Sunday, July 17, 2016

Abigail Adams and Her Dimity Pocket, late 18th Century

I look forward to beginning my tenure as the Andrew Oliver Research Fellow for 2016-2017 at the Massachusetts Historical Society ( in August.  Recently, while on site mapping out my research strategy with the curator, Anne Bentley, I was fortunate to take a bit of a detour and view an accessory associated with Abigail Adams (1744-1818), the second First Lady of the United States. [1
The MHS has a pieced dimity pocket, which belonged to her in the late 18th century. The pocket is 14 inches long and comprised of eight pieces of dimity. 
According to family tradition, she may have used the pocket into the early 19th. The maker is unknown. Cotton tapes serve as ties. It is its very simplicity and functionality which renders the piece so striking. There is no excess, nothing which is not needed for its intended use. [2]

According to Eighteen Maxims of Neatness and Order, written by Theresa Tidy in 1819, the essentials for a pocket include:
It is also expedient to carry about you a purse, a thimble, a pincushion, a pencil, a knife and a pair of scissors, which will not only be an inexpressible source of comfort and independence, by removing the necessity of borrowing, but will secure the privilege of not lending these indispensable articles. [3]

My project “Reading Textiles as Text: An Examination of Pre-1750s Survivals at MHS” will set the experiences of fashion, consumerism and consumption within a cosmopolitan Atlantic world that carried the elegant fancies of fashionable London to the gentility of provincial British America. The garments and textiles housed at the MHS offer insights into the ongoing debate over the process of Anglicization in pre-Revolutionary America. I will share information as the research unfolds.

1.    For the Adams papers, see:

2.    For additional information on the pocket, see:

3.    For information on pockets, see:

My thanks to Curator, Anne Bentley, for her ongoing assistance with MHS textiles. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Parachute Wedding Dress and World War II Era Brides

Photo, courtesy, Newmarket Historical Society
Sandra Tarbox ( and I recently co-curated a local history exhibition “I Do, I Do: Seacoast Brides Say Yes!” in Newmarket, New Hampshire. When we searched our collections and sent out a regional request for 1940s wedding gowns, we were not surprised that we had little response. Many of our parents and grandparents married just as their beloved was sent to the European theatre of war.Weddings were frequently small, hasty gatherings. And many brides shared their wedding garb with other brides, passing skirts, jackets or entire dresses along until little was left.

One of the most intriguing examples of surviving World War II wedding dresses are those made from either silk or nylon parachutes. There are surviving examples scattered in museum collections across the country. Locally, the Old Berwick Historical Society (  has in its collection the wedding dress of Ruby Weston Trafton of South Berwick, which was made by Betty Trafton, the bride’s sister of a silk parachute.

Below are two stories about dresses made from parachutes, which include happily-ever-after endings. The photos and text are courtesy of the National World War II Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.

Wedding of Myrtille Delassus and Berlin, NH. Sgt. Joseph Bilodeau, 1945

Myrtille Delassus was seventeen when the Germans invaded her hometown of Merville, France. She spent four long years waiting in ration lines, cold and perpetually hungry. She could hear the Allied invasion of Normandy and, like many others, welcomed British and American soldiers when they arrived in Merville.

 GIs were generous with their surplus supplies, and one soldier, Sgt. Joseph Bilodeau of Berlin, New Hampshire, often gave items to Madame Cocque, the owner of a dress shop across the street from where he was stationed. One evening, Madame Cocque invited Sgt. Bilodeau to dinner to thank him. Since it would appear inappropriate for her to dine alone with him, she invited Myrtille, who worked in her shop. Myrtille and Joseph enjoyed each other’s company and started dating. They were married six months later on October 15, 1945, at the church in Merville.

Myrtille’s wedding dress was made from a silk parachute by the women in Madame Coque’s dress shop. It features a classic silhouette with a double ruched bodice and medium length train. For more:

Parachute Wedding Dress, 1947

This wedding dress was made from a nylon parachute that saved Maj. Claude Hensinger during World War II.
In August 1944, Hensinger, a B-29 pilot, and his crew were returning from a bombing raid over Yowata, Japan, when their engine caught fire. The crew was forced to bail out. Suffering from only minor injuries, Hensinger used the parachute as a pillow and blanket as he waited to be rescued. He kept the parachute that had saved his life. He later proposed to his girlfriend Ruth in 1947, offering her the material for a gown.

Ruth wanted to create a dress similar to one in the movie Gone with the Wind. She hired a local seamstress, Hilda Buck, to make the bodice and veil. Ruth made the skirt herself; she pulled up the strings on the parachute so that the dress would be shorter in the front and have a train in the back. The couple married July 19, 1947. The dress was also worn by the their daughter and by their son’s bride before being gifted to the Smithsonian. For more:

Another powerful story, which comes together through the parachute “The Wedding Dress That Made History: A Glimmer of Joy in the Displaced Persons Camp” By Helen Schwimmer

 A recent University of Cinncinati MA thesis by Carolyn Wagner entitled “Material Memories: The Parachute Wedding Gowns of American Brides, 1945-1949," is available via PDF:!etd.send_file?accession=ucin1428065407&disposition=inline

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Silk Brocade Shoes “For Exportation”

These dainty silk brocade shoes were made by London boot and shoemaker, Charles Chapman and exported to British America. While we do not know who owned them –the provenance has been lost—they were most likely worn in New England. 
The brocaded silk is visually appealing with pinks, pale green and raspberry tones on an ivory ground, and most likely dates to a decade or so before the actual shoe was made. Note that there was some piecing (the straps for the buckles are not matched for example) of the shoes. The style of the shoe, with its diminutive heel and placement, indicates a date range in the 1780s. They are in fine condition.
Fortunately, the survival of a label affixed to the footbed of the shoe reveals that the maker was located at 80 Cornhill in London and his business made shoes for retail shoppers as well as for export. Alas, other details regarding these shoes are lost to us at present.
The shoes are in the collection of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, in Boston and all photos are courtesy of the NSCDA. The author appreciates the generous assistance of Nancy Lamb, Chair of the Costume Committee, and Becky Putnam, for the invitation to speak at the Society’s Beacon Street headquarters on these, and many other shoes in the collection, February 2016.