Friday, August 22, 2014

A Concealed Shoe on the Cusp of a New a Century

This part of New England, where I live, and  Northampton UK share a rich history of shoe making. The Northampton Museums and Art Gallery maintains a collection of shoes both touted and obscure. The touted shoes can, through elegance or notoriety, elicit an immediate positive response, but what of the obscure shoes, the concealed shoes, the well worn shoes hidden in a wall? Worn shoes have been hidden in the recesses of houses for centuries, a practice designed to protect the house and its inhabitants from evil. As shoes have been discovered some communities have noted their existence and recorded the information. Happily for anyone interested in concealed shoes, the Northampton Museum in the UK keeps an index of concealed shoes from several countries from around the world. The curators compiled a list of categories and attributes of the shoes discovered over the years. It's worth a look at the the whys and where's:

So what does this custom have to do with New England? Well, you never know where a custom may fall. Our house was built in 1914-15 so it’s on the cusp of its centenary. Over the years we’ve removed some questionable bits and added our own. A number of years ago we converted the house from a two-family house to a single-family house. Never a large house, the rental apartment could not fit the larger furniture many people owned, which made our decision a little easier.  One of the tasks was the replacement of the ground floor front door leading to the upstairs unit with a window. Each apartment had its own entrance, so one needed to go. As I removed the door frame from the wall frame a workman’s shoe fell from the space between the studs and hit the floor. Usually these voids have broken plaster keying and bits of wood from the construction, but this time a shoe!

It startled me, as we have never found anything in this house other than what should be--no treasures, no forgotten documents, just a house, which is fine by us. So the falling shoe was the first artifact discovered in the house. When I retrieved the shoe from the floor, I looked inside and there was a label describing the shoe as, “The Elite Shoe” manufactured in Brockton (MA?).  A utilitarian shoe for a working man, with a hint of style provided by the punched leather detail. Did the shoe manufacturer decide this touch make it an elite shoe? We may never know.

The beauty of the discovery was not the quality of the shoe but the connection it provided with the past. A modern shoe transformed to become part of a centuries old tradition--a good luck token from the builders. It may have been left to protect the house form evil, but how intriguing that it still occurred in the early twentieth-century, not just the fifteenth-century.

Such a simple, utilitarian and delightful reminder of the power we invest in articles of clothing, which occasionally transcend time and perhaps even space.  For the record another concealed shoe has been found in another old house.

Jeff Hopper: Consultant, Historic House Steward and Social Historian

Saturday, August 16, 2014

For Your Bookshelf: "From the Elegant to the Everyday: 200 Years of Fashion in Northern New England

If you were not able to visit the exhibition at the Saco Museum, Saco, ME., you can now purchase the publication "From the Elegant to the Everyday…" by Saco Museum Director and exhibition curator, Tara Raiselis. This will be a welcome addition to your library with many little known or never before exhibited costumes, drawn from numerous New England repositories.


Previous posts on the exhibition include a discussion of Revolutionary War patriot, Samuel Cutts and his suit

Friday, August 1, 2014

Exhibition - "Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850"

            In early New England, the significance of shoes extended beyond function alone.  New Englanders prized, celebrated, and displayed their shoes as markers of fashionable style and genteel sensibility. They also refreshed, altered and revamped them, making repairs as long as the leather was still good.

            The exhibition Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, held at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, is a rich exploration of New Englanders and their shoes.  We will introduce viewers to lives of figures both prominent and middling, through both stunning and well-worn examples of this significant American accessory.  Viewers will explore the process of how shoes were made, sold, and worn in New England, 1750-1850.

            Through the lives and letters of clever apprentices, skilled cordwainers, wealthy merchants and elegant brides, Cosmopolitan Consumption will take us on a journey from bustling London streets, to ship cargo holds, to New England shops and, ultimately, to the feet of eager consumers throughout the region. The “shoe stories” recount a young bride dancing with George Washington during his visit to Portsmouth or a lady attending a ball for Marquis de Lafayette; they trace the fortunes and misfortunes of wearers as shoes were altered to accommodate poor health and changing styles, and finally, they provide glimpse into the shoemaking business of artisans like Sam Lane of Stratham, who sold his shoes at Market Square in Portsmouth. This rich shoemaking heritage continues today. We ask our viewers to consider how these fashionable shoes reveal the hopes and dreams of New Englanders.

            The “shoe stories” will be told via approximately 25-35 pairs of shoes, pumps, and mules from numerous local, regional and private collections. Many of the shoes have never before been on display, making this a destination exhibition.

            An active program series is planned, including gallery talks, special lectures by leaders in the field, a “shoe shopping” event and hands-on workshops. Funding is currently being sought for a catalog and conference. The opportunity for community outreach and engagement at all age groups is especially strong.

            Held at the Portsmouth Athenaeum (, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the exhibition will open on Valentine’s Day, February 14th 2015 and be on view through late May 2015.

Curatorial Team:
Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D., University of New Hampshire, Co-Curator
Sandra Rux, Curator, Portsmouth Historical Society, Co-Curator
Tom Hardiman, Keeper, Portsmouth Athenaeum
Elise Daniel, Graduate Student Intern, UNH
Meaghan Reddick, Research Associate

Galerie des Modes, 1778


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Striking Pink Silk Stomacher for Miss Elizabeth Price, c. 1765-1775

This eye-catching, hot pink, white and black/brown silk stomacher is part of the Price Family textile collection at The Bostonian Society/Old State House ( It was most likely worn by Miss Elizabeth Price (oldest daughter of Elizabeth Bull Price (1718-1780). The style indicates a date range of c. 1765-1775 and the fetching piece was probably purchased and worn in Britain. Stomachers at this time were beginning to lose their popularity (and utility). Generally, they were worn until about 1775, when edge to edge gown closure became the norm. This stomacher underscores that the aesthetic was shifting away from the elaborate heavily embroidered botanical patterns, adorned with silk and metallic threads, of the Rococo period. Thin, shiny, lighter silks of the early Neoclassical period began to predominate. Even the trim is delicate. Miss Bull’s stomacher was probably associated with matching trim from the dress fabric, or a similar, compatible textile.  
Detail reveals patterns of wear and age; frayed and shredded silk
According to costume historian, Professor Mary Doering, of George Mason University/Smithsonian Associates: During the 1760s, many fashionable dresses were made in a monochromatic style, where the emphasis was on surface ornamentation rather than complementary textile or embroidery patterns.  The novelty striped silks, such as this one, became popular in the 1770s. A look at the reverse reveals the frequent hasty stitching of the trim.

No doubt Miss Price commanded considerable attention in an ensemble of a similar style and pattern to the stomacher!

Thank you to Patricia Gilrein, Collections Manager, The Bostonian Society for her assistance with the stomacher.

For additional information, see:

From Baby Caps to Mourning Rings

Visiting with Elizabeth Bull’s Wedding Dress, 1731-1735+

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Gossip Lady Reports on a 1730s Wedding Dress and an Exhibit on Shoes

Photo courtesy J. Dennis Robinson

Gossip: Shoes Through The Ages

By Jeanné McCartin
Portsmouth Herald, July 03, 2014 - 2:00 AM
Walking through History
Kimberley Alexander, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the Warner House curatorial committee (take a deep breath after that), is a very busy woman and could do with a pause herself. That's unlikely for some time though.
Alexander just completed six months of researching Bostonian Elizabeth Bull. The project culminated in a discussion by Alexander at the Old State House in Boston, regarding the pre-Revolutionary fashionista's incredible wedding dress (search for the write-up on the Boston Globe's Web site at

Alexander and Patricia Gilrein, the Bostonian Society's collections manager, are collaborating on a publication based on the "amazing trove of information" gathered during the process. "We're hoping to complete it in the next nine months," Alexander says.(
That is in addition to a "dynamic" new project, the Newmarket resident adds.
Alexander also is co-curating an exhibit of historical footwear with Sandra Rux, president of the Warner Houses board and curator at the Portsmouth Historical Society. The exhibit is scheduled for the Portsmouth Athenaeum in 2015. (
"We're looking at how shoes were made, but also shoes as an important commodity," Alexander says. Shoes speak to status, job, change in style, even the wearer's condition. "They tell you stories you don't find written text. ...; So many are women's shoes and they are left out of the official historic record."
The show will feature footwear from throughout New England, many pieces exhibited for the first time publicly.

Image, Sally Brewster Gerrish silk brocade shoe, c. 1770s John Paul Jones House, Portsmouth Historical Society, Courtesy, J. Dennis Robinson

Friday, July 18, 2014

Edward Steichen Captures the 1920s: Shoes for Vogue Magazine

Edward Steichen captured the beauty and refinement of 1920s fashion and style in numerous photo shoots for Vogue Magazine. In the photo above of the "barrette" shoe, with its slightly pointed toe and revived Louis heel, Steichen skillfully conveys a number of messages to the viewer. In this one detail shot, he reveals a bit of the carefree yet luxurious environment of the roaring twenties, while also highlighting several key merchandizing elements employed by the savvy fashion photographer and art director to attract the style conscious consumer.

In particular, note the proportions of the "foot model." Her neatly turned ankle is especially diminutive in dimension, the calf elongated and slender (but not bony) and the foot itself on the small size, but more importantly, it was narrow--long considered in some elite circles to be praiseworthy. Not every model could be a foot, hand or hat model. The models legs give the impression of being crossed at the ankle, which further reinforced the appropriateness of the image. The lacy hem sweeps (enticingly) just above the knee. The setting against what would have been recognized as a silk textile further heightened the aspect of luxury. The image conveyed the latest style, and suggested that wearing the shoes would lead to a positive experience with an underlying  message of gentility and sophistication. This would all be absorbed and understood quickly by the viewer - just as the subliminal (and not so subliminal) advertising used today. Steichen was a master in this genre.

Photographs courtesy Vogue Magazine/Conde Nast

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tea, Cake and Croquet: A Summer Afternoon in Costume, Warner House

Really, what could be a more delightful way to pass a sunny, early summer afternoon than drinking tea, nibbling on cakes and playing some rather aggressive croquet in the picturesque garden at The Warner House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire ( Warner House board chair, Sandra Rux; house manager, Jeffrey Hopper and your humble author, saw an interest in, and need for, historic spaces in the region to offer opportunities to costumers and reenactors from a number of historic eras to gather and enjoy events. Quite the convivial gathering, we hope for more in the near future.

Sarah, Jane & Hannah
S. Wordsworth Hemeon, photographer
Mistress and Master Spencer
SilkDamask photo
Rebecca models her dress - first opportunity to don her ensemble
SilkDamask photo
Julia, Sandra & Tara looking lovely
SilkDamask, photo
Sue brightens the room with her smile & 1930s sari
SilkDamask photo
Enjoying a chat in front of our absent host, Jonathan Warner
Amy Donle, photographer
S. Wordsworth Hemeon, photographer
For Portsmouth Herald article about the event by Jeanne McCartin,
 click here

For images by S. Wordsworth Hemeon, photographer, see The Warner House on Facebook

And for even more images, see