Bustling Through Boston: Searching for Mme Chesneau’s Dressmaking Shop

Last time I fell down an enormous rabbit hole, it was while researching this 1840s men’s neck stock from Philidelphia:

Click here to fall into that hole yourself.

I was not only about to find out where the stock was made, but all about the man who manufactured it! Through careful study, I was able to even narrow down the age of the stock to within 4 years– just based on the manufacturer’s stamp inside!

Anyway, this time around I have fallen down the rabbit hole with this skirt:

Isn’t the gold lovely? And that lace! The waist is bitty bitty: only 20 inches.

Some pretty little details to this deceptively simple skirt like floral lace overlay and tiny little knife pleats.

Unlike the stock (which I found in my favorite antique store and now own), this skirt is not mine, but an auction item on eBay waaaaaay out of my price range. I was just going to post a short little Facebook blurb about it because it’s so dang pretty, but then I looked closer at the pictures and found this:

Yes indeed! This skirt has a marker’s mark!

Fortunately, Boston is an old town, so there are plenty of maps available. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Mme Chesneau’s little shop deftly labelled as I was able to do for Mr. Ward. However! Her shop was in the heart of Boston– right off the Commons! The block she was located on is still relatively intact thanks to the presence of the Granary Burial Ground right behind it.

6 Beacon Street circa 2017

Today, the address belongs to a late Victorian building with a mix of offices, condos, and businesses inside. Here’s a realtor’s ad for the building (it’s a PDF, so it will download for you to open), if you are curious about the current interior. Sadly, very little, if any, of the original Victorian finishes appear to remain beyond the outside shell, but the street layout and numbers have not changed much at all (unlike poor Mr. Ward’s store locations which were both obliterated in the 1950s when Independence Mall was constructed). Mme Chesneau would also have been just up the block from the historical Tremont House when she owned her shop there in the late 1870s or early 1880s (judging by the style of the skirt). The Tremont House was a grand hotel built in 1829 and famous for being one of the first “modern” hotels with indoor plumbing, bellboys, and guest soaps:

I’m sure guests made off with all the free soaps just like they do today…and that’s a good thing!

Sadly, the Tremont House was razed in 1895 and the office buildings that now fill the block around the old burial ground went up in its place.

I didn’t delve as much in-depth with this skirt as I did with the neckstock, but here are some nifty maps from the 19th and early 20th century showing how much (and how little) the area where Mme Chesneau would have worked has changed:

This view is from decades before the skirt was made, but it shows you how little the streets of Boston in this area have changed! This is the view of 6 Beacon street from the Boston Commons. The spire belongs to Park Church and the trees behind it are the Granary Burial Ground. It’s hard to tell which side of the street the other buildings are on, but one of them to the left in the background would house 6 Beacon Street. The domed building to the far left is the Massachusetts State House, built in 1798.

The view of 6 Beacon Street from 1877–near the time the skirt was made! You can see the big dome of the Massachusetts State House in the foreground with the spire of Park Street Church right behind it. 6 Beacon Street would have been in or near the tan building to the left of the church.

This view of 6 Beacon street was made at almost exactly the same time as our golden bustle skirt: 1879. This view shows the dark outlines of some buildings, but it’s not a very detailed map. There are, however, 2 dark buildings at the corner where Somerset Street meets with Beacon Street at the turn. 6 Beacon Street would be located in one of these.

This 1885 map is a bit more detailed. In the center you can see the label for the Burial Ground in big letters to the right of the commons. If you look closely, you can see the label for the Tremont House (Tremont H.) to the right. 6 Beacon Street is in the white space just above it (on this map, white space doesn’t necessary indicate an empty lot, but just means there was nothing of importance to the cartographer).

Check out this nifty map from 1894: it shows the subway routes! In the 1890s, Boston began to change very rapidly. This is the year Boston’s first modern hotel was no longer modern enough for the growing city and shut down. The map still labels the plot “Tremont Building,”, but the outline looks much more like the office building the replaced it a year later…

Sad day! The Tremont House is no more on this 1895 map, but the giant Victorian office building that stands in its place today is still there. 6 Beacon Street is right on the other side of the little street leading to the Granary Burial Ground, Tremont Place. The building is labelled as being owned by WJ Otis.

One last glimpse of 19th century Boston and 6 Beacon Street. The building numbered 14 is the office complex that replaced the Tremont House 4 years earlier. Behind it is where 6 Beacon Street would be. I do not know if Mme Chesneau was still in Boston, but it is very likely that the building she sewed the skirt in was long gone by this time (I tried to look up the age of the current building there, but short of diving into tax records, I could not find it).

I could probably look Mme Chesneau up in Boston’s tax and business registration records, but I never thought I’d get so involved with an eBay skirt I could never hope to own! So unless I find a random pile of money to buy the skirt, I’m going to stop obsessing over something I cannot have for now.

However, the story of the skirt does not end with my trunicated quest or Mme Chesneau, the woman that made it. Someone bought and wore this skirt… but who? The seller themselves has a little theory about the owner of the skirt to add to the mix, making this skirt a nifty little diversion for a historical fashion, genealogy  and georeference fans alike:

We found 2 names associated with these clothes [there are other clothes available for auction from this seller]. A Miss D Hurd in a C 1915 dress and a calling card with a Mr and Mrs Ledyard Hart Heckscher. The older 1880s dresses may have belonged to Mrs Heckscher because their names are on a calling card with a note that states ” Fil de Main” Handkerchief sent to your grandmother Heckscher in 1869.”  The calling card looks of the late Victorian period. They may have been from Philadelphia or Boston / New York.”

A dress from a later generation, around 1912, from the seller’s other listings. If these are from a single family, you can tell the love of lustrous satin with netted lace overlay was passed down through the years!

This is what makes historical costume research so fun for me: the human element that leads you on a journey away from the seams and into the streets!

“Looking up Tremont Street toward Beacon Street, with the Granary Burying Ground to the left, taken around 1910. Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library.” – via Lost New England

Find of the Month: The Story of a Turn of the Century Woman’s Life in Bodices

July 2014

I actually found this month’s “FOTM” way back in May, but I just now got around to photographing them. I found this set of three Victorian and Edwardian bodices for sale on eBay, and at $16 for the lot, how could anyone (even on a tight budget like mine) resist?

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The woman I bought them from didn’t know much about them except that she got them as a lot together from an estate in northwestern Pennsylvania. The trio span the decades from the 1880s to about 1910.

The oldest bodice of the lot is the small brown one on the left. When I say small, I do mean small: 32 bust, 22 inch waist, and teeny 14 inch shoulders! It’s a young misses’ bodice, however, so the numbers are quite average for a teenage girl in the era. It was likely made for/by the young lady around 1886 or so:

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Young Misses’ Bodice, circa 1886

I can’t be certain of its exact age, but in 1886, “fluffy” pleated fronts like this came into fashion. You can see a similar bodice treatments in this fashion plate from the same year:

Fashion Plate, circa 1886

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The bodice is fairly simple in design. The main body is made of fine wool with a central panel of dotted silk. There is braided trim and little trailing branches of embroidery up the sides (commonly seen on crazy quilts of the era, so perhaps the wearer enjoyed quilting as well). It is missing its collar and two buttons and has many little moth holes, but is otherwise in lovely condition.

The other two bodices/blouses are post-1900. The brightest of the bunch is the eye-catching purple silk stripe blouse (It’s boned inside, so it’s technically a bodice, but the look is that of a blouse):

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Bodice, circa 1901

The colors, styling, and especially the sleeve decoration all point to a date right around 1901. The pouter pigeon front (sort of hidden by my mannequin’s lack of bust) and the bottom-heavy “bishop” sleeves can also be seen in these period fashion plates:

Fashion plate, September 1900

Fashion plate, circa 1901
Yay! Matching purple stripes!

Once again we have lovely dotted silk, this time in lavender and violet with cream stripes. In this case, the seamstress let the fabric do all the talking, cutting it diagonally for the front pieces and leaving it mostly untrimmed. It is missing its collar and most of one cuff, but the other cuff is still intact:

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The final bodice in this lot is a somber black shirtwaist made of very thin, fragile silk:

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Shirtwaist, circa 1908-10

It dates to about 1909, though blouses of this type had been in production for about 20 years between 1895 and 1915. The clues to dating this one are the collar, wide shoulders, and relatively plain, straight sleeves, much like these:

Wool Shirtwaists Ad, circa 1908

This particular blouse was made at home, not at a factory. In fact, it looks very similar to this shirtwaist pattern from Past Patterns:

The pattern is based off of a Butterick pattern from 1909. It has similar sleeves, pleating, and stitching. However, the front pleats on my shirtwaist are separate instead of overlapping, so I’s probably not made from the same pattern, but there were many other patterns available in magazines and mail-order catalogs that a home seamstress could buy, so the pattern this shirtwaist was made from may be out there somewhere still, waiting in a shoebox to be discovered!

Though it may seem rather dull in comparison to its companions, the black shirtwaist does have one standout accent– a fabulous beaded collar:

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This thing weighs more than the rest of the blouse!

The collar is older than the blouse by at least 20 years and is slightly too large to fit properly, indicating that it was probably recycled from an older dress. It brings to mind mourning clothes from the previous century. Though mourning clothes were still around in the Edwardian era, it wasn’t nearly as common as it had been during Victoria’s reign. As you can see in the wool shirtwaist advertisement above, black was a common, fashionable color in its own right. Not every black dress, shirtwaist, or skirt was for mourning purposes! Black has frequently fluctuated in and out of style of its own accord. Still, the measurements of this shirtwaist (38 bust, 30 inch waist) indicate that it was probably worn by a mature woman. She may have carried the customs of her youth in the 19th century with her into the 20th century.

Discovering a trio of bodices together from a single estate with such a clear timeline makes me wonder if they all belonged to a single woman over the course of a lifetime. The way all three are styled reveal a love of simple, unfussy design and, who could forget, the love of polka dot silk! If she were 15 in 1886, she would have been wearing the bright purple blouse right around age 30 and the darker blouse around age 38-40. If only I had an 1890s bodice to complete the decade by decade look at turn of the century clothing! It might just be coincidence that all three were found together, but I treasure the possibility that they belonged to a single woman, mapping her life in fabric and thread as she sewed her way through the changing fashions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Previous Finds of the Month:

 

January 2014

December 2013