How Many Curlers did a Harried Hairdresser Need? Let’s Do the Math!

After unearthing over 200 wig hair curlers from Washington’s Boyhood Home, we were in a position to do something that – to our knowledge – has never been done before: crossmend all those curler fragments. As a result, we can now predict the minimum number of curlers the Washington family’s harried hairdressers needed.

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Plate 1: A wig hair curler fresh from the excavation of the Washingtons’ task yard. Note the “WB” mark on its end, which we believe to be the Initials of its British manufacturer. Image courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University/Bernard Means.

If you remember our blog post from way back in January 2015, these unglazed ceramic curlers were often used by wigmakers to create the curled styles of a wig’s coiffure during the making of a new peruke (Plate 1). We’ve also learned that hair stylists employed curlers to freshen the lagging curls upon an existing wig, after a gentleman had worn it out. How often a wig needed to be re-set depended upon the standards of the gentleman, and the activities and weather that he and his stylish coiffure encountered. Because curlers had to be heated to be effective, they were only used when wigs were safely removed from the gentleman’s head.

Before our crossmending could commence, the curlers had to be washed, cataloged, and labeled. Then, all of the labeled curler fragments could be compared and evaluated for crossmending. Previous analysis revealed that the assemblage included nine different sizes (Plate 2). Most of our curlers are smaller diameter, especially sizes one and two (for shorter hair/narrow width curls). Within each size, width and even length varied: they were not manufactured in a standardized way. This was the eighteenth century, after all.

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Plate 2: Representatives of the nine different curler sizes from Ferry Farm. These nine sizes were analytically imposed. They may not necessarily represent historically defined categories.

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Plate 3: There were three varieties of maker’s marks. A few curlers had no marks.

Most curlers had one of three varieties of maker’s marks (Plate 3). However, a handful exhibited no mark at all. It was within these subcategories that the cross mending began. And the results were surprising.

You’ve probably broken a glass or plate. They usually break into many pieces. In contrast, curlers tend to break into two fragments at their weakest point: near the center of the curler (Plate 4). With a single mend you can often get a complete or near complete specimen (Plate 5).

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Plate 4: Curlers tend to break into two fragments.

One of the primary goals of crossmending was to determine whether we had found all of the curlers used here during the mid-1700s, or just a portion of them. If we had found the entire assemblage, for example, our 194 curler fragments should result in 97 crossmended curlers. That is to say, they should all mend to another fragment. An example of a crossmend is shown in Plate 5.

Archaeologists refer to this process of mending fragmented remains of a larger item together as “crossmending.” Whether glass bottles. tablewares, ceramic vessels, or even the bones of animals, this process allows us to determine the minimum number of any given item in the recovered collection. For example, if after crossmending, you have three right hind cow legs and two left hind cow legs you know that were a minimum of three cows on site. This is a dramatic oversimplification, but you get the idea. This educated guess of the least number of specimens present is called the minimum number of individuals, or MNI.

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Plate 5: A typical curler crossmend from Ferry Farm. Two fragments mend to form a complete specimen. Often, these curlers break in the middle, as shown.

After weeks of dedicated crossmendingby steadfast interns, enthusiastic volunteers, and dedicated Foundation staff, a total of fifteen whole curlers were crossmended from thirty previously disparate fragments. When added to our impressive collection of complete curlers (n=20), a total of 35 complete curlers (20 complete, excavated curlers and an additional 15 formed from 30 mended fragments) make up the Ferry Farm assemblage.

Another exciting result of this exercise was that we now had two complete (mended) size one curlers and a mended size eight curler: previously these two respective sizes were only represented by disjointed fragments. Unfortunately, no mended size nine curlers were discovered. Size nine continues to be represented by fragments, and it is the only size from Ferry Farm for which we have no complete examples.

So what’s the minimum number of curlers that the Washingtons’ hairdresser used to curl their many wigs? Let’s do the math!

There are        164 molded curler fragments with no matches
+  1 hand made curler fragment
+20 whole (unbroken) molded curlers
+15 mended molded curlers (from 30 fragments)
                          (a minimum of) 200 curlers

Another informative aspect of crossmending is seeing from what areas of the site the mended curlers were found (Figure 1). As Figure 1 shows, a clear relationship between the work yard, where the majority of curlers were discovered and the Washington House can be seen. This adds additional evidence to our hypothesis that the majority of curling tasks took place in the eastern work yard and that finishing tasks associated with wigs (powdering, drying the washed, wet wig, and final elegant touches) took place in the parlor. The parlor has emerged as an area of wig hair maintenance, since eight curlers/curler fragments were recovered from the parlor room root cellar.

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Figure 1: This bird’s-eye view of the Washington house and surrounding yard shows where ten of the crossmended fragments mend to their respective mates. A ‘path’ between the work yard – where the majority of curlers were used – and the Parlor inside the house is evident.

While wearing wigs was highly fashionable among refined British colonial gentleman, little is known about how they were maintained, how often they were cleaned and set, and how these crucial activities were performed at the household level. The data recovered from Ferry Farm is providing new information and innovative analysis of this poorly understood, but essential hairdressing routine

All in all, a terrific exercise!

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

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Just What is Colonial Revival?

You’ve probably heard the phrase “colonial revival” before.  Most people think of it as an architectural style –what they mean when they say “a colonial style house.” In actuality, the phrase refers to a whole cultural movement in the United States that had its beginnings in the late 19th century and that still exists today.  It is a style of architecture, decoration, literature, art, fashion, and even philosophy that has become so intertwined with American identity that we often have difficulty in separating what is truly Revival from what is truly colonial.

As with many trends in American history, the Colonial Revival can trace its birth to a World’s Fair, specifically the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, commemorating the nation’s centennial.  At the time, the United States was still healing from the Civil War, dealing with a rough economy, and experiencing a wave of immigration that was drastically changing the population.  In the midst of this upheaval, Americans began to look longingly to their colonial past, when life seemed so simple and pure, and the ideals of the Revolution were supposedly clear-cut.  Exhibits at the 1876 Exposition highlighted the virtues of simple, sturdy colonial American craftsmanship in furniture and household goods.  Romanticized biographies of the Founding Fathers set forth a new American mythology.  The clean, simple lines of Georgian and Federal style architecture were extolled as the epitome of Americanism. The realities of life in war-torn colonial America were lost in the skirl of fifes and drums, powdered wigs, and pewter tankards, however.  Yet, Gilded Age Americans went wild for it.  A craze was born, complete with wallpaper, draperies and spinning wheels.  The Colonial Revival peaked in popularity in the 1920s, but then experienced a Colonial Revival revival in 1976, during the Bicentennial.

Philadelphia Exposition 1

Photos showing the Kenmore exhibit in the Virginia Hall at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1926. Emily Minor Fleming (pictured second from the left, front row in the photograph below) lead the effort to construct a life-size replica of Kenmore’s portico and East façade. The exhibit highlighted important antiques from the colonial era in Virginia. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1345 and .1345-2 PBW)

Philadelphia Exposition 2

The Colonial Revival had an especially interesting effect on historic sites and museums across the country.  Today, historic house museum employees spend a great deal of time (some might say too much time!) pursuing historical accuracy and researching everything we do. Our early 20th century predecessors had a different idea of what a historic house should be.  The homes of the Revolution’s great figures were seen as memorials not only to those great figures, but to their way of life, and thus the true American way of life.  Emphasis was placed on collecting fine examples of antique furnishings, although the actual dates of those antiques were not so important.  An English hall chair from the 1690s might sit beside a pie crust tea table from the 1790s, while the tea was being served from a silver plated teapot from the 1890s.  It was more important that when put together these antique pieces created a certain feel and image to a room, one that conveyed a sense of cozy warmth, family values, and individual enterprise. The result was the postcard-perfect rooms that we’ve all seen – a wooden hutch against the wall, lined with pewter plates and tankards (which in actuality would have been used on a daily basis and not reserved for decoration), a handmade rag rug on the wide plank pine floors (rag rugs were actually a 19th century staple), a spinning wheel before the fireplace (spinning was considered labor and would not have taken place in the public spaces of a house, and probably not near open flame), a pot bubbling over the fire (cooking didn’t happen in the house), a smattering of toy soldiers scattered playfully on the hearth (children didn’t have much in the way of toys, let alone toy soldiers).  The time, care, and effort that went into creating these rooms was immense, and it was the first time that the American public saw their history brought to life. While perhaps inaccurate by our measure today, the Colonial Revival created an intense interest in American history and is probably the main reason so many historical sites have survived.

Postcard 1

Postcards from the 1970s showing Kenmore’s kitchen and “Children’s Room” in all their early American splendor. Descriptions of the rooms on the reverse of the postcards capture the essence of the Colonial Revival spirit. (The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection, MS 1675 and MS 1684)

Postcard 1b   Postcard 2a

Postcard 2b

Events and programs at historic sites at the height of the Colonial Revival also reflected this emphasis on the colonial ideal.  Especially in the early 20th century, there was a strong belief that by exposing America’s youth to the style of colonial life, they would be instilled with the virtues — honesty, integrity, a strong work ethic and patriotic spirit — of the Founding Fathers.  As such, events at historic sites were often aimed at young adults, and often called upon the participants to role play the parts of historical figures. At Kenmore, for instance, Colonial-themed balls took place and theatrical presentations were held on the lawn.  Young soldiers headed to battle during the Second World War were entertained at Kenmore with ginger bread and tea, served by young ladies in colonial garb, and encouraged to “remember the Spirit of ’76, boys!”  At Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his childhood, a home for wayward boys was established on the property, specifically in the hopes that living on the site of Washington’s youth would cause the boys to reform their ways.

Peace Ball 1

Photos from a re-enactment of the Peace Ball, held in the Kenmore dining room in 1924. The participants are students from the Fredericksburg State Teacher’s College. (Kenmore Photographic Collection, .1713 and .1713-2 PBW)

Peace Ball 2

The ideas of the Colonial Revival even traveled from the museum into people’s homes.  It was during the heyday of the Colonial Revival that museums and home fashion crossed paths, perhaps for the first time in any significant way.  Thousands of antique pieces from museum collections all over the country were selected to be reproduced for re-sale to modern homeowners wanting to bring the colonial style into their lives.  Some of it was, shall we say, kitschy, while some of it was actually quite well done.  Colonial Williamsburg became a leader in this industry, making a concerted effort to educate their customers on the history of the pieces they were selling in their shops and through an extensive mail order business.  Even today, there are collectors who focus exclusively on finding pieces from the height of Colonial Williamsburg’s reproduction sales.

For the current Washington house reconstruction project at Ferry Farm, we find ourselves in a unique situation with regard to the Colonial Revival different from the one at Historic Kenmore.  We recently completed a 10-year long restoration and re-furnishing project at Kenmore that was intensely focused on historical accuracy as determined through a nearly-forensic investigation of the house and its documentation.  In essence, we have been trying to be less Revival and more colonial.  Ferry Farm’s Washington house recreation has been a similarly intense forensic project but, in this case, we are actually turning to the Colonial Revival for some assistance.  As you probably know, the Washington house will be fully furnished with reproduction pieces, allowing our visitors to sit on the chairs, open drawers and pick up the plates on the table.  However, finding accurate, well-made reproductions of pieces from the Washington-era is no small feat.

Because of the scope of the Colonial Revival in this country, there are in fact well-made reproductions to be found, and there are craftsman trained in colonial-era techniques who know how to make these reproductions.  Our Washington house furnishing project is the melding of intensive research into what the Washingtons really had in their house with the skills and products born out of a movement that ran counter to such research.  Rather than finding our furnishings in antiques showrooms and in the treasure-troves of dealers and auction houses, our sources are a little different.  In the coming weeks, we hope to share some of those interesting sources, from Hollywood production sets to hole-in-the-wall flea markets, and to give you some insight into how we find them.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Dressing the Past: Costuming Challenges at Ferry Farm & Kenmore

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The cast of Twelfth Night at Kenmore in their period clothing. In our educational programming, we must dress staff and actors of different body types who portray a variety of social classes and time periods.

We have been working tirelessly to improve the accuracy of the costumes that actors and staff wear when performing for or interacting with the public at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm. This is no easy task, but it improves the visitor experience and helps them better understand the Washington and the Lewis families in the context of the 18th century.

This blog post addresses some of the challenges and successes we’ll continue to experience as we expand our costuming after the reconstructed Washington house and the new historic landscape at Ferry Farm opens to the public.

Some of the challenges we face are no different than what other sites face. The modern expense of this specialized clothing, the difficulty of fitting multiple wearers, questions of time period to portray and achieving the small true-to-life details of historic clothing are all important to the success of dressing the interpretive staff. But we’ve come a long way and are on the path to sustained success.  We’ve been working on all of the pitfalls mentioned above and have made great headway. Below is an examination of some of the difficulties we’ve faced and the ways we have met them straight on.

Expense of this Historic Clothing

Cloak

Cloaks are necessary to keep actors and staff warm but they are among the more expensive pieces of clothing needed to properly dress as someone from the 18th century.

The cost of well-made, accurate period clothing is one of the greatest hurdles we’ve or, for that matter, any historic site or museum experiences. Eighteenth century clothing is a highly specialized type of clothing that is often imitated with mixed success. For example, a good quality off-the-rack great coat costs about $325, while a custom-made high-end 18th century men’s great coat costs about $1,000. There were pieces in our costume stock that did not fit our criteria and had to be removed – meaning they had to be replaced with new (and more expensive) articles of clothing. Correcting past clothing choices is its own challenge, but it is far from insurmountable. We make very careful decisions about what was a priority and where we should spend resources first and we have begun acquiring garments that we deem priorities.

One-Size-Fits-No One

Because of the number of people we costume, we sometimes have to use the same costumes on different people (not at the same time, of course!). This is a challenge because both men’s and women’s 18th century clothing was fitted to the individual. A tailor would custom-make waistcoats, coats, and breeches to fit the wearer; even when the ensemble was fashioned out of a hand-me-down suit.  Mantua makers (dress makers) would custom-make women’s gowns and petticoats to fit snugly. We must make our clothing fit a variety of wearers.  We are now quite proficient in the art of pinning and mysteries of knot tying. It’s not perfect, but it goes a long way toward creating a more accurate fit.

Another important part of fit for women is the undergarments. Stays, bum rolls, and hoops create the ideal 18th century shape. Stays were 18th century support garments, much the way corsets were in the 19th century. We recently made acquiring stays a priority and purchased some in a variety of sizes.  This has improved the actor’s appearance in addition to helping her achieve the proper 18th century posture.  Bum rolls accentuate the behind (no, really!) and hoops accentuate the hips.  These help create a period appropriate look that we are now pleased to share with visitors.

The True-to-Life Details

Costume details

Small details like the fan, necklace, brooch, and hair style create a fully realized character with a stronger connection to the past.

Just as it is today, the small details make the 18th century outfit. Attention to men’s and women’s shoe buckles and hats, men’s knee buckles, and women’s jewelry and stays polishes the look that makes history come alive. Our men’s and women’s hats are correct to the period and we have a nice but limited collection of accouterments.  Because 18th-century-style shoes are expensive and we can’t exactly buy a pair of shoes in every size, we have been using buckles on plain black shoes to disguise their modernity. As we move forward, we are working on better solutions to best achieve the small details needed to make a costume fully 18th century.

1750s vs. 1770s

Another challenge we face as the Washington house and Ferry Farm’s new historic landscape gradually come on-line is that we’ll have to costume staff for both the 1750s – the period we interpret at Ferry Farm – and the 1770s – the period we interpret at Kenmore.  This is important for a number of reasons. First, we want to demonstrate clearly that the events that took place at the two sites took place in two different time periods. This sounds obvious, but visitors will better internalize the time difference between the sites with the aid of clothing. Secondly, it would be flat-out wrong to dress the staff portraying our historic figures at both places in clothing from the same period. As a museum, we have a responsibility to make the visitor experience as accurate as possible.

Despite the challenges, our devotion to accuracy in the period clothing worn by our staff will improve the visitors’ experience and help them better understand the Washington and Lewis Families.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Paste Gems: It’s the Real Thing (Almost!)

The majority of what crosses my desk everyday as I catalog artifacts are items that would be difficult, if not impossible, to ascribe to any one person who lived on the land we call Ferry Farm. Architectural debris (brick, mortar, plaster, nails), food remains (oyster shell, animal and fish bones, eggshells (!)), broken household objects (glass bottles, wineglasses, dinner plates, storage crocks), and modern garbage (plastic – so much of it!), when found on site, are all interesting artifacts in and of themselves and can answer specific research questions. At the same time, they all attest to the mundane, collective aspects of everyday life on a farm that has been occupied off and on for over 250 years.  Every once in a while, however, an artifact is caught in the field sifting screen or the lab wash bucket that puts a smile on your face and causes you to excitedly announce to the rest of the crew, “Look what I found – a gem!” Then, you think “I wonder who it belonged to?”

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An oval, faceted red paste gem that probably came from a piece of jewelry. (SF 1947)

Gemstones and jewelry are definitely exciting finds on any archaeological site, but at Ferry Farm we are more likely to find bits of jewelry and clothing fasteners decorated with imitation or “paste” gems.  Paste gems are molten leaded glass pressed into gem-like molds and then polished to look like the real thing.  With the better quality pastes, the facets could even be cut and polished.  They were available in any color imaginable by adding metallic oxides during their manufacture. Their color could also be enhanced or changed by attaching colored foils to the undersides of the gem.   Paste gems were usually set in closed, versus open-backed, settings to protect the foil backing from tarnishing.

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This colorless paste gem is cut in a style similar to the “brilliant cut,” a popular diamond cut during the 18th century, and would have been set in a closed setting for either a piece of jewelry, a button, or a buckle. (SF 1948)

The use of paste gems was popular from the 17th through the early 19th centuries because they were so versatile and economical. Pastes were available in a wide selection of colors that imitated any precious or semi-precious gemstone.  Because they were created in molds, they also came in a multitude of sizes and shapes, such as circles, triangles, squares, octagons and hexagons.  The jeweler could then cut the gems to fit together in closely-set arrangements not always possible with real stones.  Improvements in the quality of the glass during the 18th century heralded gems with added brilliance and allowed greater flexibility in cutting and using the paste stones in detailed settings. Despite being imitations, pastes were highly desired in and of themselves by both the middle class and the wealthy.

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Three similar rectangular faceted gems in blue and green. (SFs 212, 215, 230)

Just like real stones, paste gems were set in all kinds of jewelry and items of personal adornment worn by both men and women.  Necklaces, brooches, rings, bracelets, and earrings were all decorated with paste gems.  Clothing fasteners, such as buckles, buttons, sleeve buttons, were also set with pastes.  Buckles used to fasten a wide variety of clothing articles, such as hats, shoes, girdles, stocks, and gloves, were very fashionable items to be set with paste gems.  One advantage of using pastes over real stones is that it was certainly easier to replace a lost buckle set with pastes than one set with real diamonds!

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Pair of man’s steel and gilt wire shoe buckles, England, circa 1777-1785. Public domain. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Costume Council Fund / Wikipedia

Paste gems found at Ferry Farm have come in a range of colors – green, red, pink, aqua, blue, black, and colorless – as well as shapes.  Figure (SF#1947) is an oval, faceted red paste gem that probably came from a piece of jewelry.  Figure (SF# 212, 215, 230) shows three similar rectangular faceted gems in blue and green.  The colorless paste gem in Figure (SF#1948), cut in a style similar to the “brilliant cut,” a popular diamond cut during the 18th century, would have been set in a closed setting for either a piece of jewelry, a button, or a buckle.

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Sleeve button with its colorless glass inset. (SF 234)

Sometimes the paste gem is still found within its setting, such as the sleeve button with its colorless glass inset seen above (SF#234) but, more often than not, finding a paste gem in its original, complete setting is a rare occurrence. Figure (SF#1971) is a fragment of a copper alloy shoe buckle with two empty settings for paste gems.

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Fragment of a copper alloy shoe buckle with two empty settings for paste gems. (SF 1971)

Who did these gems and their settings belong to?  Distinctive style changes in gem shapes and jewelry settings help establish when certain pieces were in fashion.  Knowing changes in clothing fashions through time and recognizing when certain types of clothing fasteners, such as shoe buckles and sleeve buttons, were popular also help us focus our research.   We can assume that whoever was sporting these gems was trying to be stylish and fashionable in their time by adding a little “bling” and glitter to their wardrobe.  For as long as people have been traditionally adorning themselves with real gemstones in jewelry, there has always been that goal to create comparable imitations to swap out the real thing.  These special artifacts found at Ferry Farm are a reflection of these stylistic changes.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Pointon, Marcia. Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones & Jewelry.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

White, Carolyn. American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1820. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2005.

Le Pouf: Sensational Hairstyle of the 18th Century

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Wig curlers excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

We’re pretty interested in 18th century hairstyles, wigs, and wig-styling here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.  As evidence, check out our most viewed blog post. It’s about wig styling.  Our interest stems from the hundreds of wig curlers archaeologists have excavated during digs at Ferry Farm.  While those wig curlers were used to style men’s wigs here in British North America, our research explorations into hairstyling of the 1700s sometimes range more widely.  The information we find may have no direct relevance to George Washington and his family here in Fredericksburg but it still helps us to understand the world in which they lived.  Sometimes the information is simply too fascinating not to share here on Lives & Legacies and it’s all thanks to those little wig curlers that keep popping out of the ground where George Washington’s boyhood home once stood.

One of the most sensational wig and hair styles of the 18th century – the pouf – was found among the women courtiers of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in France across the Atlantic from Ferry Farm.  The pouf was a hairstyle that became popular in the French court during the late part of the eighteenth century.  The pouf utilized everything from wire, cloth, gauze, wigs, animal hair, and the wearer’s own hair to create a voluminous coiffure that could be used as a canvas to express feelings (pouf à la sentiment) or commemorate events (pouf à la circonstance).[1]

Portrait of Maria Amalie Auguste of Saxony in Polish costume (1780) by Heinrich Carl Brandt. Public domain. Credit: Royal Castle in Warsaw/Wikipedia.

Portrait of Maria Amalie Auguste of Saxony in Polish costume (1780) by Heinrich Carl Brandt. Public domain. Credit: Royal Castle in Warsaw/Wikipedia.

The pouf’s creation has been attributed to two people: Madame Rose Bertin and hairdresser Monsieur Léonard. [2]  Bertin had a shop in Paris, close to the Palace, where she and Léonard began offering these unique headdresses to the wealthy noble women of the court including Marie Antoinette.

One of the first women of court to commission such a headdress was the Duchess of Chartres in April 1774.  The Duchess wanted to commemorate the birth of her son so she had Léonard create a unique coiffure.  It featured “fourteen yards of gauze and numerous plumes waving at the top of a tower…two waxen figures as ornaments, representing her son in his nurse’s arms.  Beside was placed a parrot pecking at a plate of cherries, and reclining at the nurse’s feet, a waxen figure of a little African boy of whom the duchess was very fond.  On different parts of the hairpieces were the initials of Duke of Chartres, of Penthievre, and of Orleans, formed with the hair of those princes – the husband, father, and father-in-law of the duchess.”[3]  The poufs popularity took off after the Duchess premiered this flamboyant bouffant and it became a must have fashion accessory for all aristocratic and wealthy ladies of France.

The Duchess of Lauzun hired Bertin to decorate her locks as bemused contemporary journalists reported with– “a stormy sea, a hunter shooting at ducks, a mill where a female mill worker was being seduced by a priest, and at the bottom, the mill-worker’s husband walking along with his donkey.” [4]

Young Marie Antoinette, France’s new queen, became the leader of all things fashionable in pouf décor.  One of her most written about headpieces was the “coiffure à l’Iphigénie” which was wound with black mourning ribbons, trimmed with a black veil, adorned with a wreath of black flowers and topped with a crescent moon.  She wore this on a night at the opera to support a friend Christoph Gluck and his Parisian debut of “Iphigénie en Aulide.”[5]

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1775) probably by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty. Public domain. Credit: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikipedia

Portrait of Marie Antoinette (c. 1775) probably by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty. Public domain. Credit: Musée Antoine-Lécuyer/Wikipedia

Ever at the cutting edge not only in fashion but in medicine, she unveiled “pouf à la inoculation” to celebrate her husband’s recent small pox vaccinationThis pouf included a serpent belonging to the Greek’s god of medicine, Aesculapius, twined around an olive tree that symbolized wisdom with a great golden sun rising behind it as a nod to her husband’s grandfather Louis XIV, the much-loved Sun King.

Two other noted examples that caused a stir in the court were the Zephyr and the Coiffure a la Belle-Poule.  The Zephyr, created by Monsieur Léonard, was a moving garden of brightly colored flowers which was celebrated as a peak achievement for the hairdresser.  The Coiffure a la Belle-Poule was a nautical pouf that consisted of a ship sailing on a sea of thick wavy hair.  It was invented after the naval battle in which the frigate La Belle Poule was victorious.

A realistic view of the "Coiffure à la Belle Poule." Public domain. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikipedia.

A fairly realistic view of the “Coiffure à la Belle Poule.” Public domain. Credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France/Wikipedia.

Soon these new hairdos began to make their way out of the circles of aristocracy to the streets of Paris.  However, as cutting-edge fashion makes its way out into the streets, the distinctiveness is somewhat diluted creating more audacious and ostentatious copycats.  This was quickly picked up on by social critics and became a fertile subject for mockery and satire.

One critic lampooned the imitators saying, “they did not hesitate to embrace styles more ridiculous than sublime.  Thus spotting in the Queen’s pouf a la jardinière such implausible ingredients as an artichoke, a carrot, some radishes, and a head of cabbage.” [6] Another complained, “Frivolous women covered their heads with butterflies” and “Melancholic women went so far as to put crematory urns in their headdress.”  Even the hair dresser who invented the pouf began to decry the “prodigious folly of composite and fabricated coiffures, as pictures of towns, little models of Paris, a globe or the heavens.”

A satirical view of the "Coiffure à la Belle Poule." Public domain. Credit: Henri Moreau/Wikipedia.

A satirical view of the “Coiffure à la Belle Poule.” Public domain. Credit: Henri Moreau/Wikipedia.

Some complaints seemed more valid than others.  Spectators at the Paris Opera petitioned the director, to refuse any lady whose coiffure blocked the view of the rest of the audience.    While enjoying the theatre might inconvenience others, getting to the theatre brought its own set of physical dilemmas for the pouf wearer.  Try squeezing a three foot bouffant into a small covered carriage or navigating a standard doorway with the additional height.

Luckily, for those who found the pouf a public nuisance, a silly fashion fad, or just a physical pain to wear did not have to wait long for it to fall out of favor spectacularly.  The huge grandiose styles began to represent a symbol of aristocratic excess in a society on the verge of political revolution.  It embodied the nobility’s unbridled lavishness in the face of public discontent.  This willful ignorance didn’t end well for the coiffured-court ladies who soon found they no longer had anywhere to put their elaborate headdresses.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Caroline Weber, Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution, New York: Picador, 2006: 104.

[2] Weber, 104.

[3] Weber, 105; Olivier Bernier, The Eighteenth Century Woman, New York: Doubleday, 1982: 235; Will Bashor, Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution, Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2013: 65

[4] Weber, 105.

[5] Weber, 106; Bashor, 66.

[6] Weber, 111.

Petticoats and Pink Lightning

This week, we delve into our collections to investigate some fascinating fashions from across the centuries. London Fashion Week took place late last month while today marks the final day of Paris Fashion Week.  Just as they do in the 21st century, those two cities represented cultures that helped determine the height of fashion in the 18th century. To us today, fashions of the past may consist of strange terms, foreign garments, or archaic customs. In this post, Lives & Legacies contributors come together to salvage some fashions from the pages of history in an appreciation of both them and of the people who wore them.

Petticoats

To most of us today, the term “petticoat” refers to a ladies’ undergarment – a fabric support for a skirt, intended to give the skirt more fullness or volume.  Petticoats have essentially disappeared from our modern wardrobes but, for 400 years, petticoats were a staple of female dress and weren’t always hidden under skirts.

The earliest references to petticoats show up in the Middle Ages.  Only they weren’t worn by women.  And they weren’t skirts.  A “petty coat” referred to a short (“petty”) robe (“coat”) that was padded and worn under a knight’s armor or chain mail.  Eventually, the term “skirt” was used to describe the tails of men’s petty coats (“the skirts of his petty coat hung so long they touched the ground”), and was also used to describe typical women’s attire, just as we use it today.  By the 16th century, somehow women’s skirts and men’s petty coats became synonymous, and as time went by and men ceased wearing petty coats, the word “petticoat” referred entirely to a woman’s skirt.  Petticoats could be worn as stand-alone skirts, or under open-front robes, creating a two-part dress. By the mid-19th century, petticoats were no longer seen and became an undergarment worn under an all-encompassing dress, mostly to add structure to the voluminous skirts that had become popular by then.[1]

In the 1700s, women often wore quilted petticoats under those open-front robes or as stand-alone skirts.  In either case, the quilted petticoat was intended to showcase intricate handiwork in the quilted pattern.  Geometric patterns, birds, flowers and even pastoral scenes were all common themes for quilted petticoats, which had an added bonus of providing extra warmth.

One quilted petticoat dating to approximately 1760 survives in our collection.  Made of peach satin silk with wool batting between the two layers, it is quilted in a chevron pattern above an undulating band, below which is an assortment of flowers and leaves.  Although it appears that this particular petticoat was made over several times in its life, there are indications that it was originally intended be worn over a dome-shaped hoop skirt, which probably means that it was worn under an open-front robe for a more formal dress.[2]  The wearer would have been at the height of 18th century fashion!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Busk Boards

Corsets have been a fashion mainstay in women’s clothing throughout history.  Like petticoats, they have changed their shape, material and purpose but, unlike petticoats, they have always been a very personal and private garment.  From the 15th to the 18th century, corsets contained a small sliver of stiff material called a busk or busk board.  The busk was made of wood, ivory, or bone and measured between 12 to 16 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide.  They were inserted into a special narrow pocket in the front of the corset to keep the garment straight and upright.

Given the intimate location of the busk they were often given as tokens from lovers and contained elaborate carvings.   Hearts, cupids, and initials were favorite and common motifs inscribed on the busk.  The board in our collection is made out of wood in a long rectangle shape with round end.  On the surface are etched a pinwheel, a fleur-de-lis, six flowers petal enclosed in a circle, and a square with a diamond carved design all surrounded by a cross-hatched edging.  At the end is inscribed “B.L. 1785” with a sprig of leaves.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Shoes

Perhaps, unlike pretty petticoats and busk boards, when we today think of footwear in the colonial era, we often think of pedestrian black leather. This might have been sufficient for the puritans of New England, who were typically adverse to bright colors and flashy clothes. Here in Virginia, however, where London fashions were king, the style conscience demanded something more. Much like today, there were shoes meant for work and shoes meant to impress. Linen shoes, like the ones in our collection, would have certainly impressed.

In our collection we have three versions of 18th century ladies’ shoes: black shoes from the late 1770s which have a pointed vamp and an Italian heel; a silk and linen pair from the 1760s; and, finally, an embroidered linen pair with a white rand and leather-covered English heel. All were the height of fashion in the 1700s and perfect for showing off at a fine evening of dance, a Sunday at church, or even at home while company was visiting. Like all shoes in the 1700s, a trained shoemaker made them by hand.  Although there were journeyman and master shoemakers in the colonies, the finest worked in London and shipped their merchandise across the Atlantic. While certain elements of these shoes are ubiquitous such as the thin leather soles, wooden heels, straps for fine buckles, and a linen base, eighteenth century shoes were like the shoes of today varying in style, color, material, and purpose.

Personally, my favorite aspect of these shoes is how contemporary they truly are. While they seem like a foreign footwear from a bygone era, anyone who has splurged on the perfect pair of boots, fashionable flats, or even stylish sneakers can relate to the original owners of these beautiful artifacts.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Lipstick

Pink Lightning”!  Meteorogically speaking, it is a distinctive type of lightning that is exceptionally loud and generates a unique purple-pink color.  But in the world of fashion, “Pink Lightning” was the color name created by Revlon for a line of beauty products in 1944. Face powder, nail polish, and lipstick were available in this shade for women who wanted to sport a distinctive, high voltage color on their lips and nails.

While most of this post has focused on 18th century fashion, both Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm have long histories beyond the 1700s. We often unearth objects that span 300 years during archaeological excavations.  Indeed, during the summer of 2014, an intact tube of 20th century lipstick was excavated.  The product label – “Revlon – Pink Lightning”- was still legible on the base of the wartime-inspired bullet-shaped casing, and remnants of the crème lipstick still surprisingly survived inside the tube.  Someone, sometime, pulled out her lipstick tube, dabbed ‘Pink Lightning” on her lips, and promptly dropped it on the ground to be lost for nearly 70 years.

Lipstick is the ultimate fashion accessory.  As the very last beauty product applied before heading out the door, it is usually the finishing touch to an outfit. The world of fashion is not only about clothing, but just as much about the hair and makeup created to complement and highlight fashionable outfits. Wearing “Pink Lightning” lipstick would certainly suggest a fashion image that was “electrifying!”

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

 

[1] https://whitepavilion.com/articles/petticoats Petticoats, White Pavillion Clothiers, 2014.

[2] Baumgarten, Linda. Eighteenth Century Clothing at Williamsburg. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1986.

In Jewelry Remembered: Fashion as a Mourning Ritual

Collections managers deal with a wide array of objects. Sometimes those objects can be quite odd and even a bit gross to the modern person.  One object that has always fascinated me is mourning jewelry and the hair of the deceased that jewelry contains.  Not many people nowadays think of collecting loved ones hair to keep in a locket or to weave into bracelets, but this was a widespread practice and even quite fashionable a relatively short time ago.  While perhaps odd to us today, mourning jewelry gives us a glimpse into rituals surrounding the dead and grieving at a time when death was a more prominent and ubiquitous part of life.

The evolution of mourning jewelry began around the Middle Ages as part of the growth of Christian ideas on mortality and redemption called Memento Mori. These ideas found their way into literature, art, and even fashion.  Memento Mori jewelry reminded the wearer of their own mortality. These pieces, usually rings, incorporated macabre imagery like skulls, skeletons and coffins to create strong visual reminders of the transient nature of earthly life.

It was not until the 17th century that the Memento Mori jewelry developed into what we know as mourning or memorial jewelry.  The imagery remained similar but the symbolism became more personal and served as a sentimental remembrance of a specific individual, instead of one’s own mortality.  Engraved names, dates of death and age of the deceased appeared on pieces.  Bereaved family presented these ornaments to friends and family as memorial to the individual.  They became a status symbol and many wealthy people actually included instructions of how the jewelry would be designed, and made in their will. For example, George Washington declared in his will: “To my Sisters in law Hannah Washington & Mildred Washington; to my friends Eleanor Stuart, Hannah Washington of Fairfield, and Elizabeth Washington of Hayfield, I give, each, a mourning Ring of the value of one hundred dollars. These bequests are not made for the intrinsic value of them, but as mementos of my esteem & regard.”

GW Brooch 1

The oval-shaped brooch above bears the 1798 Saint Memin likeness of George Washington in profile and dates from around 1799. The image is surrounded by gold and blue enamel and is under convex glass.  The brooch is trimmed by forty-four seed pearls.

GW Brooch 3

The back of the brooch contains a plait of brownish-red hair under glass along with a pin fastening.  Tradition says the hair is General Washington’s cut after his death and sent from Mount Vernon by Martha to Mrs. R.B. Lee of the Sully Plantation, Fairfax Co., Virginia in December 1799.

By the time Washington died, mourning jewelry had evolved with changing attitudes toward death and with a greater focus on sentiment.  The style changed to represent the lighter rococo styles and later Neo-classical designs became popular.  The skulls and coffins were replaced by sepia-toned women dressed in billowing robes lamenting at a tomb, inscribed urns, and weeping willow trees in bucolic landscapes.  Many rings and brooches were lined with pearls to represent tears and included a simple twist of the deceased’s hair.

GW Locket Brooch

The octagonal locket dates from between 1800 to 1825 and has been turned into a brooch. The lock of hair, believed to be that of George Washington, is tied in a figure eight type knot and rests on a mat of woven hair. The lock of hair was supposedly given to Captain Robert Smith who knew and served with George during the war. After Captain Smith lost his wife, he went to visit the Washingtons at Mount Vernon and became friends with Nelly Custis, who gave him this lock of her great-grandfather’s hair. When Captain Smith died, he willed the pendant to his cousin and it passed through the Smith family until donated by a relative to The George Washington Foundation in 1925.

The decorative twist of a loved ones hair for memorial purposes was not new, but it did come into greater use in the 18th century and peaked during the Victorian era.  Hair is one of the few personal mementos people could keep from a loved one.  Human hair contains keratin which is fairly resistant to decomposition particularly when kept in a sealed environment.   The permanence of hair and memory is best summed up with a quote from a journal article of the time discussing female beauty, “Hair is at once the most delicate and lasting of our materials; and survives us, like love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that with a lock of hair belonging to a child or a friend, we may almost look up to heaven, and compare notes with the angelic nature; may almost say, “I have a piece of thee here, not unworthy of thy being now.’” (Page 76)

Much Brooch 1

This traditional mourning brooch dates from 1790 to 1810. It contains many neoclassical imagery typical of the time including the weeping woman in classical dress sitting by a tomb, a willow tree, and a ceremonial urn carving. It is inscribed “Much Lov’d, Much Mourn’d”and is painted on ivory encased in a copper mount. The back contains a braid of brownish-blond hair under a glass cover.

Much Brooch 2

In the 19th century the use of more elaborate hair work became increasingly popular. The Victorians developed a strict etiquette for mourning rituals and dress.  The stages specified different colors, fabrics and even jewelry at different times during the mourning period, the length of which varied depending on the mourner’s relationship to the deceased.  Mourning jewelry made of hair was allowed during the second stage (usually about a year into the mourning ritual) creating a rise in not only unique hair jewelry but do-it-yourself guides to making pieces with loved one’s hair.

Memorial jewelry and hair work began to wane at the turn of the 20th century and now these pieces have become curios, often found in antique shops and museum storage collecting dust on shelfs.   Sadly, most of the pieces have no information relating to who they were made for or the names of the mourned. Instead, we are left with an unidentified plait of hair or gold band symbolizing the only piece left from the life of a loved individual.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager