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.


  1. Greetings Sara,
    I've nominated you for the very inspiring blogger award. Congrats !

  2. Sara,
    I recently acquired a tiny infant's shirt with drawstring and hand sewn 'flaps' at the neck. I believe it dates to circa 1830s and it's signed in pen, 'Benedict.' I wonder if you knew if the flaps folded inward or out? Here's a link to a photo,

    1. Lou, I have an infant shift with flaps from the 1840s or 1850s and I wondered the same thing. It's a difficult thing to determine since the shirt shouldn't show in paintings. I'll do some digging and see what I can find out.

    2. Lou, I finally have an answer for you! I wrote a whole entry, but basically, the flaps fold out over a petticoat or barracoat, an then they are concealed by additional layers. Adult shifts of the same period might also have such flaps. Very fun to research, so thanks for the question!