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.


  1. This is very interesting, and I for one would love to see higher resolution pictures of the pages.

  2. Sara,

    I write a (German) blog about historical encryption technology and unsolved cryptograms: This story about two notes hidden in an old costume would be very interesting for my blog. My readers are quite good at solving mysteries like this. Could you please write me a short mail? My address: [my_first_name]


    1. Klaus,
      I wrote to you yesterday, but then I saw that your followers had already solved the mystery- at least partially. Thank goodness for Google's translator. Now the hunt for the right telegraph code book will be the hard part. I live near the Library of Congress though, so maybe I can find it there. Thanks for the help!

    2. Sara, will you post a link to this blog? I'm dying to know....

    3. Here's the link:

      The post is in German, but I was able to understand Google Chrome's translation fine.

  3. I'm already intrigued by the fact that each word group begins with a place name in the US and Canada. Who was Bennett?!

  4. Hi Sarah, Wow! This is awesome.Are you thinking with the references to Vicksburg, Richmond and A. Lincoln that this dress is earlier or that the note was saved for some time? Of course I can't read the German information since I only know a handful of German words, one being the word for "thimble" that your great grandmother demonstrated to us with her middle finger. A young girl NEVER forgets that!! Even this old lady hasn't. Is there a way to post a translation without having to retype the whole thing. Would love to know what this gentleman had to say. Love, Aunt Sal

    1. Sal, I read it because I use Google Chrome as my internet browser (which is free) and it asks you if you want Google to translate the page. It's not a perfect translation, but it's easy enough to follow the dialog. I suspect that the Civil War references may just result from those words still being prominent in society well after the War ended. So far I've found some books that have some of the words, though I'm not sure what role the proper nouns play yet. Still, here's a link to one of the code books you can get online:

    2. Did you ever find out who owned the dress? Maybe it belonged to Mary Anne Bennett who was a mixed lady that owed a very successful chimney sweeping business with her husband and also worked with the underground railroad .

    3. Maybe the tag was sewn in because she handed the dress down to a runaway in order for them to pass as a white women. The weather codes was so they would be able to pass along the weather conditions. I have no idea it is just a thought. I know i am late to the game but still fun imagining where this dress has been

  5. I am married to a Brit who enjoys this sort of thing - a mystery! I am also the child of a German, so I read thru Klaus's blog. I tend to agree with the first poster who said it appeared to be a code to his eye.

    For me, I do not see this as code from the 1880's however. I think that the hidden pocket and the contents are sep issues.
    1. The pocket may have been sewn into position to hide female products that would be accessed in private.
    2. The 2 sheets of scribble have handwriting that appears to be much newer than what I've seen from the 1800's. It looks more European, say, British or even German, from the 30's or 40's even. This cooooould tie back to the contents of the language of the code.

    I went out to Herr Google to do a little research on Victoria code. Tho it was used, coding really got big during WW1 andWW2. Let's put Sir Harry on the task and see if he comes up with anything too....

  6. Thank you for sharing your exciting find! I love seeing buttons original to the dress, and the complex construction of the garment. The "secret code" in a hidden pocket is also intriguing. I hope someday you decode the telegraph messages and the effort yields something equally surprising.

  7. I wonder where you did find this dress. Maryland?
    The codewords — and not all of the words are necessarily such — may well (and even appear to) be from Robert Slater his Telegraph Code, to Ensure Secresy in the Transmission of Telegrams, described here, with a link to google book scan. Slater is a figure code, used typically with some rule about translating a coded message by counting up or down (by a prearranged rule) for each code word. Or it might be used in conjunction with a different text (ideally with numbered words).

    the figures and words, under codewords and between lines, are probably significant.

    so any other information about the dress, provenance, where found, is good to know.

  8. A few thoughts -
    First - that the label which says 'Bennet' is roughly made and roughly tacked to the garment. This suggests one of two things: either that it is a laundry- or seamstress' label, to be removed when the garment is returned to the owner (in which case, presumably, it never was, or was rejected and payment refused. For persons able to afford clothing tailor made of such materials, I should think that mending by machine rather than by hand would be sufficient excuse for refusing payment in the late 19thC).

    However, another possibility is that the garment has that rough label because though originally a fine piece of work, it had been torn, discarded and then obtained by a theatrical company, who labelled wardrobe with temporary labels naming the character, or the actor, for whom they were intended.

    I rather like the idea of an actor - either one of Austen's Bennetts or some other woman actress called Bennet, because the blue 'tick-off' marks suggest that the supposed code is a crib. The dress' having a secure/hidden pocket is the equivalent of a tourist wearing a money-belt. To evade pick-pockets and purse-cutters, and of course for love letters and so forth originally. But a good place to hide a prompt-sheet too.

    So - if this were my project I'd start by finding out
    (a) when Austen's plays were first staged?
    (b) When first staged in America?
    (c) was the company a touring company?
    (d) Is the name-label's hand American, English or other?

    What actresses are known of the surname 'Bennett'?
    Was there an actor's company owned by or known by the name 'Bennett'?

    And finally, does the series of 'code' words make sense in terms of any Shakespearean character's lines?

  9. Shakespeare for two reasons: the pattern of final words (or rather sounds) at the end of the lines, and secondly because while performing one play, a fortunate actor was learning his/her lines for the next.

  10. I suspect that these are actually working copies of three telegrams (based on the three times) sent or received. There is a distinct possibility (based on telegrams I have) that a private code was used rather than a commercially available code and that the messages were between a client and a bank or stockbroker.

    I'll continue my comments and analysis at

  11. Still keeping to the theatrical line... and noting that at ciphermysteries there's now a list of place-names given... I've asked an historian of AMerican vaudeville if they'd kindly comment on whether the list is compatible with the touring companies whistle-stops, or some circuit such as the Orpheums'.

    In this connection, I note that there was a Belle BENNETT (April 22, 1891-November 4, 1932) who is said to have begun as a trapeze artist, but who later became a silent film actress "following a career in vaudeville"

    She became a film actress in 1916 and continued until the end of the age of silent films. Should we start hunting her old films to see if she wears a dress like this in any of them? :)

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  13. Now that it has been solved, I'd love to see an update of information so we can go on and find out about the owner.
    Have you traced back the owners to find out about any connection to meteorology, army or telegraphing?


    2. Thank you :) although there is a little more Info on there, I'd still find it interesting if the genealogist community could sink their teeth into it :) But they would need information about what EXACTLY already was done and found out in that regard (= biographical information, sources).
      My personal theory would be that Maitland Bennetts wife sewed the dress while being pregnant and that she included the snippet as kind of a heirloom/lucky charm. It being a business casual is interesting though, being that there is no info about a female Bennett working there. Maybe she helped out more inofficially? But it could also just be a case of missing documentation and her still having worked there officially.

  14. Love this post, which I learned about from yesterday's article in the NYT:

    "An Antique Dress Held a Secret: A Coded Message From 1888
    For nearly a decade, sleuths had tried to decode a cryptic note discovered in the silk bustle dress. An analyst finally cracked the case."
    By Livia Albeck-Ripka
    Jan. 8, 2024

  15. What a fascinating story! I've shared the link to the CNN version with a meteorologist in the Portland, Oregon area who is always talking about weather history.