Friday, February 24, 2017

The Portsmouth Assembly House, Part I

The divided Assembly House in 1938
While researching social dancing in Portsmouth, NH in the first half of the 18th century, I came across a reference to a personal remembrance of the 18th century Assembly House (circa 1770) by Sarah Parker Rice Goodwin (1805-1896).  She was the wife Ichabod Goodwin, the governor of New Hampshire at the start of the Civil War. Her papers are held by Strawbery Banke Museum. As a prominent member of Portsmouth in her own right, her reflections are very interesting. I found her remembrances of the Assembly House were so interesting that I think they should be seen in their entirety. Some of the remembrances were probably handed down to her, but her birth is close enough to the period that the earliest reflections may be those of her grandmother, mother and perhaps her own youth.  For the reader's ease I broke her essay into three sections without any other other structural alterations.

These two images show the altered building turned on its original site. The Assembly House would have been parallel to the street and risen above the roof tops of its neighbors.

The divided Assembly House in 1970

Part I, The Assembly House:

"If the old Assembly House were still in being, what a treasury of art memories it would be in these days of centennial excitement and interest! The builder and owner of this interesting house was Mr. Michael Whidden, who must have been a real artist and a remarkable man. I can remember him distinctly as he appeared in his nineties. He was little and florid, and wore a white linen skull-cap, such as is worn by masons at their work. The house was of wood, large, long, and painted white. There were on the lower floor three great parlors, a kitchen, and an immense hall and staircase. This hall ran through the house and opened upon a garden, decorated by a summer-house, octagon in shape, of two stories, with large glass windows. How many bouquets of red clover- blossoms I have gathered in this garden, to my great delight!

The assembly-room took the whole front of the second story, and was about sixty by thirty feet, with large windows and an orchestra over the entrance. Back of it were two dressing-rooms. There were three chandeliers for wax candles, and branches from the walls also for candles. In the assembly-room the cornices were beautifully carved, and in all the rooms the carving was richly gilded.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Assembly House was the abundance and variety of wood carvings. The facade was decorated in festoons of flowers over the windows, and every imaginable figure proper to external ornamentation was there. Years ago, when the house was sawed in two, preparatory to being moved away, bits of carving and gilding were scattered about the street, to the delight of children. It was clear, sheer Vandalism; and there is nothing so beautiful now."*

A very altered Portsmouth Assembly House lasted nearly 200 years. In 1838 the original building was cut in half and swung apart to create a street between the buildings. The second floor was lowered in height and altered beyond recognition.(Gurney, 46-47)  The buildings were demolished in the early 1970s. 

However, in the Austen Only blog there is a section on the Stamford Assembly rooms, which fits the footprint of the Portsmouth site, so image below will help give a sense of the Assembly House in Portsmouth, NH during the late 18th century into the early 19th century.

Stamford Assembly Room © Austenonly
An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the Town of Stamford, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1977 provides a floor plan of the Stamford hall, and also an approximation of the Portsmouth Assembly performance floor. This floor plan also appear in the Austen blog, but I provide this link to the Monmument's text as a source for other historic architectural researchers.

Stamford Assembly Room Floor Plan

*This account of the old Assembly House was found among the papers of the late Mrs. Ichabod Goodwin, and was written by her in 1870 and appear in:

Portsmouth Book, Boston, Geo. H. Ellis, Printer, 272 Congress Street, 1899. pg 48-49.

Portsmouth Historic and Picturesque, C.S. Gurney pub. 1902, reprinted in 1981 by Strawbery banke Museum, Peter Randall, publisher.

The next part of the essay discusses the dances and clothing.

Jeff Hopper is the Director of the Warner House and researches social history.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Georgian Vignette

Fancy a little Sunday tea with this glam Georgian couple - 1760s style?

Peering into this fabulous vignette makes one feel a trifle voyeuristic, inspecting the sumptuous clothing, the contents of the tea table, the interior architecture and palette. Peeking into the room, we observe how the 'quality' lived.  I will always have a spot in my heart for the period room and the educative value of placing items in context. 

Do pass the marmalade!

This lovely ensemble is brought to you by @MFA Boston

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Rachel Hartwell's Belle Époque Evening Dress

This frothy, feminine 1890s Belle Époque evening dress was worn by Rachel Hartwell (Pfeiffer). According to a family note, included with the dress, it was purchased with money she earned from teaching school. It is in the Hartwell Clark collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). [1]

The bodice is an effusive affair of lace, silk, chiffon, and multi colored beads, while the skirt is simple but with a subtle pink stipe running through the silk (impossible to pick up with my phone camera) and a ruffled hem with pink silk peeping out. 
It was the perfect ensemble for a young, stylish unmarried woman. [2] Rachel married in 1896, and the MHS has her London-made wedding gown in their collection, the subject of a future post.
The evening dress is in need of conservation and is currently being evaluated by an experienced textile conservator.

Rachel Hartwell (1868-1905) was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, USA and attended Wellesley College. She graduated in 1891. While taking classes at Harvard in the summer of 1892, she met her future husband, George Pfeiffer. They were married 28 December 1896 and traveled Europe extensively. She died on 28 January 1905 in childbirth, leaving behind the couple’s only child, Hilda. She was 37 years of age.

Stay tuned for more to come on this, and other garments, from the Hartwell-Clark collection.

Many thanks to MHS Curator, Anne Bentley, and the MHS staff for their ongoing assistance.

1.     The Hartwell-Clark collection is currently unprocessed. For additional information, see:
2.     For more on 1890s fashion, see:

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Snappy Victorian Button Boots by Atelier Louette-Finner

Fun, fresh and contemporary low-heeled button boots, circa late 1870s-1880s, by Belgian shoe and bootmakers, atelier Louette-Finner. The black and white check upper contrast with the black lower, giving the appearance of a spat or overshoe. It is the use of the checked textile clad heel which sets the boots apart, adding a visual flourish and illustrating why the firm excelled in design. The heel softens the more masculine style.  The boots are in the collection of the Bata Shoe Museum and on view in ‘Fashion Victims’ (through January 2017;

The shoe concern exhibited at a number of international expositions, including the 1867 Paris International. Their shoes may be found in other collections, such as the Centraal Museum.  
Again, atelier Louette-Finner adds their own design flare to two pairs of 1870s women’s shoes.

A New Hampshire Man Gives Thanks: Samuel Lane (1718-1806)

A New Hampshire Man Gives Thanks: Samuel Lane (1718-1806)

Deacon Samuel Lane (1718-1806) was a tanner and a cordwainer (or shoemaker); he was 75 when he wrote the following in his daybook. His house, barn and millpond survive in Stratham, NH. 

On Public Thanksgiving Day Morning November 21, 1793, Lane wrote:

As I was Musing on my Bed being awake as Usual before Day-light: recollecting the Many Mercies and good things I enjoy for which I ought to be thankfull this day; some of which I have Noted, viz.....

The life and health of myself and my family, and also of so many of my children, grandchildren and great grand children...

For my Bible, and many other good and useful books, Civil and Religious Priviledges, for the ordinances of the gospel; and for my minister.

For my land, house and barn and other buildings...for my wearing clothes to keep me warm...For my Cattle, Sheep & Swine & other Creatures, for my support.

For my corn, wheat, rye, grass, hay; wool, flax; syder, Apples, Pumpkins... For my clock & watch to measure my passing time by Day and by Night...

For my Lether, Lamp oyl & Candles, Husbandry Utensils, & other tools of every sort.

Excerpt: Brown, Jerald E. The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000. Donna-Belle Garvin, Editor. For purchase, see:,-1718-1806-A

Courtesy, New Hampshire Historical Society

For additional images of almanack pages, Lane's tools, family furniture and additional sources, follow link below: 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Breathtaking Bespoke Boots, c. 1890s

Oh my! I have written about these bodacious boots before (Here), but last week had the opportunity to view them in person as part of the “Fashion Victims” exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, on view through January 2017. (
Note the sculptured heel; soft velvet pile paired with the smooth, gold leather
While they are visually arresting in published photos, seeing them up close was a very different experience. The level of artisanry, the luxury of the materials and the whimsy found in the overall design, is exceptional.
As noted by the Curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, the gold kid leather appliqué and velvet are 'erotically charged' and they resemble a stockinged leg. Even a glimpse beneath a skirt would have been tantalizing. They are most likely of Swedish or German make, from c.1890s.

One wonders if these bespoke boots were ordered by a specific client or were perhaps ‘show off’ piece meant for display at an exposition.  In any event, they are truly stunning. I hope you enjoy the photos I captured during my visit.

All photographs by Kimberly Alexander; courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum