Friday, July 14, 2017

Gone Fishin'

Friday, July 14, 2017
It's the middle of July, and we feel a bit of fishin' is in order. 

Loretta is continuing on her Grand Tour abroad, and Susan is heading off to the 18thc and Colonial Williamsburg. Seems like as good a time as any to take a short break from blogging and general social media-ing. Look for us to return later this month. 

Enjoy your summer!

Elegant Ladies Fishing by Georges-Jules-Victor Clarin, c1900. Image via Sotheby's.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The "Art & Mystery" of Cutting an 18thc Gown

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Susan reporting,

An 18thc mantua-maker (dressmaker) seldom shared the "art and mysteries" of her trade with her customers. It was hard-earned knowledge and skill, gained through an apprenticeship that might have lasted seven years, and it also benefited the business to keep a bit of alluring, magical mystery to her fashionable creations.

For the last five years, Sarah Woodyard, journey-woman in the mantua-making trade, Margaret Hunter Shop at Colonial Williamsburg (shown here in the floral short gown), has been studying different theories of cutting out 18thc gowns - the most important part of the "art and mystery" of dressmaking - and has agreed to share some of her research here.

There was, of course, no single way of cutting out an 18thc gown. Various mantua-makers would have devised methods that worked best for them, and even at the Margaret Hunter Shop, each mantua-maker has a favorite technique. However, Sarah's study of extant garments made her realize the importance of the linen linings in construction and fittings and, in best 18thc style, led her to develop her own favorite method. The technique is simple. Using linen, a less expensive fabric, the lining is cut out and used to establish the fit of the bodice and to "build' the outer garment on top of the lining. The lining becomes both the guide for the creation the gown, and the base for its structure. Not only would this method preserve the more costly outer fabric from being damaged by a slap-dash cutting mistake, but it was also an easier way to control the large amounts of fabric that created the volume of a sack or common gown.

The technique was also a time-saver for both a busy customer, and a mantua-maker determined to make the most of her sewing time. At every price point, women's clothing in the 18thc was fitted and cut on the individual body rather than on a dressmaker's form, ensuring a custom fit. By fitting just the lining on the customer, the rest of the gown could be cut and stitched without her presence until one more final fitting.

In these photographs, Sarah is shown fitting the plain linen lining for a polonaise jacket and matching petticoat on Aislinn Lewis, one of the blacksmiths at Colonial Williamsburg. This ensemble was one of Sarah's final apprenticeship projects completed to prover her skill and move up as a journey-woman. Sarah only required Aislinn for a fitting in the morning to cut the lining, and another in the afternoon for a sleeve fitting. That was all; Sarah was able to hand-sew and complete both pieces - made from pink changeable silk - in about thirty-six hours, including all the trimmings.

The same technique could be used to construct a gown for a woman unable to come in person to the mantua-maker's shop. For women who lived far from town, travel could be prohibitively difficult, and in many families the men traveled to town on business, while the women remained at home with the children.

The trade card, bottom right, for London mantua-maker M. Giles offers the same services for "Ladies residing in the Country [who] may be fitted in the exactest manner by sending with their Commands a Gown or Pair of Stays which fitts them."

As the advertisement shows, a woman could still have new clothing made by sending either an existing gown or a pair of stays to her mantua-maker. Stays were the 18thc version of a corset; no only were they, too, custom-fitted, but over time they assumed the shape of the wearer's body, and could serve as a good replica of her upper torso. Either way, the mantua-maker could use the existing garment to copy and cut a new lining as a pattern, and built a new gown from the lining out without an in-person fitting - and once again, fashion triumphed.

All photographs by Fred Blystone. Used with permission.
Trade card, 1770s, London, British Museum.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Albania's Bizarre Bunkers

Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Loretta reports from Europe:

The one previous time I was in Albania, it was a strictly Communist country, ruled by Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hoe-jah).  We young visitors--the first group allowed in who were not born there--were carefully shielded from the dark side of his rule. I can't remember if anybody asked about the strange mushroom-shaped structures on the mountainsides, on beaches, and various unexpected places.  I remember hearing about them later, from Albanian immigrants, who laughed (this was years later), though it wasn't funny at the time.

You can read about the bunkers here and here.

Though we saw at least a dozen in the course of our journey through Albania, this was most often when we were in the car, which is why I have so few photos.  This includes a fascinating group that were under covers while the road they sat by was under construction. One of my cousins joked, "They don't want them to get cold." It was one of the few jokes in Albanian I actually understood, and I think my laughter gratified him.

Please click on images to enlarge.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Eliza Schuyler & Alexander Hamilton: Love, A Miniature Portrait, & Fine Needlework, 1780

Sunday, July 9, 2017
Susan reporting,

True love, a war-time memento, and virtuoso needlework: inspiration doesn't get much better for me than that! This elaborately embroidered mat was stitched by a young woman in Albany, NY in 1780, specifically to surround the miniature portrait of her fiancé. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

The mat is worked in silk and metallic (now tarnished) threads, with metallic bobbin lace (also now tarnished) framing the miniature. The lace may have been a costly import - perhaps it had originally trimmed a gown - or it may have been worked by the young woman herself. The harmony of the design, the elegantly shaded colors, and the precision of the stitches all indicate that she possessed considerable skill with her needle as well as a flair for design.

There's also little doubt that this was a labor of love whose sheer exuberance (imagine how brilliant it must have been when the colors were still fresh and the metallic threads glittered!) threatens to overwhelm the tiny miniature, which is less than two inches in height. You can just tell that the young woman was dreaming of her beloved with every stitch she took. Perhaps she even kept the miniature nearby as inspiration.

Who were these two sweethearts? The needleworker was Elizabeth Schuyler, 22, and her fiancé was Lt. Colonel Alexander Hamilton, 23, who was serving in the Continental Army as an aide-de-camp to Commander-in-Chief Gen. George Washington. In 1780, the American Revolution was dragging through its sixth year, with no resolution in sight. The war had brought these two together - they had become engaged during the army's winter encampment earlier in the year - just as it also kept them apart during the summer and fall. Both had hoped for a quick wedding, but Alexander's military duties forced them to postpone their marriage until shortly before Christmas, 1780.

While Alexander was occupied with the war, Eliza had returned to her parents' home in Albany. They corresponded frequently, and though her letters no longer survive, his are filled with love and impatience. At one point during the summer and fall, she begged for him to have a miniature portrait of himself painted for her as a keepsake.

In this era before the constant imaging of cellphones, miniatures were the only small and portable reminders of a loved one's face available, much as daguerreotypes would a century later during the Civil War. In war-time, when a violent death or disfigurement could occur at any time, the significance of these mementos rose significantly. Enterprising American artist Charles Willson Peale held sittings in his Philadelphia studio as well as traveling to encampments during the war, painting miniatures of dozens of soldiers for the sum of $28 a piece - a not insignificant amount to young men in an army which was often late paying them.

Alexander had himself painted twice by Peale: once earlier in the war wearing his uniform, and this one that he sent to Eliza, where he is shown a blue coat and a red waistcoat, with his auburn-red hair elegantly powdered and curled. In a letter discussing their coming wedding, he offered to wear either his uniform or civilian clothing for the ceremony; he left the decision to her. Perhaps he had himself painted as a civilian to reassure her that he wouldn't always be a soldier, and that peace would come. It did, but not until after Alexander had fought heroically in the last major encounter of the war, the Battle of Yorktown, in 1781. To her joy, he survived unscathed, and came home to her - a home that always included this portrait and the needlework around it.

Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, to be published in September, 2017, by Kensington Books.

Above: Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by Charles Willson Peale, c1780. 
Mat embroidered by Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, c1780. Both from the collection of the Office of Art Properties, Columbia University Libraries. Image copyright Columbia University Libraries.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Breakfast Links: Week of July 3, 2017

Saturday, July 8, 2017
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• Before she was famous: Jane Austen in the newspapers.
Dolley Madison, Washington's first power hostess.
• "Full fathom five the poet lies": the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley.
• Everything has its history: a timeline of American burlesque.
• The dandies of White's in the Regency era.
Video: Rembrandt's self-portraits from age 22 until his death at age 63 in 1669.
• The dragons are back on the Great Pagoda, Kew Gardens, London.
• A treasury of historic clothing: undressing the royal and aristocratic funeral effigies in Westminster Abbey.
• An 1804 Regency recipe for Pomade Divine.
• The odd link between Thomas Hardy, the Man with Two Heads, and Mary Shelley.
Video: This writing table once belonged to Marie-Antoinette.
Image: Entertaining (and we hope posed!) c1900 photo of young women fooling around with firecrackers.
• Newly discovered schoolboy sketches by John Leech, illustrator for Charles Dickens.
• Even Founding Fathers can have their hearts broken: on the road through Europe with Gouverneur Morris.
• How did Word War One recruitment posters persuade Americans to enlist?
Image: Metal & leather convertible straight-backed steamer trunk, c1890.
• Searching for stolen Nazi gold and treasure in the mountains of Poland.
• The medical history of rhubarb around the world.
• Friends in grief: Martha Washington and Elizabeth Willing Powel.
Image: A silk textile curtain sewn into a 13thc Bible to protect the delicate gold leaf illumination.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection
Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket