Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Disturbing Tale

I was searching for information in old newspapers to document the layout and tone of Canton's Miner Street when I came across this story:

From the Potsdam Commercial Advertiser, April 24, 1895
In case you can't read the scanned text, I'll excerpt the important bits.
Parents Should Do as Tom Did, and Nip Wantonness in the Bud. 
Tom Helmer, of Stovepipe avenue, does not believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the child: only, he uses his hand instead of a rod. 
On a recent evening his thirteen-year-old daughter Mabel asked permission to go to a show at the Town Hall, saying that she would accompany her aunt. To this the father assented. Along in the evening, however, he found the child on the street accompanied by the notorious Net Cameron. He ordered his girl to go home, and it appears slapped her quite soundly when she failed to comply with his commands. 
This little scene took place on Miner street and was witnessed by Mrs. Charles Bliss. She repaired to the office of Squire C. Y, Fullington and swore out a warrant against Helmer for assault in the third degree. [...] The case was ably prosecuted, but the jury evidently felt that it was better a young girl should suffer severe punishment than to come up on the streets in the company of such persons as the Cameron woman. They found Helmer not guilty.

(The Town Hall in Canton, at the corner of Main and Miner Streets, was also the post office and opera house. Fourth photo on the top row.)

The story illustrates some troubling realities of life - a young teenager possibly being tempted into prostitution, parental outrage and abuse, a legal system that condones hitting your daughter in the street - but it contains some mysteries as well, so I decided to look deeper.

Stovepipe Avenue

"Stovepipe Avenue" doesn't exist on any modern maps, although there are a lot of references to it in contemporary newspapers. These references are all negative - even when it's just given as someone's address, that someone was usually involved in public drunkenness or shooting at the rent collector.

My first thought was that it had been renamed something nicer since then, but then I noticed that other towns also had a Stovepipe Avenue mentioned in the papers, the name sometimes appears in quotation marks, and the surnames associated with Stovepipe Avenue in the 1890s and 1900s can be found on the census on a few streets clustered together at the south end of the village, by the railroad tracks. And suddenly I remembered Emily of New Moon - Perry Miller, the local boy who made good, came from "Stovepipe Town", the poorest neighborhood. It's very probable that Stovepipe Avenue was Canton's shantytown, located around Buck and Dies Streets, next to the railroad bridge over the river and literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

(In the 1900 census, Mabel Helmer was listed as still living at home with her parents on Dies St., working as a servant in the hotel. She married William H. Green of Oswegatchie in 1905.)

Disorderly Women

Prostitution was in no way a problem confined to cities - charges brought against "disorderly women" were reported in St. Lawrence County newspapers over and over.

A similar story played out with the Graham family, also of Stovepipe Avenue. In 1894, Gilbert "Weary Gib" Graham was sentenced to jail for public drunkenness, and while he was confined there his wife ran away to Syracuse with George Cameron, probably a relative of Net's. They brought young Rosa Graham with them, but she came back sometime later on her own and started "running around the streets with one of the notorious Cameron sisters" until she was arrested for being a "disorderly character". A year later, her father entered a complaint against her and had her arrested for the same reason. The charge was dropped when she married Charlie Cameron a couple of days later, who was probably related to George and Net. That's a little hair-raising itself, implying that her father didn't care about her being a prostitute as long as she was a married one. (On the same page as the second part of the story, Gib was also mentioned in connection with a street brawl. From later papers we know he lived in the county almshouse for a time and eventually drowned in the river. Here's his gravestone.)

Nettie Cameron's base of operations was apparently a lodging house on Water Street (now Riverside) run by William Henry Daniels, opposite a legitimate and reputable hotel - interestingly, he seems to have been or become a prominent member of society, as a member of the state Dairymen's Association, president of the county fair, and a player in local politics. Two other girls working there were Gertie Ward and Minnie Bush.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

HSM 2016 Challenge #4: Gender Bender

The Challenge: #4, Gender Bender. I know what you're thinking, but if we go back a few decades drawers were really controversial for women - they simply didn't wear bifurcated garments. So even though I'm not aware of the attitude that drawers were inherently gender-bending still existing in the middle of the nineteenth century, I'm counting it because I really need drawers for my presentation.

Fabric/Materials: White Pimatex cotton from Dharma Trading Co. at $6.79/yd. I'm not sure of exactly how many yards I ended up using - after making my chemise, there was only enough left for one leg, so I bought two more yards and didn't use all of that. I think it's probably about two yards in total?

Pattern: From the drafting instructions by Liz Clark on the Sewing Academy Compendium. I was going to get out a pair in the collection and pattern them and base mine off that, but then I realized that that made no sense. The instructions are very clear and simple and I recommend them.

Year: These could work for a good portion of the century, stylistically, from the 1840s (at least? I don't know much about 1820s-1830s drawers) through the 1880s and into the beginning of the 1890s, until sheerer cottons and lace and ribbons started to become a big part of lingerie. Although there are certain decorative trends you see changing through the years - cutwork in the 1850s, handmachine whitework in the 1870s, etc. - they can basically work for a broad swath of time.

Notions: They will have a button at the center front, but I really need to move on and get cracking on the corset for the current challenge.

How historically accurate is it? As usual, I'm aiming for high accuracy! The end result looks exactly like extant drawers I've handled in museum collections, although my tucks are maybe a little bigger. Next time I do any tucked underthings, I'm going to aim for 3/8" instead of 1/2", and I should have done the gathers by hand instead of by machine (both for accuracy and, because I have a Tension Problem, the fabric was really hard to gather after doing the two lines of stitching). But if I didn't have confidence that this long-legged diaper was historically accurate, would I show you how completely unflattering it is?

Hours to complete: I should just stop keeping this line in my posts, because I will never remember to keep track of my time. I think I worked on it on about five non-consecutive days.

First worn: July 30-31, 2016 - Civil War Weekend

Total cost: Roughly $13.58.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Nostalgia for the Ordinary

This past month, my director was out on medical leave and I was technically acting director, if only in my mind. (To people walking through the door, I was still "probably the receptionist".) This led to my having to write down notes to remember to ask the director about when she came back, and the writing led to more ideas. Like ideas for exhibitions!

Last month we also had a children's program on one-room schools, with a guest speaker who actually put the kids through their paces in writing and arithmetic. It was so popular! Making the past personal helps everyone connect to it. So what about an exhibition looking into the inhabitants of an ordinary street in a St. Lawrence County village?

In order to tie this to Remington for the Remington Arts Festival, the street I chose in 1900 housed both a paternal uncle's family and a maternal uncle's family. The census doesn't list street numbers, though! So I've been on a quest to both research about ten households on Miner St. and to figure out how these families were configured geographically. Using a spreadsheet, all the censuses available from 1880 to 1930, deed grantor/grantee indexes, and some fire insurance maps from 1898 and 1905, I have a pretty good idea. At least roughly.

Miner Street in 1864
What this has really brought home to me - as so many things do, working in a museum - is how many ordinary things have been lost to history. "Daily life" in a general way gets a lot of press, but specific aspects of daily life aren't usually of broad interest. I don't just want to know how people shopped in the late 19th century, I want to know where people in Canton bought groceries in 1890, and who worked the counter. I want to know how the Ellsworth shoe store was laid out. I want to know what it was like to walk along that particular main street between the American House and Hodskin House, the two hotels in town (now the site of the American Theater and the post office, and an H&R Block and a Family Dollar, respectively). And I can't! I mean, I could find out where Cantonites bought groceries, but it's impossible to understand what it was like to experience life in the past. You can do an immersion reenactment with no spectators at a contained site, but even if you could fill a larger site with progressive reenactors and close it off for a week, you'd still be a modern person, without the mindset, prejudices, and background knowledge that a person of the past would have had.

(A good example of this kind of lost background knowledge - lost to Americans, anyway - is highlighted in C.S. Lewis’ Greatest Fiction: Convincing American Kids That They Would Like Turkish Delight. There's also the pop culture references in the original lyrics of songs like "Anything Goes," and so much about the Galerie des Modes plates.)

Most people disparage nostalgia for a time that you don't actually remember. They say it can only come from romanticizing away the boring or dirty parts of the past and imagining yourself as a rich person. Midnight in Paris says that people have always had this nostalgia, even when they lived in the time you feel it for, so what's the point? And to be fair, the word "nostalgia" does imply a rosy view, as it's meant to be applied to the things you miss from home - anemoia is a neologism created to express never-been-there nostalgia - so maybe I shouldn't use it for this, but I think a lot of people would apply it to the feeling I'm struggling to describe that I had when I finally put together a workable map of Miner Street and short biographies of the families who lived on it.

Miner Street in 1900 ... probably
The people who lived on the east side of the street generally owned their homes, and lived there for decades - the Sackriders, the Champlins, the Gaineses. Their occupations and ancestors were fairly well documented by their obituaries, even if their personalities tended to be described only in clichés. (Men were upstanding, responsible citizens; women were good neighbors and gracious hostesses.) People on the west side along the river rented, and almost all were transient. They did blue collar work, and their death notices were short or non-existent. Ada Merriman rented no. 27 for a short period of time around 1900 while her daughter Lelia taught school and her son Leslie attended St. Lawrence University, but before and after that she drops from the record. She wasn't a local - she apparently came from and went back to Pennsylvania. She wasn't from one of the earliest families to settle Canton, and she didn't sit on the board of the bank. By many standards, she - and Nelson Brown the boatmaker, and Celestia Squires the servant, and Clara Bragdon the dressmaker - was not important.

But like the Doctor, I've never met anyone who wasn't important before. So I hope that with this exhibition I can bring all of these people back to life in a small way.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Magasin des Modes, 2e Cahier, Plate II

November 30, 1786
We said in the twenty-fifth Book of the first Year that the caps à la Turque could bring back the great mounted caps, which went so well with women's faces that they removed and ruined straw hats and chapeau-bonnettes, which most often uglified them, for the reasons we recorded, but which still broke them. One may judge between the two Busts shown in this Plate, if even the baigneuses, which are like the great mounted caps, do not perfectly suit.

The baigneuse that the Woman dressed in a dawn-colored satin gown wears has large pleats and is made of striped white gauze. It is trimmed with a dawn ribbon with white stripes, which forms a large bow on the front.

This Woman wears on her neck a full gauze kerchief en chemise, with three collars, held together with an arrow pin.

In her ears hang gold rings à la Plaquette.

Her hair is frizzed all over her head. Two curls which descend to the chest are allowed to escape on the side, and behind curls float à la Conseillère, fastened in the middle with a pin à la Cagliostro.

The baigneuse worn by the Woman dressed in a puce satin gown is made in the shape of gauzes positioned on the head. The lappets hang behind with handkerchief ends. It is belted with a wide pink ribbon with black stripes, edged with black, which forms a very large bow on the left side, where it embraces a bouquet of artificial roses.

This Woman's hair is frizzed like the other's. Like the other, she wears a gauze kerchief en chemise, fastened with an arrow pin. Also like the other, she wears gold earrings à la Plaquette, in the middle of which hangs a gold drop.

The baigneuses are worn in half-dress. Formerly they only served for the morning, to go out without being dressed, but today our Ladies hardly go out in the morning in night caps, trimmed with blonde or other lace, and in hair in rolls underneath, with two or three unrolled curls allowed to escape on each side.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: Our Crowd, by Stephen Birmingham

A little while ago, I came across NetGalley - a site where ARCs and recently published books are made available (generally upon request). There's a good sampling of history books: not fashion history, which I didn't expect to find, but I find social history in general almost as interesting. Clothes are one facet of understanding a time and place, but there are so many other factors. And I find the clothing more meaningful when I have more context to place them in.

The first book I went for was Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York, by Stephen Birmingham, originally published 1967 and republished by Open Road in 2015. One reason I picked it is that I'm always fascinated by my own heritage (typical American); another is that there's something about New York. It's not just the city itself, but where it stands in popular culture - especially early twentieth century pop culture, which I consume frequently and which contains a lot of references that I just don't get without study. But it's also the city! How it grew, who lived where, etc. We just sort of take it for granted as a booming, river-spanning metropolis. Apart from knowing that it was originally just a small community at the tip of Manhattan and at some point spread out in all directions, my knowledge of the city's history is sketchy.

Portrait of Frieda Schiff (one of the people featured in Our Crowd), by Anders Zorn, 1894; MMA 1988.72 (OASC)
Our Crowd is quite well-written and informative. Before I realized that this is an old book and changed my expectations, I was a bit uncomfortable with the lack of citations and the apparent heavy use of memoirs as a source (as they're usually written so long after the fact, their level of accuracy is very dubious) - but you can't expect a book like this from the 1960s to adhere to modern scholastic standards. Once I dialed back accordingly, I really started to enjoy the many anecdotes. After all, using anecdotal history is the only way you end up getting to print sick burns:
After meeting Adolph Lewisohn, a New York businessman once commented, "I guess his brother Leonard must be the smart one." A few weeks later, he met Leonard Lewisohn. Following this meeting he said, "No, I guess Adolph is the smart one."
The book isn't structured exactly the way I'd like. It follows a few of the biggest names - Auguste Belmont, the Seligmans, the Schiffs, the Loebs - individually through a couple of generations, which sometimes meant skipping backwards a few decades when going from one family to the next. There's also a lot of attention to fact and detail put into the descriptions of what the Seligmans and Schiffs et al. did in business, which is admirable on the one hand, but not really what I was reading for on the other. That did help, however, in understanding exactly how this or that panic that I'd heard of before happened.

All in all, it's an enjoyable read, better if you start to skim a little through the businessy parts. While it focuses on specific figures, it also shows how the society as a whole was held together, what their relationships were with other Jewish groups (specifically the older Sephardic families and the newer Russian immigrants) and with their religion. I would have liked more attention paid to the customs of the society in general, rather than the habits of individual and sometimes eccentric people, but as I said at the beginning - you have to expect different things from history books of this vintage than of new ones. I strongly recommend Our Crowd to anyone with an interest in "Edith Wharton's New York" and a desire to look beyond Mrs. Astor's Four Hundred.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Regency Corsets (or Stays if you will)

My very first post to this blog was a kind of a summary of corset construction and style in the period 1790-1810. It's awkwardly written, because I was excerpting from a paper and summarizing and wasn't used to blogging like this! It seems like a good time to revisit the topic, now that I've spent even more time analyzing the period.

The stays of the early 1790s were essentially those of the 1780s, cut with a higher waist - conical, and heavily or half boned. Very quickly, though, the silhouette changed. Artistic portraits had shown women dressed in flowing draperies, belted high, without stays, and at the same time that those high-waisted flowing draperies entered mainstream fashion, so did softly rounded breasts. While some women achieved this look by not wearing any stays at all, for most, the idea that a boned and laced undergarment was essential to respectability held strong. Non-satirical sources refer to corsets' and stays' existence through this time - for example, a young South Carolinan woman named Constance is described in a travelogue of America (1798-1802) as just developing breasts, but still wearing a "petit corset".
"Corset elastique" from Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1802-1803
A brief period followed in which everyone worked out how to achieve this look with the current stay technology - generally, this was a foundation shaped like ordinary stays made shorter, perhaps a lighter fabric, partially boned or unboned, with some provision for the breasts. This could be a few gussets, or gathered cups. As fashion celebrated an "unbound" body, these didn't extend down to the fleshier posts of the body and exerted minimal control (if any) over the figure.

We can't pinpoint when exactly the stereotypical long Regency corset came into popular use. The earliest reference I have found to it specifically is in 1807, in La Belle Assemblée:
Do not be displeased that I fulfil not your commission for the long stay. Believe, Julia, your slender form, gently and simply rounded by nature, needs not this unnatural compression; they can only be requisite for such females as exceed the embonpoint, to others they give a most ungraceful stiffness; and, I should think, must be as uneasy as they are inelegant and unnatural. Besides, dear Julia, if we consult the painter and the sculpturist, we shall find that the natural beauty of a form consists in a moderate roundness, not in contracted flatness. I positively will not allow of your destroying the symmetry of nature, by the distortions of art. We are justified, my fair friend, in obviating her defects, but not in abusing her gifts. Continue, therefore, your simple corset; and do not, with your plump cheek, and round arms, exhibit the body of a caged skeleton. Thus much, dear Julia, on the subject; but not a letter too much, if it prevents your thinking more of an article never designed for you.
(A note: I have seen this passage interpreted as evidence that the old style of stays were still being worn. In my opinion, this is a mistake based on assuming that the people of the early nineteenth century consistently reserved the word "stays" for the eighteenth century foundation garment - they didn't, and you can find what we would call "corsets" referred to as "stays" for decades.)

(The earliest reference to a long corset that smoothed the stomach and hips in French is in the Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1808; it was there called a corset à la Medicis.)

This long corset had a wooden busk in front, bust shaping achieved through gussets on either side of the busk, and hips shaped with curved pieces or more gussets. It's tempting to put them in a sequence based on how much of an hourglass figure they have, but one thing I've learned from my sewing is that it's more comfortable for a corset that's tight enough to hold the busk in place to dip in at the waist and flare over the hips, if you have a curvier shape. Even when fashion disregarded a narrow waistline, many individual wearers would have needed their stays to fit one. Additionally, as the stiffening in a corset simply makes the fabric less likely to buckle, rather than making it more restrictive, the presence of cording does not necessarily mean more pressure: my last trial corset was not sufficiently stiffened, and had a tendency to ride up on my hips. It all depends on the needs of the body.
"Corset à la Ninon", Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1810

Something else that tempts is taking contemporary polemics against tight-lacing at face value. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, apart from the short blip in which a more rounded torso was fashionable, moralists and doctors were fixated on condemning women for the vanity of tight-lacing; going by those sources, people often say that women were "freed" during the Regency period and then "re-imprisoned" after it. This or that new invention - metal and bone eyelets, the split busk, etc. - helped women lace tighter. This has developed into a commonly accepted narrative (which must be constantly questioned and refuted by fashion historians) that women faced a greater and greater physical restriction as the nineteenth century drew on, until it at last became too much for women and they rose up en masse to throw their corsets off.

Corset, post-1828; MMA C.I.38.23.291
What's important here is the way that this is applied to the first few decades of the 19th century. Simple corsets with no or few bones are assumed to be very early, with more complex cording and more flared gussets appearing over time in order to manipulate the body more forcefully. This is an assumption, though, not fully borne out by the evidence. This corset, for example, is boned only at the center back and in the busk, but as it has metal eyelets, it must date after 1828. It doesn't have cording focused on the waist, or a pronounced hourglass figure. And unfortunately, we can't go backwards - a corset can have sewn eyelets no matter when it's made, like this example also likely from the 1830s or 1840s. (Even worse, the common set-in bone eyelets are poorly documented and not much help in dating. They continued to be in use for several decades, and nobody apparently knows when they were invented. Hopefully about ten years before the metal eyelet, or most of the extant corsets of this era need to be redated.)

When it comes to dresses, we can use fashion plates and wedding ensembles to get securely dated examples to base our sequences on, but detailed images and "wedding corsets" don't exist in great numbers in the early 19th century. The only wedding corset I'm aware of is this one, held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It is illuminating! For one thing, it shows how misleading a dress form can be when it doesn't fit the corset - the bustline would be much higher if this corset were worn by a person. It does bear out the idea that many parallel lines of cording are a hallmark of later dates, but also doesn't seem to be built for any kind of extreme lacing, though it does have cording focused on the waist. And when it comes to illustrations, corsets all the way through the 1830s show no extra cording or boning and have short gussets that lift the bust high.

Detail of La Marchande des Corsets, 1829-1833; Rijksmuseum RP-P-2009-4133
So unfortunately, I cannot do what I set out to do - provide a sequence of construction details that allow you to date extant corsets more precisely - beyond showing that long corsets existed by at least 1807. However, if you give me a few weeks, I will be able to share some more thoughts on corset construction!

Monday, March 21, 2016

HSM 2016 Challenge #3: Protection

For the "Protection" challenge, I made a chemise to wear for the Civil War Weekend. Chemises, of course, protect your skin from the corset, and your corset (and other clothes) from your skin, and so are a perfect thing to make as an example of a protective garment.

This is the pattern I used, which I took while working at the Chapman Historical Museum. It would be a very good one for a first attempt at scaling up a pattern - I strongly recommend it if you have any interest in practicing that skill. That said, the actual making is tricky. There's a lot of gathering, and since the original had the bands attached by machine I didn't do stroked gathers, which are in a way simpler and hang better. I really should have used a smaller cording (the original has five rows) and should have started it much closer to the fold, so as to have more room for the seam allowances. I had to trim them quite close. Setting in the neckline gussets was also a tricky annoyance.

The Challenge: #3, Protection

Fabric/Materials: White Pimatex cotton from Dharma Trading Co. at $6.79/yd.

Pattern: Posted here on my blog some time ago.

Year: Probably 1860s or 1870s? I never quite decided with the original, as it has such unique conclusion. Probably later 1860s.

Notions: I used some Sugar'n'Cream yarn for the cording.

How historically accurate is it? Extremely! I hand-sewed where the original was hand-sewn and machine-sewed where the original was machine-sewn. I didn't include the eyelet insertion because the eyelet on the original was made by handmachine, and I can't get my hands on any of that but am also unwilling to make it by hand (way too much effort for a couple of inches of embroidery on each sleeve) or use modern eyelet (modern!). That said, I did make one side on the fold instead of seamed, because why not, really.

Hours to complete: I really meant to pay attention this time, but completely forgot about it.

(To be) first worn: July 30-31, Civil War Weekend.

Total cost: About two yards of cotton, so $13.58.