Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Tableaux of Life Unfolds Before My Mask

An 18th century English fan mask

Hmm, the mask and all its uses remind me that the number of costumed festivals has dwindled to Halloween and the pre-Lenten festivities.  Even by the eighteenth-century the sets and costumes that Inigo Jones created for the masques of Charles I were gone, although that being said, one of the last great masques occurred in the middle Georgian period and left us with the song Rule Britannia.  The mask certainly remains in use to the present day, but it would seem that the 18th century used it most effectively for both the masquerade and evening festivities at the pleasure gardens of Europe.  If life is a theatrical experience, then anonymity has its uses. 

Carlo Scalzi, circa 1735 By Charles-Joseph Flipart (1721-1797)

It has been remarked that during the Georgian period members of society understood the theatrical nature of their lives. Certainly in an age delineated by patronage all members of society needed to understand their role and how it must be acted. Today we all network to enhance our positions, but at some level we believe that our talents will carry the day, at least some of us believe this.  However, in a world controlled by patronage the rules are more sharply defined, or at least the consequences of one’s actions are more sharply defined.  You may well ask, “What does this have to do with fashion?” It has to do with expectations.  We need to reflect that what is odd to us was not as odd to the Georgians, particularly if we view some of the fashions not only as trends but as costume, meant to create a an impression regardless of the opinion.  An actor, whether professional or amateur, uses costumes to establish or disregard convention.  The image at the top of the blog is that of the 18th century castrato Carlo Scalzi, and while it is over-the-top as everyday wear, it is in fact merely an extension of prevailing fashions of the 1730s with flared coat skirts.  The mask on the table while flamboyant would hardly have been out of place at a masked event at Vauxhall or Versailles.  

Vauxhall Gardens, London by Canaletto 1751
As Halloween approaches a new book on fêtes, Magnificent Entertainments, Temporary Architecture for Georgian Festivals, by Melanie Doderer-Winkler, is due in the stores and perhaps I shall see a copy under the tree at Christmas.  

Jeffrey Hopper is an editor, author and museum professional who blogs about men's wear and related topics. You can reach him at this site.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Silk Roads: Mapping Federal Boston at Mrs. Rowson's Young Ladies Academy

Lydia Withington, Boston Harbour, 1799
The Bostonian Society
It was one of those chance moments when circumstances bring us unexpected delights. I had recently completed an article centered on a young woman of the early Republic, Myra Montgomery of Haverhill, New Hampshire, who had studied at Susanna Rowson’s Young Ladies Academy in Boston. (1) (For more: Myra was in Boston to complete her silk embroidery. (As of this writing, I still hope to locate the piece that she crafted, as well as those of her two older sisters, Mary and Ann, but that is a story for another time.)
I had an opportunity to attend a very special antique show and no doubt you can imagine the thrill when, turning a corner I was facing an embroidery of Boston Harbor, c. 1800.  I immediately recognized it as a product Mrs. Rowson's Academy.  It then dawned on me that I had also seen a closely related work at the Bostonian Society: Lydia Withington’s silk map of Boston Harbor, completed in 1799 when she was 15 years. (2) The piece that now perched before me was Sally Dodge’s embroidered map, completed at the Female Academy the following year. (3) (It was sold at auction at Skinner, Inc. in August 2013 and is now available again from Boston Rare Maps.)
Courtesy, Boston Rare Maps
Both pieces are striking and feature silk thread embroidery, which is worked on silk as well. They are quite delicate, and you can see patches in both maps of shredded, split silk and losses to the support. Exposure to light has not been kind. It is not surprising that objects of this composition are quite ephemeral. The attempt at geographical accuracy was strong.

That they come from the same source is clear. They share the conventional Federal motif of a majestic eagle and the vantage point is identical, as are the spellings of towns and bodies of water (“Boston Harbour”). What may not be as evident at first glance is the distinctive shift in the subject matter selected and what were deemed “acceptable” topics for a young lady’s education in the early republic. Mrs. Rowson,  well-known as the author of Charlotte Temple had also published two books on geography—An Abridgement of Universal Geography (1805) and Youth's first Step in Geography (1811)--and clearly imparted her knowledge to her pupils. And, it appears, the parents (who were footing steep costs for tuition, extra lessons and supplies) found the shift from inward-oriented religious and family samplers to those which looked out upon a larger world were quite comfortable with this shift in ideas about a proper education for young women. It was, historically, a significant moment in post-Revolutionary America.

I do not believe that the two works have been shown together, and, so, I invite you compare, contrast and cogitate on these beautiful (but extremely fragile) maps and what they may represent regarding changing ideals of women’s education.

Contacts and Sources:

1. Kimberly S. Alexander, “Myra Montgomery’s World: Haverhill, Boston and Beyond” Historical New Hampshire, volume 67; Nos. 1& 2, Fall-Winter 2013.

2. Lydia Withington:

3. Sally Dodge:
Link to Skinner Sale of Sally Dodge Boston Map, 1800
Contact Information for Boston Rare Maps
Michael L. Buehler

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Victorian Architect Goes "Rogue": E. Bassett Keeling's Architectural Drawings at MIT

During the course of my dissertation research on William Robert Ware (1832-1915), founder of the first architectural program in the United States at MIT, I happened across a number of drawings by 19th century British architects. 1 They were gifts to Ware from his colleagues and as such, were included in his Study Collection.
One of the architects who captured my attention was Enoch Bassett Keeling (1837-1886).  Keeling, this “rogue” architect (so coined by H. S. Goodhart-Rendel), had a controversial approach to design. His drawings are surprisingly free and fluid, especially when compared to the work of other English architects represented in the MIT Collection. Keeling often chose to loosely color some portion of the drawing to give the viewer a sense of what it would be like, rather than rendering it in painstaking detail. He was known for completing his projects on time and on budget, making him popular with clients. However, his use of bold, bright, and often strident, shrieking polychromy, won Keeling both praise and criticism. Further, Keeling explored the application of cast iron in his church interiors, a fact certain to create disdain among the followers of John Ruskin and his Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Keeling’s inclusion in Ware's Study Collection attests to his desire to survey the full range of English architectural practice.
Upon his return, Ware's letters of thanks to Keeling, Waterhouse, David Bryce, and Alexander Thomson for their gifts and hospitality reveal the strong impact his stay in Britain had on him. In his private practice with Henry van Brunt, the influence of Keeling is most apparent in their 1st Church, Boston. (More on this project in a future post.) In the first decade of architectural instruction at MIT, Gothic and Classical precedents were given equal treatment in design problems, with the Gothic eventually being superseded by the Classical via the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
St George's Church, London W8, designed by Enoch Bassett Keeling, showing the use of polychromatic brickwork.
Photograph © Peter Jordan 
1. Alexander-Shilland, Kimberly. “Ware & Van Brunt: Architectural Practice and Professionalization, 1863-1881” Boston University Ph.D. Dissertation, 1999.

This information is updated from previous work by the author, courtesy The MIT Museum. ( Architectural drawings are courtesy the Architectural Collection, MIT Museum.

2. For Enoch Bassett Keeling genealogy, see

Is it the shoe, the stocking or the skirt?

Each one of these vignettes from the Kyoto Costume Institute ( the ability to transform our vision of passive historic objects (albeit beautiful) into an opportunity for an imagined tete a tete, a secretive promenade, a grand entrance or a flirtatious encounter.
1. These red Moroccan leather shoes to have tremendous contemporary appeal. Not only would the high quality of the supple leather have conformed to the wearer's foot, the elegance of the higher-than-usual, slender Louis heel, would achieve the profile many women seek - then and now. Even the contrast of red shoe and white stocking is familiar to us. Most likely French, c. 1770s-1780s, they are from the ©The Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Toru Kogure.
2. Delicate stockings of white cotton knit with silk embroidery on floral-pattern print from instep to ankle, contrast nicely with jewel toned shoes. Stockings and shoes, 1830s. Place of fabrication unknown. ©The Kyoto Costume Institute
3. Lovely and elegant to behold! Grape, burgundy & purple shoe and stocking combination, 1870-90.  ©The Kyoto Costume Institute

4. Detail, from a fully accessorized Georgian ensemble of silk with plaid, ribbons, lace. And delicious shoes.....©The Kyoto Costume Institute 

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Quaker in China & Her 1845 Bonnet: "I long to show thee my very pretty bonnet"

Silk moire bonnet, c. 1840
Courtesy, FIDM

It was July 5th, 1843 and Rebecca Chase Kinsman (1810-1882) departed her home port of Salem, Massachusetts for Macao and Canton, China. Joining her on the ship Probus (with Captain John Sumner at the helm), was 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 atypical decision 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 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 private hands. 

Rebecca frequently provided detailed descriptions of her travels throughout Macao, who she met, where she walked, how she organized her new domestic responsibilities. Seen through her Western lens, she was clearly cognizant that her time in China marked an important episode in her life.  Her letters and journal entries are significant in that we have few accounts by women travelers and expatriates to Macao during the 19th century (or any time for that matter).  
Rebecca Chase Kinsman by
Charle Osgood, c. 1842
Courtesy Peabody Esses Museum
Rebecca is a devout Quaker. However, her family back home in Salem frequently register concern over the “luxuries” she is surrounded by in Macao as compared to her modest Salem home and her dearly loved Pine Street Meeting House. That Rebecca, her niece Mary Anne and young daughter, Ecca, have access to the latest in fashion, even in China, is quite clear. For example, one of Rebecca’s letters reveal that 16 year old Mary Anne receives Heath's Book of Beauty for 1845 as a gift from William Moore. [3d mo. 20th 1845, in “The Daily Life of Mrs. Nathaniel Kinsman in Macao, China,” Essex Institute Historical Collections, LXXXVI (1950), 120.]

1840s Quaker bonnet
Courtesy, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Rebecca writes to her sister regarding the “arrival of three beautiful bonnets from Philadelphia…mine trimmed with a white riband, as neat and pretty as possible -- Some shoes for all three of us, which fit perfectly and are very nice.”

It is interesting to note that in her letters to her family, she is fairly straightforward and without flourish. However, when Rebecca writes about her new bonnet a short time later, this time to her much beloved Nathaniel, we catch a rare glimpse of her. It is almost as though she was a giddy schoolgirl, with a crush, when she says to her husband of ten years: "I long to show thee my very pretty bonnet. I am sure thee will like it -- tho' it has more trimming on it than I usually wear." [Mid-June (?) 1845, EIHC, 137]

So the question that comes to mind, given that Rebecca notes her new bonnet "has more trimming on it than I usually wear" is did her bonnet look more like the one pictured from the FIDM Museum Library or the more traditional Quaker bonnet shape from the Metropolitan Museum?

For further information on Rebecca Chase Kinsman in China, see author’s previous work:

Kimberly Alexander, “‘Demure Quakeress’: Rebecca Kinsman in China, 1843–1847.”  Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, 2006/2007.  (Boston: Boston University, 2009): 102-113.

For information on Quaker bonnets and clothing, see:

Friday, October 11, 2013

"Such sleeves I never beheld -- complete frights!" Harriett Low and Fashion, 1830s China

Harriett Low, 1833
by George Chinnery
Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum

“Such sleeves I never beheld – complete frights” opined the youthfully outspoken 20-year old Harriett Low (1809-1877). It was not a particularly unique statement from a young woman who was a keen observer of the fashions from antebellum America. What makes Low’s discomfort particularly interesting was the context in which she evaluated the costuming she confronted.  Raised in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1830 she was a resident of Macao, China, and her words remarking upon "the latest Calcutta fashions” recently brought to her in Macao, China were carried in a letter, written 18 August 1830 to her sister, back home in Salem.

A self-proclaimed “travelling spinster,” the unwed twenty-one year Harriett Low had traveled to China to serve as a companion to her frail aunt Abigail and her merchant uncle William Henry Low.1 Prior to her departure, Harriet Low’s life centered on her large family, her Unitarian Church and her schoolgirl friends.  Staunch New England Unitarians, the family’s emphasis on reading, particularly religious tracts, harkened back to Puritan ancestors who made communal literacy and personal engagement with the Word centerpieces of their simple practices.  Although engaged Protestants and global travelers, their gaze remained rather parochial and intolerant of they foreign influences about them. These New England expatriates bridled at everything, from the boisterous cacophonies of Chinese holidays to the intemperance of European fashion to their perception of the superstitious and ignorant qualities of the Roman Catholic rites they found in the Portuguese outposts, such as Macao, which they considered their temporary home.  2

While men focused on cultivating strong business associations through honest business transactions, genteel and polite public interaction and hard work aboard ship and in the Canton factories, the very social environment of Macao, inhabited primarily by women and families, was quite different.  Daily visits, dinners, teas, balls, concerts and operas entertained the residents of Macao. So too did the routine of walks and riding characterize their days.

Clothing was an important connection to her American home and Harriett repeatedly notes her active dressmaking and millinery projects while in China, with more than an occasional nod to Yankee thrift. On Monday 28 March 1831 (210), she notes:

"Pulled out old dresses to day and find the great sleeves worn last summer will have to be cut out. Oh dear what a job. What slaves to fashion women are."
This white cotton American dress (1830-35) with white cotton lace trim & exaggerated (gigot) sleeves is similar to those she describes for the heat of China. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. #2006.29.2
Her primary responsibility for her large family back in Salem was as seamstress; she continues to connect with her family during her time in China via her hand work: “Evening mended silk stockings, delightful employment” [Saturday 5 December 1829]; “At home cutting a white dress, so you see we have employment all the time” [Thursday December 10, 1829]; “Commenced making a bonnet [Weds. 16 December 1829]. She also notes remaking gloves and having to rip out the stitches, updating bonnets and making clothing for others. These entries ensured that her family knew she was engaged in worthwhile, productive activities, although, in fact, as the reader will discover, she was enjoying a much busier social life then she had known previously at home in Salem.
Full underdress from the 1830s with its "pouffe" sleeves.
She takes pride in the straightforward and “neat” dressing of the American women when she confides:

"Wore a white muslin trimmed with yellow satin over white satin. Though the plainest dress in the room, it was as handsome as I wished.  [Monday 9 November 1829]
George Chinnery, 1840, self portrait
Courtesy, National Portrait Gallery
However, when Harriett sits for English painter George Chinnery (1774-1852), in 1833, her New England simplicity exits stage right! Harriett’s personality is captured in this Grand Manner-style portrait, which depicts her in an elegant and lavishly textured, high style 1830s gown and accessories. Her billowing sleeves (no doubt similar to the ones brought from Calcutta) almost overshadow her hands and the precious book they hold. Harriett comments that “when he placed the book in my hand,” her portrait, and by extension, her image of self, was complete, referring to the virtue of literacy and learning in the young republic.

Sleeve detail, Harriett Low, 1833
by George Chinnery
Courtesy, Peabody Essex Museum

An interesting and complex character, much has been, and will continue to be, written on Harriett Low.
1830s dress
Victoria and Albert Museum
Textiles and Costumes

This excerpt is from a paper presented by the author at the American Historical Association annual conference held in Boston, January, 2011.

1. For Harriett’s Letters, see Lights and Shadows of a Macao Life. The Journal of Harriett Low, Travelling Spinster. Eds., Nan P. Hodges & Arthur Hummell.

2. See forthcoming True Yankees: Americans, the South Seas, and the Discovery of National Identity, Dane Morrison (John Hopkins University Press, 2014).

Further reading:

^ Teaching the Old China Trade: A “Glocal” Approach in Early American Travelogues”