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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Maria Mitchell Association

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Maria Mitchell Birthplace

While in Nantucket I visited the Maria Mitchell Association, a complex of four museums. There’s the natural science museum in the main building. This features animals (mostly dead) found on or near the local beaches. They have dolphin skeletons, butterflies, moths, taxidermy animals, live snakes and turtles and a discovery center.

The main focus of my visit was the Maria Mitchell birthplace. A typical Quaker house built in 1790, this house is the birthplace of America’s first female astronomer.

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Maria Mitchell Birthplace sign

The Mitchells acquired the home shortly before Maria’s birth in 1818. It is typical Nantucket architecture. It has an off-center front door and a small window above to let light in the hall when the door was closed. On the roof is a roof walk, which was actually for putting out chimney fires and fires on the roof. Could they have used it for other purposes? Yes, but that isn’t what it was built for.

William Mitchell had to add a new kitchen to the old house to make the house bigger. The new kitchen has a back staircase, a warming alcove and plaster walls painted to look like wood. The front room features the most exciting and unique artifact in the house-Maria’s telescope through which she discovered a comet. The front entryway has an amazing mural of “The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.” (Fake news is obviously not an Internet age problem).

Maria Mitchell was educated at a young ladies seminary and also taught by her father, an astronomer who rated chronometers for use by the Nantucket whaling fleet in celestial navigation. His Quaker belief in equality led him to educate his daughter in subjects normally taught to boys. At the age of 12, Maria assisted her father in calculating the position of their home by observing a solar eclipse. By 14 she trusted to calculate navigational computations for sailors leaving on whaling journeys.

Maria’s interest in science extended to teaching as well. After she finished her own formal education, she opened a school for girls to train them in science and mathematics- like an early STEM school.

At the age of 18 she became the first librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum, reading everything she could after hours. She worked there from 1836-1858.

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Nantucket Atheneum

Her greatest accomplishment was yet to come. Avoiding a party at her family’s apartment above the bank one night in 1847, Maria went up to the roof to observe the sky through her father’s two-inch telescope. She lucked out that night, October 1, and discovered a comet! She was not only the first woman to discover a comet, she was the first in America to record her sighting.

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Pacific National Bank

Unfortunately, the next day there was a storm and ships couldn’t leave the island so the observations she sent off to Europe were delayed, allowing an Italian man to gain credit for the discovery. However, Maria prevailed and her careful notes revealed she sighted the comet earlier than the Italian. The King of Denmark awarded Maria Mitchell of Nantucket an International gold medal.

Maria then skyrocketed (pun intended) to fame.  “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” as it became known, was featured in Elias Loomis’ The Recent Progress of Astronomy.

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Recent Progress in Astronomy

Maria became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848, the only woman recognized for almost 100 years thereafter. She was also elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Philosophical Society and earned an annual salary from The U.S. Coastal Survey ($300/year) as a celestial observer. [1] She was also able to meet other women involved in the sciences on a Grand Tour of Europe in the 1850s.

Though Maria ultimately broke with the Quaker meeting, she retained some Quaker philosophies, such as equality and abolitionist principles. She always dressed in black silk, refusing to wear cotton as it was grown by slaves.

After her mother’s death, Maria was invited by Matthew Vassar to be the first female professor at his new women’s college, where she rebelled against the strict rule prohibiting women from going out at night. Her students adored her and even persuaded her to pose for a portrait. (Maria believed her plain looks would not appear to advantage on canvas or in photos). She did insist on appearing as she normally did, in her Quakerish black silk dress and plain hairstyle.

Maria Mitchell became involved in the emerging women’s rights movement, with fellow Nantucket Quaker Lucretia Mott, meeting the luminaries of the day and holding meetings in her observatory. Her famous friends later donated money to save her Vassar observatory. [2]

Though Maria Mitchell died in 1889, a year after her retirement from teaching, her legacy lives on. The Maria Mitchell Association also operates an observatory. Their website states “since 1908, the Observatory has been the site of research, lectures, and other programs . . .” [3]  That is smaller than the house!

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Normally they start outside but since it was rainy and overcast, we couldn’t see anything in the sky. We did look at a scale model to see how far the planets are in the solar system. That was very helpful. I don’t really understand or care for astronomy so much of it was lost on me. Inside there is a little museum where visitors can see Maria Mitchell’s influence on culture and science. She has asteroid and a crater named after her, among other things. I really liked it when they mentioned there is an archive. That would be fun to look at.

More on the history of Nantucket in my next post.

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