Fashion Passion Redux: Making Reproduction 1850s Undersleeves

Reproduction Undersleeves

Reproduction undersleeves based on ca. 1855 designs

Wearing a new dress is fun—and accessories are part of the excitement. Who doesn’t want to create the perfect look? That hasn’t changed over time, and it is as true for historical interpreters as it is for trendy fashionistas. Besides, accessories can make all the difference in getting historic costuming just right.

Lady in Green Dress

Young Woman in Green Dress, ca. 1857. Ambrotype with applied color. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program

In the 1850s, stylish new dresses often had “pagoda sleeves.” These shortened sleeves had wide, flared bottom openings and were almost always worn with undersleeves (also known as “engageantes”) to modestly cover bare arms, protect from the sun, and add a bit of embellishment. The undersleeves were usually paired with a matching collar or a chemisette, a sleeveless underbodice worn to fill in the area above the neckline of the dress. Undersleeves have been worn during various periods of fashion history. But what did they look like in the 1850s? This is the question I asked myself after making a reproduction dress with pagoda sleeves. The undersleeves would be my next sewing project.

Mr. and Mrs. Daniel T. MacFarlan

Theodore E. Pine (1827–1905). Mr. and Mrs. Daniel T. MacFarlan, 1858. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Louis D. Gregg, 1950. In this portrait on long-term loan to Bartow-Pell, Mrs. MacFarlan wears pagoda sleeves and lace undersleeves with a matching collar. Her husband engaged in various lines of business, and, in the mid-1850s, he was an auctioneer. In May 1855, he presided over a sale of large quantities of textiles that included “undersleeves, collars, bands, chemisettes, in sets,” according to the New York Herald.

I started my research with the collections database of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, where I found many examples of undersleeves from the right period. Next, I turned to fashion plates and articles from women’s magazines published in the 1850s, such as Godey’s, Peterson’s, and Graham’s. I also took a look at some paintings from the period, including the 1858 portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel T. MacFarlan by Theodore Pine (1827–1905), which is on long-term loan to Bartow-Pell from the Met. Finally, my research took me to photography and the numerous ambrotypes and daguerreotypes from this period, such as the splendid images in Joan Severa’s indispensable books My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America and Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans & Fashion, 1840–1900, which also include the author’s superb scholarly text.

Undersleeve styles in the 1850s were variations on a couple of general designs. One mimicked the bottom line of the pagoda sleeve and was open and flared at the wrist. These styles often used gathers sewn into an embroidered or lace insertion to create a deep, flounced edge. Another design gathered the undersleeve’s fullness (or “puff”) into a cuff at the wrist. Some engageante styles even featured two or more puffs. “There is no absolute fashion for sleeves,” Godey’s declared in August 1855. “Nearly every one follows her own fancy, though puffs, or wide frills from the elbow are considered the style. Undersleeves are also puffed, the fall of lace or embroidery that finishes them about the wrist coming from a loose band of insertion, à la duchess [sic], below the puffs.” Engageantes at this time were typically held in place by elasticized bands above the elbow. In May 1851, for example, Godey’s advised its readers that “a small gum-elastic bracelet . . . will be found the neatest support for a demi-sleeve.” According to Joan Severa, undersleeves were sometimes tacked down with a needle and thread.

Godey's July1855

Godey’s Lady’s Book, July 1855

Women had a choice of fabrics and trims. Period sources describe undersleeves made of lightweight or sheer textiles such as fine muslin, batiste, cambric, grenadine, tulle, and netting. Valenciennes, Alençon, and Venetian (guipure) lace were used both for the body of the sleeves and as trim. Engageantes were typically white, but black was worn for mourning, and Peterson’s Magazine advised in December 1850 that for winter warmth, they could match the fabric of the dress. Aunt Ruth, a character in “Cousin Clarissa,” an 1853 short story, had “no time to spare for her dress. . . . She just looks sidewise at white spencers and under-sleeves and collars, and puts them from her. She can never be seeing to them, starching them and making them white. So she puts on under-handkerchief and under-sleeves of black silk lace.” In May 1851, on the other hand, Godey’s stated: “In-doors, no undersleeves are needed for summer, particularly for young ladies, but for a street costume, there is every variety of undersleeves.”

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Undersleeves, American, ca. 1855. Cotton. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Mrs. Bergen Glover, 1961

In addition to various types of lace, whitework embroidery—including broderie anglaise (also known as eyelet lace)—was extremely popular on flounces, borders, and insertions. And Vandyke points, so-called because they resemble the V-shaped scalloped collar edges found in 17th-century portraits by Anthony Van Dyke, were commonly used in embroidered and lace borders in the 1850s. Ribbons and velvet were sometimes used as trim.

Embroidery patterns Graham's June 1856

“Neat and easy worked patterns for embroidery.” Graham’s Magazine, June 1856

Undersleeves were often made at home from patterns published in Godey’s and other women’s magazines. In 1857, a short story in Peterson’s Magazine describes a young lady who spent so many hours “embroidering undersleeves, etc.,” while her fiancé bent “over his study-table” that the couple grew apart. Undersleeves were also offered for sale in shops, along with collars and chemisettes. The New York Herald reported in November 1853 that “American ladies appear to value a dress only in proportion to its cost,” and the most expensive undersleeves and collars could cost up to $30. No wonder women often made them at home. Now it was my turn.

Peterson's May 1857

The ladies in this fashion plate wear pagoda sleeves with white undersleeves. Peterson’s Magazine, May 1857

Detail

Detail of reproduction undersleeve

I decided to make my undersleeves out of muslin with an insertion of whitework embroidery and a deep whitework flounce. I scoured eBay for just the right vintage or antique embroidered textile fragments. After I had those in hand, I bought the right shade of white muslin to match, which I would use for the top part of the undersleeves. My modern muslin was not as fine as many of the semi-sheer period versions, but it was more practical (and would be covered by the dress sleeve, anyway). Meanwhile, I bought a pattern from a company that specializes in historic clothing. But I needed to adapt the pattern’s simple design since it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, so I started by sewing a plain muslin mock-up. After that, I was ready to assemble all the pieces and make the finished product. Thanks to the Vandyke points on the whitework flounce, I did not need to stitch a hem. The last thing I had to do was make a casing at the top and thread in some elastic. My undersleeves were finally ready. I still need to make a matching chemisette, but in the meantime, I have an eBay find that will do. I’m almost ready for the runway or maybe even a spread in Godey’s.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Sleeping Beauty: A Romantic Ruin Awakes

Early 1900s

The dilapidated Bartow mansion in the early 20th century

In 1914, the beautiful old Bartow mansion was falling apart. Overgrown ivy crept up the walls and over the windows of the derelict old stone building. Broken glass panes allowed rain, snow, wind, dirt, insects, and small animals to enter the stately high-ceilinged rooms. Dense vegetation ran wild over unkempt and neglected grounds.

A host of grand 19th-century country houses once stood in what is today Pelham Bay Park. Why is the Bartow mansion the only one that remains? This is the story of how a historic gem was rescued by a group of horticultural enthusiasts, preservationists, Social Register grandees, and public officials during the years before the First World War and beyond.

The Bartow family and other estate owners sold their properties to New York City for parkland in 1888, and many of the buildings in the new Pelham Bay Park were subsequently rented to tenants. Around 1894, the socially prominent Turnbull siblings leased the Bartow mansion from the city for $40 a month and hired a retinue of servants to run the place. But the buildings in the park were hard to maintain. When a special legislative committee questioned Bronx Parks Commissioner August Moebus in the late 1890s, he testified: “There is not a house there [in Pelham Bay Park] that is in good condition. . . . it is only a blessing to find somebody that will occupy them to save the expense to the city from putting [in] a caretaker.” The fateful shadow of demolition loomed: “Q. If these are old ramshackle buildings that you would not live in if they were a gift, and each of them occupy several acres of ground of the park, why do you not tear them down and give the people the ground? A. That is just what I intend to do, and I am about to do it now.” However, the commissioner quickly regained his composure and corrected himself, adding that the houses were “too good” to be left unoccupied and at risk of being “burned down” if left unattended. Besides, he had not heard any complaints from people who had been “prevented from going into any portion of the park.” Hmm. Was Commissioner Moebus really a sympathetic preservationist?

Bartow Home for Crippled Children

Overgrown ivy covers windows in this undated postcard.

The Turnbulls gave up their lease by the summer of 1904, and, on June 1 of that year, the Parks Department gave permission to the Manhattan-based Day Home for Crippled Children to use the Bartow mansion and grounds as a summer campus for about 40 students with disabilities. The recently established institution—located at Madison and 133rd Street—served “children who are physically unfit to attend the public schools.”

During the summer the children are all taken to Bartow and spend their vacation in a spacious old house, surrounded by fields, on the Sound. Desks are discarded and lessons given out of doors for two hours each day. Nature study and light manual work take the place of the regular school routine, the boys doing weaving, basketry, and chair caning, while the girls embroider. The good food, medical care, and happy outdoor life work a rapid improvement in the health of these frail children. “A School for Crippled Children,” New York Times, March 1, 1908

Bartow Home for Crippled Children, 1904, probably July 4

The Day Home for Crippled Children used the old Bartow mansion for its summer program from 1904 to 1914.

It was an age of burgeoning social responsibility. Philanthropic Manhattanites joined in the zeitgeist and organized fundraisers for the Bartow program. In addition, the mansion hosted several blind children from the International Sunshine Society during the summer of 1904. Other former estates in Pelham Bay Park also welcomed underprivileged children. The Hunter mansion, for example, was the summer home of the Little Mothers’ Aid Association, which provided excursions for tenement girls who labored long hours in the family home as “housekeeper, nurse, and family drudge” while their mothers earned meager livings in low-paying jobs (Social Service, July 1903). In 1912, the “Bartow Summer Home for Crippled Children” was still renting the “old Turnbull mansion” from the city, but an SOS appeared in the New York Times: “Funds are urgently solicited, in view of repairs to the home and providing instructors for vacational work for the beneficiaries, who are of all races, colors and religions.” Time was running out for the old house. Would it survive?

Herbaceous Garden frontispiece and title page

Frontispiece and title page from The Herbaceous Garden (1913) by Alice Martineau. The well-known horticulturist and garden writer William Robinson wrote the introduction.

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Sydney Percy Kendrick (British, 1874–1955). Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman, ca. 1930. Oil on canvas. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Aymar Johnson, 1978.02

The Bartow mansion was skating on thin ice, but an upper-crust English garden writer and friend of the British royal family was about to change everything. Her name was Alice (Mrs. Philip) Martineau, and, in September 1913, she set sail for America to work on a gardening commission, promote her recent book The Herbaceous Garden, and give a series of drawing-room lectures to fashionable society. Most importantly for Bartow-Pell, Mrs. Martineau’s ideas—which she shared with the well-connected Yankees she encountered during her trip to the States—prompted the formation of the International Garden Club (IGC), led by the socialite and anglophile Zelia (Mrs. Charles Frederick) Hoffman, who was president of the Newport Garden Club and likely attended one of Martineau’s talks on gardening. The two ladies probably mingled socially as well. The following spring, in 1914, the new club, which was modeled on the Royal Horticultural Society, announced that it would lease the old Bartow estate in Pelham Bay Park to establish a garden “that would be for the joy and the instruction of all the people of New York,” according to a May 1914 article in the New York Tribune.” Martineau supported this mission, declaring that: “Gardening is something everybody can have a taste of. It isn’t only for the exclusive few.” The IGC chose the Bartow property because it was “the most historical of all these properties in Westchester. It still has the old Pell graves and the remains of the Oak under which according to tradition John [sic] Pell purchased this part of New York from the Indians.” (Journal of the International Garden Club, August 1917)

Despite the IGC’s democratic view, gardening had become a trendy pastime for wealthy women, and garden clubs were proliferating in “summer colonies such as Southampton, Stockbridge, Lenox and Newport,” according to the Tribune article.

With May in the air, women are turning from the tango to gardening. Women who own gardens are absent from the city directing their gardeners, and the more energetic are themselves digging and planting, clad in knickerbockers and rough jackets, or in smocked frocks. . . . The unusual interest in gardening this year among wealthy women of New York is due to the enthusiasm of the members of the new International Garden Club. Their optimism is irresistible.

Photo from 1915 bylaws

The governor of New York, Charles S. Whitman, was among the dignitaries who attended the opening day of the International Garden Club on May 1, 1915. The ceremonies included a replanting of the historic Treaty Oak.

Although gardening clubs were often women’s organizations, both men and women originally belonged to the new IGC, including a number of bold-face names. Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, was honorary president, and members included Mr. and Mrs. Vincent Astor, Henry F. Dupont, Mrs. Henry Clay Frick, Mr. and Mrs. Archer M. Huntington, Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the Duchess of Newcastle. In its lease agreement with the city, the club agreed to restore and maintain the house and grounds, establish experimental gardens, offer monthly lectures and exhibits, form a library, establish a certificate program for gardeners, provide free instruction to teachers for public-school gardens, and assist other horticultural societies and garden clubs. Members could rent rooms, dine, and attend special receptions. The board soon hired the white-shoe architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich to oversee the restoration of the house and to design a walled sunken garden. In the new age of the automobile, the beautifully renovated property even became “a mecca of motorists,” the New York Sun reported in May 1915.

IGC Journal Aug 1917

The International Garden Club published an ambitious horticultural journal from 1917 to 1919. The first volume included photographs of the newly refurbished mansion and gardens.

In 1918, the bellicose new Bronx Parks Commissioner Joseph Hennessy tried to oust the IGC from the park, claiming that the club was “an exclusive institution on thirty acres of public park property” and that its role as an “educational institution” was “only a pretense,” but the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of the IGC. After World War II, period rooms were installed and the mansion opened its doors as a historic house museum.

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Today, the Bartow-Pell Conservancy continues to preserve the house and gardens and provide dynamic educational and public programs. This sleeping beauty is wide awake!

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Theodoret and Sarah: A Bartow Love Story

It was an ill-fated Gilded Age romance. Theodoret, the handsome youngest son of Robert and Maria Bartow, fell in love with Sarah Elliott Marshall, a blond Southern beauty from Natchez, and married her in 1886. Although this privileged couple seemed to have it all—including a lovely young daughter—their story has a tragic ending.

Maria Lorillard Bartow was 45 when she gave birth to her ninth and last child, Theodoret, at the Bartows’ elegant country estate on a spring day in April 1846. When Theodoret was 19, he followed in the footsteps of two of his elder brothers and enrolled at Columbia College (class of 1869). He studied at the School of Mines and joined the Delta Phi fraternity but apparently never graduated. In 1870, at age 26, he was living at home with no profession. Ten years later, in 1880, Theodoret and his brother Reginald Heber, both bachelors, were still living at the Bartow mansion following the death of their mother three months earlier. The census listed the brothers’ occupation as “gentleman.”

However, things were about to change for Theodoret. In 1882 and 1883, New York City directories listed him as a “broker” at 7 Pine Street in the financial district. Theodoret Bartow was now in his late 30s. It is unknown why he started to earn a living after so many years as a gentleman of leisure. His widowed mother’s assets had been transferred to a trust shortly before she died. Was there a cash flow problem after her death? Or was Theodoret simply ready to embrace a modern professional lifestyle and experience the excitement of Wall Street? At this time, he lived part-time in New York City. Newspaper gossip columnists give us a peek at his movements. The New Rochelle Pioneer divulges that in October 1882, “Mr. T. Bartow for some time past sojourning at the LeRoy Place, has taken up his winter quarters in New York City.” Another big change was on the way. In June 1884, the New York State Legislature authorized the “taking of lands” to create Pelham Bay Park, and landowners would be forced to sell their properties to New York City, which the Bartows did in 1888.

Hawkswood LOC HABS

Hawkswood (Marshall house). Photograph by Arnold Moses, October 12, 1936. Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

One of the neighboring estates was Hawkswood, a grand property with an imposing Greek Revival mansion that overlooked Long Island Sound and City Island. For many years, it was owned by Levin R. Marshall, a very rich Southern plantation owner and businessman from Natchez, Mississippi, whose granddaughter would become Theodoret’s bride. After Marshall’s death in 1870, his widow, Sarah Elliott (or Elliot) Marshall, inherited Hawkswood, which, like the Bartow estate, would be sold for parkland in the late 1880s.

Sarah Marshall’s step-granddaughter and namesake from Natchez married Theodoret Bartow in 1886. In fact, we know that Theodoret and his soon-to-be brother-in-law William H. Jackson were already “well-acquainted with Levin Marshall, late of the town of Pelham,” according to Marshall’s will, for which the younger men served as witnesses in 1870. One assumes that Bartow met and wooed his bride-to-be when she was staying with her relatives up north. (Similarly, Levin Marshall’s son William St. John Elliott Marshall married another neighbor, Elizabeth Stuyvesant Fish Morris of Oakshade, but that’s a separate story.)

32362r Lansdowne 1938 LoC

Lansdowne, Sarah Elliott Marshall’s childhood home in Natchez, Mississippi. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1938. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Reproduction Number LC-J7-1234

Sarah Marshall, the daughter of George M. Marshall and Charlotte Hunt, was born at Lansdowne, her parents’ plantation in Natchez, on July 6, 1856. Her father had  graduated from Princeton and fought in the Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh. Ironically, Sarah’s grandfather Levin Marshall (who, as a wealthy planter, owned hundreds of slaves at his Southern properties), “was a neutralist [who] moved permanently to New York [during the war],” a Marshall descendent wrote in a 1996 letter in Bartow-Pell’s archives. And indeed, federal records state that Marshall was deemed loyal to the Union, and his estate received compensation for “stores and supplies” taken from his plantations and used by the Army of the United States. “As a child, Sarah was educated at home by a governess and sent to school in New Orleans when she was older,” according to the letter in Bartow-Pell’s files. It would have been natural for her to visit relatives in New York since “people traveled from Natchez to New Orleans to New York frequently.”

On April 24, 1886, the New Rochelle Pioneer reported: “Mr. Theo. Bartow has left for the South where on the 28th inst, he will be married to a Miss Marshal [sic], of Mississippi.” Did he take a train, a steamboat, or a combination? That very year, an article in the New York Times subtitled “Boat and Rail from New-York to New-Orleans” argued that a mixture of both was best for leisurely travel: “But the trip must be taken in the right way, and the right way is not to go direct through by rail. Neither is an all-water journey down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers altogether pleasant. A combination of the two is a happy medium.” Although it is tempting to adopt the romantic notion of Theodoret traveling down the Mississippi by steamboat to meet his bride, the railroad—which was fast and efficient—would have been more suitable for an impatient groom.

American Etiquette 1889

Wedding scene, American Etiquette, 1889

The happy couple married at Lansdowne on April 28, 1886, according to the New York Evening Post. Theodoret had turned 40 a couple of weeks before the wedding; Sarah was almost 30. The ceremony would have taken place in the plantation’s parlor, which Lansdowne’s website describes today as “almost unchanged since the house was built.” The officiant was the Right Reverend Hugh Miller Thompson, who was soon afterward named the Episcopal Bishop of Mississippi. American Etiquette (1889) helps us imagine the scene: “Weddings at home vary little from those at church. The music, the assembling of friends, the entree of the bridal party to the position selected, are the same. An altar of flowers and place of kneeling can easily be arranged at home.” Following the fashion of the day, Sarah perhaps wore a gown of “white silk, high corsage, a long veil of white tulle, reaching to the feet, and a wreath of maiden blush roses with orange blossoms.” The groom would either wear full morning dress with white gloves or full evening dress, depending on the time of day.

Theodoret house Merrick

Home of Theodoret and Sarah Bartow, later known as the Bonnie Hame-Skyfield house, Merrick, Long Island. Merrick Historical Photographs, Merrick Library

Theodoret and Sarah likely lived at the Bartow mansion when they were first married. But in 1888, the year in which the property was sold to New York City and Theodoret received his portion of the proceeds, he bought about four acres of land in Merrick on Long Island, a pretty property that also included a stream. The following year, he built a large three-story house and stable (later known as the Bonnie Hame-Skyfield house, which was demolished in 1960). The couple settled into their new community, and, in 1890, Theodoret joined the vestry of the recently organized Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, where a Lorillard cousin and close friend of the family, Hermann H. Cammann, was warden. To top it all off, the couple must have been elated upon the birth of their daughter, Theodora Carlotta Lorillard Bartow, on December 13, 1890.

Theodora Carlotta L. Bartow

Theodora Carlotta Lorillard Bartow

Sadly, these blissful times would soon end. When baby Theodora was only 8 months old, Theodoret died at age 45 on August 18, 1891, in Richfield Springs, New York, a well-known spa town with mineral springs and a number of hotels. The burial records of the Episcopal Diocese of New York list his cause of death as “Bright’s Disease,” which is an old-fashioned term for a variety of kidney diseases. Treatment in the 19th century included spas, bloodletting, and unusual diets, none of which had any proven benefit. His sister Henrietta died from “Bright’s Disease” in 1901.

Ads for Richfield Springs 1882

Advertisements for spa hotels in Richfield Springs, New York, in Outing, September 1882

More heartbreak was on the horizon, for about a year later, on September 21, 1892, Sarah followed her husband to the grave. The 36-year-old widow and mother died of cancer (“carcinoma”) in New Rochelle, perhaps at the home of her sister-in-law Henrietta Bartow Jackson. The unhappy event is described in a letter at Bartow-Pell: “Both of her parents were with her and in a letter home [to Natchez] her mother wrote that ‘it was the saddest death I have ever been called upon to witness.’”

Sarah and Theodoret’s toddler daughter was now an orphan, and William H. Jackson, who was married to Theodora’s aunt Henrietta Bartow, was named as guardian in Sarah’s will. The Jacksons lived on Pelham Road and had no children of their own. Theodora was a pretty child, and documents show that she was well taken care of by her aunt and uncle. Dancing lessons, medical bills, and items from Lord & Taylor are some of the expenses noted in the guardianship accounting records. As heir to her mother’s estate, Theodora would inherit diamond jewelry, real estate, and financial investments when she turned 21.

Theodora C. L. Bartow

Theodora Carlotta Lorillard Bartow (1890–1899)

In 1899, tragedy struck again when 8-year-old Theodora died on May 30 of a ruptured appendix. The estate she was too young to inherit then passed to her aunts, uncles, and their heirs. She was buried with her parents in the Bartow plot at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church near today’s Westchester Square in the Bronx.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Spills: Let There Be Light

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What in the world are spills?

A British dictionary published in 1855 defined a spill as “A strip of paper rolled up to light a lamp or cigar.” The word loosely derives from “spile,” a small wooden peg. Although “spills” had been around for a long time, the term was not in use until the 19th century, when it first appeared in British dictionaries. Americans seem to have picked it up a little later, and in 1877 Webster’s defined a spill as: “A small roll of paper or slip of wood for lighting lamps, and the like.” For many years, people simply used expressions such as “pieces of paper,” a “paper match,” a paper “candle-lighter,” or a “neatly twisted paper cigar-lighter.” Wax tapers were also commonly used to light lamps and candles. “You should have some wax tapers on purpose to light your candles with, as paper makes a dirt, and flies about the room; besides it generally sticks to the candle and causes it to burn dim,” Robert Roberts recommended in his 1827 House Servant’s Directory. And in 1848, Chambers’s Information for the People pointed out: “It is always safest to light candles and lamps with a small wax taper, which can be at once blown out.”

DP266324 MMA spill vase

Spill Vase, 1830–70. Probably made in Bennington, Vermont. Parian porcelain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. Charles W. Green, 1947, 47.90.16

Spills were usually placed in vases on the mantel to provide easy access to the fire from which they were lighted. In 1869, Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe advised: “Lamps should be lighted with a strip of folded or rolled paper, of which a quantity should be kept on the mantelpiece.” Spill vases were made of glass, ceramic, and other materials and can sometimes be seen in paintings and drawings of the period, such as John Carlin’s painting Forbidden Fruit (1874).

Before the invention of matches, lighting fires was difficult. People had to use a tinder box, which contained a piece of flint, a steel striker, and tinder, such as charred rags. These items would produce a spark that could ignite a brimstone (sulfur)-coated “match” with which to transfer the flame. Vigilance was the order of the day if one wanted to keep the home fires burning. The safety match (which was made with red phosphorous) made life a lot easier, but it was not in common use until after 1860.

1878 Godey's spills

“Fancy Spills,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1878

People made spills at home from writing paper, old newspapers, and even colored paper. In 1850, Eliza Leslie wrote: “They should be made of waste writing paper cut into long slips, and folded, and creased very hard. If of newspaper or any other that is not stiff enough, the flame will run along them so fast as to endanger your fingers.” Although Leslie advised against making spills out of newspaper, a story published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1876 described an impoverished woman using newspaper spills as a light source for nighttime reading because she had no candles.

Fancy ornamental spills combined home décor with practicality. Nineteenth-century craft gurus provided instructions in magazines, just as Martha Stewart would do today. “To make ornamental spills, bright coloured papers, and also gold and silver paper are needed,” Cassell’s Household Guide directed in 1869. And Miss Matty Jenkyns, a character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 novel Cranford, excelled in making “candle-lighters, or ‘spills’ (as she preferred calling them), of coloured paper, cut so as to resemble feathers.”

People who like to curl up with a good 19th-century novel will find other scattered mentions of spills. Sometimes they are even used as clues in Victorian detective stories, such as in “The Blue Dragoon” (1855): “The police had not smoked, and, therefore, the thieves could be the only persons who had thrown the spill on this spot.” And there’s this riveting passage from After Dark (1856), a collection of short stories by Wilkie Collins, the master of the sensation novel:

“Give me two minutes,” says I, “and don’t let anybody come near the door—whatever you do, don’t let anybody startle me again by coming near the door.”

I took a little pull at the thread, and heard something rustle. I took a longer pull, and out came a piece of paper, rolled up tight like those candle-lighters that ladies make. I unrolled it—and, by George! there was the letter!

Cranford, 1892 edition

Illustration by Hugh Thomson from an 1892 edition of Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Spill vases flank the mantelpiece.

Spills are now largely forgotten, but their history can inspire us as we light our candles this holiday season: “I love candles. A wax candle is one of the prettiest and most graceful things imaginable. . . . How reliable it is; the instant it is held to the spill it lighteth cheerfully, and when its services are no longer required, how . . . amiably it allows itself to be put out” (The Welcome Guest, 1860).

Margaret Highland, Historian

The holidays are here, and what better time to experience the festive beauty of light? Please join us for Bartow-Pell’s annual Candlelight Tours and Victorian Carolers on Saturday, December 9, 6–8 p.m. Details on www.bpmm.org

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Victorian carolers perform at Bartow-Pell’s annual Candlelight Tours.

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A Bartow Thanksgiving, 1843

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The Bartow mansion today in autumn

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In the 1840s, the mansion might have looked like this on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving on December 14? Yes, that’s right, if we’re talking about New York in 1843. At that time, individual states determined when—and if—an official recognition of the Thanksgiving holiday would occur. In fact, the New-York Daily Tribune reported on November 22, 1843, that only 14 states (out of 26) would observe public Thanksgiving, “three of them for the first time.” Formal celebrations ranged from November 3 (Georgia) to December 14 (New York). In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the “last Thursday of November” as a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise,” at the urging of the magazine editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale.

Brook Farm aka Pondfield

Frontispiece for Brook Farm by James Bolton, 1859. This memoir, in which the place names were changed, is about Pondfield Farm in Bronxville, where the Bartows’ neighbors, the Boltons, lived before moving to nearby Pelham.

Bartow neighbor James Bolton described the excitement of a country Thanksgiving in Westchester County:

Thanksgiving Day was a green spot in our anticipations; schools gave holidays; families gathered into narrower circles of love; city cousins arrived overnight to share our country pleasures. The very finest turkey—the peer amongst peers—was handed over to the cook. . . . Sisters lay out all their art on pumpkin pies; and new bonnets and neck-ties are to be seen hid in drawers, in a chrysalis state, ready and waiting for this grand Thanksgiving Day.

Robert and Maria Bartow must have been thrilled to finally move into their splendid Greek Revival mansion on Long Island Sound in 1842 after six years of construction. The family had moved from New York City to their country seat by at least 1838 and lived there year-round, according to the family’s tutor. During that time, they would have stayed in a now-demolished older house until their new residence was ready. On December 14, 1843, the lively household bustled with two teenagers and four children under the age of six, and the family would have celebrated their first or second Thanksgiving in the brand-new residence. Let’s imagine what the day was like.

St. Paul's Church

St. Paul’s Church, Eastchester. Illustration from A History of the County of Westchester by Robert Bolton Jr., 1848

The Bartows and their older children, dressed in their Sunday best, would have ridden in one of the family’s carriages to Thanksgiving services at St. Paul’s Church in Eastchester (now Mount Vernon), where Mr. Bartow had recently served on the vestry and their neighbor Robert Bolton was the rector. (Bolton was concurrently serving at the newly consecrated Christ Church in Pelham.) According to Reverend Bolton’s son James, the colonial-era church “stood by itself on a green knoll at the entrance of the village. . . . Adjoining the church was a hundred-and-fifty-feet carriage shed, built . . . for the comfort and convenience of the worshippers. . . . We drove into this famous shed . . . and left the whole row [of horses]—two or three dozen—in charge of a single man.” Some New York journalists joked about parishioners dozing “away in the house of God” during the Thanksgiving Day sermon, but the devout Bartows probably enjoyed participating in worship and exchanging holiday greetings with their neighbors.

Arrival at the Old Home

Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Thanksgiving Day—Arrival at the Old Home. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, November 27, 1858

When the service was over, the family coachman would drive them home, where the other servants were busy preparing the holiday table. Because it was mid-December, the Bartows would have observed a wintry landscape as they looked out the carriage windows on the chilly three-mile ride back to the mansion. The following year, on December 11, 1844, the first snowstorm of the season fell on Thanksgiving eve. The next day, the New-York Daily Tribune reported:

Last night, about 7 o’clock, an old-fashioned, first-rate, thorough-going snow-storm set in. . . . Thanksgiving is nothing without snow enough on the ground to look like sleighing, at least . . . and let us give thanks for having this essential concomitant in the Thanksgiving treat. A gingle [sic] of sleigh-bells is the best music we know of for a dinner on this merry-making day.

The Dinner

Winslow Homer. Thanksgiving Day—The Dinner. Harper’s Weekly, 1858

Dining Room

Dining room at Bartow-Pell. In the 19th century, however, the north parlor may have been used for large formal dinner parties.

“After church you assemble for dinner—such a dinner! Bless the cook—you can smell it from the farthest field,” enthused James Bolton. In addition to menu staples such as turkey and pumpkin pie, Bolton reminisced that “the farmers of West Chester country” slaughtered pigs in preparation for Thanksgiving, and “you would see them . . . hanging in rows on a rail.” After saying grace, Mr. Bartow would have been expected to carve the turkey. “Every person standing at the head of a family should be well informed upon the general principles of carving,” advised the author of The American Family Keepsake in 1849. Bolton recounted that “toasts are drunk [to] ‘The President, . . . Our Happy Country, and All absent kith and kin, in a bumper.’”

The Dance

Winslow Homer. Thanksgiving Day—The Dance. Harper’s Weekly, 1858

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Bartow-Pell’s double parlors

Dancing and games such as blindman’s buff were 19th-century Thanksgiving traditions, and, in the evening, the family would have enjoyed these activities in the double parlors. This was the perfect opportunity for Mr. and Mrs. Bartow to show off their impressive new house, and perhaps they invited friends and neighbors from nearby country estates to join in the fun. Oil lamps and wax candles illuminated the mansion’s high-ceilinged rooms; crystal prisms and mirror glass glittered in reflected light; and fireplaces with elegant marble mantels provided welcome warmth and cheer. According to tutor Augustus Moore, the Bartows lived in “first style” and had “servants and waiters in abundance.” They were “free, social and kind.” Clearly, a good time was guaranteed at their evening parties.

The Bartows now lived year-round in the new mansion but had they remained in Manhattan, they could have taken advantage of plenty of family entertainment on Thanksgiving Day. A circus, or “grand juvenile fete,” amused children at Niblo’s Garden (a well-known theater on Broadway), and P. T. Barnum’s American Museum offered “extra attractions,” along with performances by a gypsy family, a fortune teller, and five-year-old Tom Thumb on his first American tour.

And what about the servants? Obviously Thanksgiving Day involved extra work, and that has not changed for holiday personnel in the food-service industry. Hopefully, the staff was able to feast on some special dishes below stairs at some point during the busy day. Furthermore, most of the Bartow servants were recent immigrants, and participating in the tradition of Thanksgiving would have been an important cultural experience for these new Americans.

If Mr. or Mrs. Bartow had settled into a comfortable chair with the New York Herald on December 15, 1843, they might have read this rather cynical but clear-eyed account of the previous day:

Yesterday was celebrated with the accustomed variety of taste, feeling, spirit, and propriety. The Saints went to church—dozed—dreamed of stocks and the turkey in danger of being over-roasted at home; then, in the evening, had their little parties, cracked their nuts and their jokes and sipped their wine. . . silks and satins rustled . . . brilliant chandeliers burned brightly in the evening in splendid mansions—the poor shivered in the lanes and alleys . . . wealth reveled—poverty gnashed its teeth . . . and the great stream of human happiness and suffering flowed on as it has, and ever will, to the end of time.

James Bolton had an unreservedly bright and sunny view of Thanksgiving Day: “So loth were we to let the day go, that we used to hang on to its last shred, and even allow it to drag us over the boundary-line into to-morrow morning! Thanksgiving days are good for body, soul, and spirit.” And, in 1843, the Bartows would surely have agreed.

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Louis Maurer (1832–1932), artist, and Currier & Ives, publisher. “Trotting Cracks” on the Snow, 1858. Hand-colored lithograph with tint stone. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Adele S. Colgate, 1962

Over the river, and through the wood,

To Grandfather’s house we go;

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the white and drifted snow.

Lydia Maria Child, “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day,” 1845

For more on Thanksgiving in the 19th century, see Chicken Pie and Blindman’s Buff: What You Might Not Know about an Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving and James Bolton’s Brook Farm: The Amusing and Memorable of American Country Life.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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A Peek Inside the Wardrobe: Busks, Gloves, Shawls, and Shoes

This post discusses some of the fashion accessories in Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition, The “Quiet Circle”: Women and Girls in 19th-Century America, on view until November 19.

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Satin Slippers, ca. 1835–50. Silk and leather. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

Sometimes part of the fun of going to museums is seeing objects that are ordinarily tucked away in storage. For a couple more weeks, visitors to our fall exhibition can take a peek at some 19th-century fashion accessories from the museum’s collection. In this post, we will take a look at a few of those things: a corset busk, a pair of gloves, a shawl, and some shoes.

Corset Busk

Corset busk, first half of the 19th century. Wood. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum TC2012.83

Corset busks were long, thin pieces of wood, ivory, bone, or steel with rounded ends that were slipped into a center pocket running down the front of the corset to provide more rigid support to the upper torso. In the 1840s, for example, a two- to three-inch-wide wooden busk was inserted in an elongated narrow corset and worn under the stiff, flattened bodices that were so popular during this decade. In the second half of the 19th century, better-engineered corsets with steel-supported front openings eliminated the need for separate busks.

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Corset, American, 1840s. Cotton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Albert S. Morrow, 1937. Elongated, back-fastening corsets in the 1840s had casing for a busk at the front, as seen here.

Gloves back

Ladies’ gloves (back), 1880s. Leather. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. Tan kid gloves were a popular choice in the 1880s.

Gloves were worn in public by 19th-century ladies. Various occasions required different styles, but basic leather gloves were suitable for everyday wear. In 1855, The Illustrated Manners Book advised: “Choose good, well made gloves. . . . They are worn in the street, at church, at the theater, concerts, balls, and at all large and formal evening parties. . . . In small and informal companies, gloves may be dispensed with.” In 1880, 663,813 dozen pairs of gloves (which would have included ones for women, men, and children) were imported to this country, mostly from France, Germany, and England. Like other accessories, gloves changed with the times. Peterson’s Magazine described what ladies were wearing in April 1882: “Tan-colored gloves are universally worn, some preferring the light shades, others the dark ones; but no one now thinks of matching the gloves with the dress, as tan assimilates, according to present fashion, with black, white, and colored dresses.”

French kid gloves advertisement

Advertisement for French-imported kid leather gloves. R. H. Macy’s & Co.’s Catalogue for 1877–8

Paisley Shawl

Shawl (detail), French or British, ca. 1860. Wool. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum TC2012.36

Another must-have accessory for decades was the paisley shawl. These luxury items were first made in Kashmir, but Europeans developed a more affordable version. The Scottish town of Paisley—a pioneering production center of imitation Kashmir shawls—lent its name to the fashion. Other manufacturers were located in France and England. In 1860, Godey’s Lady’s Book described consumers’ appetite for these stylish goods and warned that some “India shawls” sold in American shops were actually made in France:

The passion for India shawls still continues, and, in fact, is greater than ever. The daily prints advertise them in all manner of attractiveness, and one scarcely meets an acquaintance without an India scarf spread over her shoulders. Not that they all come honestly by their name; not at all. A very large part sold under the far-famed title have never travelled farther than France, and the odor of sandal-wood . . . is contracted in the sandal-lined chest of the American shop in which it was purchased.

Godey’s breathlessly goes on to describe the prices of real Kashmir shawls in Paris or London as “almost fabulous, a long shawl costing from $1000 to $5000.” But “the French manufacturers and the American importers” provided shawls at “prices ranging from one to five hundred dollars—quite a difference.” This was still a lot of money in 1860, but somehow many women found the means to own one of these beautiful textiles.

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Alfred-Émile-Léopold Stevens (Belgian, 1823–1906). Departing for the Promenade (Will You Go Out with Me, Fido?), 1859. Oil on panel. The Philadephia Museum of Art, The W. P. Wilstach Collection, bequest of Anna H. Wilstach, 1893

Shawls changed over time to accommodate evolving silhouettes. Stole-like wraps complemented the simple high-waisted classical gowns of the early republic, but larger shawls were required for the huge crinolines of the middle of the century, when rectangular styles grew to the enormous proportions of about five feet wide by ten or eleven feet long. After 1870, these voluminous paisley shawls went out of fashion because they did not drape well over bustles.

Gaiter boots

Gaiter boots, ca. 1830–55. Wool, silk, and leather. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Elizabeth P. Brooks TC2012.59a,b

Now let’s turn to shoes. Side-laced gaiter boots were made of wool or silk with leather foxing (pieces of leather on the heels and toes). Boots without heels were worn from about 1830 to 1855. Godey’s encouraged American women in 1843 to do as the French did: “You never see ladies in Paris walking in thin slippers . . . they wear abroad gaiter boots, either thick or thin, according to the season. I think a handsome foot and ankle never appear better than in such boots.” For prudish readers, the author added a moralistic note: “And surely there is a propriety when walking out, and exposed to dust or mud, that the feet should be well protected; and propriety is the fundamental law of good taste.”

NY Herald 11.12.1845

Advertisement for ladies’ gaiter boots and satin slippers in the New York Herald, November 12, 1845

Satin Slippers

Satin Slippers, ca. 1835–50. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

Dainty oval- or square-toed slippers were another wardrobe staple, and these flat shoes with thin leather soles were popular from the early to the mid-19th century. They were made with leather uppers for daytime wear and white satin for dressy occasions. These pretty slippers could be customized with bows, rosettes, and ribbon ankle ties. Household doyenne Eliza Leslie advised cleaning the shoes with “a piece of new white flannel dipped in spirits of wine. If slightly soiled, you may clean them by rubbing with stale bread.” She also instructed readers to keep their satin shoes in “blue paper closely wrapped, with coarse brown paper outside” in a covered box. The slippers in BPMM’s exhibition—like many shoes in the first half of the 19th century—are “straights” and could be worn on either the right or left foot.

Fashion accessories can be fascinating examples of material culture, and a peek in the wardrobe raises a few questions. What can these objects tell us about life in 19th-century America? And what can they teach us about society’s expectations for women at that time?

Margaret Highland, Exhibition Curator

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Haunting Likenesses: The Anonymous 19th-Century Woman in Photographic Portraits

This post discusses photographic portraits in Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition, The “Quiet Circle”: Women and Girls in 19th-Century America, on view until November 19.

The faces look out at us. Their eyes lock ours. Long ago, they stared into a camera and time stopped. Who are the sitters in these haunting portraits?

Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition includes several photographic portraits of anonymous 19th-century women and a young girl. The images are revealing, but most of the details of the sitters’ lives will probably always be an enigma. In any case, aren’t most of us intrigued by a good mystery? Isn’t that part of the legendary allure of the Mona Lisa, for example?

The daguerreotype introduced photography to Americans in 1839, and it must have seemed like a miracle. Although this process produced sharp and detailed images, the mirror-like silver surfaces were hard to read. Cheaper methods with better visibility, such as ambrotypes, tintypes, and cartes de visite, were developed in the 1850s. By then more and more people could afford to sit for the camera.

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Young Girl, 1855–65. New England. Ambrotype. Gift of Barbara and Charles Dennis, Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum 2006.07

Let’s take a look at what may be the earliest portrait on display, an ambrotype taken in the 1850s or early 1860s of an unidentified member of the Dennis and Davis families, who lived near Hartford, Connecticut. (For an overview of ambrotypes and tintypes by the Library of Congress, click here.) The sitter is a girl who looks to be about twelve years old. She wears a light plaid dress (possibly for summer). Was it her favorite? The wide off-the-shoulder neckline for party dresses was popular with older girls from the 1840s to the 1860s. A heavy choker necklace with what is perhaps a large locket adorns her neck. Clearly, the young girl is from a well-to-do New England family, but other details are more subjective. She looks at the camera tentatively, and her hands rest demurely in her lap. Her facial expression and body language are timid, reserved, thoughtful, and even a bit anxious. But was she normally like this? Perhaps on that day, she was a little unsure about being photographed. After all, this was new technology in the mid-19th century. In addition, having your portrait taken was a special occurrence, and early photographs emerged from a long tradition of formal painted portraits in which serious expressions were acceptable. Furthermore, long exposure times made it difficult to hold a frozen smile, and poor dentistry probably didn’t encourage people to grin for posterity as we do in today’s toothy photos.

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Dress, 1850. Probably American. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1976

Tintypes were made on thin but sturdy metal sheets, which meant that the additional expense of brass mats, velvet linings, protective glass, and leather cases was merely optional instead of obligatory, as it was for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, which were made with more fragile materials. There are two Civil War-era tintypes of women of modest means in BPMM’s exhibition.

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Young Woman and Infant, 1860–65. Tintype. Private collection

The first tintype depicts a young woman, who is perhaps still a teenager, holding an infant. Her clothing is unassuming but tidy, and her hairstyle is plain and practical. She wears what was probably her best outfit—a simple day dress, made of printed cotton, with white cuffs and a dressy collar held in place by the ubiquitous cameo brooch. An infant—who appears to be about six or seven months old—stares placidly at the camera and rests comfortably on the sitter’s lap, enfolded in her arms. The child wears a long white dress, which, at this period, was standard daily wear for infants until they became more mobile at about nine months old. The strong facial resemblance between the two figures indicates that this is a family portrait, rather than a photograph of a nursemaid for a well-to-do family with her charge. The pair is probably a mother and her child (although they could be siblings). In any case, this companionable twosome appears to be at ease with each other. A painted backdrop depicts a curtained window overlooking a landscape and represents an attempt by the photographer to create a genteel studio setting that linked his customers to respectable society.

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Infant’s dress, mid-19th century. American. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of Mrs. W. Rodman Peabody. www.mfa.org

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Domestic Servant, ca. 1863–65. Tintype. Private Collection

A second tintype in the exhibition likely portrays a domestic servant. Her dark calico dress with a gathered bodice is appropriate for household chores, and although she has ventured out to the photographer’s studio, she still wears her work apron. Did she have time off, or did she stop to have her photograph made while running errands during the work day? Writers of the period commented that servants often had a love of fashion, and, accordingly, the sitter wears a flower-trimmed straw hat in the latest style, a lace collar, and several pieces of jewelry. She is a confident woman who holds her head high, and she appears to feel like a million bucks attired in her finery. This proud working woman has large, capable hands and a no-nonsense expression on her open face with its hand-tinted rosy cheeks. The photographer’s tasseled velvet curtain imparts an air of elegance that belies the sitter’s humble station.

Godey July 1863

The same figure appeared a year later in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which helped to popularize French styles in the United States.

La Mode Illustree 1862 Leloir detail

Detail from a fashion plate by Héloïse Leloir, La Mode Illustrée, 1862. This hat is similar to the one in the tintype on display at BPMM.

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Woman in Mourning, 1860–65. Philadelphia. Carte de visite. Private Collection

Our last portrait is a carte de visite from the Civil War period, when these small photographs, which were printed on paper and mounted on card stock, were especially popular. This image of an unknown young woman in mourning was taken in Philadelphia. At that time, women were advised to wear deep black exclusively during the first period of mourning, including black “crape” veils over their faces. After the initial phase, white collars and white cuffs or undersleeves were allowed, as can be seen here. The sitter wears a well-made dress (perhaps made of bombazine, a silk-and-wool fabric) and a collar that is held in place by a black mourning brooch, which was likely fashioned from jet or gutta-percha (a hard rubberlike substance). Her hair is held in what appears to be a black-banded net. A wedding band is faintly visible on her left hand. Although we do not know whom she is mourning—her husband or a brother killed in the war; a relative who died from disease, an accident, or old age; or even her child—the sadness in her face tells us that it was someone she cared about deeply, and there is a transcendent stillness in her pose that suggests the physical effects of grief. The balloon-back chair and brocade-covered side table are typical studio props.

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Mourning dress, ca. 1867. American. Cotton and silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jacqueline Loewe Fowler Costume Collection, Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler, 1982

This is only a minuscule sample of countless photographic portraits of forgotten (and unforgotten) faces that survive from the 19th century. These can be found in museums, private collections, family albums, flea markets, and online auctions. They teach us about everything from family history and social customs to clothing styles and photography practices. Even more, they radiate a sense of mystery that allows us to use our imagination to interpret these “faithful likenesses.”

Margaret Highland, Exhibition Curator

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