Friday, April 10, 2015

A Symposium on Shoes, Planned in Conjunction With "Cosmopolitan Consumption…"

Are you fascinated by historic shoes? Do you want to learn more about the roles footwear has played in people's lives and the styles they wore and why? Do you want the inside scoop on some of the latest museum projects involving cataloging & accessibility of collections? Then join us for a symposium on shoes, planned in conjunction with "Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750" May 29th-30th, 2015. Sponsored by the Portsmouth Athenaeum and UNH History Department Exhibit Curators and Symposium Organizers: Kimberly Alexander, Ph.D., and Sandra Rux, with assistance from Jeffrey Hopper. Design by Phineas Graphics.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Silk Brocade Shoes Worn by a Bride Who Was Lame, 1764

According to Ipswich Museum files, these silk brocade shoes were worn at wedding of Miss Mary Wise of Chebacco (Ipswich, Essex County, Massachusetts). She married Nathaniel Farley in 1764 or early 1765 (their intention to marry was  dated 17 November 1764).  She was in her early twenties and 
this was her first marriage, while it was Nathaniel's second.

Even at first glance, it is clear the shoes are unusual in their composition. One shoe has been built up at the sole and heel to accommodate the difference in the length of the bride's legs--she was lame. Therefore, the height of one of the heels is 1.25" and the other is 2.75”. How was this accomplished? A special wood “platform”  was added to one shoe. Using the same quality materials which comprise the shoe textile, special care was taken to match the front portion of the "addition." It is neatly, even meticulously sewn. More study is needed of the wooden super structure, its method of construction and attachment, and any interior details. The style, quality of material and work would indicate a London manufacture, special order, or an especially highly skilled British American cordwainer.

Rather than hide her "infirmity" by wearing less attractive, but practical, heavy leather shoes built up on the inside or outside, Mary appears to have made the decision to celebrate her wedding in the elegant style of the times. The silk of her brocade shoes would have caught glints of light as she walked, as would the glittering buckles. Her shoes were not meant to be hidden. She may also have been bowing to familial wishes, but I like to think that she expressed her intentionality through a conscious decision. Then as now, most brides want to look their best on their wedding day.

Mary was born in Chebacco in 1741 and died in Ipswich in 1792.  Her first child was a son named Daniel, born 26 September 1765.  Her husband Nathaniel Farley had a son named Nathaniel by his first wife Elizabeth Cogswell. The shoes were passed down through the family and are now in the care of the Ipswich Museum. They are currently on view (2015) in the exhibition "Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850" at the Portsmouth Athenaeum (

Ph.D. candidate Nicole Belolan is examining this topic via her dissertation: “Navigating the World: The Material Culture of Physical Mobility Impairment in the Early American North, 1700-1861,” is about material culture and disability in early America. If you have information to share, she may be reached at

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Striking English Quill Work Portrait, 1700-1720

An object of outstanding beauty and exhibiting many talents, this quill work portrait of an attractive, elegant young woman is in the collection of Historic Deerfield ( Created between 1700 and 1720, it features the use of silk, ink and paper. 

This English portrait combines needlework, watercolor and other types of fashionable decorative treatments such as the gilt edged paper which was fashioned into to scrolls and tendriling leaves and flowers. This treatment mimics the elaborate gilt portrait frames of the era.  Catching the parlor light this would have been a perfect Rococo centerpiece, displaying artistry and wealth.

The maker and the sitter are currently unknown, but given the level of skill shown throughout, it probably occupied a place of pride in the family’s treasures. Further, despite the artistic challenge presented by the nose, the visage of the sitter is meant to convey a delicate and genteel aura. She wears pearls at her neck, her hair is loose and uncovered. The anatomical correctness is a bit “off."  Since posting this, I have discussed the portrait with friend and colleague Susan Holloway Scott, best selling historical fiction novelist, ( who pointed out several features of our unknown sitter: her garment does not feature the squared neckline of a mantua, but rather the wide, off-the-shoulder oval of the earlier period. Also the full sleeves, the under-smock cuffs, the pearl necklace, even the flowing hair all look earlier, closer to the 1660s or 1670s. Over her shoulders, is a voluminous (fur?) wrap, frequently seen in oil painting of the period.

Given what we know about the tutelage of young women in embroidery, white work and so on, it would make sense that the maker used an earlier painting/print as a guide. Susan suggests that the work of English painter Peter Lely (or an engraving after his work) may have been the design source for the young woman who completed this piece at a later date. There are, of course, many variables and it is hoped that we may be able to pinpoint the source for the student or perhaps a group of similar quill work pieces, allowing us to identify them with an instructor or locale. Until that time, it detracts nothing from this very special object.

Peter Lely, Portrait of a Lady in Blue holding a Flower, 1660. Oil on canvas, 126.7 x 102.5 cm. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
This is a special find in a special gallery. “Celebrating the Fiber Arts” is a rotating, ongoing installation at Historic Deerfield (

Courtesy, Victoria & Albert Museum
Many thanks to Ned Lazaro, Collections Manager & Associate Curator of Textiles, for his ongoing assistance.

All images are courtesy of Historic Deerfield unless noted otherwise; photos by Kimberly Alexander 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Régence, Regency, Jazz Age What Color Was It? (Part 2)

Part 2, Vibrancy

 Singing in the Rain MGM 1952

As if to reinforce the notion of jarring modern color, on a fluke the other night we watched the movie ‘Singing in the Rain.’  So bumping along with the film, focusing on it and a book at the same time suddenly my eye caught the ’Gotta Dance’ sequence.  Saturated dyes and pigments of chartreuse, lemon, fuchsia, orange and electric blue traveled across the screen coloring everything with the same color palette used by Arnoux.  

Of course this was a dream sequence in a movie musical from the 1950s, so careful with putting too much stock in accuracy, but… while these 1920s colors were jarring, at the same time they were reminiscent of the colors I saw years ago in Bath on Regency under gowns. In that exhibit the pastel colors of the regency women were in fact electrically vibrant colors muted by the shear muslin over gowns.  The muslin gauze tempered the brilliant colors like a painter’s glaze. This was not a world of pastel dyed garments, but a pigment charged palette vying for attention with the driven hues of the Regency interior.  


Those examples shattered my notion of the Grecian refinement that I tended to associate with clothing of this period and it has stayed with me over the years. The Arnoux’s pochoirs reflected the insouciance that we regard as a hallmark of the Jazz Age, but it also put me in mind of that earlier exhibit and the randiness of the early 19th century suddenly looked more modern for it. 


The French Régence, the English Regency and the Jazz Age were not and are not the same period, but how striking some of the similarities, a generation maturing during a series of wars and revolutions, feeling distanced from the previous generation and breaking from that generation not only in the silhouette clothing, but the color palette of that clothing. 


The images from the 1920s captured the essence of a moment pervading the inner war years and transferred it to an earlier period. Historically, the 1920s colors may have been wrong based on available dyes during the 18th century and even the early 19th century but it reminds me to be vigilant to the possibilities of the improbable.


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