Saturday, November 24, 2012

Over and Under: An Exhibit Story

A panoramic view of the temporary exhibit "Over and Under: Accessories and Undergarments of the Early 1800s"
Each year Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, where I work, hosts an 1812 event. It used to concentrate on the War of 1812, but this year for the bicentennial we decided to include more about daily life in 1812 to appeal to visitors interested in more than the battles. As is always the case with museums though, we were trying to expand our focus without over-extending our budget, so we were trying to do as much as possible in house. Based on past success with a temporary exhibit on clothing, I thought that some of the early garments in my collection could make a little exhibit that would help flesh out the event.

The introductory panel just explained what the overall theme was and a little bit 
about the language used to discuss the time period.
My collection of clothing and purses is mostly from the 19th century, but I don't have a lot of things that date before 1840. When I pulled the early items that I do have, they fell into three categories: purses, undergarments, and sewing tools that I borrowed from my mother's collection. It didn't easily lend itself to a unified theme, but we came up with the idea of "Under and Over" so that we could focus on things that went under clothes, or over them as decoration and accessories.

With some extra show-stopper items loaned by Mary Doering, a fellow collector and a friend, we put together a neat little display if I do say so myself. Not only did I get to include family pieces in the exhibit, but I also  dedicated the exhibit to my grandmothers who both passed away last year. The Julia Waterman shift was a highlight because we had oral history to include with it.

The exhibit closed at the end of October, and I've returned my mom's sewing tools and Mary's contributions, but I took so many pictures that the display can live on here. So now I'll let the images and captions speak for themselves.

The first section of the exhibit talked about how ladies employed their fancy sewing skills to embellish clothing in the early 19th century. 

The objects in the "Over the Top Adornment" section included sewing kits and tools from my mom's collection, and a ca. 1830 dress from my collection with elaborate tambour work on the skirt.

The next section, "Bare Essentials" discussed undergarments and other accessories of propriety, 
like caps and stockings. Julia Waterman's shift was included here.

We had two caps in the exhibit, both of which 
were made of lightweight cotton with lovely
tambour stitching as decoration.

From Mary Doering's collection, this section included some real rarities, including a corset stamped with its owner's name, a hand carved busk, a "figure enhancer" that once strategically stuffed a corset, and a pair of chenille embroidered garters (below) that say "Halte la, on ne passe pas" which means, "Stop there, go no further." Worked into the embroidery is a picture of a guard dog holding a gun. Hilarious, no? 

Other undergarments included my hand-knit stockings with the date "1819" on them, and a pair 
of pockets from Mary's collection that tied at the waist under a lady's skirt.
The last undergarment in this section was a man's shirt, ca. 1825. We also sneaked in a top
hat with a padded carrying case, complete with compartments for hat care brushes and tools.  

And finally I put together a case of purses, including a man's tobacco pouch and several miser purses. This section explained how the narrow skirts of the early 19th century made it problematic to wear full pockets as undergarments, so the purse moved outside the skirt and became a venue for ladies to show off their sewing and needlework skills. Most of these purses are knotted or crocheted with beadwork.
This tiny early 19th century coin purse is one of the purses that my grandmother and I discovered in Nanny's closet when I was a little girl. Grammy gave it to me then, and I've treasured it ever since.

And finally, in honor of my Grammies, I included their beautiful senior pictures.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Aunt Julia's Shift

One of my top two favorite finds from Grammy's house is a simple linen shift. I got a surge of adrenaline when my mother and I found it, and that was even before I saw that it had a signature on it, "Julia Waterman."


A few years ago I wouldn't even have known what I was looking at, but then I was fortunate enough to see a lecture by independent scholar Mary Doering about clothing of the War of 1812. She had brought a shift and other undergarments from her collection to the lecture, and she explained that the undermost undergarment of the early 19th century woman's wardrobe was the shift. Shifts often had  embroidered initials, customized stamps, or signatures in permanent ink because they actually contacted the skin and were therefore laundered more frequently than other clothes. The markings ensured that otherwise indistinguishable garments made it back to the right family member after laundering.

Julia Waterman's signature appears on the right front of the shift, near the reinforced underarm. 

Shifts are pretty rare survivals. This was no ballgown or wedding dress that you pack away with care. Most everyday garments and underthings saw heavy use and ended up as rags. Plus, early shifts lacked the decorative lace that was more characteristic of shifts and chemises from the 1830s on, so later generations might not bother to curate them as beautiful heirlooms. In my family, "keep" is the default setting though, so we are fortunate to have such a rare and personal item.

Every seam and hem is stitched by hand.

I was pretty sure that the shift was early; the style seemed to me to be typical of the late 18th to early 19th century. It is a fine lightweight linen and completely hand sewn, with thin french seams and tiny uniform stitches. The shoulders are reinforced with an extra strip of fabric, and the front neckline has a 1/8" drawstring  for gathering. All of these characteristics are consistent with an early date.  But who was Julia Waterman? I'd never heard of her, nor did I know of any Watermans in the family. I wondered if this might have been something Nanny acquired for the fabric in her seamstress days.

The front neckline has a very thin drawstring to gather it for the right fit.

Then my dad checked his family history folders, and sure enough he found a whole description of Julia Waterman. It turns out that she is my great aunt to the fourth power, and her grand niece recorded the following recollections of her in 1965:

“Aunt Julia had known of no other home than that she had with Grandma and Grandpa Duncan [in Bath, ME]. She’d never married. She took care of the children. She was second mother to my father’s generation, always taking care of the baby when a new baby came. She took the next older one in her room, and took care of it, and so she helped bring up all five of the children. And they called her Julie- never Aunt Julia, but Julie.

She was small. I don’t know what color her hair ever was. I never saw it. She always wore a round lace cap which covered her hair entirely. She always sat in a rocking chair and when she came to our house as she did every year when her brother came to visit her from New York. All the family assembled at our home for supper, and she was always seated in a rocking chair. Except at the table, I never saw her in any other seat.

She was a tiny little woman, but she had a memory as long as her life almost. She lived to be ninety-seven years old. She was born on March 3rd, 1798 and lived until March of 1895. Aunt Julia was very dear to all of us. We loved to go and talk with her, just sit beside her and have her tell us tales. I remember one tale she told was of – I’m not sure whether it was her mother or her grandmother- making soft soap in a great big kettle and had the baby in the crib beside her and there was a shadow in the door ad she looked up and there was a hostile Indian. She didn’t stop to think. She didn’t grab the baby or make any other motion except to dip her ladle in that hot soap and throw it in the Indian’s face and he disappeared, and was never seen again that they know of.

Another time her father went out. His name was Calvin Waterman. He went out looking for a cow who didn’t come into the barn as usual, and in the shadow of the early evening, he saw what he thought was a cow lying on the ground, and he gave it a kick to rouse it and up got an Indian and great grandfather apologized and he finally made the Indian understand what he wanted, and the Indian’s reply was “cow, place that dead folks live” and Grandpa found the cow in the cemetery.

Aunt Julia would tell of going blueberrying on what she called the Point in Bath. That’s now the center of the business district on Front Street and upper Center Street, and she would go there day after day blueberrying. And as she went, she would pass the dock where schooners, small schooners, were unloading rum and molasses from the West Indies at a point where a store, later the Desmond Store, and still later the Maritime Museum is, the southwest corner of Water and Center streets. I can’t imagine that there was ever a stream coming up that far, a stream deep enough to accommodate schooners.

She went to school in the old Erudition Schoolhouse, which stood at the corner of High and Center streets for many years where I later went to summer school one summer. It was built in the early part of the nineteenth century. I think the date was 1808, because I remember it. It stood there until the Shaw house, where now the hotel- Sedgwick Hotel- is. Al Shaw bought a lot of land and the schoolhouse was moved in back of the high school, supposed to be kept as a souvenir, a precious thing of the history of Bath, but later in the name of progress or something else, it was torn down to make more of a parking lot in back of the schoolhouse, and this would have been a great sorrow to my father who had always tried to have the old things preserved.

Aunt Julia—we were always very fond of Aunt Julia and always went to see her on her birthday and had Christmas gifts for her. I remember the first cake I ever made was a Mt. Washington layer cake, frosted in chocolate and I made it for Aunt Julia’s birthday. I must have been about ten or eleven years old at the time, and she was so delighted with that cake she wouldn’t let anybody touch it, to say nothing of eating it, for days and days- she just had to show it all the time, because I’d made it for her.  

And she always had a pocket on her apron and usually it had quarters in it, and many times we’d go home with a quarter, which was a great deal of money for us then. Always at Christmas in the toe of our stockings was a quarter from Aunt Julia until we were twelve, and then the quarter became a half dollar for all of the great nephews and nieces, which numbered a good many with all in the family.  She remembered every one.

And she lost her sight toward the last. I could see her now sitting by that south window at Aunt Avis’ home gently rocking back and forth and you could see she was just thinking. And once in a while she would say, “Do you remember so and so?”, and out would come some bits of history which we hadn’t heard before.

She didn’t ever get used to modern cutlery at the table. She ate with a two-tined fork and a broad knife- blade- on which she could balance peas and beans and anything she wanted to. She ate with her knife mostly, and that was her custom and no one ever tried to teach her any differently. She was Aunt Julia.

I asked my father one time if she ever had a beau and he said well, there were rumors that she had had, but he didn’t know, but she told me once when I grew older: she said, “I didn’t let them know it, but I liked to dance when I was a girl, and I could get out my window and slide down the drain over the porch, and get down, and I’d go to the dances with the boys and then I’d shin back up again when I got home.” I never knew who the boys were and I never knew whether Grandma Duncan and Grandpa Duncan ever knew about it. But evidently she enjoyed a good time.

As I say, she lived to be ninety-seven. Her brother, Henry Waterman, lived in Brooklyn. He was very good to her. He was the inventor of the hoop skirt wire which wouldn’t bend when you sat down. And it was said he made a million dollars out of that invention. At any rate he had plenty of money to take care of her and did kind things for the others in the family also. He always came once a year to visit her and then there was the get-together at our house. The long table, in that 35-foot dining room, would be stretched to its limit and all the family gathered. I don’t remember what we always had, but I know we had a silver dish that just held a large can of Phillipe & Cunard’s sardines. That was one of the things always on the table. And the dessert was always a boiled custard with currant jelly through it. It was served in the parfait glasses which I have owned for some time.

Then after supper we’d all go in the parlor and get out old Father Kemp’s song books of which I have a few. They’re out of print now and they are very rare, but I have a few and sing all the old songs, ‘Jerusha, put the kettle on and we’ll all take tea’ and ‘On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wistful eye on the well, something strands’ and so forth and so on. And all those old songs, they were all printed, not as we see them now, but in the four lines of the four parts. And Uncle Henry Waterman’s voice would boom out the bass. He had a powerful voice. We had the four parts—the sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses, and Mama would play and we children tried to chime in. They were times to remember year after year to look forward to, and to remember as a part of our growing up.”

The shift is so much more special with all of this context, which makes it perfect for the exhibit we are putting together at work on early 19th century undergarments and accessories. More on that later...

Saturday, August 11, 2012

No Wire Hangers EVER!!!!!

In my March 17 post, I described the agents of deterioration that were out to destroy our things. Well, when it comes to costume collections, I left out an important one: gravity.

Storage of costumes can be a tricky business. If you fold them, the creases may cause permanent weak points in the fibers that make up the garment. Hanging costumes therefore seems like a good move because it minimizes creasing. But then there’s the gravity problem.

This gorgeous bias-cut lace dress dates to the late 1920s or early 1930s. It probably belonged to my great-grandmother who put it away on a wire hanger in the 1940s. After supporting  the weight of the dress for decades, the fragile fabric straps pulled themselves apart. 

It may not seem like a chiffon dress or a silk slip is particularly heavy, but over time the weight of the fabric puts a lot of stress on the shoulder area where slips and dresses make contact with the hanger. Wire hangers are particularly bad because the pressure on the shoulder is all focused in one small line. Padded hangers distribute the stress a bit more, but fragile fabrics are at risk of tearing even when padded, so they just shouldn’t be hung for storage, period. If, however, you do have some costumes with strong fabrics and shoulder seams, then a padded hanger might be a good option.

I recently took in a variety of dresses ca. 1920s-1940s from my grandmother’s house, and I’ve been working to store them in my little house as safely as possible. Hanging is an efficient option for me, and a number of the outfits are strong enough to hold up to hanging storage, at least for now. So I divided up my new acquisitions into two groups; dresses for hanging, and dresses for boxed storage.  Most of the dresses strong enough for hanging date to the 1940s because shoulder pads and heavier fabrics were popular. I came up with about 20 garments that were candidates for hanging.

I'm not going to use any old store-bought hangers though. Who knows what kinds of dyes and additives are in those? They could be acidic- gasp! For my family heirlooms, only archival-quality padded hangers will do. So here’s my do-it-yourself guide to making archival-quality padded hangers. This is a sewing project, but if you have a sewing machine, it’s an easy one.

What you need:

  • Unbleached 100% cotton muslin
  • Unbleached cotton batting. I got a bagged natural cotton batting for a queen-size quilt, because I was looking for padding I could roll, not loose fibrous batting used for stuffing things.
  • Hangers. Wire is actually okay, because you’re going to cover them. I got wire hangers with a white coating. Plastic hangers would also be okay, I just don’t trust most plastics not to get brittle and off-gas unknown chemicals. Wood hangers are acidic and off-gas acids,so avoid those.
  • Velcro 
  • Thread


Step 1: Cut cotton batting into squares or rectangles according to the size of one arm of your hangers. I used squares, but if you want more padding, just cut longer strips of batting.

Step 2: Roll the batting around each arm of the hanger and secure it. Just tying some thread around each roll will work. If you want to be sure the thread is secure, submit it to inspection by an expert on the topic of loose strings (as shown).

Step 3: Make a template for the hanger cover. The size will vary depending on how much padding you use, so take your padded hanger and lay it on a large piece of paper, fabric, or some interfacing. Trace around the hanger, except for the hook part. Leave about an inch between the line you draw and the arms and sides of the hanger, and at least an inch or two below the bottom of the hanger to make your pattern.

Step 4: Place the template on a folded piece of the muslin and cut out two pieces to match the template. If you plan to make several hangers, I recommend starting with just one to make sure it all fits and no adjustments are needed before you cut out any more.

Step 5: Press down about ¼ inch at the top of the cover where the hook will pass through. Fold again if you want to enclose the raw edge. Sew the seam on each piece.

Step 6: With right sides together, sew the sides and shoulders of the cover.

Step 7: Press up the bottom of the cover and sew that seam also. One fold is fine, but use two if you want to enclose the raw edge.

Step 8: Cut squares of Velcro to sew to the bottom inside of the hanger cover. The closure isn’t strictly necessary, but it will make it easier to use the hanger without the cover shifting. I used two squares of Velcro on each cover.

Step 9: Turn the cover inside out, put it on the padded hanger and close the Velcro. Voila! You have an archival-quality hanger.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stockings Unstumped!

One of the best things about living in the greater D.C. area is that there is an unbelievable wealth of curatorial expertise here. I know a few people who study costume, so I sent out my stocking inquiry in case one of them could tell me whether the socks were hand knit or frame knit. Fortuitously, a friend of a friend had been to some sort of gathering where frame knitted stockings were a major topic. My friend, Mary Doering, and her friend, Carol Kregloh, and I had already planned to meet up for a "costume party" (we brought old clothes to study and then we went to an exhibit of paintings with period costumes), so the right person arrived in my network of connections at the right time. Mary is a collector who uses her costumes to help small museums install clothing exhibits, and she also teaches courses on costume for the Smithsonian's decorative arts program with George Mason University. Carol is a costume specialist at the National Museum of American History, and she has a vast mental library of clothing knowledge, including a volume on the history of socks. 
Carol Kregloh's expert hands show me what I need to know to recognize how the stockings were made.

The raised rows of stitches are knit, and there is no seam allowance. This rules out frame construction.

Detail of the edge finish on the stocking.  
Here's what I learned: The stockings are completely hand knit. Frame knit stockings have a seam where they are sewn closed, not knit closed. If my socks were made on a frame, they would have a seam allowance where the two sides met. The line of stitches on my stockings that looks like a seam is not a seam allowance, and it is knit, not sewn. I think Carol said that the raised stitch line was used to help with row counting, though I'm not sure I fully understood that part. As for the inscribed date "1819", both Mary and Carol were of the opinion that this indicated something commemorative. For example, the stockings may have been made especially for a wedding. They told me the date is really rare. Rare is good. Happy me!

I am so grateful. Both Mary and Carol were so generous with their expertise, and of course I'm grateful for having received the gift of the stockings in the first place. With this kind of support, I'm hopeful that I can really put my collections to good use.  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stocking Stumper

One of my mother's quilting buddies recently gave me a clothing collection she accumulated over the years. She is more interested in quilts and sewing tools, and her children are not into the old clothes, so I happily accepted this gift. More than happily, actually- I seriously can't believe my luck. Sometimes I find myself giddily hugging this stuff like toddler with a new teddy bear. I contained myself as best I could when I went to pick the collection up because I didn't want to seem greedy, and I knew I didn't do anything to deserve a whole collection falling into my lap. Now it's mine though, and words don't really describe how I feel. Picture someone with a stupid grin, hands clasped at her chest, hopping from foot to foot a little, and making a high-pitched noise that sounds something like, "Squeeeee!" That's me. Because the day I can afford a pair of knit stockings dated "1819" on my collecting budget is unlikely to ever arrive, and yet I have some! There are other exciting pieces, too, but I'll feature those later.

These stockings are on my mind lately because my museum, Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, has a War of 1812 event and we are putting together a little exhibit on clothing and accessories that will include the stockings.

The stockings have integrated reverse knitting that reads, "S. B. 1819"

As we think ahead to exhibit text, there has been a little debate about how they were made. I know nothing of knitting or knitting history, but my colleagues do. One thinks that the stockings were knit by hand for personal use, and she bases her assertion on the construction and the presence of the initials "S.B." and the date 1819. Another colleague says there was an active home industry, especially for stockings, where the knitting was done on a frame. She feels that it would be easy to custom-order the personalized stockings from a professional. Since these were purchased from an antique dealer in Pennsylvania, there's little hope of determining who S.B. was, so our best chance for learning more is to look into stocking manufacture trends in general.

Overall view of the foot.

This detail shows the connection of the heel and calf area, as well as the zig-zag pattern knitted into both sides of each stocking.

I figure that if you can tell whether stockings were made by hand versus on a frame, this side seam connection  may be the key. Then again, maybe hand-made and frame-made stockings have the same kind of seam. I hope to find out.

The toes have been mended several times over. The mends appear to be period rather than recent.
I'm equally enamored of the stockings no matter how they were made, but I enjoy exploring the history. Anyone out there have specialized knowledge of 19th-century stockings to share? 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Something Blue

So it turns out I'm not the only one with happy memories of going through boxes and bags from Nanny's closet and discovering old clothes with Grammy Rivers. My cousin Tina, who found Nanny's portrait dress after we dismantled the closet, has fond memories of the happiness she and Grammy shared when they realized what it was. Apparently it was in an old bag, and since Grammy was mostly blind, she had thought it was a set of crusty old curtains. More recently, Tina's discovery skills struck again as she and my mother stumbled on this blue ensemble when they were helping clean out Grammy's house. This dress is from about the same time period as the portrait, c. 1900-1908. I'd never seen this one before though, despite all of my explorations, which is a testament to the unknown depths of the things stashed away at Grammy's house. Sadly, some mice found this dress before we did. They had nibbled on the hem and a cuff and are probably responsible for some staining on the skirt. The rest is in excellent shape though, and as is often the case with dresses from Grammy's, we have extra fabric if we want to repair it. The extra material suggests that this is either a "Nanny original," or it was made by Nanny's mother. 

These images show off the fabric print and trim. The extra fabric is shown slung over the shoulder on the right.  I am sure that Nanny's sewing skills are the reason we still have so many of her dresses. A garment like this includes a lot of yardage, and no seamstress worth her salt throws out that much fabric. Nanny altered a number of dresses instead of throwing them out. I'm grateful that she never got around to dismantling this one though; it is completely original.

The ensemble has two pieces, a skirt and separate bodice with an unlined black lace neckline. I think it also would have been worn with some kind of waist-cinching belt and a separate high collar.The fabric is either silk or highly-polished cotton with black velvet trim. The skirt is slightly trained with a double row of ruffles at the hem. A linen lining with central hooks and eyes is sewn into the bodice. 

The bodice is gathered to create the tummy poof that was so popular in the early 20th-century. The lining was form- fitting though, to help maintain the overall structure of the look. The lining closes at front with hooks and eyes, while the outer bodice hooks at the side and shoulder with hooks and thread loops. The bodice detail at right shows the pin tucks on the sleeve and the tight cuff outlined in black velvet ribbon to give it the look of a belt.

The sleeves have a series of pin tucks that stop above the wrist to create a flare before they end in tight cuffs. This is the kind of detail that seems to be characteristic of Nanny's sewing, especially for the dresses she made in the 1920s and 1930s. She never seemed to skimp on the detailed stitching, even though she preferred busy prints that obscured all that hard work. I try to take pictures of these details, which is why I have so many shots of this dress. The photos don't show off all of that detail though, especially if you get the whole front and back in the image as shown below, so it's even more striking in person. Many thanks to Tina and my mom for rescuing this so that we can all enjoy it as a gorgeous example of our ancestor's taste and sewing skills.  


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nanny's 1906 Portrait Dress

Those of you who have been reading along might remember the amazing portrait I posted when discussing Nanny's closet. I'm sure you can imagine how anxious I was to find the dress from that portrait. But alas, I did not find it, and returned to school in upstate New York confident that it hadn't survived.

Since I was a kid when we went through the closet, I didn't have many qualms about the mess we made in the process; I was way too busy loving the treasure hunt. I think Grammy's curiosity had been triggered, too. I remember her often saying, "Huh, I've never seen that before." So she was totally nonchalant about having everything out even though we had trashed Nanny's former bedroom by using it to drop all the stuff we displaced to reach the closet's depths. When my vacation ended, I left without helping to put anything away.  As I'm sure you can imagine, subsequent visitors to Grammy had a "What the Hell happened here?" kind of reaction to the disaster. Someone seems to have continued the exploration though, because when I next visited Grammy, the room was still a mess, but it was configured differently and the goods removed had multiplied. More importantly, however, I was informed that the portrait dress had been located!

I rushed up the stairs and demanded direction to the dress in question, and was unbelievably deflated when I saw it. It looked like a mass of stiff yellowed paper. And not only did it look bad, but it was clear that there was NO WAY I'd fit into it. My disappointment was complete. I concluded, with all of my teenage knowledge, that it had probably been starched like crazy and stored that way, leaving it to shrink and become brittle over time. I took pictures in 2000, but remained unimpressed.

Even when we spread out the portrait dress for photos in 2000, it looked shriveled, yellowish, and generally not as fabulous as I expected it to be.  

Well, last week I was up in Maine and this time I was armed with two dress forms, a backdrop, a petticoat wired to help a trained skirt take its intended shape, and most importantly, a hand-held steamer! My aunt Joy inherited the portrait and the dress to go with it, so she brought it over for a photo shoot. Sadly, the original matching lace belt has not been located, so I substituted with another gathered belt from the collection that was period appropriate. The fabric is still yellowed, but it no longer looks like old shredded paper. So here it is: the dress Georgiana Mayhew Duncan wore in the portrait made when she graduated La Salle in 1906, front, back, side, and in detail. Now I can finally say that I'm impressed. Who wouldn't love this delicate frock?