Monthly Archives: June 2013

An Old Fore-n’-Aft Bicorne

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A few years ago, I was given an old bicorne, a fore-n’-aft. It’s a nice little hat, but it’s in really terrible condition: one side is completely destroyed. It was made by Charles Naylor at 118 North and 5th Street, Philadelphia, a company that I can find no record of.

It’s a small hat, made from buckram, beaver skin, and silk. The flaps punched and tied together with bits of tape. In the inside of the hat, underneath the ripped silk lining, is a piece of paper with “6×7 Frederic” written by hand in pencil – the size and style. Originally, there was something pinned to the body of the hat, in between the flaps at the front – but this something was taken off and put back on ten times, judging by the holes (or maybe I’m completely wrong in assuming there was something pinned there?).

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I’m still debating how old it might be. I find fore-n’-afts from 1850 that look similar, but I find others from the early 20th century that look similar as well. I know it’s not older than 1850 or so, because it’s sewn by machine. Also, the logo for Charles Naylor has a pickelhaube-style helmet in the middle, a style that was purportedly invented in the 1840s. Both facts push the date of the hat past the 1850s, which is what I had also assumed by the brim: it’s not the crazy-tall or crescent-shaped 1790-1840 type of bicorne. I feel fairly safe saying it might be from 1880-1920.

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I am fairly sure that it’s not a military hat: it has no gold whatsoever; the only decoration is a band of black velvet around the brim edge. It’s actually quite cheaply made, with as little beaver used as possible. The top of the hat isn’t even covered! Finally, the hat is quite small, which leads me to one idea that I’ve liked for a while – perhaps it was a photography studio prop for children. If that is the case, maybe it was made in an older style than the fashion of the day, which might explain why I am having a tough time dating it.

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Documenting Female Names in America, 1640-1820

After attending a play in which I noticed the characters’ names didn’t sound too 18th century-ish, I went home and Googled common 18th century names. I was a little surprised when I didn’t find anything.

So I decided to do some research myself. I began to document the birth year, location of birth, name, and class of women born in America from 1640 to 1820, just to see what names it would turn up.

The current result is a database of 1,676 women, mostly from Virginia or Delaware, from 1750-1820. The information was mainly collected from cemetery records and runaway advertisements. I listed women from all walks of life. If I could not find a specific year of birth, I estimated to a decade based on other information (children, average life span for that class and time). Given that, there’s a chance that a little of this data is about 10 years off the mark. I tried to collect enough names to average these discrepancies out.

The eventual goal of this research is to create a database for each colony/state, showing the most popular names for the area, and for each decade. Because most of my data is from Virginia, however, it currently drowns out whatever the other areas produced. Hopefully in the future I will be able to collect data from other colonies/states and even things out.

So for a few posts I’ll share some facts I discovered from my data.

This project has documented some names that I didn’t really expect to be so old, such as Emmeline, Cecily, Ellen, Edith, Deborah, Daphne, Cynthia, Courtney, Candace, Ariana, Amey, Laura, Mayble, Natalie, and Rhoda.

Here are the thirteen most common names for the 180 years I studied. I grouped similar names together for this, but once I get more data, I may separate them and see which versions were popular for what years.

1)  Mary – 181 counts, most popular between 1810 – 1819.

2)  Elizabeth/Elisabeth – 133, most popular between 1810 – 1819.

3)  Sarah/Sara – 122, most popular between 1810 – 1819.

4) Anne/Ann/Annie/Anna – 120, most popular in the 1770s.

5) Hannah/Hanna – 59, most popular between 1750 – 1759.

6) Margaret/Margareta/Margaretta – 58, most popular between 1810 – 1819.

7) Jane – 44, most popular between 1800 – 1809.

8) Betsey/Betsy – 37, most popular in the 1750s.

9) Rebecca/Rebeckah and Martha are tied at 35 each, the former most popular between 1800 – 1809, the latter in the 1770s.

10) Lucy and Catherine/Catharine are both tied at 28 counts, the former most popular in the 1750s, the latter between 1800 – 1809.

11) Nancy – 22, most popular between 1760 – 1779.

My apologies, that’s a whole bunch of very dry statistics! The funny thing is, some names that seem iconic for the 18th century don’t seem so common. For instance, I counted only four Abigails, no Georgiannas, and only nine Charlottes out of almost 1,700 women. Names that sound very 17th century (Margaret, Margareta and Margaretta) seem to have been popular in the early 19th century, and that seems to be a trend: names that were popular around 1680-1720 were used again between 1780 and 1820.

I’ll have some more breakdowns of this research in future posts – I’m still trying to wrangle these numbers into Excel to make some charts! Enjoy!


The Frumpy-Dress to 18th-Century Apron Project

A while back, I decided that buying old linen clothes at thrift shops would provide me with an immediate and fairly cheap way to get a little linen to play around with. This method also makes me happy because it involves re-using cloth and piecing textiles together (both techniques used during the 18th century). With that in mind, I set out to thrift stores.

I had to find a garment that was 100% linen, not printed or embroidered, an accurate color (or a light color I could dye over) and a larger size with few seams (to give me more fabric!). I also wanted something that looked more worn than the other clothes; not because I wanted that look for my costume, but that people shop for their daily clothes at thrift stores, and I didn’t want to cut up something that somebody might want to wear.

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I found one match: this old plus-size linen dress that I got for $4.00. It was faded and a little stained. I washed it and carefully took each seam out, then ironed all the pieces to see how much fabric I had and what I could make from it. I found that I had more than enough to make the 18th century apron I had wanted for a while, so that’s what it became.

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The apron I primarily based my pattern on can be found in Linda Baumgarten’s book Costume Close-Up (#8, page 47) I took some construction methods and stitches from #33, page 97 in Fitting and Proper by Sharon Ann Burnston.

I didn’t copy the pattern exactly; I eyeballed it based on the cloth I had, using most of the cloth for the skirt and leaving about a square foot for the bib. The bib has small (1″ square) patches on each corner so that the pins don’t wear through the cloth so quickly. The skirt and the apron strings were pieced, but the rest of the apron was made from whole pieces. I drew the pattern for the bib freehand, based on the apron pattern from Costume Close-Up. I hand-sewed the entire apron with natural-colored linen thread.

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My old/new apron has old wear patterns and it doesn’t fit perfectly (the bib is a little unflattering and baggy). As an everyday, remade piece of clothing, however, I love it! It goes well with my everyday outfits that I wear when re-enacting outdoors.

It is wonderful to wear an apron, especially such a long and wide one. It covers my skirt completely, tucking a corner up gives it a whole new look, and it’s a third hand when I need to carry things. I wasn’t sure how well this project would turn out when I began it, but I am pleased with this result. I even had leftover cloth to patch it with later!


A Late 18th – Early 19th c. Stock Buckle

The front of a late 18th - early 19th century stock buckle, made of brass and cut steel.

The front of a late 18th – early 19th century stock buckle, made of brass and cut steel.

The back of a late 18th - early 19th century stock buckle, made of brass and cut steel.

The back of the buckle. You can see the labor that went into cutting each hole for setting the faceted steel pieces.

I found this little buckle when digging around in an old sewing kit in the top of our barn. It’s a stock buckle that dates from 1780 onward, perhaps to 1820 but possibly later.

The body is a yellow alloy, probably brass, and the ‘gems’ are cut steel. The pronged bar turns on an axle that’s attached inside tiny U-shaped pieces of metal, which are soldered to the back.The bar was made from very thin flat stock, as opposed to the body of the buckle, which was cut from much thicker stuff.The little prongs appear to be made from wire. The axle is steel. The buckle is about 2 3/8 inches long, and exactly one inch wide.

This buckle has been broken somewhere along the line. A second bar is missing completely, and the axle is unattached at one side on the back. I could have it repaired with a little dab of solder, but I’m too worried about something else falling off when the metal is heated … so I haven’t had it fixed yet.

Cut steel buckles seem to have grown in popularity during the 1780s, and the technique is still used today. Check these links out for more cut steel:

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O232216/buckle-josiah-wedgwood-and/

http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80051868

Scroll down a little on this next link – a very similar cut steel buckle is in the first picture down:

http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/articles/BilstonDirectory/BilstonHistory/bilstonhistory04.htm

A pair of cut steel shoe buckles:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Man%27s_shoe_buckles_c._1777-1785.jpg

And finally, an almost identical buckle, for sale. It’s on the fifth row down.

http://historical-costumes.com/page14/page2/page26/page8/page8.html


The Wild Goose Chase That is “100%” Historical Accuracy

What is 100% historical accuracy? To me, it’s a hypothetical state of being in which no re-enactor, historian, or hobbyist is able to dispute your persona or prove you wrong on something. It’s my firm belief that 100% historical accuracy can never be achieved. Here’s a few of my reasons why.

a)    There’s always something else to discover. Tomorrow we could find out that what we believed as fact yesterday is inaccurate. Our perception of accuracy is always changing.

b)   What’s generally understood as correct for March 1782, England, might not be accurate for March 1782, Virginia. We might find out what is, but we also might not. Accuracy is always our best educated guess.

c)    As far as clothing is concerned, there’s a suggestion that 18th century human bodies were shaped a little differently – whether due to the clothing they wore, or the way they deported themselves. While I believe not everybody would have been shaped differently, there’s a chance that some were. So according to this idea, even if I strolled into a museum collection and put on the 18th century clothing there (not a good idea – it’s something I would never do!) it wouldn’t fit. By that logic, no matter what we do – whether it’s using 18th century patterns, techniques, and materials, we’ll never look the same as they did.

To further complicate things, how many people have you seen wearing clothes that went out of style ten, twenty years ago? Any point in time is, and was, occupied by variations in style. Here’s an example. Perhaps in one town in colonial America, there was a family from Germany and a family from Ireland, and a family from England. Maybe the English family is up-to-date with fashion. Maybe the German family is wearing regional costume that looks very different from the English clothes. Maybe the patriarch of the German family is wearing clothes that are 20+ years old, as well as being regional. Maybe the Irish family hasn’t been able to afford new clothes for years, and is wearing patched rags and second-hand pieces that don’t fit well. If a re-enactor is interpreting this town, the up-to-the-minute French-dictated fashion that many people follow isn’t going to be very accurate.

As re-enactors, we can wear these clothes that are not the French-dictated ‘standard’ – sure, dress as a 1765 German-American patriarch that stopped updating his wardrobe in 1732. Just tell people that. Make that your persona. Give your audience a reason for your sartorial choices. By giving a reason for dressing in a certain way, you fill out your character and you’ll have more to talk to people about. Think of it as a teaching moment!

In the end, we’ll never know what’s 100% accurate – and by that logic, we’ll never know if we are perfectly accurate or not. There’s a chance we are ‘doing it’ exactly as ‘they’ did. As I’ve heard history authors say, at some point you’re just going to have to go with what you know and publish. You could put off making your new reenacting shoes, hat, pack or tent until you knew exactly how it ‘should’ be made – but that might take you years.

Keep reading, talking with others, and looking at museum collections. Research and our understanding of history is a constantly evolving phenomenon, and I believe that all we can do is stay up to date with current research. Evolve with the field, give your persona reasons and a story behind your gear, and you’ll be as close to accurate as anybody can be.