This month at Museum Textile Services we were excited to conserve a set of four concealed garments: a shoe, a shoe sole, a boot, and a bonnet. The objects were found during renovations to a 1725 Ledyard, CT, house, and were located in the floorboards of an attic above the birthing room. The boot and bonnet are 19th century, while the shoe could be even older. The bonnet closely resembles silk crepe spoon caps from the Civil War era.
When items such as these are hidden in secular or religious buildings, they are often placed close to doors and fireplaces, or under floorboards. These areas were considered the weakest parts of the house, where malevolent spirits might enter. Concealed garments are often interpreted as protective symbols. As Dinah Eastop and Charlotte Dew explain in their article Secret Garments: Deliberately Concealed Garments as Symbolic Textiles:
Deliberately concealed garments are often heavily worn and bear the imprint of the wearer. The objects we conserved show many indicators of heavy use including separating layers of leather and abrasion to the fabric at the interior of the shoe, holes, heavily caked on mud and dirt, and evidence of re-soling on multiple occasions. The bonnet was generally deformed and was missing layers of fabric at its interior.
The shoes and bonnet were carefully surface cleaned with a micro-vacuum attachment, toothbrushes, and vulcanized rubber sponges. During the process, we found different types of beans in the toe of the boot. While they easily could have been transported into the shoe by way of rodents, it is also possible that the beans were put there by the people who originally concealed the garments. Beans, seeds, and corn cobs symbolize fertility, and are often found in historic homes along with concealed objects.
After cleaning, the garments were humidified in a Gore-Tex chamber to facilitate reshaping. We were concerned with the leather hardening, or crosslinking, in the presence of water, so the objects were very carefully monitored. When dry, the leather was treated with renaissance wax, a micro-crystalline wax conditioner and cleaner. This did not change their appearance greatly, but will help to coat the leather and aid in its preservation. Support mounts were made for the two shoes and the bonnet from pieces of Ethafoam covered with knit jersey. A custom box protects them all and allows the owner to easily show them to friends.
We are excited that the concealed objects will be returning to the house in which they were found, and continue to tell the history of the home. For more information about deliberately concealed objects, see the the website developed by Dinah Eastop and Charlotte Dew.