Saturday, April 28, 2018

Behind the Victorian Mask, a Federal Dandy

Secretary Desk as found
Not every Victorian is as dowdy as they might seem. Last year, at the Warner House in Portsmouth NH, we began to plan the exhibit for the next 2-year cycle and a larger curatorial re-assessment of the interior. The main exhibit will be Celebrations: Public and Private, but the other project was to recreate a c 1760 bedchamber, based on paint analysis and recorded wall hangings in Portsmouth—a city with a penchant for damask wallpaper in the 18thcentury. There has been no physical work done to this room since roughly 1932 when the house became a museum. 

Researching one aspect of a collection invariably leads to other parts of the collection. A case in point, no pun intended, was a large secretary/bookcase sitting in a Victorian bedchamber. It was a family piece that through descent was given to the museum. No matter where it was placed, it exuded a dark and foreboding presence. The glass doors reflected and absorbed light in large quantities and the base simply absorbed light. With its turned wooden handles it looked like a transitional piece from the 1830s or 40s.  One of the handles was removed to see if there were any clues to surface discoloration or handle replacement. Sure enough, the exposed surface was lighter and there was a ring burn where a brass rosette once sat. All the handles were removed and the results were the same. 
With new and old brasses
Additionally an owner’s name was found in the correct script that placed it closer to the 1810-1820 period; this placed it in the house during the appropriate period for family that once owned it. Furniture fashions change and the piece was improved at some point to reflect the sensibilities of the Victorian era. Through research new brasses were found, ordered and installed. The case was lightly cleaned to remove old wax and dirt, which then revealed some of the lightly figured wood. Oddly a finial from the 1810-1820 period, that fit no other piece of furniture and had no known history, was found in the attic and the shaft fit the hole in the central pier of the upper case. (Serendipity? Perhaps.) The interior of the doors showed that they had been lined with fabric at one time. So new green taffeta silk lining curtains where made to complete the piece. The new and old brasses return reflected light to the base and the pinnacle and act as a counterpoint to the glass doors, just as the green silk provides a complimentary color counterpoint to the reddish mahogany.

With silk lining and brasses in natural light
The secretary/bookcase will now sit in the downstairs parlor with several other pieces of early 19thcentury and be part of the post Lafayette dinner celebration for the 2-year exhibit. 

Jeffrey Hopper is the director of the Warner House (

Friday, April 6, 2018

Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Image, Strawbery Banke; Photograph, Ellen McDermott
Shoes reveal the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of the early Americans who wore them.

In Treasures Afoot, Kimberly S. Alexander introduces readers to the history of the Georgian shoe. Presenting a series of stories that reveal how shoes were made, sold, and worn during the long eighteenth century, Alexander traces the fortunes and misfortunes of wearers as their footwear was altered to accommodate poor health, flagging finances, and changing styles. She explores the lives and letters of clever apprentices, skilled cordwainers, wealthy merchants, and elegant brides, taking readers on a journey from bustling London streets into ship cargo holds, New England shops, and, ultimately, to the homes of eager consumers.

We trek to the rugged Maine frontier in the 1740s, where an aspiring lady promenades in her London-made silk brocade pumps; sail to London in 1765 to listen in as Benjamin Franklin and John Hose caution Parliament on the catastrophic effects of British taxes on the shoe trade; move to Philadelphia in 1775 as John Hancock presides over the Second Continental Congress while still finding time to order shoes and stockings for his fiancée’s trousseau; and travel to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1789 to peer in on Sally Brewster Gerrish as she accompanies President George Washington to a dance wearing her brocaded silk shoes.

Interweaving biography and material culture with full-color photographs, Treasures Afoot raises a number of fresh questions about everyday life in early America: What did eighteenth-century British Americans value? How did they present themselves? And how did these fashionable shoes reveal their hopes and dreams? Examining shoes that have been preserved in local, regional, and national collections, this book demonstrates how footwear captures an important moment in American history while revealing a burgeoning American identity.

Historian Kimberly S. Alexander, a former curator at the MIT Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Strawbery Banke, teaches material culture and museum studies at the University of New Hampshire.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Boston Leather Chair

C. 1735 Boston Chair in Colonial Revival upholstery
It’s 1745, you’ve had some economic success in life—comfortable, not wealthy—and you’re dressed in your best waiting for your guests to arrive, so you take a seat.  Despite the arrival of the cabriole leg in the 1730s and its acceptance into the design hierarchy, in all probability, you would still be using a chair like the one covered in 20th century needlework.  Produced in Boston for the better part of 40 years, shipped throughout the colonies and copied by craftsmen in those same colonies, this chair in its many iterations defined its period. Its shape firmly links the design aesthetic of the Restoration Decades (1660-1714) with that of the long Eighteenth Century (1714-1837). The seat and legs reflect the turning traditions of hundreds of years, while the curved back introduces the modern notion of seated comfort. And with the addition of “elbows” or as we term them “arms,” them a truly modern notion of comfort begins to eclipse the stool and straight back chairs that predominated the 17th and early 18th centuries.
A straight-backed caned chair c.1710
The needlepoint chair is an object in the collection of the Warner House in Portsmouth, NH. For some time it was relegated to storage. Stylistically it was viewed as more Colonial Revival than 18th century—it no longer seemed to fit into the presentation of the house. Several years ago we began to reaccess the presentation of the house and this chair moved from storage into a 19th century bedchamber. It looked vaguely late Victorian in its upholstery and fit into the 19th century bedchamber that displayed several generations of furnishings. Personally, I liked the chair, or at least the structure of it, despite its upholstery. In the accession file from the 1960s it is listed as an 18th century chair, but in the wrong clothing even an authentic piece looks more like a reproduction than an original. One day we examined it from the side and realized it was likely an 18th century Boston chair covered in fabric, not leather.  After a good bit of research and curatorial conversation it was decided to remove and save the needlework, and then replace it with black leather. The wood bears no traces of black paint, so the black leather was probably the correct fitting for such a chair. Black paint is indicative of red leather coverings, but like all historical decoration rules, absolutism is for the court of Versailles and some divergence for the rest of us.
C. 1735 Boston Chair rupholstered with black leather and brass dome nails
Due to its age and condition, the brass nails where place into or next to what appears to be the earliest pattern (new nails were inserted into old holes to determine the potential placement). The back of the chair appears to have had nails placed about every inch, and the seat skirting about every 1.5 inches. Following these old nail holes meant that the placement was not perfect. Due to the nature of leather a hole made is a whole kept, so the double nailed pattern is close, but not mechanical. To visually and physically flatten the seat, excess cotton padding was removed. Both the seat and the back had horsehair stuffing, which was reused, keeping with upholstery practices of the 1730s-40s.

Resting nails in old holes to determine placement. The curving of the back can be seen on the side rails.

The leather is new and the solid brass nail heads gently glisten. The nails are old stock from 25 years ago and having mellowed give the chair a sense of being neither new, nor old, but accustomed to its house. As it appears now, it is a very evocative object—a piece of material culture that visually captures the stylistic backdrop of the 2nd quarter of the 18th century—a bridge between the Restoration and Georgian design cultures—a grasping by the burgeoning middle-class toward a more commodious life. Not to wax lyrical, but every now and then an object personifies an era, such is this chair for me.

Jeff Hopper is the Director of the Warner House and researches social history and material culture. In this instance he used his old skills as a conservator to reupholster the chair closer to its original appearance.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Two Refashioned Silk Dresses

Photograph by Laura Wulf @Massachusetts Historical Society
Exhibit Teaser: Two refashioned silk dresses will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society ( ‘Fashioning the New England Family’ which opens October 2018. The lush, emerald green dress on the left began as Spitalfields silk damask wedding dress, worn by Rebecca Tailer [Byles] for her Boston wedding to Reverend Mather Byles, in 1747. It was altered, clumsily, c.1830s-40s, most likely for a costume or fancy dress event. Her matching shoes are extant and will also be on view.

Photograph by Laura Wulf @Massachusetts Historical Society
Unfortunately, we do not know who made or wore the well-constructed pale green silk dress on the right. It shows the hand of a skilled dressmaker and most likely has a New England connection. Examination by costume historian and mannequin maker, Astrida Schaeffer, revealed the possibility that the original c1830s dress was replete with popular pouf sleeves, which were painstakingly remade for the 1840s.

Photograph by Laura Wulf @Massachusetts Historical Society
Photograph by Laura Wulf @Massachusetts Historical Society
Guest Curator, Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.
MHS Curator, Anne Bentley
Photographer, Laura Wulf

Both dresses are shown on custom mannequins made by Astrida Schaeffer of Schaeffer Arts. (

Monday, December 11, 2017

Young Hannah Haines Diary: "I will never be vaccinated again" 1897-1912

Photo of the young diarist,  Hannah Wiswall Haines Webb  with her mother. Hannah was an only child, and was evidently doted on by parents and family alike.  

A recent donation to the Newmarket, NH Historical Society is the diary of young girl, Hannah Haines Webb (b. 1889), written sporadically in the 1890s through the early 1900s. In it, she worries about illness - measles, mumps, smallpox and whooping cough; the pain and recovery of inoculation, and the  death of her cat. Hannah also makes mention of a 'sleepover' and the several weddings she attended. To her diary, she divulged her savings in a tin box of $3.45 (which was separate from her bank account). Her diary opens around in the late 1890s and the last entry in her short diary was to record a wedding in 1912.
"Romeo was killed by a dog..." Diary entry, c. 1901-1902
"I will never be vaccinated again. I have two ugly scars on my left arm and always
will." March 3 1904, age 15. She was first vaccinated in 1901 at age 12.
This note was tucked away in the back pocket of the diary, with detailed descriptions of how to return it to its owner.
The diary is in the collection of the Newmarket Historical Society. The author thanks John Carmichael and the Board for permission to share the diary.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Holiday Gift Ideas for the Historically Minded

Jeff and I gathered a short list of holiday items for the historically-minded shopper. This year, we are highlighting books by women authors and businesses owned and run by women.  Please note that we are patrons of these vendors and authors and accept no gifts or advertising.

American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking:

An Agreeable Tyrant, by Alden O’Brien, et al for the DAR:

I, Eliza Hamilton, by Susan Holloway Scott

The Turncoat (and other novels of the American Revolution), by Donna Thorland


Dames a la Mode: Dames a la Mode creates reproduction 18th and 19th Century jewelry, specializing in Georgian Collet Necklaces and Paste Jewelry.

Sign of the Gray Horse: Kimberly Walters sells reproduction and historically inspired jewelry for her four rescued and one adopted Colonial Williamsburg horse.

Burnley and Trowbridge: B & T Company specializes in historically accurate fabrics, notions, patterns, research material and related items.  Catering to Historic Sites, Museums, Educational Facilities, Re-enactors, Theater & Screen since 1982. 

Specialty Items

Marie Antoinette Street Wear, custom made contemporary clothing with an 18th century aesthetic.

Chawton House Mittens (pattern download)

HatsPeriod are makers of fine period style hats with a range of ladies millinery modelled from 18th, 19th and early 20th century designs, and for the gentlemen, smoking hats similar to those worn throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Hats from earlier periods can be made to special order.

Fashionable Frolick:

Sign of the Golden Scissors: