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.

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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.