Friday, August 30, 2013

A Cordwainer, a Wedding Shoe & a Gaspee Patriot

I recently happened across a labeled silk damask shoe in the past offerings of Augusta Auctions. The shoe & its label piqued my interest. The physical details are well documented at 1

Intrigued by the rich mocha hues, I could see past the wear and abraded surfaces to imagine the shoes with their original silk sheen and a pair of glittery shoes buckles. But it was a Pre-Revolutionary, Providence, Rhode Island label, identifying the maker, which truly captured my interest. I have spent considerable time corralling shoe labels from the UK and the Colonies for current research on shoes as trade commodities.

Naturally, this small label served as an advertisement or calling card for “John Gonsolve” and his business, located near the Mill-Bridge. Gonsolve clearly had success in his trade as a shoemaker, as one of his advertising notices from 1785 attests: he is seeking “Any Gentlemen of the Craft, duly qualified…and wanting a Seat in my shop…may have constant Employ, and good Wages.”

Gravitating to the inked in date of "1767" posed a number of questions: Was it added by the shoemaker or the wearer of the shoe and her descendants? Were the shoes preserved by the family because they were a tangible artifact of their ancestors lives or because they were treasured heirlooms representing stories lost to the historic record?  Given the impeccable provenance, knowing that the original owner of this pair of damask shoes was Phebe Wardell Smith (1748 – 1840), I dug a bit deeper.

As it turns out, she was married in December 1767 to James Smith of Bristol, Rhode Island (c. 1745-1826), indicating these were probably her wedding shoes. Details about her husband's life are hard to come by, with one significant exception: the recent discovery of his connection to the burning of the British cutter Gaspee in Providence in 1772. One of Smith’s compatriots, Ezra Ormsbee, notes in his pension application:

"In June 1772 when the English Revenue Cutter Gaspee was burnt in Providence River, I was one that went from this town and helped do it. Capt John Greenwood, James Smith, Abner Luther, Abel Easterbrooks, Nathaniel Easterbrooks, Hezekiah Kinnicut and myself went together in a whale boat and we helped burn her. I mention this merely as a revolutionary incident and not as connected with my pension claim. All the above named persons who were with me in burning the Gaspee have a long time now decd." 2

The Burning of the Gaspee by Charles deWolf Brownell, c1892
 Courtesy of RI Historical Society
Married for about five years at the time of the destruction of the Gaspee, one can only speculate about what Phebe, as the wife of very active participant in the Revolution, experienced. Certainly, her now well-worn shoes walked many miles, perhaps pacing with concern for his safety, during those tumultuous times. Indeed, Phebe and her young children removed to Dighton, Massachusetts for the duration if the conflict. The couple had six children.

One additional document provides information about James Smith’s role in the Revolution – Phebe’s pension request. Interesting reading, it is quoted in full from the Gaspee Virtual Archives below.3

Phebe died on September 23, 1840 at 92 years old, handing her shoes down to Fanny Smith.

1. Listing from Augusta Auctions:
Sage green & beige damask, white kid leather Italian style heel & rand, linen lining, leather sole & insole, square paper label stamped "SHOES, Made and Sold by JOHN CONSOLVE, In PROVIDENCE" and inked on label "1767", L 9.25", Wd 3", Heel Ht 1.75", (silk torn around back bottom edge of each shoe, slight wear at toe point, silk binding tape missing on top edges & latchets) fair. Provenance Phebe Wardwell Smith, from MA., mother of Fanny Smith (b. 1789), grandmother of John Jay Jenks (b. 1847).

2. Genealogical researcher, Pam R. Thompson wrote to the Gaspee Days Committee ( in 2005 that she had discovered a curious entry in the Revolutionary War Pension File, #S21404, for Ezra Ormsbee, born 30 March 1751 in Warren, RI, son of Ebenezer Ormsbee (sometimes spelled Ormsby) and Hannah Cole (Benjamin3, Hugh2, James1)  Ezra applied for his pension in Warren, RI, on 24 August 1833. It is here that the role of Smith is recognized.

3. Sections in bold added by author.
The Gaspee Virtual Archives note that Phebe, as James' widow, applied for pension (W12985) based on the Act of 1836 for his Revolutionary War service.

“Unfortunately, the copy available on HeritageQuest through NEGHS is hard to read--much of this is guesswork. The pension appears to have been applied for on 3Oct1836 from Bristol, RI, which was granted of $30 per year, and notes he served as a Private in the Captain Jeremiah Ingraham's Company of Bristol Militia from the commencement of hostilities until January 1776.  In January 1776 he enlisted into Captain Loring Peak's Company, serving three months while the company was stationed at Bristol. In 1777 her husband enlisted into Captain Caleb Carr's Company of Colonel Archibald __(?Throop)__'s Regiment one year while in Bristol, and at which time she and her children were inhabitants of Bristol during the Alarms, from which she moved to Dighton, MA and remained for the remainder of the war.  She did recall that her husband served out the war, and that he had been attached to Colonel Ormsby's Regiment [A connection to the Gaspee ]. She also recalled her husband was involved with British General Sullivan's capture from Portsmouth, RI.  She stated that she married James Smith in Bristol in December 1767, and that her husband James Smith died on 30June1826, and that she had since remained a widow. Documentary evidence accompanying the application includes a certification of the marriage between Phebe Wardwell and James Smith, and relates that James was the son of Samuel Smith of Bristol, and Phebe was the daughter of John Wardwell of Bristol.  There is also a statement from James Smith, Jr  corroborating the facts as his mother claims. There is no mention made in the pension paperwork about the Gaspee attack.”

All images of Phebe Wardell Smith's shoes are courtesy of You can find Augusta Auctions on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Fencing Fashion: A Case Heard at the Old Bailey, 1742

For those who have spent time trolling the records of London’s Old Bailey gaol ( you know that this online service is a major and impressive endeavor for all manner of scholars and researchers. One can easily get lost, "wandering" around at the Old Bailey for hours on end. Indeed, I am currently looking at thefts from cordwainers for my research. 

Woe to those convicted, we learn!  In addition to fines, London’s criminal element faced the likelihood of branding and transportation to distant colonies.

Given my interest in historic textiles in general and shoes in particular, this theft from London shopkeeper Ann Lenson’s establishment caught my attention.  Clearly, petty theft and larceny were the bane of a storekeeper’s or artisan’s existence.

The theft occurred 25 November 1742, and the criminal case was heard at the Old Bailey on 8 December 1742.  There were several perpetrators involved who gained access by pushing open a window.  In addition to the two men who actually stole the items, Patience Forrester “fenced” some of the stolen goods. Among other items, she testified that she sold a velvet manteel to Duke William's footman. (Many household and livered servants would acquire their finery second hand in shops or at the Rag Fair.)  When the proprietor, Ann Lenson, was asked the value of the goods, she noted that they were about 40s and that they were all "second hand things."

Stolen from Lenson’s shop were:

2 velvet mantels [mantels]
15 pair of women's kid gloves
1 pair of white damask shoes with gold lace [metallic thread lace or braid]
1 pair flowered silk shoes
7 yards of black silk
1 rowler for a child's head [also known as a “pudding cap]
1 brocaded shoe [only one not a pair]
Several yards of lace [metallic thread braid]
1 snuff box

One of the suspects admitted, along with the silk, "three pieces of brigade" [sic - brocade] & that the pudding was "done with gold."

As these were second-hand goods, the shoes stolen were probably completed at bit earlier, say 1740.

The white damask shoe with gold lace was probably was similar to these:

While the flowered silk shoes or the brocaded shoe may have looked something like this:

Note the distinctive weighty- some might say "sensible"- covered Louis heel and pointy toe popular during the 1730s-1740s. (All shoes pictured here at courtesy of 

The child’s “rowler” or pudding had gold thread and may have looked something like this.
Pudding & cap
Courtesy, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Child's stuffed leather pudding cap, c.1775.
The several yards of what was then called lace, may have resembled this sample:
Courtesy, Collection of www.Duchesstrading.blogspot
18th century metallic lace

It was quite dear.

All three culprits were found guilty and sentenced to transportation to the colonies.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reflections on PUNK: Chaos to Couture & Alexander McQueen's "Trash Dress"

“PUNK: Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 14th
Photo by Abby Battis
Guest blogger: 
Abby Battis, Assistant Director/Curator
Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA (USA)

When you think of the word “punk” in relation to fashion, images of torn slogan tees, "anarchy" piercings, ripped fishnets, and Doc Martens are a few of the icons symbolic of this 1970s subculture of the Punk fashion, rooted in a musical movement, was an exploratory concept that evolved into a deconstructed fashion norm that was thoughtfully chaotic and haphazard but aggressive and forward thinking. Influenced by musical artists from Britain and the United States, the punk movement had a far reaching mark on the world of fashion and changed the way we think about fashion as seen in the annual Costume Institute exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

With this exhibition, the Met promises to “focus on the relationship between the punk concepts of "do-it-yourself” fashion and the couture concept of "made-to-measure”. Throughout the galleries that are filled with a punk music soundtrack including the New York Dolls, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, are garments heavily torn, ornamented with spikes, chains and safety pin flourishes. And there are the fashion designer icons on view spinning their versions of the punk ideal from Chanel and Burberry to Givenchy and Prada.

The one piece that stands out from all the rest in this exhibition is an Alexander McQueen Fall/Winter 2009-2010 trash dress. The dress looks fabricated of black 32-gallon trash bags and is complemented by a dark gray bubble wrap, floor length overcoat. At first glance it is instantly identified to be eco-friendly of extraordinarily designed recycled materials but with closer inspection the fabric is identified to be silk and synthetic fibers and not recyclable materials at all.
Courtesy, New York Times

On view in the DIY: Bricolage gallery the “trash dress” sits among other garments of trash and recyclables but  is out of place in its intricate construction and glorious structure. The fabric of the mermaid style dress tightly wraps the body, mysteriously twisting folds that follow the curves of the body but then surprisingly flares into a full kick skirt. The patent-leather like black shine of the fabric plays well with the sleekness of the fitted bodice and gives cause to sigh in overwhelming awe of its elegance. The overcoat is equally stunning yet the functionality and warmth of the garment is questionable; however it works perfectly to complete the look. This piece alone makes a puzzling statement on the punk fashion movement that there is a closer connection of punk to couture than first expected and that movement continues to influence and evolve the fashion of today.

For more information on this dress and more, visit:
“PUNK: Chaos to Couture”
May 9, 2013-August 14, 2013
The Met's spring 2013 Costume Institute exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, will examine punk's impact on high fashion from the movement's birth in the early 1970s through its continuing influence today. Featuring approximately one hundred designs for men and women, the exhibition will include original punk garments and recent, directional fashion to illustrate how haute couture and ready-to-wear borrow punk's visual symbols.
Focusing on the relationship between the punk concept of "do-it-yourself" and the couture concept of "made-to-measure," the seven galleries will be organized around the materials, techniques, and embellishments associated with the anti-establishment style. Themes will include New York and London, which will tell punk's origin story as a tale of two cities, followed by Clothes for Heroes and four manifestations of the D.I.Y. aesthetic—Hardware, Bricolage, Graffiti and Agitprop, and Destroy.
Presented as an immersive multimedia, multisensory experience, the clothes will be animated with period music videos and soundscaping audio techniques.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Boston's Cordwainers Greet President Washington, 1789

When President George Washington arrived in Boston on Saturday, October 24, 1789 for a stay of several days, an elated populous planned a grand procession that would include prominent dignitaries and, of particular interest, representatives of the various trades. 1
As part of the preparation for the event, the artisans and tradesmen fabricated banners to be carried in the procession. This is not surprising as a significant number of tradespeople had participated in the Boston Tea Party, many of them as young apprentices or journeymen. The banners were all the same dimensions and represented the insignia or coat of arms of their trade. Two examples survive in the collection of The Bostonian Society ( the Mastmakers and the Cordwainers.

The participation of the Cordwainers, one of the trades that proudly displayed its banner before the President, is particularly interesting. Modeled on its centuries old counterpart, the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers one of Londons esteemed livery companies. It was formed in 1272 and a Royal Charter was granted in 1439 during the reign of King Henry VI. 
The ancient guild system never took hold in the Colonies for a variety of political and economic reasons. The Cordwainers probably came closest as they were the only artisans to be granted a complete charter. Still, the ability to set prices and support those in need via traditional charities was denied them by local authority. The Cordwainers in the British Colonies were permitted to have some jurisdiction over quality control and craftsmanship, and the apprenticeship and indentures remained strong.

The banner paraded by the city's proud shoe and bookmakers represented these ancient traditions.  The background is silk with the ornament painted on freehand. While the figures are somewhat awkward, they nonetheless exude a certain charm. And one must remember that the banners were placed upon poles, above the throngs so would have been viewed at a distance. The primary attributes of the Cordwainers coats of arms are present, including the three goats heads (white goat leather from Spain) the blue and gold field and flanking knights in armour.

Cordwainer and leather worker, Matthew Loring had the honor of carrying the banner. Born in 1751, he participated in the Boston Tea Party at age 21. He became a respected member of the leatherworkers trade, conducting business on Devonshire and Brattle Street. He spent time in the lucrative role of leather sealer, a peer appointed position.  By the time of the Presidents visit, he was a family man in his late 30s, with a young daughter, Sarah. Loring married three times and had nine children, most of whom lived to adulthood. He had means enough to send his daughter Hannah (1800-1842) to Miss Perkin's Academy in Boston when she was 12 to learn silk embroidery. The survival of Hannahs family genealogical register at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metropolitanmuseum.orgadds another rich material culture artifact to what little we currently know of the family.
Her register painstakingly records not only the names of Lorings wives, but when they married, who they were married by and the children from each. As of this writing, there are no shoes identified as being made by his hands. Matthew Loring died November 7th, 1829 at the age of 70 and is buried in the Granary Burying Ground, Tomb 75.

Although the cordwainer Loring did not leave a diary of the event as did his older colleague, George Robert Twleves Hewes (1724-1840), the banner and his daughter’s needlework, throw a sliver of light onto the place of shoemaking in early American society.  Some historians have conventionally situated shoemaking at the bottom rungs of economic endeavor. Yet, the banner used in the October 25 procession and his daughters embroidery convey a different structure. 

Each banner had a small number in the corner, denoting the artisans place in the procession—cordwainers were 12th and the mastmakers, 24th. That these examples of what were most likely intended to be short-lived pieces of ephemera have been preserved is a credit to the families and to The Bostonian Society for maintaining them over the last century.

Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D.
University of New Hampshire
Durham, USA


1. There are numerous excellent accounts available on line which discuss President’s Washington’s visit to Boston the procession, John Hancock’s “power play” and so on. See;;


1. Cordwainers Arms Washington Procession Banner
The Bostonian Society Catalog Number: 1910.0033

2. Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, Coat of Arms
Motto “Leather and Art”

3. Hannah Loring, Family Register sampler, 1812