“The heat is beyond your conception:” Staying Cool in 18th-Century Virginia

“You must be hot in that. I don’t know how colonial people wore such things.”
“I am a little hot, yes. It is hot out today. Aren’t you hot in what you’re wearing?
“I’m sweating buckets.”
“That’s funny, because I’m not.”

I have a variation of this conversation every time I’m in 18th-century dress.  Modern visitors can’t fathom how early Americans managed to keep cool in the sweltering summer heat.

Most methods are intuitive; hydration; light clothing; seasonal lifestyle changes; etc., but they seem to be just beyond the grasp of those who have never known life without air conditioning. Most modern readers will find these methods interesting, but few would be willing to give up the miracle of AC.

Keeping hydrated

Switchel

Switchel being poured into a mug.

Water in parts of England was not much better than the water in Virginia and Virginians used English methods to transform water into something potable. Virginian’s drank something called “small beer” and, in the observation of Reverend Gwatkin, “their [Children’s] common drink which is toddy or a mixture of rum water and sugar. In general is made pretty weak, the proportion being about a glass of rum to 6 of water.”[1] Gwatkin also observed that the women of the colony drank water and speculates that is one of the reasons they outlived the men.

Some enslaved Virginians were given rations of milk, but many relied on the local streams and dug wells that white Virginians did not trust. Even in instances where the water may have been compromised, a thirsty and exhausted enslaved man or woman were likely to partake anyway.[2]

Virginian’s seemed content to drink low-alcohol solutions to rescue themselves from thirst, but other British North Americans developed a different beverage to beat the heat. Switchel, which is also known as haymakers’ switchel, haymakers’ punch, and by many other names, was essential to New England farmers working out in the fields.

Recipes for switchel varied, but common ingredients included water, ground ginger, and a sweetening agent (molasses, sugar, honey, etc.).  As a number of lifestyle blogs will tell you, this beverage is refreshing and hydrating.  Of course, 18th century Americans knew nothing of hydration or electrolytes; it wasn’t until 1887 that these properties were discovered.[3]  Fortuitously, the switchel ingredients contain potassium, an electrolyte replenisher.

Dressing for the heat

One of the most important methods of keeping cool was dressing for the weather.  Modern Americans dress for the heat, but may not be doing as good a job as their 18th century counterparts.  Their secret: natural fibers.  Cotton, linen, and wool whisk sweat away from the body and dry relatively quickly.  On a hot summer day, I’ve gone from wearing 18th century clothing to a rayon skirt and polyester blend top and my 18th century clothing was MUCH more comfortable.

In 1765, Stephen Hawtrey wrote a letter to his brother, Edward Hawtrey, who was preparing to come to Virginia. Stephen who had experienced the Virginia heat and writes, “Your cloathing [sic] in summer must be as thin and light as possible for the heat is beyond your conception . . . You must carry a stock of linen waistcoats [which were kind of like vests] made very large and loose that they may not stick to your hide when you perspire.”[4] Eighteenth century clothing was not a cure-all, as Stephen Hawtrey’s advice demonstrates. Weather-appropriate clothing had its successes, but the opportunity to “chill out” at home seemed to keep spirits up.

Other ways to keep cool

Cooling in Basement

Woman in a shift and petticoat fans herself to stay cool in the cellar of Kenmore.

Gentry woman Sarah Fouace Nourse wrote in her diary about a particularly hot day. So hot, in fact, that after dinner and before tea she stayed in her breezy room and wore nothing but a shift [the most basic of women’s undergarments] and a petticoat [a skirt, probably of light fabric in this situation].  On even hotter days she would go into the basement for relief, where she could be found taking meals and working.[5]  In 1774, Landon Carter wrote that he wanted a bed for the passage for the summer months[6]

By the time of Mary, George, and Betty Washington, gentry houses had “passages” in which the members of the family could keep cool.  These spaces were more than just a hallway that ran from the front door to the back door. In the summer, they became a place to socialize and a respite from the heat.  William Lee wrote Carter, promising him “a line to repose on in a hot afternoon in ye cool passage;”[7] an enticing alternative indeed to the hot, humid, and sticky weather that makes up the Virginia Summer.

Passage from East

A view from Kenmore’s east portico into the dining room and all the way through the passage and out the house’s west entrance. All of these doors would be opened during hot weather to allow a cooling breeze into the house.

Passage from West

A view from Kenmore’s west front into the passage and all the way through the dining room and out the house’s east entrance.

They may have not had air conditioning but early Americans could call upon a variety of intuitive methods – keeping hydrated, wearing light clothing, and making lifestyle changes – to keep cool during the hot summer months.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

[1] Small beer only contained 2%-4% alcohol. [n.d.]. Gwatkin’s Chorography of Virginia: “an account of the manners of the Virginians”

[2] Christina Regelski, “A glass of wine . . .is always ready:” Beverages on Virginia Plantations, 1730-1799,”

http://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=mhr

[3] “Svante Arrhenius,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Svante-Arrhenius.

[4] Steven Hawtrey to Edward Hawtrey, 26 March 1765.

[5] Wenger, Mark R. “The Central Passage in Virginia: Evolution of an Eighteenth-Century Living Space.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 2 (1986): 137-49.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Advertisements

Dressing the Past: Costuming Challenges at Ferry Farm & Kenmore

Twelfth Night 2016 19

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

Good Clean Fun: An Experiment in Colonial Soap Making

George Washington’s Ferry Farm is busy reconstructing the Washington House and, behind the scenes, we are equally busy creating educational and interpretive activities to take place inside and outside the house.  One common colonial chore you may eventually see being done outside the house is laundry.  While doing laundry is still part of our routines, the way we do it today looks a lot different from methods used a few hundred years ago.

History Campers doing laundry

Children learning how to do laundry using 18th century methods during History Camp at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

To begin with, in the past, most households had to make their own soap.  I’m not talking about lavender-infused goat’s milk soap with rosehip essential oils and colloidal oatmeal exfoliant.  I’m referring to a very basic soap composed of animal or vegetal fats combined with lye water.  The end result was considered a success if it removed dirt without burning your skin off.  Consequently, we figured it would be a good idea if we made some soap, just to get an idea of how it is done.

For our soap making experiment, we needed two basic ingredients: lye and animal fat. Fortunately, I raise pigs and had plenty of lard to contribute to the effort so we already had our first ingredient.  Soap making was often a fall or early winter activity as this corresponded with the butchering of pigs and cows.  Alternatively, a household could save up their old cooking grease to turn into soap (yum).  The lye, our second ingredient, was easy to obtain….online!  I did briefly look into making our own lye and quickly realized this was a task far too time consuming.

Colonists, however, not having the benefit of Amazon, wouldn’t have had a choice.  To make lye, they began with a hopper filled with many fires worth of hardwood ashes.  After enough ashes were secured, water would be filtered through it and collected below.  The resulting liquid was boiled down to create the correct concentration, which involved a lot of guess work.  If the lye was too weak it would not react enough with the fats to create soap.  If it was too strong, the soap would impart nasty chemical burns.  Colonial soap making involved quite a lot of effort.

Along with purchasing the lye online, we took yet another shortcut and used crockpots instead of a fire.  This way we could regulate the temperature and keep it steady.  Imagine standing in front of a hot fire and stirring a pot of caustic lye and smelly animal fat for hours and hours? No, thank you, I’ll use the crockpot!

Our first step was to melt the lard in the pot and then slowly add in the lye water.  The resulting chemical reaction was quite interesting.  Initially, the clear lard turned a creamy caramel color before it thinned into the consistency of melted butter.  Then it began to turn darker and separate into what can only be described as an ‘applesauce’ texture.  After what seemed like an eternity of stirring, the mixture progressed into a ‘mashed potato’ phase (hungry yet?).  This fluffy concoction was transferred to a mold and left to set up for a few days.

Four Stages of Soap Making

These four pictures show the consistency of the soap in four stages: caramel (top left), melted butter (top right), applesauce (bottom left), mashed potatoes (bottom right). Credit: Elisa Gale

Our helpful instructor taught us the ‘zap’ test to roughly determine the pH of the soap, which was also a technique used by colonials.  This involves touching the tip of your tongue to the soap.  If you get a strong taste or ‘zap’, it means the pH is off, the soap is too alkaline, and could irritate your skin.  If you taste nothing or only get a slight zap, it’s safe and good soap.  After much soap licking, it was determined that we had indeed produced legitimate soap.  This conclusion was further supported by our crockpots filling up with happy suds when we rinsed them with water.

Soap and Suds

The photo on the left shows the newly made soap cooling in a parchment paper-covered wooden mold while the photo on the right shows suds in a slow cooker. Credit: Elisa Gale

Zap test

Zap test!

If you were a colonist, making soap is where doing your laundry started.  It took months of preparation just to make soap, a product so cheap, easily obtainable, and ubiquitous in today’s society that we rarely give it a second thought.  If you’re interested in learning more about how soap was made come to Ferry Farm this Fourth of July where there will be a traditional soap making demonstration!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Ten Rarely-Displayed Objects from Kenmore’s Collection

It is impossible for museums to exhibit the thousands of objects in their collections.  Historic Kenmore is no exception. While each of our objects is certainly unique and interesting, not every piece fits within our current interpretation of the life and times of the Lewis family.

One reason museums might not display items is they are not from the time period being interpreted.  Our curator selects each object shown to the public after exhaustive study of primary resources like wills, probate inventories, letters and diaries and making sure it illustrates 18th century life in a wealthy Virginian home.  If we displayed pieces we have from the 1600s or 1960s, it would detract from the story of the Lewis family in the 1700s.

A second reason museums might not display items is preservation and conservation.  Items that are two-hundred years old or more are very delicate and require special environments with proper temperatures, relative humidity, restricted lighting, and limited handling.  Material like textiles and papers don’t do well on display for long periods of time.  These items are better utilized in temporary exhibits in our visitors center or as digital content.

In this list, I present ten of my favorite objects from Kenmore’s collection not often exhibited because they don’t quite match the history we’re trying to share or because they are too delicate for display. Besure to click on any of the photos for more detailed views of the objects.

Ivory Silk Overdress and Petticoat

overdress-and-petticoat

One portion of the floral embroidery on the dress in Kenmore’s collection. The gown’s material is so delicate in some areas that we felt it best not to try and photograph the complete gown.

robe-a-la-francaise-block-printed-cotton-c-1770

Robe à la Française, c. 1770, similar in style to the dress in Kenmore’s collection. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Wikipedia

In Kenmore’s collection is an extremely delicate  overdress and petticoat with a brocaded multicolor floral pattern in the open robe style that dates from about 1775-1785. The particular cut of the open robe style was also known as “a la francaise” or “sack-back gown”.  This robe à la francaise is an illustration of the Rococo aesthetic that was popular during the eighteenth century.  I find clothing to be some of the most personal historic artifacts in any collection.  These pieces are not simply costumes but functional everyday garments that were used, stained, and mended by their owners.  Being able to see and handle this tangible historic link is as close to time-travel as we will get but, at the same times, textiles are extremely fragile and must be handled only rarely.

empire-dress

Empire-style dress in Kenmore’s collection photograph while still laying in its storage box.

Empire Waist Dress
This cream-colored silk dress dates from between 1790 and 1820 and features a pattern of flower sprays and vines with row of pink brocaded flowers along bottom.  Cut in neo-classical style popular in the early nineteenth century with an “empire-style” waist, square neck and loose skirt.  Regency fashion is one of my favorite fashion epochs.  I find the empire-waisted silhouette to be flattering and probably the most comfortable of all historic women’s styles.  This piece doesn’t come out of storage much because it is a little too late for the Lewis era.

“A New and Exact Map of the Dominions”
new-and-exact-map-of-the-dominions
Drawn by London cartographer Herman Moll in 1715, this map shows a fascinatingly detailed view of the Atlantic coastline from present-day South Carolina to Newfoundland, Canada indicating counties, mountains, towns, Indian settlements, rivers and bodies of water.  Insets along the bottom are maps of the Gulf of Mexico, the Carolinas, Charles-Town, and a small map of the “Principal Port of North America.” At right center is an inset showing a fully-colored view of Niagara Falls, with cute little beavers in the foreground building a dam.

“View of London”

view-of-london

Close-up of a portion of Frederick de Wit’s “View of London.”

This colored engraving done by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit shows a topographic view of the London with “The River Thames” across the center of map.  In the upper right corner there is a key with 148 streets, churches, wharves, theatres, and monuments listed and identified on the plan with a corresponding number. As an Anglophile who went to graduate school in London and spent over a year exploring that city’s streets,  I like seeing many familiar streets and sites on this map.  It shows that London city’s center has changed very little across the centuries.

Bourdaloue
bourdaloe
This creamware bourdaloue is a smaller and more feminine version of a chamber pot circa 1780-1790.  In an era without public toilets, the bourdaloue provided a lady with a portable and relatively clean means of relieving herself away from home.  The vessel was oblong, rectangular, or oval in shape and a slightly raised lip at one end and a handle at the other and allowed usage from a squatting or standing position.  The bowl would then be given to the lady’s maid who disposed of the waste discretely.  Little everyday artifacts can get overlooked but they these fascinating little pieces give us a whole picture of colonial life. Plus, everyone loves chamber pots!

The Gentleman’s Magazine
gentlemans-magazine
This March 1752 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine includes articles on poetry, music, weather, gardening tips, criminal proceedings, history, and social services.  It’s amusing to read the various articles today and reflect on how similar they can be to our current news. There is a riveting report on the trial of Miss Blandy for poisoning her father, an account of the history of the Incas, and birth, marriage, and death announcements for the upper-crust of London society.  The Gentleman’s Magazine is digitized and can be read here. The Gentleman’s Magazine was founded in London in 1731 and remained in continuous print for 191 years.

Homer’s The Iliad translated by Alexander Pope
iliad
These five volumes of Homer’s The Iliad were translated into English by the poet Alexander Pope between 1715 and 1720.  Written around the 8th century BC, Homer’s timeless story has influenced great artists for 2,000 years.  Pope was one of those artists.  He suffered from many health problems but was one of the few English poets able to earn a living from his literary works and I just think it’s cool that we have these special books in our collection.  Pope translated the epic verse for the publisher Bernard Lintot and earned the significant sum of £210.

Marrow Spoon
marrow-spoon
This silver marrow spoon, circa 1722, features a long narrow scoop at one end and a broader spoon at the other.  Enjoying bone-marrow was so common that utensils were created to assist the diner in retrieving every morsel. These spoons were used at the table to get the tasty marrow out of the center of the bones without having to rudely gnaw, suck, slurp, bang, crack, or bite.  The fashionableness of certain food can be traced through the evolution of dining implements.  Today, our familiarity with the double scooped spoon and its purpose has waned just like roasted long-bone sprinkled with salt is no longer a prevalent dish on our tables.

Mary Washington Monument Stone

mary-washington-monument-stone

Painted on this view of the stone are the ‘new’ [current] monument and the Mary Washington House.

This is an Aquia sandstone fragment from the original Mary Washington Monument that was started in 1833 when President Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone. The monument was never finished and was heavily damaged during the Civil war. In 1892, in order to raise money for a new memorial, the Mary Washington Monument Association began to sell off the original pieces painted by local women as “relics”.  While some felt this was desecrating Mary’s grave, the Association raised enough money for a new monument. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland dedicated the new monument, which still stands today. Although the way the group went about raising funds for the new memorial is not how it would be done today, these stones represent the beginning of the American preservation movement at the turn of the century.

sampler

The sampler’s poem has large faded from view. It read: “Learn to contemn all Praise betimes / For Flattery Is the Nurse of Crimes / With early Virtue plant thy Breast / The Specious Arts of Vice detest / Youth like softened Wax with Ease will take / Those Images that first Impressions make / If those be fair their Actions will be bright / If foul they’ll clouded be with Shades of / Night.”

Sampler by Betty Washington Lewis
This sampler was embroidered, signed, and dated by Betty Washington Lewis on February 25, 1805.  Betty was the daughter of Howell Lewis and the granddaughter of Fielding and Betty Lewis.  Girls demonstrated or tested their needlework skills by making samplers and often included the alphabet, figures, decorative motifs and, usually, a name and date.  This is one of the few textiles in our collection directly related to and created by a member of the Lewis family.  When an item is clearly marked with the date and who made it, it really doesn’t get much better for a historian!

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

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?”

sf1947

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.

sf1948

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.

sfs-212-215-230

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!

mans-shoe-buckles-c-1777-1785

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.

sf234

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.

sf1971

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.

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.