Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"A Great Storm of Snow" in Samuel Lane's New Hampshire, 1748

Transcribed from Lane almanac, February 1748
Courtesy, New Hampshire Historical Society
Cordwaining or shoe making in eighteenth-century rural New England was an intriguing episode, frequently an entrepreneurial activity, and almost always one which involved diversification to make a suitable living. Where were shoes were made? Who made them and for whom? How were they sold?  The shoe making family of the Lanes in Stratham & Hampton, New Hampshire are the most probably the best documented in the 18th century. Samuel Lane (1716-1806) kept an “almanack” over a 60 year period. His almanack or day book follows his life from his time as an apprentice to his father through old age. Contemporary accounts reveal that Lane-made shoes were a popular purchase in Portsmouth on Market Days. However, his success lay not only in the successful shoe trade, but also relied on his training as a surveyor, his ability to accumulate land for pasturing animals and growing grains. The success of the family was an effort which involved every member.

Courtesy, New Hampshire Historical Society
Winters were incredibly long – continuing what is known as “the little ice age”.  A few extracts from Lane’s diary make for interesting reading on these snowy days, especially as I sit in my studio only a few miles distant from the Lane homestead.

The sense of being snow bound is palpable in his writing: Lane and his family and friends frequently spent weeks unable to get much further than the mill pond on his property or waiting for men driving oxen to open the road between Greenland and Portsmouth. Snow shoes were essential.

These hand-hewn snow shoes were once owned by Major General Artemas Ward. They are in the collection of Harvard University.  Made by 1768, similar ones were used throughout New England. 1

For more on Samuel Lane, see

1. These hand-hewn snow shoes were once owned by Major General Artemas Ward. They are in the collection of Harvard University.  Made by 1768, of rawhide webbing, wood, leather and early iron nails, they are believed to be Native American made, although the tribe undetermined. Noted in the "Ward Homestead Album", they belonged to General Ward. An early paper label reads: "Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward his [rackets?] bought of David Wheelock of Shrewsbury for [2 6? Feb 20, 1768?]”
Location - General Artemas Ward House Museum; HU1574

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Frosty, Fashionable January, circa 1790s

Winterthur Museum Object Number:
1959.0756 A

I recently came across this image of “January” in the Winterthur Museum Collection (More). It is a delightful example of a genre painting -- winter ice skating, with three fashionably attired young women placed prominently in the foreground right with their oversized muffs, hats and elaborate plumes. A seated young gentleman in crimson coat has his back to the viewer and appears to be donning (or removing) his skates, while conversing. A dog stands by. The young men skating in the distance are clad in drab common wear – no bright red coats –which look well-worn. The painting is reverse (oil) painted on glass – an oft-encountered example of the skilled artisans and artists of the Asian Export trade. Made in Canton, China, it was intended for a Western audience. The date of 1789-1810 for its execution corresponds perfectly with the taste and style of the era. Another example of the monthly series is one of a group fishing - here a neatly dressed young lady disengages a fish from her hook.

Fashion Plate, December 1797

Sunday, January 18, 2015

If These Shoes Could Talk….New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850

I greet you with excitement on this wintery morning: Presenting the invitation for "Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850," co-curated with Sandra Rux, curator emerita of the Portsmouth Historical Society and independent museum professional.  We have selected over 35 pairs of historic shoes from over a dozen museums and private lenders. The exhibit will display wedding shoes, dancing slippers, boots, everyday and remade shoes, as well as some rare garments and accessories. Visitors will see dazzling brocades and damasks, silks, leather, and calamancoes—from New England, Great Britain, and France. Many of the pieces in the exhibition have never before been viewed by the public.

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 pair of shoes remade from a 1730s wedding dress to a pair of 1773 wedding shoes. 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.
Invitation design by Phineas Graphics
Visitors will also be treated to lectures, gallery talks, a workshop, and a unique shoe-shopping event! Of particular interest, we will hold a mini-shoe symposium 29th-30th May. Susan Holloway Scott, bestselling novelist of historical fiction and well-known history blogger (http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com), will present a talk entitled "For the Love of Shoes." The symposium will be held at the Discover Portsmouth Center. (More information to follow.)

So, mark your calendars: February 14-June 5 2015 at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire!

For updates, you can follow us at twitter using #Shoes2015, at www.PortsmouthAthenaeum.org or Portsmouth Athenaeum on Facebook

We extend our appreciation to the many lenders and sponsors who have made this endeavor possible.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Byron Greenough and His Tall Hats, 1820+

Hats were a crucial element of a man’s ensemble, revealing to a passerby at a glance some identifier –usually socio-economic status -- of the wearer. Hats changed styles throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with regularity, although often with subtleties lost on a modern audience. Height, width, depth of brim, colors, fabrics and even types of trim, could place a hat at a certain time and place. Hats of beaver fur, wool, straw or felt were among the most common. [1]

There were a number of opportunities for hatters in the early Republic, such as twenty-three year old Byron Greenough, who apparently learned the trade in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He may have apprenticed to the town’s best known hatter, Jonathan Webster, before striking out on his own. He settled in Portland, Maine in 1821.

From the textile collection at Historic Deerfield, this especially handsome, striking bleached beaver fur tall hat, with matching grosgrain ribbon, dates to1825-1835. Completed after he arrived in Portland, the condition is excellent. Greenough labeled his hats. His business grew rapidly to include not only retail hats, but also boots and shoes. A successful businessman, he was able to erect a brick flatiron building at the head of Free Street in Portland.

Last year (2013/14) Historic Deerfield had on exhibit this fabulous woman’s bleached beaver fur riding hat, early 19th century.

1. Styles for men’s hats, c. 1700-95

2. For more on Byron Greenough, see

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Trio of Victorian Party Boots!

Pondering parties past as we welcome 2015….The Victorian elite knew how to capture the glitter, sparkle and shine of the holidays, from their dresses and accessories, right down to their selection of footwear..

The ultimate in Victorian party boots, these crimson silk satin brocade showoffs were worn to the "opening" soiree at Chicago society and fashion maven, Mrs. Potter Palmer's new home by one of her friends, Mrs. A.F. Ratray Grieg, in 1883. The black kidskin is decorated with cut-out foliate pattern, underlaid with gold-colored kid. The scallop-edge closure has brass buttons. The “baby” French heel finishes the composition. Unfortunately, the maker is unknown. I can only imagine what the evening dress looked like!

This pair of rather astonishing velvet & gold leather button boots are true attention getters.  Note the gold leather details which echo the form of stockings and spats. The heels on theses c. 1880-90s boots is particulary graceful.
Featured in the 2008 exhibition “HEIGHTS OF FASHION: A HISTORY OF THE ELEVATED FOOT” at the Esplanade Museum [Alberta, Canada]. Image via www.wornthrough.com/

Though not as robust as the boots pictured above, the use of a brocaded silk satin creates an air of restrained luxury. The maker is not known, but they are likely from France, c.1889. Via the Los Angeles County Museum of Art