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.