Sunday, March 31, 2013

Exploring the Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society

In early 2011, we visited the Connecticut Historical Society to see their exhibition, "Connecticut Needlework: Women, Art, and Family, 1740-1840."  The exhibit profiled the variety of needle crafts created by the women of early Connecticut, and included everything from crewel bed hangings to mourning art to embroidered shoes to samplers to a whitework gown to quilts and quilted petticoats (and much more besides).  Our post on the exhibit discusses in detail several of the items on display, and also links to the book/catalogue assembled for the exhibit, which is fantastic and an excellent investment to add to the library of any historical fashion or needle arts enthusiast.

For those of you who aren't familiar with CHS, the museum exclusively collects artifacts and antiques with a known New England provenance.  What is particularly unique about their holdings, however, is that most of their pieces can be even more specifically tied to Connecticut itself.  Because of this, the ladies of our reenacting unit have been very eager to study the eighteenth-century clothing and accessories in the collection to help us improve the regional details of our interpretation of our CT Revolutionary War ancestors.  In mid-January, our lovely Distaff Coordinator was able to arrange a private study session with CHS's costume and textiles curator, enabling a small group of us the privilege to handle and closely examine each and every one of the costume items in the museum's collection that is dated between 1750 and 1800. 

Although the photos we took during our study time are exclusively for private research purposes and thus cannot be shared here, thanks to CHS's fabulous and ever-expanding eMuseum, we can nonetheless give you a comprehensive overview of some of the fantastic items we were able to see!  First, we all drooled (almost literally) over five gowns, all dating to the second half of the eighteenth century.  All can be found in the online catalogue (direct links don't seem to work, I apologize!).  One of my favorites was a dark ground chintz with a red and pencil blue floral design (dated 1775-85; CHS acc. no. 1959.54.4), its skirt and the front of the center-closing bodice pieced to within an inch of its life.  The fabric is some of the most stunning cotton I've seen (so much prettier in person!), so light-weight and thin and fully retaining the crispness and subtle sheen that characterizes true eighteenth-century chintz.  It's actually a lot darker than it appears in the eMuseum photo below, being closer to black than the chocolate brown it seems to be here.

Brown chintz round gown, 1775-1785 (CHS acc. no. 1959.54.4) .
Photo linked from the CT Historical Society eMuseum.

Other highlights from the day included two sets of stays (one sized to a child of about age three), several calash bonnets, some stunning brocade shoes, the red quilted calamanco petticoat we had oogled in the earlier exhibit, and a couple of shortgowns, among other items.  We also examined some gentlemen's coats, waistcoats, and shirts.

The two jewels in the crown of the museum's eighteenth-century costume collection, however, are a rare CT loyalist military coat and a cloak owned by Deborah Champion.  The "Redcoat," worn by CT native Munson Hoyt when he served in a CT loyalist regiment during the Revolution, is one of only two examples of a "Redcoat" know to survive in this country (CHS acc. no. 1896.9.1).  Needless to say, we spent a good deal of time oogling it and taking note of all of its little details and secrets.

One of only two extant "Redcoats" (CHS acc. no. 1896.9.1).
Photo linked from the CT Historical Society's eMuseum.

The second undeniable treasure we had the privilege to study was Deborah Champion's cloak (CHS acc. no. 1981.37.1), its vivid cardinal red color still a vibrant reminder of the courageous woman who once wore it.  The cloak was gifted to the museum with family tradition suggesting it is the cloak worn on her famous ride across British lines to deliver dispatches to Washington in Boston in 1775.  This post reproduces a letter in which the 22-year-old young woman recounts her experience (complete with a description of her clothes, huzzah!) to a friend.  Most thrilling to me was the realization that this cloak's piecing and construction are remarkably similar to those seen on the cloak in Costume Close-up.  It's always neat when sources coincide like that!

Deborah Champion's cloak (CHS acc. no. 1981.37.1).
Photo linked from the CT Historical Society's eMuseum.

I strongly encourage you to take the time to look through all of the items showcased in CHS's eMuseum.  Their costume and textiles collection is quite large and comprehensive, but somehow it tends to get overlooked in the world of costuming sources, I assume just because the museum is comparatively on the smaller side when it comes to the more famous museums in the immediate area.  This is most unfortunate because it's a great resource and more than repays a visit if ever you're in the area.

We'd like to personally thank the curator of costumes and textiles, as well as the rest of the staff at CHS, for so generously accommodating our group and for sharing their collection with us in such a special way.  Our unit hosts a number of local school and educational programs, and being able to use this experience to reproduce and then share some of the uniquely CT clothing items that we saw will be a tremendously special addition to our discussions and our unit's Rev War interpretations.

1 comment:

Augusta Auctions said...

Great photos, and sounds like a fabulous collection, thank you for sharing!