Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Georgian Shoe Sojourn: From London Cordwainers & French Shoe Shops to New England Collections

The John Paul Jones House, 
Portsmouth Historical Society 
Portsmouth, NH (USA)
Sandra Rux, Curator

We are (happily) staggered by a wealth of little-known collections with shoes, boots and slippers, which we have been fortunate enough to visit this summer. Many wonderful winter hours of archival research await.  However, with a number of deadlines fast approaching, ample time is elusive. 
Therefore, kind readers, please indulge us as we post images with limited information at this time, knowing that you will learn more as we do and as time permits. This post is the first of several highlighting our summer travels. 
We met Sandra Rux at the 1758 John Paul Jones House 
(43 Middle Street, Portsmouth, NH. USA initially to look at a pair of shoes from the shop of London cordwainers, Chamberlain & Sons, Cheapside; we have now returned on several occasions to view this fine collection of historic footwear.
Chamberlain & Sons, London
Pink silk lachet/buckle shoes, 1775-1785
Lovely examples of shoes by the Chamberlains may be found in the
collection of Historic New England.
Interior label
Chamberlain & Sons, London
Note contrasting silks, emphasizing the thin, narrow "peg" heel which
contrasts with the decades earlier, thicker Louis heel.
Label for French cordwainer from Bordeaux
Cream silk shoe, c. 1784
Note metallic "spangles" ornamenting the toe. 
Excellent example of "exotic" kid slippers with Alhambra-esque
printed pattern, c. 1780-90s. This is a quality slipper with
a high level of finish detail. Note the very low leather heel.
Detail of above
Pink kid slipper, printed with stylized, geometric floral motif, c. 1780-1790s.
These slippers were widely popular: an very similar pair is in the Snowshill Collection (

Please note, all images are courtesy of the Portsmouth Historical Society. The artifacts in this post are not currently on view- contact the Curator at the above links for access.

Look for more "Shoe Sojourns" around New England......

Thursday, July 18, 2013

From Salem to Macao: The Letters of Rebecca Kinsman in China, 1843-1847

Rebecca Chase Kinsman, c. 1840s
Charles Osgood
Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum

In Our Own Words: New England Diaries, 1600 to the Present, Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, (Boston: Boston University, 2009): 102-113        
How plainly I can see those dear County Street parlors as thee describes them, and oh!  How inexpressible are my longings to look in upon them and their dear inmates . . . the ties that bind us to home, are very strong and not easily severed.

— Rebecca to “My best beloved Friend,” Macao, Thursday, 7 March 1844 

In July 1843, Rebecca Chase Kinsman (1810–1882) departed her home port of Salem, Massachusetts for Macao and Canton, China, with her husband, Nathaniel Kinsman (1798–1847), and two of their three children, Nattie and Ecca.  Nathaniel was taking up a position in Canton with the trading house of Wetmore and Company, and the couple had made the decision—unusual in antebellum America—to travel together to what was then an exotic and strange world.  Indeed, the diaries and letters shared between the couple offer a rare glimpse into an early American household that challenges conventional interpretations.
The pillared verandah where the Kinsmans spent many hours during their time in China
Courtesy, Martyn Gregory
The written record for the Kinsman family is particularly strong.  Not only have a decade of letters between husband and wife and their respective families survived, but also household receipts, diaries, and Nathaniel’s ship logs are among the rich collection housed at the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, the Schlesinger Library, the Smith College Library and in private hands. However, in order to place the family’s personal and professional lives in a larger antebellum New England context, this article will focus on Rebecca’s diary entries, in contrast to her letters, providing a special opportunity to investigate the issue of the domestic lives of early American women travelers and expatriates.

Rebecca used her diary in a number of ways and was clearly cognizant that her travel to China marked an important episode in her life: indeed, after her return to the United States, it is exceedingly difficult to unearth any subsequent information about her.  She used her diary to record her experiences in Macao, Canton and Manila, and on her voyages to and from China; as a day book tracking household expenses; as a place to record her detailed observations and her daily frustrations with not only the management of a household staff whose language she did not understand, but also a medium to vent the longing for her “dear absent hubby;” a place where she recorded what she was currently reading, what letters and packages have been received (or not) from home and her thoughts on the local denizens: dress, habits and so on, as well as her reactions to sermons and visits, social events, and walks.  When compared to her letters home (detailed and chatty, but also reflecting homesickness and concern over the current divisive nature of Quaker meeting, local politics, and health of absent friends) or her letters to Nathaniel (she was more open in these regarding daily struggles and concerns for his health and well-being of their children), her diary operates in a middle arena.  It is sporadic commentary which “spikes” for important events and trails off when life is “routine” in Macao or Canton.

Chinese dignitary & attendants
From c. 1840s view
Collection of author
The letters and diaries shared between Rebecca and Nathaniel offer a rare glimpse into an early American household that challenges conventional interpretations.  They reveal Nathaniel as a sensitive, romantic figure, who was ill at ease in the public sphere of business and who sought solace in the private sphere of family, while Rebecca, on the other hand, was the stronger partner, supervising a household of Chinese servants, arranging travel, and even organizing a reception for visiting Plenipotentiary Caleb Cushing in 1844 for the signing of the first trade treaty between China and America.

This article is part of a larger study of the Kinsman family in China, situated within two strains of recent historiography—family history and travel narratives.  A number of studies have examined marriage in the new nation, most recently Anya Jabour’s Marriage in the Early Republic: Elizabeth and William Wirt and the Companionate Ideal (1998) and Timothy Kenslea’s The Sedgwicks in Love: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in the Early Republic (2005).  Over the last decade historians have focused on travel narratives of both men and women.  However, this exploration into the lives of the Kinsmans provides an unparalleled opportunity to marry both themes—investigating travel narratives and domestic life simultaneously and placing them within the context of an antebellum New England family and their experiences abroad.

Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.
History Department
University of New Hampshire

Friday, July 12, 2013

Shoes for All Seasons: A Selected Bibliography

Several colleagues have requested a specific bibliography on shoes. Below is my own, subjective, selection of favorites.

The Art of the Shoe, Marie-Joseph Bossan

The Fifty Shoes That Changed the World, Design Museum

Shoes and Slippers from Snowshill, Althea Mackenzie
^ This slim volume is an extremely well-written and well-sourced with some rare images from the National Trust Collection at Snowshill.

Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps...., Linda O'Keefe

Shoes: The Complete Source Book, John Peacock
^ Useful cornucopia of styles & types

Women's Shoes in America, 1795-1930, Nancy Rexford
^ A gem, must have!

Step Forward, Step Back, Paula Richter [exhibit catalog; hard to find]

M. De Garsault's 1767 Art of the Shoemaker. An Annotated Translation by D.A. Saguto
^ This is my go-to book on shoes and a constant inspiration from a true master.

Shoes, June Swan
^ A thorough book by a leading light in the field. Would love to see an updated version with more color plates! 

The Seductive Shoe, Jonathan Walford 

^ Walford's title lives up to the imagery and text found between the covers.

Although not specifically about shoes, Colonial Williamsburg's What Clothes Reveal by Linda Baumgarten, is an especially useful source book.

There are of course numerous books on specific designers. One of my current favorites focuses on Beth Levine (1914 - 2006) who was considered by many to be the first successful female shoe designer in an era and field dominated by men. 

It is always advisable to check museum catalogs over time - the Bata Shoe Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Northampton Shoe Museum, the Victoria & Albert and so on. 

This bibliography does not enter into primary resources, although they are posted periodically and randomly on this blog.
Vintage Shoes is on my to read list this summer.

Enjoy some serious shoe scholarship and some serious foot candy!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My kilt arrived...but I think I left my sporran at the Athenaeum.

As the cold air of the North Atlantic finally broke through the hot July air mass sitting over coastal New Hampshire my new kilt arrived from the North Carolina kilt-maker, Matthew Newsome,

Kiltmaker's label on waist lining
In a trade route nearly 400 years old, funds went to Scotland for cloth (D.C. Dalgliesh of Selkirk,, which was then shipped to the Carolinas for tailoring and then finally a completed garment was sent to New England.  A double dose of history, kilt and trade, delivered on a summer’s day.

 After many years of thinking about getting a kilt the day of reckoning had arrived. I opened the package and pulled out the kilt.  I am going to wax lyrical about this for a short while because it’s just one of those moments in life when touch, smell and fit lift you from the everyday world.
The cloth is exceptional with a weight and drape that met every expectation, and reminded me of why I prefer pure wool to blends. The hem is a selvage and the sunlight caught the nuanced reflection, visible to the owner, but not the world, a subtle reminder of tailoring to the cloth.  Trying on the kilt for the first time was a moment of sartorial bliss. It looks grrreat, sits rrright, as it should be -- but isn’t always.
Kilt with flashes
For the first time since receiving it as a generous birthday present from my wife, I was able to use the sporran from McRostie’s,  (We both rode horses for years and for a moment, the smell of this sporran made from bridle leather combined with the wool kilt reminded me of crisp autumn canters and cold winter gallops, a memory, not bad poetry.)  I wore my new kilt to the Athenaeum (Portsmouth, NH. USA) to show a friend and enjoyed a day of unexpected encounters.

While descending the parking garage staircase, a woman saw me and reminisced about how years earlier she and a girl friend saw a very handsome man in a kilt at a gathering of the clans who turned out to be a minister, which in their youthful innocence surprised them.   Later I stepped into a local Celtic shop to ask if they had a kilt hanger and I got into a conversation with a local police officer, who spoke from experience, about the merits of a good hanger for such an important purchase and the need to keep the pleats in good shape; just two of several conversations that I had during my travels today sparked by the kilt.

The Kilt
To end it all, today was a very humid day and I needed to consult with a colleague on a project, so I used the Athenaeum lavatory to change from the kilt and jacket into summer clothing   We had our meeting, parted and I stopped at the house to drop the kilt kit. When I opened the garment bag on the bed to lay everything out, then put it all away, there was no sporran.  While having one of those a mind-panic conversations that you have with yourself, as you attempt to justify to the nonexistent passenger in the car why there is no longer a sporran in the house, I slowly drove through the summer-time crowds who were crossing every street in town with willful abandon.  The city parking garage placed the “garage is full” sign in the entrance just as I was ready to use it. Then as I turned down the one-way street that I knew would hold the one parking space unknown to most people, a car was coming toward me in the wrong direction. I stopped and shook my head no, as I could not back into the tourist thronged sidewalks without hitting someone and in the summer, the town awards no points for hitting potential money spenders. The other car maneuvered off the street and I saw, then took the parking spot. Once in the Athenaeum I ran to the third floor to check the tables where we had been working, nothing was there, and then I remembered the lavatory, and at that moment so did 4 other people. As I stood talking to another member regretting not skipping the line, a man came out of the lavatory and asked the woman ahead of him if she had left her pocketbook, which in all fairness to him with it’s thin leather strap, the sporran could be mistaken for a small shoulder bag--but it’s not.
The Sporran
I spoke up and said, “No, that’s my sporran.”
With a look of incredulity, he said, “Your what?”
I said, “My sporran.”
Again he said, “Your what?”
Once more unto the breach,  “It’s my sporran.”  And with that I started to put it over my head and arms letting it fall over my madras shorts, and he said, “Oh, the pocketbook that you wear in front of the kilt.”
“Yep, that’s it.”
I had it back and could breathe again, when from across the room came the question, “Which tartan were you wearing this morning?”
“Ancient Campbell,” and to myself, “I’m beginning to feel that way.”

I have never had so much traction from a suit of clothing.  I kind of like this.

July 18.  Matthew Newsome, the kiltmaker, just sent along some photos he took of the kilt with the pleats finished and the basting stiches applied.
Ready to go--the pleats are secured with basting stitches
 Each pleat needed to be held in place so that it arrived looking as it should.  Now that's detail to attention.  Thanks Matt
A Cascade of Knife-Edge Pleats

Jeff Hopper is an author, editor and men's wear blogger for SilkDamask. You may catch a glimpse of him in his new "every day wear" walking in downtown Portsmouth!

His earlier post "A Kilt: The Tale of a Plunge" appeared on this blog on December 5, 2012.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

“Tying the Knot” A Single Shade of Gray, Lucy Breed Hacker’s Wedding Suit, 1870

On April 14, 1870, William Briggs Kelley, a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, married Lucy Breed Hacker[1], both of Lynn, Massachusetts. They were married on a Thursday of a typical New England, balmy spring day. The bride wore this three-piece, gray silk taffeta wedding suit, with a gathered train. It boasted the high style silhouette of the 1870s, with the fullness of the skirt that was typically found during this decade. 
The short-waisted jacket has, what was once, white lace and satin ribbon decorating the wrists and collar. Tatting covered buttons run down the front. Upon close inspection, barely noticeable pinhole marks at the neckline above the buttons offer a clue that a brooch, possibly a cameo, was the chosen piece of jewelry for that day.

 The notable third piece to this ensemble is the elegant, detachable silk taffeta bow with satin ribbons that cascade down the back of the skirt highlighting its fullness. (Above) This wedding suit was an unconditional gift to the Lynn Museum & Historical Society in 1981 along with a pair of white kid, heeled wedding slippers, a piece of white netting (possibly for a veil) and artificial flowers all used to decorate the wedding suit to be worn on the wedding day of Miss Hacker and Mr. Kelley.
            This suit is typical of middle-class “best” gowns worn in the 1870s. The young bride had a 13 ½  inch waist and wore a common shade of gray typical for wedding attire of this time because it was a useful color to re-use as Sunday best. Whether the overall pale color of the fabric or the petite frame of the dress, one can sense the youthful, innocence of the bride. The suit is delicate and classically elegant, an ideal that lends itself to the uneasy, nervousness of youth heading into a lifelong commitment of marriage.
            This wedding suit is currently on view in the Lynn Museum’s wedding dress exhibit “Tying the Knot” through September 28, 2013.

Guest blogger Abby Battis, is Assistant Director and Curator, Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA (USA)

All images, courtesy Abby Battis

For information on this dress and more, visit:
“Tying the Knot” June 19, 2013-September 28, 2013

Drawn exclusively from the Lynn Museum’s extensive Textile Collection, “Tying the Knot” highlights wedding dresses worn by Lynn brides over the span of 100 years. This exhibit also includes church and wedding photographs from the Museum collection with a special addition of photographs that have been submitted by the Lynn community.

[1] “Memoirs,” Register of the Lynn Historical Society, Vol. 26.1, 1934.