The Massachusetts Historical Society recently contracted Museum Textile Services to aid in the conservation of items for their upcoming fashion exhibit. Each of the textiles is associated with different historical figures that relate to the history of Massachusetts. This significance of an object often has a lot to do with the importance of the person who once owned it. Many are saved and passed on through generations largely because of their history of ownership. Of course, the importance of a historic object is often much more than just its previous ownership, especially if it has survived many years. Certain artifacts may have signatures and clues that alert us of previous owners; however, many items are considered historical due to a storied line of family history. Historians, appraisers, and conservators have developed expertise in the history and style of materials, allowing us to determine whether the date of the object is current to its proposed time period.
A blue-and-white “Gingham Square” with the initials “LD” hand-embroidered in the top left corner was chosen for the exhibit. We are lucky to have these initials, because they bring us closer to identifying the original owner of this object. According to the Massachusetts Historical Society, this domestic textile once belonged to Lydia Dawes (1718-1760). Lydia Dawes is mostly known for being the mother of William Dawes, who was one of the men who alerted colonial minutemen of the approach of British Soldiers during the American Revolution. There are several clues when observing this object closely that help us to date it to the time of Lydia Dawes. The style of fabric is very characteristic of the 18th century, and “slugs” in the fibers (where the cotton thread thickens) help us to determine that it was hand spun.
The most complex conservation treatment we are undertaking for the exhibit is a hand-embroidered baptismal apron. According to catalog records, this apron once belonged to Mary Woodbury (1716-? ) from Essex, Massachusetts. Little is written about her online, however, the Massachusetts Historical Society also has a painting of “Pocahontas” that she supposedly made as a school girl in 1730. According textile expert, Pamela Parmal, samplers and other examples of fine embroidery completed by school girls were often kept throughout generations because they represented an investment in a young girl’s education. This particular style of apron is concurrent with other examples of embroidery from the mid-18th century, with its Indian influence seen in the exotic flowers and animals. Some of the motifs are exact copies of a nearly identical group of aprons in the Museum of Fine Art, Boston’s collection that came from the mid-18th-century Boston school of Mary Turfrey. We surmise, therefore, that Mary Woodbury was may have been her student.
A late-Victorian gown is also among the objects treated to date from the Massachusetts Historical Society. This particular gown was believed to have belonged to Rachael Hartwell (1868-1905). Rachael was born in Watertown, Massachusetts, and was a graduate of Wellesley College. She married her husband, George Joseph Pfeiffer, in 1896, and they spend many years traveling and living abroad. They later relocated to Arlington Massachusetts, and Rachael died during the birth of the couple’s only child, Hilda, in 1905. There is a lot of fine detailing in this dress, included a very intricate campaign of bead work. Based on our knowledge of style and materials of the dress, conservators can guess that this particular dress is from the early 1900’s, due to the distinct silhouette which is very characteristic of the dress and style from this time. Dating this dress to then would mean that it was worn towards the end of Rachael’s life. It was obviously a much loved garment, as three distinct campaigns of repairs were found during conservation treatment.
Stay tuned for another blog with more textiles we will treat this summer in preparation for the opening of the Massachusettes Historical Society's fashion exhibition.