Friday, August 17, 2018

The Celluloid Heels of the 1920s

Celluloid Heels tells the captivating story of the first man-made plastic - celluloid and its use in footwear. In the 1920s, wooden celluloid covered heels, decorated with rhinestones were in all the rage.  Like the artistically designed celluloid heels discussed by Nazim Mustafaev, so too the book is a work of art in its own right.

The author has thoroughly researched the topic and has such a clear concept and in-depth understanding of his subject, that the book is in perfect balance. To remove even one element—the images of the shoe labels or the advertisements for example— would mar it in its entirety. From the informative and engaging text, to the high production values of the photography, to the carefully selected period photographs and ads— the word that strikes me is harmonious. It is harmonious from the front cover to the end pages.
Of tremendous interest is Mustafaev’s recounting of the evolution of man-made plastics, and the attempts to imbue celluloid with characteristics found in nature— for instance, tortoiseshell, mother of pearl and ivory. Attempts to achieve the texture and interplay of light found in nature, emulated in these man-made heels was exceedingly hard to reproduce. When I asked the author why he selected celluloid heels for study, Mustafaev responded: “I love the celluloid heels and I thought this topic was inadequately covered in shoe literature. It took me some time to research the process and I had to go deep into early plastics history.” 

This is not only an ode to the celluloid heel but to the shoe, its technically advanced concept and to the stylish women who wore them. This is a must read and a must have.

To purchase Celluloid Heels, e-mail:

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

An 1879 Wedding Dress Designed by Madame Shepherd of Boston

All images are courtesy of the NSCDA-MA
This striking silk satin wedding dress was designed by a Boston dressmaker, Madame Shepherd. Her studio was located in the Hotel Pelham, a fashionable French flat residence.  Madame Shepherd appears in the Boston City Directories over a number of years, listed under “Dressmakers.” 

Although the wedding dress appears as a two piece ensemble of bodice and skirt, it is in fact constructed in one piece. Worn on November 5th, 1879, the balance between pleated upper bodice, the high neck trimmed with lace, and the floral patterned silk skirt, embellished with beads and faux pearls, is dynamic. The silk, the details, and the quality of the dressmaking are excellent. 

The wedding dress and the accessories shown here are from the NSCDA-MA Costume Collection, Accession Number MA-CC-1953-13A. For more, contact

The author thanks Rebecca Putnam and the members of the costume committee for their assistance.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Wedding Finery and High-Heeled Shoes -- Upcoming Talks

Join me on Friday 27 July for look at three brides in early America-- Martha Custis Washington, Elizabeth Bull Price, and Dorothy Hancock Scott -- and what their choice of finery revealed about their self-fashioning. Held at the Wentworth Lear Historic Houses in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the lecture begins at 6 o’clock. 

For more:

And on Sunday, July 30 from 2:00-4:00, join me for a lighthearted look at the history of the high-heeled shoe at the Newmarket Town Hall. The Newmarket Historical Society annual tea will feature sweet and savory delights, a chance to wear your favorite kicks on our red carpet, and the opportunity to donate new and gently used shoes to Prominence, a program for area teens so they can attend their Proms. Tickets are 10.00 for members and 15.00 for non-members.

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.