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

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Five Snazzy Details to Add Pizzazz to Your Victorian Costume

Full, Exhaustive Title:
Five Snazzy Details to Add Pizzazz to Your Victorian Costume

found in Extant 19th Century Garments from Augusta Auctions

I enjoy poking around on internet auction sites for extant garments “in the rough.” Museums can’t hold every original piece of clothing. There are literal tons of antique clothing sitting in private homes and shops that no one has ever seen before! We are blessed in this age of internet commerce to see some of these treasures for a few brief days on websites like eBay, Etsy, or Ruby Lane before they disappear again into private collections. Many of these amazing private holdings posess design details and quirks that are often glossed over by sweeping generalizations about past fashions. Looking through these often less-than-perfect dresses in their wrinkled, as-found condition is a wellspring of fresh sewing inspiration!
Since I can’t buy every gorgeous gown that scrolls across my screen, I have taken to collecting them digitally on Pinterest, combing through online sales pages for pieces with unusual features or appealing designs. One of the many sites I try to check regularly is the Augusta Auctions page. They are an antique/vintage textile and clothing auction house that so kindly keeps pictures of previous auction lots long after the auction has ended (so many times auction sites remove photos soon after the sale is complete). They have garments of many types from the 1700s to modern, but my research recently has focused on the Victorian era (1837-1901). Many of their items are de-accessioned from public museums which means that the Augusta Auction website is often their last accessible record before disappearing from the public view. Rifling through the auction lots has yielded some unusual and strange pieces, but it also has brought to light a few simple, unique design elements that a modern costumer could easily adopt!

1. Mix-n-Match and Matchy-Matchy Accessories
(I guess that’s really two tips in one, so this list has 6!)

Morning Glory Cotton Sateen Day Dress, 1880s
“2-piece, maroon [looks brown in the photos, but it my be more reddish in person] cotton sateen w/ blue floral print, lace trim, cut steel buttons, matching fan.” – Augusta Auctions

I’m not generally a matching maven when it comes to my day-to-day modern clothes, but making my own historical outfits means I pay a lot more attention to color, pattern, and stylish shortcuts. This dress has a classic combination of dense print paired with a plain matching color. The printed bodice and bustled overskirt are separate from the simple tiered brown cotton underskirt, so they can be mixed and matched with other pieces. The solid colored skirt would be very easy to match other bodices with and it’s likely the dress’s original owner had one or two other pieces she could mix together to create a multitude of outfits with, especially since (unlike many bustle underskirts that have plain backs) this underskirt is decorated all the way around making it extra versatile:

A very simple bustle back suitable for an active woman on the job or on the go!

But sometimes you just wanna MATCH. Some women match their shoes to their purse. Others can’t leave the house unless everything from their underwear to their earrings are all the same shade. This day dress in particular comes with a unique matching accessory, especially for such an otherwise ordinary outfit: A custom matching fan!

It matches so well it’s nearly camouflaged!

If you are interested in making a matchy-matchy fan of your own, here’s a semi-tutorial posted on La Bricoleuse:

Making a Silk Folding Fan

As an added bonus, the fabric on the fan was protected from the sun when it was folded up, so it did not fade! It gives us a clue about how much brighter this dress used to be: just look at that pop of ultramarine and hint of crimson! It was a brilliant use of excess fabric. Other ways to use extra fabric scraps to create matchy-matchy accessories include small drawstring purses and coverings for hats and bonnets.

Lined Drawstring Bag Tutorial
By In Color Order

Cardboard and Duct Tape Victorian Bonnet Tutorial
by Darling and Dash

2. Ribbon Flowers
(may be combined with the matchy-matchy tip above for decorating pretty much everything)

Detail of a Silk Visiting Dress, 1860s
“Three-piece buff changeable ribbed taffeta, trimmed with bright coral satin bands, scallops, bows, rosettes and Van Dyke points: front buttoning boned bodice with high neckline; belt with attached back peplum; trained unlined skirt, gold stamped label “Louis Hille Tailleur Pour Dames 398 Rue St Honore Paris”[…] Featured in April 1998 ANTIQUES Magazine” – Augusta Auctions

It’s fairly common to see garments decorated with ribbon bows and cockades, but when I found this dress, the big pink satin flower caught my eye right away. It is extremely similar to modern ribbon flowers that can be found on everything from toddler headbands to coffee cup koozies!

There are hundreds of ribbon and fabric flower tutorials, but for this particular design, there are three methods that will produce similar results:

Ruched Ribbon Flower
Tutorial by Nikki in Stitches

Scrap Fabric Flower
Tutorial by Melissa of Until Wednesday Calls

Round Petal Kanzashi Flower
Tutorial by A Pumpkin & A Princess

In addition to how modern the flower looks, the placement also gives it unique charm. There’s one at a fairly standard location at the small of the back, but another is placed just off the hip and another midway down the skirt. So cute!

The seamstress really liked trimming in general. Just check out the amazing design created with matching pink ribbon/fabric applied in a multitude of ways!

Rosettes, stripes, binding, applique, scalloped edging, bows… the works!

3. Embroidered Accents

Embroidered Visiting Dress, 1870s
“2 main fabrics: black silk faille & black silk satin, satin w/ narrow velvet stripe embroidered w/ wine, brown & blue flowers, polonaise bodice, cut steel buttons & lace, blue satin modesty insert, trained bustle skirt, B 36″, W 30″, Skirt L 40″-59″, provenance, Homans family Washington, D.C.” – Augusta Auction

Victorian costumes often feature lovely embroidery work. They didn’t have access to fancy in-home digital embroidery machines like we do now, but there are so many beautiful modern fabrics and trims that come pre-embroidered today so even if you can’t embroider, you can have the look! Even now, embroidered fabric can be pretty expensive. A whole gown of the stuff might be out of the question for most. A yard or two, though, is enough to add a rich touch to a dress like in this sophisticated frock:

The seamstress who crafted this dress made judicious use of the fine striped satin with embroidered flora, placing it front and center on the bodice and cuffs, but leaving the back plain while edging and gores in the skirt tie the look together.

There was quite a heated discussion on a forum about the legitimacy of using pre-embroidered fabrics in historical costumes. While handwork is always period, pre-embroidered fabric is a fantastic way to mimic the look. The embroidery on this dress in particular features a small, repeating pattern that looks very much like many pre-embroidered fabric available today.

Bonus points for the pieced front and late 18th century revival styling!

4. Bold Buttons

Silk Brocade Jacket, 1880s
“Black silk ground w/ Persian inspired brocade, small rondels in metallic gold, sky blue, maroon & yellow, fitted torso, constructed in style of gent’s 18th C jacket, black velvet trim & back pockets, cream & gold embroidered lace trim, 24 magnificent gold metal buttons inset w/ cut steel faceted beads in silver, cobalt & wine, bright yellow silk satin lining, B 32″, W 24″, L 27-30″, excellent. [De-accessioned from the] Brooklyn Museum.” -Augusta Auctions

The last dress had some pretty nifty cut steel buttons, but this jacket certainly ups the ante! Victorians loved buttons of all types and there are as many colors and styles as you can imagine. The buttons on this jacket are something truly avant-garde and different, though. They look thoroughly modern. They would be right at home on a 1930s suit or a 1960s mod mini dress, but here they sit on an otherwise unassuming brocade jacket!

Like many buttons and pieces of jewelry from the 19th century, these buttons are made of faceted steel studs riveted together. These are unusual for their added color and abstract dot pattern.

As they were 150 years ago, buttons can be an expensive investment, but they can really add a pop of character to an otherwise plain dress! Many Victorian buttons are more “traditional” than these, but Victorians loved quirky buttons of all types– from colorful lions and garden insects to distant planets and birds on a telegraph wire!
Etsy is a great place to look for unique buttons, both antique and modern.

With all the wild figurative metal buttons out there, you could probably use these awesome steampunk mechanism buttons or these ancient glyph buttons and no Victorian would bat an eye (they might even compliment you on them, considering how fond they were of industrial progress and ancient cultures). After all, they were the ones putting spiders, ears or corn, and fighting children on buttons first!

Fashionable fisticuffs, anyone?

5. Stunning Studs

Taupe Silk Tea Dress
“2-piece silk crepe, boned bodice w/ overlay of chemical lace studded w/ cut steel beads, grey velvet trim, label “Jermyn W. 45th St.”, B 36″, W 28″, L 41″” -Augusta Auctions
(This dress would totally fit me! If only I had snatched it up. It sold for only $120!)

Augusta Auctions dates this to the 1910s, but the shape, construction, and styling all scream 1889-1892, so I’m including it here.

Ah, my angsty teenage self sure did love silver studs! I treasured my gnarly Hot Topic studded faux-leather bracelet because it made me feel like an invincible warrior. Surprisingly, it’s not just goths and neo-Victorians who enjoyed being studded with glittery steel. The dresses above had silvery cut steel buttons. This particular dress cut out the middle man and has cut steel applied directly to the lace!

Cut steel jewelry and accessories have been around for centuries as a bright, sparkly alternative to diamonds. In the late Victorian period, cut steel was mass manufactured and widely popular. Steel-encrusted miser purses, opera capes, and shoes were de rigueur. While individual studs were less common, they were popular for wearing indoors because they were excellent at glittering in low light.
Studs weren’t just made of rounded cut steel. Some were spiky enough to make even the hardest-core punk rocker happy! Here are two bonnets with pyramid studs that defy the supposedly frail and fragile femininity associated with the Victorian era:

H. O. Hanlon Bonnet, circa 1887
Metal (the Met doesn’t list if they are steel or something else) studs in action. My favorite 1880s bonnet!

House of Virot Bonnet, circa 1885
Black glass pyramid beads add some fierce glitter to this otherwise plush bonnet.

Victorians loved the interplay between hard and soft surfaces and playing with textures. Some combinations are truly unusual and funky, but if done in moderation and with a careful eye for the design, even supposedly “modern” fashion elements can work in the Victorian era!

Estranged Strange Stays: A Curious eBay Find

A brief post spurred by the discovery of this odd garment:

circathcl-1435342417-6155

I found them in this auction listing on eBay. All the eBay seller has to say about them is this perfunctory description: “Circa 18THC, a cream silk brocade corset or stays with polychrome florals and ties. In mainly  strong condition, there is wear and splitting, but overall good and strong. All items we list need to be cleaned.”

The maddeningly menial mishmash of adjectives gives no clue as to the history of the piece, so we are left with the pictures to be our sole diviners.

This looks like a fairly standard set of 18th Century stays. However, a second glance and you will notice that something is “off” about them, particularly the back lacing:

circathcl-1435342421-6157

Yup. It’s sewn on decorative ribbon– not actual spiral lacing!

circathcl-1435342423-6158

When you turn the stays over, it reveals a secret: a second pair of stays!

circathcl-1435342426-6160

The darker linen with all of the boning channels is the original stays. You can still see the original sets of eyelets in both the front and back!

The inside set of stays is fully boned and much smaller than the newer pair. It originally had front and back lacing, perhaps designed to be worn with a boned stomacher like these:

Stays with Stomacher, circa 1750 (French, FIT)

Stays with Stomacher, circa 1770 (Italian, The Met)

This style of stays is from the early 18th century, about 1720-50, though in some countries the style is found as late as 1770. It may even have been a fully boned bodice with matching tie-on sleeves, like this:

Stays with Sleeves, circa 1770 (European, FIT)

However, this particular set of stays was repackaged into its current form somewhere in time. The back was sewn up, the outside recovered with the floral silk, tabs and the faux lacing were added, and the front opening enlarged with unboned (except the front edges) lacing extensions. Why this was done is a mystery, but there are a few possibilities: it could be a refashion in the later 18th century to extend the stays for a larger woman, turn an old pair of stays (possibly bought second-hand from the booming resale clothing market) into a bodice, or, and I believe more likely, the stays were refashioned in the 19th century for wearing to a Victorian fancy dress ball. That would explain the faux lacing and unboned front (since a Victorian lady would likely be wearing her usual corset underneath, so the antique “stays” would not have to support her breasts), and 18th century “shepherdess” costumes were all the rage:

“A Shepherdess Costume” from Thomas Hailes Lacy’s Female Costumes Historical, National and Dramatic in 200 Plates, circa 1865

“Shepherdess” by Leon Sault from L’Art du Travestissement (The Art of Fancy Dress), circa 1880

The stays at the time would have already been over 100 years old, if that’s the case. I wonder if it drove any Victorian historians (the best set of rhyming words ever) mad with frustration the way modern costume historians rage over Edwardian dresses that were turned into Halloween costumes by adding a zipper up the back?

More frustrating still is that the photos from the eBay listing aren’t the only pictures of this intriguing garment! Another photo of them can be found floating around in the blogosphere and archived on Pinterest:

Each photo, however, leads to a dead link–at the Metropolitan Museum of Art! Once upon a time, these stays might have had a collections page (and therefore all the juicy, delicious information about era, provenance, etc. we historical costumers crave) on the Met’s website, but they were decommissioned and the archive page (and all that tasty data) was deleted! Even the controversial “Way Back Machine,” which serves as an archive for websites, does not save copies of museum collection webpages. I know that even if a page did once exist, the Met’s archive pages aren’t always the fount of knowledge we’d like them to be, but perhaps you or someone you know may know more about this unusual piece of history, some other pictures, maybe? I have been combing the web looking for more info, but all I have gathered is this welcome pittance from In Pretty Finery’s Pinterest board:

“18th century, Italy – Stays – Silk, linen”

That is the only extra shred of info I could dredge up about them.  If you have an image of this pair of stays on your Pinterest board or blog and perhaps you had the foresight to copy down the information about them, please add a bit of a description to the image so that others can use the information, as scant as it is. If you have a blog containing an image of this enigmatic garment, feel free to share a link below. This might be the last time we see this object before it disappears back into a private collection!

_______

I often find objects just like this all over the web. I try to archive many of them by saving them to Pinterest boards as part of my ongoing project, The Ephemeral Museum. I have Pinterest boards about some of these objects here and here. There are other websites that do similar work, like All the Pretty Dresses, if you are interested in seeing more extant antique garments “in the raw.”