Colonial Williamsburg: Historic Trades Part 2

We wandered over to the blacksmith shop to learn how it operated during the time of the Revolutionary War. The blacksmith shop doesn’t really interest me specifically. I have seen two other pre-Industrial blacksmith shops before this one and the process is basically the same.

A blacksmith’s forge consisted of a raised brick hearth outfitted with bellows to feed its soft-coal fire and a hood to carry away the smoke. The forge heated bars of iron yellow-hot. With his journeymen and apprentices, the blacksmith used sledges weighing as much as 12 pounds to hammer the heated bars into various shapes.

For more on the blacksmith, visit The Colonial Williamsburg Almanack

Next was a quick visit to the public leather works. The leather works cut, mold, and stitch leather and heavy textiles into a variety of necessary products for Virginia’s fighting men. They sometimes made leather stays, known as jumps, for working women.

 

Saddle making was a skilled craft and produced high-quality leather goods for the wealthy.

My favorite trade, as if you couldn’t tell already, is the Milliner and Mantua Maker. English fashion dominated in Colonial Virginia. Fashion originated in Paris, spread to London and then across the ocean to wealthy women like Lady Dunmore, the governor’s wife. All the other women wanted to copy Lady Dumore’s gowns. Ordering a new gown wasn’t as simple as it sounds, as all clothes were custom made. While George Washington preferred to send his measurements and preferences to his tailor in England, Williamsburg has a Milliner and Mantua Maker’s shop where fashionable women can purchase or have made all they need to look their best.

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What d’ye buy? A new custom-made gown? A new fashionable hat?

Millinery shops were almost always owned by women. From fabric sold in the shop, milliners would make items such as: shirts, shifts, aprons, neckerchiefs, caps, cloaks, hoods, hats, muffs, ruffles, trim for gowns.

In addition to being a trades woman who made fashion accessories, the milliner was also a businesswoman who sold a wide range of fashionable imported goods such as the very latest wares in haberdashery, jewelry, hosiery, shoes “and other items too tedious to mention.” [1]

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A milliner could trim a hat and ladies could see the latest styles on a pandora or fashion doll sent over from France. Fashions changed every season!

“In a word, they furnish everything to the Ladies that can contribute to set off their Beauty, increase their Vanity, or render them ridiculous.” [2]

The mantua maker was skilled in cutting, fitting, and sewing cloaks, mantles, hats, hoods, caps, gloves, petticoats, hoops, riding costumes, and dresses for masquerades – all in the latest fashion.

The mantua maker explained how to put on stays if you don’t have a ladies’ maid. You can either put them on loosely laced and pull on a knot tied at the top of the cord to tighten or put them on, lace them backwards and shimmy around.

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Mantua Maker explains how women got dressed without a maid

We continued the discussion from earlier in the day on what women did when they had their monthlies. Conclusion? It’s fun to visit places like the museum version of Colonial Williamsburg but I would certainly not want to live then.

The shop is much smaller than I remembered. I also remember the tailor sharing this space and now he has his own shop elsewhere in town. Visitors can peer into the back workroom and see what fashions the seamstresses are working on. It’s amazing to look at the exquisite garments they still make by hand here in the shop. While I wouldn’t want to live in the 18th-century, they did have some incredibly beautiful clothes.

Trade shops to be continued ….

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Colonial Williamsburg: Fashion Fanatics Part 2

The following explanation is grossly oversimplified for those who know nothing of the clothing styles of the period. I was a bit surprised how no one else seemed to know all about the Georgian era! Isn’t anyone else obsessed with Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and the Poldark Saga?

Getting dressed was quite an ordeal for women. Each day they put on a long linen undershirt known as a shift. Everyone owned several and these were embroidered with the owner’s initials. No one wanted to share their underwear with other family members.

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18th-century shift with embroidered initials

Next a lady put on her stockings, tied them with garters and put on shoes. Then over her shift she wore a pair of stays (later known as a corset). This was not for nipping in the waist, at least not for women, it was for posture and to hold in the wobbly bits. This is not the Victorian era and it is acceptable to show off one’s womanly assets (at least in the evening/formal occasions) and one’s arms.

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18th century stays. They are lined with whalebone (baleen) and lace up the back. Some laced up the front and others laced up both sides. To put it on requires help and if one doesn’t have a maid, one can simply put the string through loosely,  tie a knot, put the stays on, shimmy into them and pull the string from the top or shimmy into them backwards and turn them around.

Stays extended from mid-bust to just below the waist and created the desirable 18th-century figure of a smooth, inverted cone without separate cups for the breasts.

Working women sometimes wore leather stays, called jumps.

Dresses didn’t have sewn in pockets. Ladies often embroidered or pieced together pockets to wear under their petticoats. Gowns would have slits to reach inside the pocket. Because gowns had separate pockets, this explains the origins of the nursery rhyme “Lucy Locket” (“Lucy Locket lost her pocket; Kitty Fisher found it. Not a penny was there in it,. Only ribbon round it.”)

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18th-century stays and pocket in storage at the art museums of Colonial Williamsburg. The pocket is missing the ribbon tie.

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18th-century embroidered pocket

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Pair of patchwork pockets

Next came a petticoat, possibly one for warmth and one meant to be seen like a skirt. This could be quilted, embroidered, silk, wool, etc.

dark green silk petticoat quilted in floral design

Green silk quilted petticoat

Over the petticoats came an open gown and in between the empty space in the front a lady would pin or hook an embroidered triangular piece of cloth known as a stomacher. There were several types of gowns worn at this time but the exhibit only shows the open robe style.

 

Instead of a gown and stomacher, some women wore printed cotton jackets like this one.

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Cotton printed ladies’ lace-up jacket

Other visitors wanted to discuss at length what women did when they had their “monthlies.” I’m uninterested in this topic but here is a summary of what was discussed:

  • At least one woman wore an extra apron backwards.
  • Some women may have worn extra petticoats if they had them.
  • It’s possible some women wrapped rags around them like a diaper.
  • Alternately, many women married in their late teens or early 20s and were pregnant and nursing for much of the next 20 years so they may not have had their monthlies.

The records just don’t tell us these things, not because they were too genteel and refined (that came later at the end of the Regency era) but because it was just an ordinary thing women dealt with and didn’t think to write down. Do you keep a diary? How often do you write about visits from Aunt Flo and what you do? If you don’t, start now so future generations can know what we did back in the 20th/21st centuries!

A slideshow of quick video clips of different types of fashions popular in Virginia played on a screen next to the exhibit. I tried to get as many different images as I could.

 

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Men often wore an informal robe at home known as a banyan.

Children wore simple, T-shaped dresses known as frocks. Boys and girls both wore these until the boy was old enough to be breeched (dressed in breeches like his father). 

By this period some of the Virginia Indians also liked British printed textiles.

I recommend reading the book What Clothes Reveal : The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America by Linda Baumgarten, Yale University Press, 2012.

A summary from the above book can be found on Colonial Williamsburg’s website.

Colonial Williamsburg Fashion Fanatics: Part 1

My first full day in Williamsburg dawned cool and rainy. I met up with a friend and went to a talk at the art museums called “Fashion Fanatics.” The museum expert guided a group through different exhibits examining what art and textiles can tell us about a time period. The talk ended up in the textile storage room where the group had access to viewing the textiles in some of the storage drawers.

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Georgian fashions from Britain popular in 18th-century Williamsburg

 

The time period discussed was mainly c. 1750s. We examined two paintings and learned how paintings are not a true representation of a person. Both paintings of wealthy ladies were painted with an odd perspective with the head and neck not in alignment with the body. This is NOT because the painter painted the body first and added the head later. Sometimes the subjects of paintings wear the same outfit! If a painter had a specific dress he was very very good at painting, he would simply have his subject wearing that dress. The style may not be up-to-date for that time period. Sometimes women wore jewelry and other times not. Paintings are a representation of a person but not a true likeness.

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D2018-JBC-0508-0009 2018-165 Portrait of Joyce (or Judith) Armistead Booth (Mrs. Mordecai Booth); Maker: William Dering (active 1734/1735-1755); 1748-1750; Gift to Art Museums of Williamsburg from Julia Miles Brock, Edward Taliaferro Miles, and Georgianna Serpell Miles in Memory of their Mother, Alice Taliaferro Miles

Mrs. Booth (left) has an oddly broad torso, a dress that wasn’t in fashion yet and no one is sure why she is holding a cloth in her hand. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1956-237,A&B Frances Ann Tasker Carter (Mrs. Robert Carter III) (1738-1787)
1755-1758
ATTRIBUTED TO John Wollaston (ca. 1710-ca. 1767) Art Museums of Williamsburg purchase

Mrs. Carter was the wife of a very prominent man, yet she is dressed in a mostly plain gray silk gown with similarly odd sleeves as Mrs. Booth’s dress. She shows her wealth only by the lace at the cuffs and neck of her gown and the little pearl broach. Again, no one is sure why the blue cloth. Shawls were not worn yet in the 1750s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I loved seeing the period outfits on display in the British Textiles exhibit. British textiles were considered the best in the world. People all over the world wanted to wear British textiles. If you could afford to wear silk, you purchased silk cloth woven by silk weavers in Spitalfields in London’s East End. Throwsters, Winders, Weavers, and designers were all needed to make one piece of fabric. By 1774 English silk manufacturers imported £130,000 worth of silk to the American colonies, their most important market.

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British imported cottons and silks fashionable in 18th-century Williamsburg

When styles changed women sometimes made over their old gowns into newer styles. This gown on display was originally made in the 1750s and remade in the 1780s! Sixty years later this type of fabric was popular again and the dress refashioned to suit the styles of the day.

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Gown, Great Britain, 1745-1750, gown remade ca. 1780 and 1845, silk and linen, museum purchase 1941-2011-1

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Gown, Great Britain, 1745-1750, gown remade ca. 1780 and 1845, silk and linen, museum purchase 1941-2011-1

 

 

If you couldn’t afford silk you would likely wear a woolen gown of the same style, like this read and gold one. This one is made from worsted wool, combed wool fibers that were tightly spun and woven. Worsteds were light and suitable for ladies’ gowns. The worsted industry was centered around Norwich, England.

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Gown, Great Britain, 1760-1765, Worsted Wool and Linen, Museum Purchase, 1988-223; Quilted petticoat, probably New England, 1755-1776, wool, linen and silk, Museum Purchase 1955-244                             This gown mimics the expensive silk brocades being produced around London but it made from a more functional and cheaper fabric.

Cotton gowns were also very popular. Some cotton printed textiles were imported from India beginning in the 16th-century. Read more about that at Willow & Thatch (the picture of the sign I took came out too blurry to read). By the 18th-century, the region around Manchester, England specialized in spinning, weaving, printing lightweight, colorful, cotton and cotton-linen textiles. Men also wore these types of fabrics for informal wear. These cottons are not only beautiful, they are serviceable and easy to clean.

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Gown, Great Britain 1780-1785, Cotton and Linen, Museum Purchase, 1991-450

As demand for cotton printed fabrics grew, silk and wool weavers protested in Parliament until Parliament passed a lawn in 1721 prohibiting the sale, wear and use of cotton printed calicoes. The British government regulated the sale of cotton textiles until 1774 when it passed another act to legalize the printing on all all cotton fabrics.

Women’s shoes featured high heels, ribbons, buckles and were made from silk or wool textiles with covered wooden heels. Men’s shoes were typically made of leather. The components of the shoes: wooden heels, textiles and bindings were exported to American shoemakers. By the late 17th century shoes were fastened by buckles. Strings didn’t become common until the late 19th century.

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18th-century shoes on display at the Williamsburg Art Museums

During this time, 1750s, stockings were knit flat on frames and sewn together. This was a much faster process than knitting by hand. In Nottingham in 1719 there were over 9,000 frames in operation. Linen, cotton, wool and silk stockings were exported around the world.

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Green embroidered stockings on display at the Williamsburg Art Museums

To be continued…