Saturday, March 31, 2012

New Reconstruction Site Open Today!

Today is the grand opening of the latest reconstruction project at Colonial Williamsburg!  Anderson's Blacksmith Shop & Public Armoury has been painstakingly excavated, researched, and reconstructed in order to bring us another fine example of 18th century trades and buildings.  Many thanks to Mr. Forrest E. Mars, Jr. for once again funding such an exciting project!  I've been following the progress of this project for the past year and a half on the reconstruction blog and through watching the webcams at  If you haven't been following the blog, I highly recommend visiting it to see how this project evolved.  They have detailed many of the steps throughout the reconstruction and have provided wonderful photos as well.  It is always fascinating to see how many people with different skills and crafts it takes to bring about the most accurate and beautiful end result.  Huzzah to all of them for giving us this wonderful new shop where we can continue to learn about the past!  We are looking forward to visiting the new site when we are next in town.

Colonial Williamsburg armory
Archaeology in Progress
Colonial Williamsburg, June 2011

The new buildings interpret the property during the late 1770s as James Anderson's business began to grow and evolve due to efforts in the war.  Anderson was appointed public armourer in 1776 and the changes in his business reflect his commitment to his new country.  Currently, the nearby tin shop is also being excavated and will be reconstructed next, as well as some other small buildings on the property.  In addition to the blog, you can read more about the new property here.

Colonial Williamsburg armoury reconstruction
The Anderson property after the previous blacksmith shop had been demolished.
The newly reconstructed kitchen stands to the left.
Colonial Williamsburg, March 2011

Friday, March 30, 2012

Fashioning Charlotte Bronte

The home museum of a famous authoress may not seem, on first consideration, a primary source for extant period garments and fashionable accessories. But when I visited the Bronte Parsonnage Museum nine years ago, I was thrilled and very pleasantly surprised to find a display of gowns and some accessories owned and worn by Charlotte Bronte herself. The exhibit, which was set up in Charlotte's bedroom, included several gowns, a couple of bonnets, gloves, shoes, and some pieces of jewelry. The Bronte Parsonnage Museum has recently made most of their collection available in a searchable online database, so I thought it would be only fitting to highlight some of my favorite pieces of clothing once worn by one of my all-time-favorite writers.

The Bronte Parsonnage, March 2003.

Charlotte Bronte's letters are full of discussions about fashion, yard goods, selecting bonnets, and making up gowns. She was a very petite woman; some acquaintances found her child-like and slightly old-fashioned. Her publisher, George Smith, wrote after her death that, "'I must confess that my first impression of Charlotte Brontë's personal appearance was that it was interesting rather than attractive. She was very small, and had a quaint old-fashioned look. Her head seemed too large for her body. She had fine eyes, but her face was marred by the shape of the mouth and by the complexion. There was but little feminine charm about her." Her sense of dress was modest; she once purchased a bonnet that seemed "grave and quiet" and demure enough in the shop, but worried once she got it home that its pink lining was "infinitely too gay" for her taste.

The gowns in the Bronte Parsonnage Museum collection reflect the elegant simplicity of Charlotte's tastes. This one, a striped muslin printed with a small pattern, is very pretty and feminine, but has only the slightest amount of embellishment in the form of small frills on the bodice and the sleeves.

Printed muslin gown worn by Charlotte Bronte.
Bronte Parsonnage Museum item acquisition #D8.

When Charlotte was married on 29 June 1854 to Arthur Bell Nicholls, she wore a very simple, delicate white muslin gown and a green silk and lace bonnet. The bonnet has survived, but the gown was destroyed at the request of Nichols after his death in 1906 (Charlotte, of course, had died in 1855, only 9 months after their marriage). A replica was made reportedly by memory (by whose hands and from whose memory I have not been able to discover), however, and it is currently in the collection of the BPM, as is the wedding bonnet.

Replica of Charlotte Bronte's wedding gown.
Bronte Parsonnage Museum item acquisition #2003/17.

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote in The Life of Charlotte Bronte that, "The news of the wedding had slipt abroad before the little party came out of church, and many old and humble friends were there, seeing her look 'like a snow-drop,' as they say. Her dress was white embroidered muslin, with a lace mantle, and white bonnet trimmed with green leaves, which perhaps might suggest the resemblance to the pale wintry flower."

Charlotte Bronte's wedding bonnet, 1854.
Bronte Parsonnage Museum item acquisition #D2.

For another, closer-up view of the bonnet, check out this photo from flickr.

Charlotte's "going away" dress as in keeping with both her newly-married status and her preference for simple styles and subdued fabrics. It is made of a silver and mauve/lavendar striped shot silk, and features three pleats to fit the front bodice, which closes down center front with hooks and eyes. The collar and the sleeve cuffs are edged in velvet, and the musuem describes the waist detailing as "formed into small triangles, lined in cream silk fabric and trimmed with matching silk 10 pointed zig-zag fringing." It's very difficult to see this from the museum's picture (included below), and I honestly can't recall taking specific note of it myself when I saw it in person. Ah well, yet another excuse to have to go back again...:-)

Charlotte Bronte's "going away" dress, 1854.
Bronte Parsonnage Museum item acquisition #D74.1.

Has anyone ever attempted to do a reproduction of any of these gowns?  Ever since I saw the last one at Haworth, I've been sorely tempted to try my hand at recreating it, but the proper fabric has proven elusive thus far.  The search continues, so stay tuned!

**Update: Saturday, 31 March 2012**

Most exciting news!  Jenni has just informed me that the Northern Society of Costume and Textiles, based in the UK, has produced a scaled pattern of Charlotte's "going away" dress!  The pattern can be ordered directly from their website at a very reasonable cost.  You know where I'm headed right now...:-)  Many thanks to Jenni for sharing this discovery!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln House

Mary Todd Lincoln House
Front of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, Lexington, KY

I'm currently in Lexington, KY for work, and when I discovered that this is the home of the Mary Todd Lincoln House Museum, I knew I'd have to squeeze some time into my crazy schedule to pay a visit. This afternoon, thoroughly enjoying the gorgeous spring weather and all the flowering trees, I took a walk to the museum and was fortunate enough to catch the last tour of the day. The guide was fantastic and extremely knowledgeable about the Todd and Lincoln families and the details of the house's history, and those of us on the tour were treated to an hour-plus journey through the home, accompanied by numerous juicy little tidbits of history that one rarely hears recited or discussed today (you know, those "Wow, how didn't I know that before now?" kind of tidbits!).

I wish I could include some pictures of the interior of the house because it is beautifully restored and furnished with some gorgeous antiques and Todd and Lincoln family heirlooms, but, as I'm sure you'd expect, photography was not permitted inside. Much to my immense pleasure, though, I'm very happy to report that the museum's website includes a lovely picture tour of many of the rooms, with detail shots of some of the special items in them.

Mary Todd Lincoln House

Mary Todd was born in Lexington in 1818, in a house several blocks away from the current museum (that house no longer stands). In 1832, the growing Todd family (there would eventually be 16 total children, with 14 who survived into adulthood) moved to the c.1803-5 brick house that is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House. She lived there until 1842, when she moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her elder sister and her family. It was there, of course, that she met and married Abraham Lincoln, and the couple is known to have visited and stayed in this Lexington home several times during the early years of their marriage. Mary’s father, Robert Todd, died in 1849 and the house and the entirely of its contents were sold at auction. A couple of those original family items have been donated back to the museum in recent years, but the majority of the furniture and other decorative items on display are antiques acquired to mirror those found listed in an inventory taken at Robert Todd's death.

As Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War, it did not surprise me to learn that the Todd family was the quintessential “house divided,” with exactly half of them supporting the Confederacy, while the other half remained staunchly loyal to the Union. Four of the Todd brothers fought for the Confederacy; two of them died in that service. For this reason, Mary was looked upon with great suspicion by both sides throughout the war, with Union supporters worried the President’s wife harbored Southern sympathies, and the Confederates convinced she was a Union spy.

Mary Todd Lincoln House
The back of the house, from the garden.

One of the most interesting things our guide shared today was an account of Mary’s very early exposure to the issue of slavery. Throughout Mary’s childhood and into her adulthood, the Todd family owned between three and five slaves. Her step-grandmother (Robert Todd married a second time after Mary’s mother died in childbirth) also owned slaves and had a very decided opinion on slavery as both a moral and a socio-cultural issue. At her death, she elected to set her slaves free, and Mary’s respect for her would certainly have influenced her own thoughts on that choice.  The very well-educated Mary (who had a keen interest in politics from an early age and whose father would permit her to sit in and listen to the gentlemen’s after-dinner political conversations) would thus undoubtedly have been exposed to discussions about emancipation vs. abolition and the complexities of the institution of slavery, and been able to develop her own educated convictions on the subject before she even met her future “Great Emancipator” husband.

Mary Todd Lincoln House
The back porch.

Our guide spoke a bit about Mary’s keen sense of fashion and how much she enjoyed showing off her shoulders, even after the ripe “old” age of forty (much to the scandal of Washington!). She employed a personal seamstress to make her clothes when she moved into the White House, and her expensive, fashionable tastes were yet another source of controversy for the Lincoln family during the War years. I inquired whether any of the Mary’s clothes had survived, and was shown a delightful little watch, a mourning bonnet, a mourning fan, and a pretty little black mourning jacket that are currently in the museum’s collections. The guide said that following Lincoln’s death, Mary felt obliged to sell a number of her gowns to pay outstanding debts; when she died, the remainder were dispersed amongst relatives. The Smithsonian has her stunning velvet inaugural gown in their collection (click on the image to see multiple views), but for a woman of such prominence, and who was so preoccupied with fashion, it’s strange – and really a shame – that not more of her garments or personal accessories are known to have survived to teach us more about the lady who was Mrs. Lincoln.

Many of the tragic episodes that marked Mary Todd Lincoln's life are well known, from the untimely deaths of all but one of her sons to the tragic assassination of her husband.  Throughout her life, she suffered from poor heath, often plagued by migraines and depression.  What I did not know was that her one surviving son, Robert, had his mother confined in a mental institution in 1875.  Worried by her apparent delusional and erratic behavior, he went so far as to take the stand to testify against her in order to gain the requisite court order to have his mother committed.  Though Mary was released after several months into the care of her sister, the rift that this betrayal caused between mother and son was never healed.  Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882, and remains one of the most intriguing - and controversial - of our First Ladies.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This Week in Genealogy...

Last weekend, we began to search through boxes of old pictures, documents, and mementos that both of our parents inherited from their respective parents.  Here's one set of our great-grandparents in some of the oldest pictures from our collections:

A and H with grandmother E, 1923
A and H with our grandmother E, second half of 1923.

Both A and H immigrated from Finland in the 1910s.  We've discovered that they arrived separately and eventually met in Maine, where they married.  Their marriage certificate, which we found on, lists all of their parents' names, which no one in our family ever knew before.  Neither of their parents immigrated with them, so we're wondering why both A and H elected to come to America alone as young people.  Did they each come with a church group, with cousins, with friends, or by themselves?  Where did they go when they arrived, and what did they do to support themselves in the years before they were married?  We're currently trying to trace each of their immigration records, but it is proving considerably more difficult than we anticipated.

H with grandmother E, 1924
H with our grandmother E in 1924.

Their daughter, our grandmother E, was born in 1923. She was an only child, and even after she was married, her parents lived close by and remained an active part of their grandchildren's lives. Our father was very close to his grandmother H, and when I was born on her 89th birthday, I was given her name as my middle name. Ashley was later given H's middle name as her own, so we both feel a special connection to H and all that we're now learning about her, even though neither of us had the privilege to know her.

H in the 1920s
H in the 1920s.  We haven't yet been able to place where
or exactly when this picture was taken.

As a minor fashion-related observation, note that H wears the same watch in each of the pictures.  In our grandparents' wedding picture, the same watch appears on her daughter E's wrist, evidently our grandmother's very special "something old."  Now if only we could find that watch...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Liebster Blog Award!

Many, many thanks to both Elizabeth from Sew 18th Century and Emily from My Vintage Visions for so thoughtfully honoring us with the Liebster Blog Award!  As Elizabeth stated, no one seems to know the origin of this blog award, but it is meant to recognize and honor blogs with 200 followers or less.  The recipients of the award are to pass it along to five other blogs with similar credentials to help spread the word about relatively unknown bloggers.  There are so many beautiful and fun blogs out there now and we enjoy following many who share our interests in sewing and history especially, which makes choosing five additional honorees a difficult task!  The official "followers" on a blog don't necessarily dictate an accurate number of readers, but it is the only measure to use for this purpose.  Also, some of the blogs that we'd like to forward this award to have already received it, so we have decided to bestow it on authors who have not  been recognized yet, to deservedly help promote their tremendous blogging efforts.  Therefore, our five Liebster Blog Award recipients are (drum roll, please!):

1) Teacups Among the Fabric - Our friend Laurie is a homeschooling mother who uses costumes and first-person presentations to inspire her children to develop a passion for history (trust us, it works!).  Her blog chronicles the challenges of researching and recreating clothing from a wide variety of eras (all while teaching two high-schoolers!), and her constant efforts to continue to learn and grow as a sewer are truly inspiring.

2) World Turn'd Upside Down - Stephanie Ann is a Rev War and Civil War reenactor who posts about all sorts of related things, from sewing projects to the ins-and-outs of re-enacting to little-known social history tidbits.  We especially enjoy her thoughtful (and very useful!) discussions about the challenges of sharing history through the hobby of re-enacting.  And we also have her to thank for finding and sharing that lovely little reticule pattern!

3) The Couture Courtesan - Samantha's work is amazing.  She, too, is a reenactor in multiple eras and her reproduction sewing projects are to die for.  Her attention to detail and accuracy is incredible and we thoroughly enjoy drooling over everything she creates.  If you're ever in need of some inspiration, look here!

4) Historical Clothing and Uniforms - Here's a prime example of the "the number of followers don't accurately represent the number of awed visitors" rule!  We learned about Natalie Garbett's blog at the accessories conference in Williamsburg last year, and her work is second to none.  Her blog covers everything from her experiences with helping to mount the Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion exhibit (oh, if only it would come here!) to her own reproduction (serious reproduction) sewing projects.  Gorgeous, gorgeous work.

5) Idlewild Illustre - Gwendolyn is an artist in everything she does, from stunning historical clothing projects to some pretty amazing drawings and fashion sketches.  Be sure not to miss her portfolio, too.

Thank you again to both Emily and Elizabeth for recognizing us with the Liebster Blog Award!