an officer’s servant.

So what to do? Petty sutlery is much on my mind, for I have need of the money and a habit of making things. Lately, i’ve been band-boxing, so I was delighted to find the Huntington had digitized this Sandby drawing of a band-box seller, placing the trade firmly in the middle of the 18th century. Triangular boxes for cocked hats, circular boxes for bergeres, rectangular boxes for gloves and (neck)handkerchiefs, I presume.

I’ll have band boxes and a bonnet or two in addition to a custom order delivery, coral, glass, and garnet necklaces for girls and women, pincushions, handkerchiefs, possibly garters, and, if my hands hold up, boxes for hats and bergeres, all on a stick. Look for me between the 17th and the 7th, hindering or helping laundresses.

Reap what you Sew


, , , , ,

Too big!

Lampshade: She’s been the Holy Grail of bonnet making.

There were several failures in the winter of 2016, and some revisiting of the Whale-Safe Bonnet as I tried to figure out the brim and the caul. My first efforts made a caul that was waaaaay too small. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I’ve made plenty of too-big bonnets. (Too small did not make the move from RI to VA, but trust me: too small a caul was far too small.)

This morning, I took another look at George Stubbs’ paintings of working women. I know the lampshade-like bonnet is pre-1770, but where are we at the end of the Revolutionary War period? Well, BIG was in, obviously. (We can have a healthy debate about the likelihood of these gowned women depicting actual working women, but for now, let’s stick to bonnet brim shapes.)  They’re a little cone-like, aren’t they? With generous (yuuuge) cauls, though.

Now, I have gone about this all a bit backwards, which is to admit that I picked up the shellacked brim of yesteryear that did make the move down to VA, and decided to make it up as a bonnet yesterday. The brim is easy– trace and cut with a seam allowance– but the caul? I winged it, using a selvage edge for the inside of the back drawstring (I like my headwear to be adjustable and pack flat) and economized on fabric to leave plenty of taffeta left over. So there’s nothing particularly well-researched about this, except for all the years of looking and thinking and drawing and making that came before the moment I threw this all together yesterday afternoon watching North by Northwest and drinking a Manhattan.*

Making this up raises more questions: how individually fitted were bonnets to wearers? Did caul and brim size vary depending on wearer? What’s the class line below which a woman doesn’t have a bonnet, but only a hat? How quickly did styles change? The sort-of-conical black bonnet is seen on “older” women in paintings well past the height of the style. But as I’ve asked before, what do we really understand about the portrayal of age in art? Are we really reading the symbols correctly? How well do we grasp the semiotics of the 18th century? All of those questions are present when we try to replicate the past using only visual sources. Yes, there is an extant 18th century black silk bonnet at Colonial Williamsburg, and we can use that in conjunction with images to make the things we wear. But pondering all of these questions makes me think it’s time for another troll through collections in Great Britain, just in case new cataloging has put old bonnets online.

*See my other blog, TipsyMilliner, for more.



, , , , ,

Recently I’ve had more than my share of time to think about museums and objects, and what they mean to me and why I love them, and have dedicated my life to them, albeit a bit accidentally.

Transferware in open storage, Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 2013.

In the hours I spent alone in a curatorial office, listening to the murmur of school tours on the other side of the door, I began to see that curation and registration are means of managing the evidence locker of the future. We collect, tag, and maintain the means by which the future will understand the past, and it’s our job to be a neutral as we can—to refrain from laying the thumb of our prejudices on the scale—as we collect objects, images, and documents. It’s a game of forecasting, trying to guess what will best explain us and our time to the future, as well as Monday morning quarterbacking as we both weed and augment what was collected in the past to better reflect how we understand history now.

I was always a stickler for good data and record editing (and have raccoon-eyed photos of a catalog launch to prove it), and I make unkind sport of museum databases on a regular basis when I see misidentified and misdated objects. Good data matters—it’s everything, really—because if you don’t know what you have, and where it is, you might as well not have it. But more than that, compendia of data can show you things you didn’t expect to find.

RIFA Record 4925

Yale’s Rhode Island Furniture Archive is a good example of how a massive amount of data can be used. Take this record of side chair possibly made by John Carlile and Sons, and scroll down. That’s a lot of associated chairs. And they all look very similar. Examining the materials, especially secondary woods, of a labeled chair and comparing the style, make, and materials with other very similar chairs can help identify chairs, associate them with a maker, and provide a sense of Carlile’s production volume.

And Carlile’s easy! Looking at hundreds of pieces of furniture with some location provenance, reading probate inventories and other documents helped untangle James Halyburton or “Ally Burton” as a maker.


James Halyburton in the RIFA

When you can see enough things at once, you can discern patterns and better understand exactly what it is you’re seeing. Good data makes that possible, makes concrete what was once solely seen as connoisseurship, and helps bring unknown stories, unrecognized people, to light. Data analysis is a powerful tool for better understanding the past: that’s why museum collections matter, and why I think it’s so important for museums to make their data accessible. It’s one of the ways we understand our collective past.