Saturday, June 7, 2014

Got Telegraph Codes?

After the flurry of activity surrounding the secret code discussed in my last two posts, I caught a cold and spent my sick day continuing research. Thanks to fellow bloggers in Germany, I was armed with the knowledge that the forgotten papers from my bustle dress pocket represent a telegraph code.

Telegraph code books were put out by many 
different publishers, sometimes for the general 
public and sometimes for use in specific 
commercial interests such as cotton trading, 
mining, railways, etc.
The numbers represent how many words are on each line, since people were charged by the word when sending telegraphs. The slashes in blue were probably made by the person sending the telegraph as each line was completed. Each word represents a phrase, and the phrase can be found by looking up the word in the right telegraph code book.

As for what the message actually says, well that's still a mystery. I sat in bed with my cold for hours pulling up old telegraph code books on Google books and then looking for some of the words that appear in my message: event, none, lining, etc. Occasionally I even found those words and the phrases they represent. But alas, none of the books I looked at had all of the words I needed.

It turns out there are thousands of telegraph code books. Apparently the owner of my dress knew that the person she was writing to had the same book for decoding purposes. If only the first word was some clue as to which book was needed! But no such luck. Only some telegraph code books are available online, and the one I need doesn't seem to be among them. I could go into D.C. and spend hours at the Library of Congress to see if they have the book I need, but the problem is I have this other obligation, commonly known as a 'job', and people actually expect me to make the time to show up there. And so, months later, I am still unable to follow up with the complete solution to my mystery. I'll keep an eye out for code books, and I'll keep checking them, but for the time being, I'm putting this investigation to rest.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mystery Message: The BIG Pictures

As a follow up to yesterday's entry on Bennett's Bronze Bustle, I'm posting the nonsensical notes from the hidden pocket again in the biggest size blogspot allows. I hope it helps. There's still no answer to what the message means, but it has been sent to the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum, reddit, and of course all of my Facebook friends. Given some of the responses, I should clarify that despite words like "Vicksbg" that spark thoughts of the Civil War, there is no way the dress with the message in the pocket dates to the 1860s. Every element of the skirt and bodice was originally crafted to create a mid-1880s look. If there was any possibility that it was an 1860s gown altered to adopt a bustle-era look, I would say so. I'm much better at spotting that kind of thing than I am at code breaking. But no, I'm afraid the dress is two decades too late to be carrying a secret Civil War message. As soon as someone figures out what the message actually does say, I promise to post the big reveal. This seems to spark a lot of interest, so for the first time since I initially read the note I'm actually optimistic that the mystery will be solved. Thanks everyone for the help!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Bennett's Bronze Bustle

Mid-1880s two-piece bustle dress of bronze silk with striped rust velvet accents and lace cuffs. I tend to not get silk garments like this because A) they are out of my price range and B) silk can be particularly hard to care for. If the silk starts to decay and shatter there is nothing to be done about it, so this dress will always be a storage challenge. I was afraid to even steam it for photos for fear of causing a permanent stain if the steamer accidentally dripped on it. It looks pretty spectacular even wrinkled though, so I'm glad I broke my 'avoid silk' rule.
Original metal picture buttons with the motif of a despondent Ophelia 
from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Disclaimer: I am no expert on button 
motifs, but I found one on Etsy identified as Ophelia and it seemed
right to me. 
This is the second post I've started on this dress that I bought over Christmas break. I scrapped the first because it was all about how I found the dress at an antique mall and then agonized over the purchase because I didn't NEED it and didn't know where I'd store it, and it was more than I generally spend... blah, blah. But then I got bored with my own defensiveness and it occurred to me that it's rather pointless to justify the acquisition to anyone interested enough in costume to read this blog. Duh. So without shame, I present to you the mystery of Bennett's Bronze Bustle! What's so mysterious? Read on my friends, I promise this one is worth it.

On its face, this is a textbook mid-1880s silk bustle dress. There is some typical wear and age damage, but no silk shattering- woot! Also, the original buttons were never removed, which is pretty remarkable since so many picture buttons were long ago distributed to various button collectors. I found a single button with the same "Ophelia" motif for sale on Etsy for $15. If each of the 18 buttons on this bodice is worth that than I could make a profit on the buttons alone! Well, not really since I never actually sell anything from my hoard, but still... Oops, defensiveness creeping in again. Moving on.

The bustle itself is ingeniously structured to achieve the proper level of puff thanks to built-in channels for flexible bustle wires, and a system with a back closure for the main skirt plus a front closure for the rear portion of the silk over-skirt. Strategic tacking with matching thread keeps the bustle bunched in all the right places.

The skirt has built-in channels for a flexible bustle wire so the dress could be worn without an additional under-bustle. These channels are then covered by a portion of the silk over-skirt that attaches with a front-closure belt strap.

The fitted bodice lacks built-in boning and would have relied on a corset to take its intended shape.
Most of the dress is machine stitched, but the buttonholes were sewn by hand. Old stitch scars on the bodice show how the dress was altered to let out about a half inch on each sleeve and two side seams. I can't even imagine having something so tight fitting that such an alteration would be worth the effort.

The sleeve and two side seams at the waist have been let out, but the silk is unforgiving and still shows the old stitch lines. 

The name "Bennett" is sewn into the 
bodice on a small paper tag.
In addition to general structural observations and old seam lines, the usual post-purchase inspection I give all of my vintage dresses yielded three unexpected discoveries that made me ever so happy. First, when I undid the buttons for the first time to look at the bodice lining, there was a paper tag sewn into the back with the name "Bennett" handwritten on it. A name! I LOVE signed garments. Bennett is a pretty common name and there was no other provenance, so I don't expect I'll ever discover the specific Bennett who wore this. Still, the signature emphasizes an indirect connection with a person, not just a dress. Way cool.

Discovery #2 was a bustle pin still in situ where it strategically pulls up a layer of the over skirt and exposes the hem ruffle for a little peek-a-boo with onlookers. As an archaeologist, I am especially excited about this because these little pins show up on excavations of 19th-century sites. There is one Baltimore laundry site in particular where drainage pipes were found absolutely clogged with pins, buttons, and other clothing attachments- as if launderers put the clothes through the rough washing process however they were delivered, even if removable pins were still on them. So now I know how some of those pins might have been used. Hellooooo artifact reference collection! Can I write this purchase off on my taxes now? Okay, probably not, but it was still worth it because the real mystery was yet to come.

A bustle pin about an inch long remains in place on the skirt. The pin is covered by the draped skirt it holds as well as the outer-most over-skirt, but it still boasts a decorative front. Such pins seem to have been worn in abundance if archaeological evidence of 19th-century laundry sites are any indication, but this is the first time I've seen one left in place.

The third discovery arose when I turned the skirt is inside out; there was a pocket! Okay, neat, but not earth shattering. Lots of 19th-century dresses had pockets. But then things got weird. I mean usually built-in pockets don't play hard-to-get, but even with help from my perennial antiquing partner, my mom, it took a while to get to the thing. Instead of being easily accessed through an inconspicuous slit in the over-skirt, this pocket opening is completely concealed by the over-skirt; as in, you have to hike up the draped silk, expose the cotton under-skirt, and generally disrupt the whole look to get at the pocket. Also, thanks to some tacked areas sewn into the skirt to make it drape properly, it wouldn't have been possible to get at the pocket at all without causing a rip if someone had the dress on. We had to do some seriously careful maneuvering to get at it.

The pocket is easy to see from the inside of the skirt (right), but the opening is hard to get to, since there's no way to get at the pocket without hiking the draped over-skirt up, and tacks on the over-skirt block access (left).

Why would anyone make a pocket so inaccessible? Was the dress altered without taking the pocket into account? Or was the pocket added because Ms. Bennett had need of a super secret hidey-hole on her person? Maybe she needed it to smuggle coded messages or something?! In general, I feel like I'm getting too old for that level of fantastical speculation, but I feel compelled to mention the possibility because in this case it might be TRUE!

Thank goodness my mom was there to share my excitement when I finally felt my way to the pocket and pulled out a clump of paper, balled up and wrinkled as if it had been through the laundry. It consisted of two translucent sheets, both of which exhibited writing. There we were thinking we'd stumbled upon some historic letter, and then we were standing there, each with a freshly unballed sheet of paper, and each suffering from complete bafflement. The writing is readable, but it makes no sense!

"Bismark Omit leafage buck bank
Paul Ramify loamy event false new event..." and so on.

What the...?

My first thought was maybe a writing exercise? Or some kind of list? But there are also numbers between the lines, each line is marked off with a different color, and there are weird time-like notes in the margin; 10pm, 1113PM, and 1124 P. I feel like those clues actually DO point to code of some kind. If only I wrote the "Commitment to Code" blog, I'd tell you what it means. Instead, I'm putting it up here in case there's some decoding prodigy out there looking for a project.
Here's the mysterious writing we found in the hidden skirt pocket. I don't know which
page is supposed to go first, but I'm hoping the miracle of the internet will lead me to 
someone who can help make sense of this. I have higher resolution scans if needed.

And so the mystery continues. Normally I just concern myself with questions like how old is the garment, how was it worn, has it been altered, etc. In this case though, those answers are pretty clear. But questions like who was this Bennett, and why did her dress have a barely accessible pocket with an incoherent message in it? There I'm stumped. One thing I do know for certain though, is that the dress was SO worth the hundred bucks I paid for it, and all of that angst I had about justifying the purchase can go hang.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Recent Investigations: How was this bustle dress worn?

The 'before' shot. Three pieces of netting made
into some kind of dress. Could be fabulous, but
it's hard to tell on the hanger. Scroll all the way
down for the after shot.
A couple of weeks ago I purchased a three-piece dress on an antiquing jaunt in Pennsylvania. At first glance on the hanger it looked like an early 20th-century gown because sheer gauzy white dresses were so big then, and the bodice lacked the fitted darts I would expect of a 19th-century garment. That was deceiving though, because it seemed to have a bustle skirt, which could make it at least 20 years older than I thought it was. But bustle dresses are usually tightly fitted with crazy boning and a tiny waist to go over an hour-glass corset; this had no seams to contour the bodice whatsoever. Fortunately, my shopping companion was a fellow costume enthusiast, so we held out all of the pieces, talked it through, and decided it was probably a bustle dress for a girl who had yet to develop the curves that would necessitate darts in the bodice. Had. To. Have. Obviously.

I don't have much experience with true bustle dresses though, so even after putting this find on a dress form, I am longing for an owner's manual. The three pieces are an underskirt, a bodice with attached bustle overskirt, and a sash. At first I thought I "got" everything except for what to do with the sash. I was so wrong. I had several questions, and in some cases, I still don't know the answer. Here are the questions I've been considering:

1) Exactly how old is this dress? My theory that it was bustle-era for a young girl was trumped when I discovered that it fit my adult dress form just fine- lady curves included. The netting material is stretchy, so the lack of fitted seams and darts wasn't helpful for dating at all. At first I thought the bustle was just a hint of volume as the popularity of the huge backside-shelf petered out, but once I realized how much I had to stuff up under there to make it look right, I knew I was wrong. The bustle is is the variety with a fairly flat draped front and ties to keep the 'fluffy' back over the bum. It had to be from the height (pun intended) of the bustle-era (1870s or 1880s). So I started looking for comparable garments. Alas, that was easier said than done, even with the availability of online collections and Pinterest pages. The vast majority of three-piece dresses from this period consist of an underskirt, overskirt, and separate bodice that buttons up the front. My dress buttons up the back and doesn't have a separate bodice. The best comparable I could find was a plaid ca. 1880 dress from the Museum at FIT. The only other dress I thought had the right look was a sea-side ensemble with bodice, skirt, and belt from Augusta Auctions. It also dates to 1880. So 1880-ish it is!

The best matches for my net dress are a sea side
ensemble from Augusta Auctions (left) an a plaid
bustle dress that buttons up the back from The 
Museum at FIT (above). Both date to c. 1880.
 2A) What would you wear under the sheer bodice? The material is practically transparent, so with visibility of undergarments at roughly 90% they have to be just right. I tried a period-appropriate corset cover, but it buttons up the front and looked wrong to have those buttons under the netting. I didn't even bother to try a chemise pulled on over the head because that would get all bunched up at the waist and the wrinkles would show through. I suspect this had a specialized corset cover that either had a flap to conceal the closures, or it attached under the arm instead of down the front. I don't have anything like that for the 1880s, but the look improved when I tried an early 20th-century camisole with concealed hooks & eyes. It looks better even with lace showing through the netted pattern. I wonder if the woman who wore this would have a similar lace trim on her corset cover as a little peek-a-boo at her fancy underthings?

Here you see the dress over a button up corset cover ca. 1865-1890 (left),
and an early 20th-century corset cover with concealed hooks & eyes (right).

This ca. 1868 corset cover has a 
concealed closure that wouldn't show
under a dress made of netting.
2B) Same problem, different location: What would you wear under the skirt?  I tried using a bustled petticoat but it you can see every wrinkle and pleat through the netting and you can see the bustle ties. It just seems kind of tacky. I am wondering if it had a lobster-tail style bustle of some kind that was designed specifically to look clean under the netting while concealing all ties and attachments. If only I could find one of those at a reasonable price...

You can see every gather in the petticoat through the skirt,
as well as the ties that keep the overskirt in place. In short,
it isn't the cleanest overall look.

3) What's the deal with the sash? My first thought was that it was some kind of belt, but the waist of the over-dress is finished and doesn't really need a belt to cover it. The neck band, by contrast, is made of the same plain linen as the waist of the underskirt (below), so I suspect it is meant to be covered up. Using the sash for that had the most ridiculous results though. Giant bow tie anyone? Dubious. 

No, based on a closer look at seam placement I think my initial thought of a belt was a better guess. On every part of this garment, the location of seams is significant. The underskirt, for example, has an off-center closure, but the waistband has a seam at the center back anyway. There's no structural reason for the seam, so it's probably there to help you orient the skirt properly. Like many bustle-era petticoats, the underskirt has multiple horizontal seams on the back and vertical seams at each side. The seams aren't meant to show though, so they have to be oriented just right.

The sash as a giant bowtie is way gaudy even by Victorian 
The neck band (right) is a bit too boring to go 
uncovered. It  needs a little something. 
Emphasis on "little" though...

Ultimately, this helps with the issue of the sash because that also has a random extra off-center seam that needs to be hidden by the final look. There is also an area of decoration that is off-center and begs to be seen. When I put the seam at the center back of the waist, ran it around the waist and made a loop just long enough to display the middle decoration, whaddya know? Everything looked wonderfully placed and bustle-y. Also, it covers up the bustle ties that show through the overskirt. I pinned the sash in place instead of tying a fancy knot. Yes, that could be a shortcut, but the bustle era was big on bar pins of various sizes to get everything draped just so, and there is no reason to think this sash didn't attach with one or two.

Seam montage! At left you can see how the underskirt has an off-center closure, but there is an extra seam on the waistband to help you orient the skirt so the bustle seams are where they need to be. The sash (center) has an unsightly seam that shouldn't show, and an area of extra decoration that should show. When draped over the bustle with one loop (right), things seem to match up juuuuust right.  

4) If the sash wasn't for the neck, was there something else to go there? I don't really know, but my guess is that there was. Maybe a lacy necktie, a ribbon, a fake flower on a band. Accessories happened; it's just hard to know what form they would take.

John Lavery's A Game of Tennis shows how to pull off
a backhand shot in a full bustle.
6) Where would one wear this little number? Maybe if I could figure that out, it would be easier to envision the proper accessories to go with it. In my search for comparables, I made some progress on this. The outfit was no doubt for summer and has the whimsy and airiness for the beach or even for a game of tennis. It's hard to imagine playing tennis in a bustle, but this dress is nice and stretchy to allow range of motion. It would be way too presumptuous to assume this was a tennis dress though, so by way of accessories, I'm thinking general summer things like a flowy scarf at the neck, a parasol, and a straw hat a la Claude Monet.

In conclusion, whether I know everything there is to know about this dress or not, at the very least I know that its awesomeness is unquestionable. Now if anyone out there wants to offer their thoughts on underthings, accessories, etc., I am more than happy to hear from you!

The 'after' shot. All it needs is the accessories!
I once tried to recreate this painting in a Jr. High art 
class, so of course I thought of it as the epitome of
the look that my new summer dress represents. I am
no Claude Monet, but I'm awfully excited to be the 
owner of the kind of dress that inspired him. Love it
so much!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Recent Investigations: The Purple *Thing*

Lately I'm researching my newest acquisitions, so I'm postponing some entries on infant layettes until I'm in the mood. See, the thing about being a collector is that the having of things is less of a thrill than the hunt for said things, so the baby gowns I've got are older news. Don't get me wrong, I get jazzed about owning the stuff, too, but there's just something about not knowing if there will be a nice little surprise in the next booth at the antique mall. Finding a bargain gives me a shot of adrenaline that makes me feel all happy-buzzy. And the high is that much more exciting when you know that the seller didn't know what they had, and therefore didn't price it accordingly.

As a case in point, I found this purple silk thing labeled "bonnet?" on a recent antique trip with a friend. The seller wasn't quite sure what it was, but it was roughly the size of an adult head, so they made a guess. I'd be inclined to buy that (actually, I did buy it, but you know what I mean), except that I would have expected a 19th-century silk bonnet to be lined, and I've never seen one with a hole at the back- especially a hole defined by a shiny brown linen band with a button closure. So "bonnet" just didn't seem right.

I had seen a similar linen tape as a waistband with a button closure on a mid-19th century petticoat in my collection, so my brain went to "skirt". It was so tiny though that if I was right, then it had to be for a doll. Sure enough when I set it down with the waistband up, it made a perfect miniature 1870-ish skirt that reminded me of an amazing purplish gown in the V&A's collection. Mystery solved!

The band on the purple thing (top) looked like the waist on a
mid-19th-century quilted silk petticoat (bottom).
The Victoria & Albert Museum has the most
amazing costume collection, including this
ca. 1870 purple gown. The V&A also published
several fantastic books on the fashions in their
collection and I recommend them to anyone
interested in close-up views of some of the finest
surviving garments in the world.
Looks like a doll skirt to me. Fancy!
I wasn't sure I should I pay money for it though. Yes, it was under $20 and would be a helluva lot easier to store than an adult size crinoline skirt, but dolls kind of creep me out, so I try to limit my collecting behavior to clothes that were worn by real living people. Still, there was just something about it. Maybe the "something" was that I knew what it was when the seller didn't- I mean who doesn't love to be right like that?- or maybe it was the enthusiastic encouragement I received from my shopping buddy, but I bought it.

This is where I would tell you all about this image if I knew anything about it other 
than I found it on Pinterest.
In the end, I have no regrets. I could always sell it to the doll-collecting world if I get tired of it, and this was a fun little research avenue. The doll skirt gave me something new to look for when I'm exploring that time-sink known as Pinterest. On a recent Pin-Binge I was exploring a board with 19th-century photos and I stumbled on a wonderful shot of a little girl looking lovingly at a high-fashion doll. Most of the dolls I've seen in children's photos are being cuddled or held in some way, but this doll was placed on the chair with the back of her full crinoline skirt towards the camera. I couldn't find any details about the image, but I love having it as an illustration of how my tiny purple not-a-bonnet crinoline probably looked in its original context. Next goal: find that amazing dress the little girl is wearing for under $20!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Infant Shirts in the 19th Century

My mid 19th-century infant shirt without the flaps folded.
Behold! It's my first ever post based on a question posted in the comments! A big shout out to Lou McCulloch, who asked whether the flaps on infant shirts fold in or out. And the answer is... the flaps fold OUT. But let's back up and look at infant shirts in general and why there is any confusion about flaps at all.

I got an infant shirt for Christmas a few years ago (thanks Mom!) and I wasn't really sure what to make of it except that it had some of the finest hand sewing I had ever seen, including intricate stitching and lace work. Like most 18th- and 19th-century shirts, this piece is made using rectangles and squares of fabric instead of a curvy, contoured pattern.

Overall view of the shirt when unfolded. It is simply made with a rectangle of fabric plus some lace for the sleeves.
Detail of the shirt, showing how the seam on the flap is turned under when the flaps fold out.
My first clue about the direction of the flaps came from the super fine hem; the seam allowances on the flaps were turned so as not to show when the flaps folded out. But if the flaps folded in, neither side would be visible, so why would the direction of the seam allowance matter? I still wasn't sure, so I looked to images of 19th-century infants to see if any flaps were visible in those. I couldn't find anything. But that's no surprise, since shirts are a type of undergarment and you generally can't see such things in portraits. As the nickname implies, "unmentionables" are rarely discussed in historical documents, especially in the Victorian period.

My newest infant shirt, with reinforced armpits and fine decoration.
Then I found an infant shirt in on e-bay that settled it for me, and I needed to buy it so I could add it to this post. The flaps are embroidered, showing a distinctive right side and wrong side and proving that the flaps fold out. I also stumbled upon an image from the Dictionary of Children's Clothes by Noreen Marshall showing the many layers infants wore in the 1880s. It shows the flaps folding out over a barracoat or petticoat, followed by a slip and then the gown. That's why the flaps don't show in art and photos; they are sandwiched between two other garments before the outer gown is added. There are a lot of layers involved. Babies had a much more complex wardrobe than I had realized!
Detail of the hand embroidery and bobbin lace adorning the shirt's flaps.

Front and back views of an infant shirt as it would be worn under a barracoat. The flaps fold out over the barracoat and another slip might be added to cover both the shirt flaps and barracoat before the gown went on.

 More posts to follow on the infant layette later, but for now I will close with a big thanks to Lou. You gave me an excuse to buy some new books and a darling infant shirt to add to my collection.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reticule Rescue Results

A natural follow up to the condition assessment I did on Ann Porterfield's reticule is a little tutorial on archival storage. For the most part, I'm not doing anything to undo damage to the bag, but I'm packaging it in a way that should prevent any further harm. This story is easiest to tell with images, so here they are.

The first step was to make an insert to go into the bag to eliminate the issue of pressed folds as much as possible. I made a simple insert by measuring the bag and making a sketch of a pattern that will be slightly smaller than the bag. It should be made so that it doesn't quite fill up the whole thing, otherwise the insert would stress the seams and be more harmful than helpful. Using this pattern, I cut out some natural unbleached cotton batting left over from my padded hanger project. I made about 8 of these to layer together as stuffing. Then I made an unbleached muslin casing for the batting layers. I left this open long enough to test the imsert to make sure that the size was appropriate. When I was satisfied with the height of the pad, I hand sewed the top to finish it.

Next, I got out my hand steamer and used it to relax the various creases. The idea here is to make as few folds and wrinkles as possible since they will make weak points over the long term. Having the padded insert in the purse helped to give it the proper shape as steam was applied without the stress and friction of pressing.  In the 'after' photos, you can barely see the crease in the middle where it seems the bag had been folded in storage.

Finally, the protective swaddling! I just happen to have some small acid-free boxes that I bought ages ago for my purse collection from Hollinger/Metal Edge, and one was the perfect size for my needs. All I had to do was line it with tissue to make a protective nest for the bag. While I generally opt for plain acid-free tissue as I mentioned in my post The Tissue Issue, for this project I used buffered tissue since I know that the bag is made entirely of cotton.

From start to finish, this padding and packaging project took me about two hours and cost approximately $10 in materials; a small price to pay for helping this little lovely survive another 200 years.