Do Artifacts Influence Our Cultural Interpretation of Clothing?

Erin Farquhar / 2014 Glassford & Henderson E-Tern

Today, Virginia weather is often categorized as variable, as it is hot and humid in the summer while bitter in the winter; it’s difficult to imagine living in this environment without the benefit of modern comforts. But, while my transcribing for Mount Vernon through the Glassford and Henderson project has progressed, I often found myself asking larger questions that these ledgers could not readily answer. As I transcribed various pages, the variety of purchases made by patrons has demonstrated a focus on commerce that merits speculation on larger issues, such as cultural need versus want.

One of the first things I noticed was that purchases related to apparel appeared several times throughout the context of these pages. Were these goods bought only for function? In other words, did these purchases represent a customer’s economic income such that some were able to purchase a variety of items inclusive of expensive goods? Or instead do these ledgers only contain economic purchases based on need? More importantly, how was frugality defined in this era; was it only based on living essentials or were other factors important as well?

Historically, clothing has been used as a mechanism to distinguish social status as well as characterize qualities such as personal identity. Trims such as lace, for example, are now a common garment staple; but in earlier eras due to lace being hand crafted, it was not only costly but was also used extensively to distinguish a lavish lifestyle. Even “humble” items used today, like the zipper, direct attention to modern advancement. Although technology in garment manufacture has progressed, the transactions recorded in these pages imply that commerce in this era was smaller; excessive purchases are rare. Instead these records suggest a cultural focus on economical prudence and necessity.

William Gates made several purchases at the Colchester store between 1767 and 1768. Including hats, handkerchiefs, and combs (underlined in red) and buttons (underlined in blue).

For instance, William Gates’ purchases in October of 1767 are representative of many of the customers recorded in these ledgers. He bought (underlined in red) two felt hats, two large cotton handkerchiefs, and one horn and one ivory comb, which all appear to be reasonable acquisitions. In November, he purchased one and one-half dozen metal buttons (underlined in blue) which is another small acquisition.  In all the pages I transcribed, many individuals purchased buttons; they are usually described simply as “mettle” buttons, with no distinguishing characteristics asides from value.  Based on this sampling, there appears to be no atypical purchases that would be indicative of an unusual, different lifestyle (thus enabling this transcriber to reach a definitive conclusion about how these items were used).

Conversely, figures such as Walter Gardner demonstrated a more atypical purchase, in addition to needing a recommendation to make purchases at all. Among other items, Ford purchased the following goods in December 1767: one pair of men’s shoes, one bottle of snuff, one fine check handkerchief, and one silk handkerchief.  Why did Gardner purchase two different types of handkerchiefs?  Specifically, the silk handkerchief raises additional questions: Why did he not purchase a cotton handkerchief (like we would today)?  Was cotton production too lengthy or underdeveloped at this time and thus silk was actually a modest choice as it may have had different associations from today? Or did Mr. Gardner opt for silk as a symbol that indicated his prestige?

Walter Gardner made a more extravagant purchase of a silk handkerchief in December, 1767, at the Colchester Store.

Another observation is that female customers appear to have been extremely rare; based on a random sampling of the ledger entries that I transcribed, they appear so infrequently that this aspect in itself becomes noteworthy to me. Might women have been discouraged from traveling directly to the store, thus reflecting their lack of independence, purchasing power, or status? Or, perhaps they were simply unable to attend to purchasing given the hazards of travel and the need to attend to the family and the home?  As sewing machines were not yet invented, making clothing for an entire family would have been a laborious and onerous task. Again, how are these facets reflective of historical individual need while simultaneously conveying a broader picture of the time? It is hard to conjecture given the lack of supporting contextual documents; but these records in and of themselves begin to suggest economic implications and paint a picture of a time in which goods merited thought, as one could not run right out to the nearest convenience store.

In comparison to those of the early colonists, our lives today appear luxurious.  Literature written by early settlers such as Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God[1] reflects and verifies the harsh conditions they encountered. Mary Rowlandson’s provocative account purportedly narrated in Rowlandson’s own words her ordeal as a woman captured and later ransomed by Native Americans. Although aspects of Rowlandson’s treatise, such as her regard for intercultural contact are regarded as contentious, her story has provided insight into this period, including early trade. It’s clear that daily living was not only composed of the hard work necessary to survive, but also filled with the fear of disease, famine, warfare, and the unknown.  Is the difference between wealth and poverty in this period an extreme dichotomy, or instead gauged by larger factors outside of one’s control? What remains to be seen is how individual historical artifacts (including these store accounts) will allow us to hypothesize this period, so that we not only continue in our cultural quest for knowledge, but also actively seek meaning in these items that have long since departed in time. If not, then how do these pages annotate another era, particularly in relation to larger aspects of culture?



[1] Rowlandson, Mary.  The Sovereignty and Goodness of God.  Ed. Neal Salisbury.  Boston/New York:  Bedford/St. Martin’s, c. 1997.  Print.

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One Response to Do Artifacts Influence Our Cultural Interpretation of Clothing?

  1. Dress plays an essential role in life. Our first thought is to generally define it as a barrier- that is, it covers and protects the skin (itself a barrier – see the irony? I firmly support the thesis of dress-as-second-skin). Dress/costume/clothing is also permeable, and is used as a medium of self expression. Considering this, it becomes easy to see how form and function intersect in 18th century costume across social classes. Fortunately, the need/popularity of dress/fashion throughout time leaves us with volumes of a research trinity: extant garments, art history, & written accounts. My experience and observation is that patience is the biggest resource to be drawn upon when asking questions about clothing – it takes time to sift through the abundance of material available. The history of dress to occupies a unique place, with a popularity rivaled only by food history. It’s impressive how we as humans took such essential (basic) parts of life & attached so much of our identity to them.
    Some questions you’ve posed:
    Form and function aren’t distinct. Frequently, 18th C. domestic goods show the same or better degree of finish than some of today’s (though cheap throwaways can also be found).
    Likewise, the line between frugality & frivolity is very blurred, *especially* with clothing (consider Washington’s cook, Hercules and his attraction to fine garments). “Mettle buttons” could easily be decorated as a part of their production, thanks to the developed industries & specialists that allowed for fast work, cheap price. What we’re missing from this record is the direct interaction between customer & clerk that shows or describes the button – there’s no need to describe it in a ledger in this case.
    “Check” most likely describes a cotton, or cotton/linen blend – see Montgomery “Textiles in America” and John Styles for more. Consider also the different textures of the fibers?
    Regarding women and purchasing power, there are two situations that come to mind. One being that women can be visited at the home by a milliner and sold goods there, the other being that they may be more prone to visit a milliner/mantuamaker, rather than a generalist. These depend on the goods being considered, urban density of the area, and social status of the consumer.
    My comments here are brief, and I look forward to literature suggestions from others while mine are packed away.

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