By Jennifer Nason and Camille Myers Breeze
In last week’s blog, the Oberlin Connection, Camille wrote about a donation of clothing from Mike & Midge Burnham. While cataloging Ruth Thayer Burnham’s exquisitely preserved 1895 silk wedding dress, we came across something fascinating: alterations to the stays stitched within the bodice of the dress. Assuming one only wears one's wedding dress once, we have been curious about why this dress might have been meddled with.
Hand-stitched inside the bodice of the dress are sixteen stays. Stays, or boning, are thin strips of rigid material used to help hold the form of a corset or dress. The earliest materials used for stays were wood, ivory, baleen--also called whalebone--, and bone, hence the term boning. By the mid 19th century, steel and baleen predominated. The elongated torso popular in the 1880s to early 1890s required large amounts of corsetry but by the late 1990s a lighter, shorter style emerged. This simpler shape required much less boning than in the 1880s and permitted a greater range of movement. Ruth Thayer’s 1895 marriage to Alfred Burnham took place right while this change was taking place.
The stays in Ruth's wedding dress were sewn in by hand and also altered to make some shorter than others. The cuts to the fabric casing of the shortened stays reveal them to be both a translucent and opaque flexible material. This is likely baleen, which comes in a range of colors that sources suggest can be used to identify the whale species from which it came.
But the stays tell an even more complicated story. The front four are more flexible and lack the crisscross pattern of stitching that holds the others down. Luckily, two are coming loose from the dress allowing us to see blue lettering on the back that reads, “Warren’s Featherbone.” Featherbone was the unique invention of dry-goods salesman Edward Warren. On a tour of a feather duster factory, Warren realized that the inexpensive pointer feathers being discarded could replace whale boning. Warren opened a store in 1873 to sell his new Featherbone and the compressed-feather boning quickly became popular for its light-weight, rust-proof quality. Warren’s Featherbone enjoyed its peak of success between 1873 and 1900.
How can we explain the complex series of decisions that went into the construction and alteration of this dress? Perhaps Ruth originally wore it with a separate corset and the boning was altered for subsequent wearings. If the dress was worn only once, though, perhaps the longer stays were trimmed in the final fitting to make the bride comfortable, and Featherbone was preferred for the front of the bodice.
As an opera singer, Ruth would no doubt have sung on her wedding day, requiring an extra degree of mobility and comfort. She also had many occasions on which to wear spectacular costume, such as the gown pictured in this photograph, which appears to be Edwardian, from the first decade of the 20th century.
As cataloging and rehousing continue, we will search for other alterations in the wedding dress that could confirm that it was worn more than once. We may never know for certain, but perhaps our readers have additional insight into the story told by this particular detail of Ruth's spectacular wedding ensemble. Please weigh in if you wish to hazard a guess.
By Camille Myers Breeze
This beginning of this story may sound familiar to some of you. From a young age, I started absconding with cool things my parents had in their houses, in my case the textiles. When they both downsized after I went off to College, they passed on to me everything I could find space for. By the time I was 35 and Museum Textile Services had moved to its own home, I had a bona fide study collection filling several archival boxes. Since then, family members have sent me everything from wedding gowns to souvenirs and, more recently, we have begun accepting the occasional donation.
I should stop here and make something perfectly clear. We are not a museum. We're not even a non-profit. Museum Textile Services is an independent conservation laboratory with a growing client base and a popular internship-training program. When someone contacts us about making a donation, we make it clear that we can't appraise their items or provide a tax receipt. Nevertheless, donors tell us, they are grateful to have found a place where their clothing and textiles will be cared for and put to good use.
Mike and Midge Burnham were referred to me late in 2012 by my friend Dana, who runs a vintage shop in Newmarket, NH, called Concetta's Closet. Dana had purchased much of their family's 20th-century clothing but knew that the older items were museum quality and not suitable for wearing. Was I interested, the Burnhams asked, in a donation of several boxes of 19th- and early 20th-century clothing? The size of the donation concerned me at first but what eventually convinced that it was destined for MTS was the Oberlin connection.
Some of the oldest donated items belonged to Mike's great-grandmother Cassandra Vernon Washburn Burnham. Cassandra (1849-1935) was a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary. She outlived her husband, the Rev. Michael Burnham (1839-1905), by 30 years, and during her widowhood she became innkeeper at Grey Gables in my college town of Oberlin, OH. Exactly how long Cassandra ran Grey Gables in not clear but in 1930 the college acquired it for student housing. In 1952, Grey Gables became just the second of Oberlin’s still-vibrant student co-ops but it was demolished in the 1960s during a wave of large-dormitory construction.The land on which Grey Gables stood became the Grey Gables parking lot.
Cassandra and Michael Burnham had five children, of whom two survived to adulthood. The couple is buried in Spring Street Cemetery in Essex, MA. Their son, the Rev. Edmund Alden Burnham married the highly successful contralto Ruth Thayer in 1895. Ruth Thayer Burnham's spectacular wedding ensemble, along with other outfits of hers, were also donated to the MTS study collection and will be the subject of future MTS blogs.
Museum Textile Services does not actively seek items for the study collection--we don't have the space or staff, for starters. But the stories these objects tell, and the opportunity for learning that they present, are priceless. For more stories from the MTS study collection, select "study collection" from the search bar on the right-hand side of this page.