Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mourning the Hancock Children, Lydia & Johnny

The larger family story surrounding John Hancock is one worthy of examination as we untangle the biography of this complex and somewhat elusive American Revolution patriot. Two thorough biographies of the man add considerably to our understanding: William Fowler’s The Baron of Beacon Hill: A Biography of John Hancock and Harlow G. Unger’s John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot. The bulk of biographical material on Dorothy Hancock comes from a fairly glorified “saintly” narrative style of late 19th and early 20th century biographers.

Conducting research at several Boston-based collections has prompted me to integrate into the family narrative several surviving objects related to the Hancock’s children and to flesh out the very real experience --one many of us can relate to -- of  family grief and loss.
Lydia Henchman Hancock (1776- 1777) was named in honor of John’s beloved aunt, Lydia Henchman Hancock (1714-1776) who essentially acted as a surrogate mother for both John and Dorothy. Baby Lydia died before she reached her first birthday.  She was born in Philadelphia and died in Boston. In one letter, John notes that he is anxious to have the child inoculated once the baby and Dorothy arrived in Philadelphia. In a letter dated 10 March 1777, John writes to Dolly: “I have sent everywhere to get a gold or silver rattle for the child with a coral to send but cannot get one. I will have one if possible on yr. [your] coming.” 1 Unsuccessful, in his quest, he sends along “a sash for her”. John Hancock was busy attending to political matters and so Dorothy was on her own when the child died. John learned of the loss via letter. One can only imagine the sad aspect Boston must have held for her in that late summer of 1777: Aunt Lydia had died in 1776, Boston was deserted and John was away. Coming from such a large family, one suspects she had brothers and sisters to provide comfort, as well as members of the household staff, such as the stalwart and dedicated Mrs. Brackett.
This surviving photographic copy of Lydia dates from the 1940s and was part of a locket (sold; whereabouts unknown; collection of A posthumous rendering by a currently unknown artist, it is charming despite its melancholy subject. The child has an infant’s over scaled head, fused atop a diminutive form, holding a single rose. She is clad in a baby cap, common to the time. Behind her, the oft used symbols of death and mourning, an urn and willow. Her face is lovely and sweet and highly delineated for a child of under a year. One can image the care with which her mother donned the locket holding the image.

John George Washington Hancock (1778-1787), known as “Johnny” was nine years old when he died from a mortal head wound as a result of ice skating in Milton Massachusetts. By all accounts a sweet and talented boy, all of Boston greieved with John and Dolly. The funeral procession was noted by several contemporaries. Johnny was already being groomed by his father to take an active and important role in the young nation. A standard survives at the Massachusetts Historical Society noting that it was given by John and Johnny to an African-American regiment, recognizing their service during the American Revolution. (More on that in a future post.)  As Samuel Adams Dorr wrote in the weeks following Johnny’s death:

"This amiable child gave every indication of future eminence; and while his sweetness of temper, his strength of memory, and brilliancy of genius, led his parents to hope, that he would be not only the staff of their age, but eminently useful in the world!—Their hopes are suddenly blasted, and they feel the deepest affliction: Why falls the budding flower? Why dies the youth? Presumptuous reason crys. 'Tis not for us To search the ends of fate nor fault its means; Religion answers and our breasts are calmed."
-       Published in the American Herald, January, 1787. 

The miniature of Johnny is simple yet compelling. He is appropriately attired in the clothing of a youth of the day and his hair, unfettered.

In addition to the two locket reproduction miniatures, the Massachusetts Historical Society holds in its collection two mourning bracelets, comprised of gold beads and hair. They most likely date from c. 1793, the year of John Hancock’s death. 2

I was fortunate to view these fragile and delicate jewelry items at the MHS. It was an incredibly moving experience to gaze upon the bracelets and ponder what they meant in the lives of the parents who outlived their children. Clearly they were treasured. Suddenly it strikes you – you are looking at actual strands of John Hancock’s hair (over 220 years old), in combination with the hair of his children (blonde for Lydia and light brown for Johnny) crafted into a momento mori.  In a CSI world of DNA anyalsis and so on, this form of mourning is an exceedlingly powerful talisman.

Below find the catalog descriptions of the pieces from the MHS collections.

Hancock, Lydia H. 1776-1777
Mourning bracelet made of hair of Lydia Henchman Hancock (Aug. 1776- Nov. 1777), only daughter of Gov. John and Dorothy Quincy Hancock. Maker unidentified, [Boston?, circa 1793]
Hair, gold beads, gold, crystal, gold foil; 1cm H (at clasp) x 14 cm W (open) x
Bracelet made of 2 strands of braided dark hair [of John Hancock?, d. 1793] looped together by a series of hollow gold beads.  Elongated octagonal gold clasp has oval crystal front, under which are some strands of blond baby hair and gold cipher initials "LH".  Engraved in script on back of clasp: "L Hancock/ Obt Augt 1 1771/ aet. 9. mo"

Hancock, John G.W. 1772-1781
Mourning bracelet made of hair of John George Washington Hancock (1778-1787), only son of Governor John and Dorothy Quincy Hancock.  Maker unidentified, [Boston?, circa 1793]
Hair, gold beads, gold, crystal, gold foil; 1.1 cm H (at clasp) x 11.2 cm W (open)

Bracelet made of 2 strands of braided dark hair [of John Hancock?, d. 1793] looped together by a series of hollow gold beads.  Elongated octagonal gold clasp has oval crystal front, under which are strands of lighter brown hair [J.G.W. Hancock's], and gold cipher initials "JH".  Engraved on back of clasp: " JGW Hancock/ Obt Jany 27, 1781/ aet 9. years"

1. “John Hancock Letter to Dorothy Hancock, 10 March 1777”

2. For additional information on the mourning jewelry, see the excellent book “In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry” by Sarah Nehama, 2012.

My thanks and appreciation to Anne Bentley, Curator of Art, Massachusetts Historical Society.

All illustrations are courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Beautiful "Bizarre" Silk Robe Volante, c. 1720s

This stunning “bizarre” silk robe and petticoat was recently on view at Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, Massachusetts ( The sumptuous green and white silk droguet (or drugget in English), meaning a fancy silk fabric created with detailed, complicated patterns, was mostly likely woven in Lyon, France. Lyon is recogonized as a premier center of silk weaving during the 17th and 18th centuries. The textile is dated c. 1710s but the gown was made c. 1720 and reveals later alterations.
Ned Lazaro, Associate Curator of Textiles, shared the following:
“Patterned silks were one of the most expensive textiles available during the 17th and 18th centuries.  The time and effort to draft the design and to weave the pattern added significantly to their cost.  In this example, two sets of warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads create a repeating “ bizarre ” design.  Popular in the first decade of the 18th century, bizarre silks are characterized by their fanciful design elements, playful use of scale, and a western interpretation of eastern motifs. 

Known variously as a robe battante or robe volante (meaning floating or flying dress), this important survival illustrates the more casual French influence in women’s fashion after the death of Louis XIV.  The garment appears to float freely off of the shoulders, with the material in back loosely fitted with an arrangement of double box pleats.  Despite its casual outward appearance, however, the dress would have been anchored to a firm pair of stays underneath.  At some point after the gown’s initial creation, sleeve flounces and robings, gathered material edging the gown’s opening, were added in different, although matching, silk.”

A "bizarre" silk damask piece, French or Dutch, c.1700. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Textile detail of man’s "bizarre" silk sleeved waistcoat, c. 1715. 
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
The development of so called “bizarre” designs appear among the English silk weavers of Spitalfields around the same time. Before 1710 bizarre designs combined over-scaled and distorted florals with architectural references, as well as chinoiserie elements. By the 1720s, however, the relatively brief bizarre period was drawing to a close in favor of more natural botanical motives.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

George Washington Orders London Shoes for Mrs. Washington…..

Miss Mary Flint Spofford Wedding Shoes, English, c. 1765
Historic Deerfield; photo by Penny Leveritt
Martha Washington asked her husband, George, to purchase hers from London; Dorothy Quincy received them as a gift from her fiancĂ©, John Hancock, while he was in Philadelphia “on business” in 1775. What was this special token requested by these two women and purchased by countless others? Calamanco shoes. Calamanco (there are many variations on the spelling such as callimanco, calimanco, callamanca) is a worsted wool with a glazed surface which could come in a variety of weaves including plain, damasked and brocaded. It was popular for petticoats, waistcoats, bed coverings and other household items the throughout 18th century. Orders for calamanco textiles show up in countless account books and references to the shoes in countless advertisements. Calamanco shoes were very popular in New England, as they offered more warmth and durability than silk. Advertisements in newspapers in Salem, Boston and Portsmouth, make it clear that they were produced in large quantities in Lynn, MA. by the mid-18th century. However, many consumers (with financial wherewithal) preferred to purchase their calamancos from Great Britain rather than from American cordwainers. Despite their large numbers, calamancos are now a relatively scarce shoe to find in New England collections, most likely due to their hard wear and “work a day” appearance in comparison with the delicate, elegant silk “special occasion” shoes.
A pair of black callimanca pumps for Mrs. Washington. George Washington to John Didsbury, London, Boot & Shoemaker, 10th August 1764. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor.
The rosy red calamanco wedding shoes (top) are special survivals. Purchased in England, by 1765, Miss Mary Flint Spofford donned them for her wedding in South Danvers, MA. Historic Deerfield (; Accession #2004.46) holds these cheerful calamancos and another equally interesting pair.  Wealthy Peck Bardwell’s pink baby shoes (c. 1763) are particularly fine examples.More here 

Looking at these shoes adds to our understanding of the breadth of type of shoe available - for a price - to the British American consumer.

Calamanco baby shoes, c. 1763
Historic Deerfield; photo by Penny Leveritt

For more information on a breakdown of shoe type found in newspaper advertisements, see: Nicole Rudolph
Calamanco shoes top the list.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Special Events Galore Features Warner House Costume Tea

Master and Mistress Spencer ( enjoy the stair and murals at the Warner House, Portsmouth, NH. (

Kimberly Alexander, photograph

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Hancocks of Boston in Wool, Silk & Linen

Hannah Otis’s (1732-1801) sampler “View of Boston Common” (c. 1750, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is a charming and significant pictorial narrative, capturing life in Boston prior to the Revolution.  The connection of the sampler to a significant New England family, the documentary nature and large over-mantel size all serve to distinguish it as a preeminent example of school girl skill and, in this case, creativity. It is embroidered in wool and silk on a linen canvas.
This sampler is a delight, and the more time one takes to examine it, the more one sees. Note the British flag waving energetically above the pre-Revolutionary blockhouse, for example. Of particular interest is the representation of the impressive Georgian style Hancock Mansion (demolished in 1863) with its fences, orchards and parterres. The elegant occupants are enjoying the bountiful and exuberant landscape, peppered with unusual birds, animals and over scaled plantings, which  Hannah Otis has created for them.  The couple standing near the wall (just to the left of center) were most likely Thomas Hancock (1703-1764) and his wife, Lydia Henchman Hancock (1714-1776), with their stately home and grounds as a backdrop. Thomas Hancock wears a long red (?) coat with substantial cuffs, a waistcoat, breeches with white hose, and what appears to be a tricorn hat. Lydia Hancock is dressed in the elite fashion of the time, sporting a light colored dress (probably silk) and stomacher.
Thomas Hancock was John Hancock’s uncle. Known as a very wealthy merchant (as well as a probable smuggler) and head of the “House of Hancock,” he opened his home and business to his orphaned nephew, John. Indeed, it would not be surprising if the lad on horseback, with a black liveried groom, depicted in Otis’s sampler was in fact the adolescent John. Born in 1737, he would have been around thirteen years of age. Like his aunt and uncle, young John wears appropriate, fashionable clothing. He is clad in riding gear, including high leather boots.

Detail, Thomas Hancock, 1730, by John Smibert
Museum of Fine Arts,  Boston
Lydia Henchman Hancock, by John Singleton Copley
National Portrait Gallery
For more, see The History Blog
“The most expensive sampler ever sold is View of Boston Common by Hannah Otis (1732-1801), stitched around 1750. It’s a huge piece, meant for display over a chimney mantelpiece, embroidered in wool and silk on linen canvas. It was purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston at Sotheby’s in 1996 for a record $1,157,500.
Hannah Otis is closely linked to the American Revolution and American history in general. She was born in 1732, the daughter of Colonel James Otis and Mary Allyne Otis. Her mother was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Edward Doty. Her father was a judge and representative to the Massachusetts legislature. He was a fervent anti-royalist as was his son, James Otis, Jr., who introduced the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny” during the Stamp Act debates. Hannah’s older sister Mercy Otis Warren was a poet, playwright and historian who published numerous pro-Revolution writings and corresponded with the luminaries of the American Revolution like John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Adams.

The sampler remained in the Otis family until the 1996 sale. It had been on loan at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for over 40 years when the family decided reluctantly that they had to sell it.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

Gloves: Would you prefer to wear a Glof or a Handschuh?

Elizabeth I's Coronation Glove (WCG)

What we name a thing can influence it far more than we think. Take gloves. Gloves were such an important fashion accessory that there was and is a Worshipful Company of Glovers, a guild for what we now consider a seasonal fashion accessory, and even that I would suspect only in the northern climes.

James VI/I's (?) Gloves (WCG)
The word glove comes from Old English, think in terms of Anglo-Saxon. Old English is Germanic in origin, but differs from modern German. The break between the modern and the old languages is why we have ‘horses’ (Old English/Proto-Germanic) not ‘Pferds’ (Modern German). The same holds true for ‘gloves’ (Old English/ Proto-Germanic) rather than ‘Handschuh’ (Modern German).  The singular of ‘gloves’ in Old English is ‘glof’, but the modern singular of ‘gloves’ is ‘glove’ not ‘glof’.’ This fascinates me as glof/gloves falls into the word group that includes roof/rooves and hoof/hooves, which are plurals out of Beowulf and must be a bear (another idiomatic nightmare) for foreign speakers of English. The plural of roof and hoof is now so unusual that my spell check questions rooves and hooves. (Language intrigues me as much as history)

 Charles I"s Gloves (Dents)
The word ‘glof’ means, “to cover the hand or palm,” just as the word ‘handschuh’ means “a shoe for the hand, or a covering for the hand.” However, “glof’ has not real meaning in the modern lexicon, whereas ‘shoe’ does. Perhaps if we thought of gloves in terms of ‘handshoes’ we might view them with more excitement as a fashion accessory. (I do realize the Teutonic heaviness of the word, but just go with me for a bit.)  Certainly hats have the Ascot and weddings, shoes have every evening event and then some, but what do gloves have anymore, except shoveling snow, handling objects in museums and hospitals, or serving take-out food?  How the mighty have fallen.

 Victoria's Coronation Glove (WCG)

A pair of QueenVictoria's Gloves (Dents)
Which brings me to Dents, the Glovers, located in Warminster, Wiltshire, UK.  This summer, I met John Roberts, of Dents, while he vacationed in the US. I knew of Dents so we had an interesting conversation. They have a museum,,  devoted to gloves and are connected with the Worshipful Company of Glovers,  Dents is still using machinery and patterns from the nineteenth-century. Much as their counterparts in shoes are doing in Northampton. Hmm, is there a pattern here? Yes, they make modern gloves and happily are churning them out as I write. Some shoes, like gloves are meant to be snug on the first wear, then over time conform to the owner’s shape. There are finger stretchers for gloves just as there are toe and side stretchers for shoes. (A must for the non-bespoke glove and shoe wearer.)  Gloves come in sizes like shoes and hats. To determine your size wrap a tape measure around your hand, but do not include the thumb. Your size in inches would be something like this; 9.25 inches measured would be a 9.5, or large. You round up to the nearest inch or half inch. I am clueless concerning cm, but it must be similar, I'm just not sure of the size markers. Dents includes a size chart and how to measure on the trade side of their website. That being said, enjoy some of the images from Dents and The Worshipful Company of Glovers collections.

George V's Coronation Glove (WCG)
Elizabeth II's Coronation Glove (Dents)

Gloves From 1600-10 (WCG)

Gloves from 1685-1700 (WCG)

Close-up of gloves from 1685-1700 (WCG)

Gloves from 1625-35 (WCG)

Close-up of 1625-35 Gloves (WCG)

Ribbon Trimmed Gloves 1660-90 (WCG)

Close-up of Ribbin Trimmed Gloves 1660-90

Late 18th century Cloth Gloves 

Jeff Hopper is a Consultant, Historic House Steward and Social Historian