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...

1 comment:

  1. Curious details. Thank you -- the blog is interesting.