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

Pinterest Alert: Have You Pinned These? Double Check Your Sources!

There’s a Tear in the Fabric of Time!

This is an FYI for all my fellow Renaissance researchers, costumers, and most importantly, Pinterest pinners!

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“EUROPE’S BRIDE Margaretha von Valois” from The Lost Gallery on Flickr

There is a series of portraits making the Pinterest rounds labelled “Marguerite de Valois” or “Margaretha von Valois, 1572” that, though they may bear a resemblance to other portraits of Margaret of Valois, are actually modern Photoshop artworks by The Lost Gallery and others. They are NOT genuine 16th century portraits, but you may recognize bits and pieces of them taken from other real, period portraits that make them very convincing at first glance. For example, in many of the modern images, the pose and dress are from the iconic “Portrait of a Young Lady Aged 21, Possibly Helena von Snakenborg:”

The portrait above is a genuine portrait from the 16th century.

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This is another clever Photoshop piece entitled “DEGAGEZ! Marguerite de Valois” from the Lost Gallery. You can see that the bodice was taken directly from the previous portrait.

A seasoned Photoshop artist or research veteran who’s stared at hundred if not thousands of period portraits will notice telltale flaws after a moment of looking. Yet, for the general layperson or even an avid history lover, some of these “paintings” are well done enough to sneak their way onto historical portrait Pinterest boards and Facebook posts. These are just two variations of the portrait; there are many others!
They are actually quite creative, but they are not good for use as historical sources. Indeed, they are quite fun as an exercise in historical plausibility. They are clearly convincing enough even with some obvious incongruities, and prove that, if you are not looking for a strict reenactment outfit and directly copying a particular portrait isn’t your cup of tea, you could take the sleeves off of one dress, the hat off another, and put it all together with still another bodice and produce a very rich, pleasing outfit (kind of like Steampunk taking bits of different Victorian styles and mashing it up with modern or all the Elizabethan-fantasy mash-ups worn to renaissance faires. Tudorgoth/Ruffpunk, anyone?).
Still, always double-check your sources for things you find on the internet, especially Facebook and Pinterest where false information can spread more quickly than the truth!

These modern Photoshop portraits aren’t the only pin masquerading as authentic.

Another mis-pin is this stunning art piece by Rozanne Hawksley, which is often mislabeled and subsequently re-pinned as one of Queen Elizabeth I’s gloves:

Et ne non inducas (And lead us not) by Rozanne Hawksley, created 1987 – 1989

In reality, it’s a beautiful piece of modern art made to imitate gloves of the Elizabethan era with a touch of dark imagery in the form of memento mori symbolism. The artist certainly succeeded in creating the look and feel of a true antique masterpiece!
Artwork seems to be a common source of misidentification, usually because people re-pin pictures without checking the source or giving an artist credit. Another art piece that often appears on Renaissance-era boards is this modern chopine by Susan Taber Avila:

“Pink Chopine” by Susan Taber Avila, circa 2006

To a researcher’s eye, it’s obviously a modern re-imagining of a 16th century Venetian chopine, but since most of the pins of this image do not link back to the artist’s website or even the original image url, the source is completely missing from most pins. Somewhere along the way, this art piece was tagged 1600s 1700s chopine (likely noting the style influence of the piece). After that, people searched for 1600s chopine, this image popped up, and it was repinned without a second thought. Pinterest’s page is a screen full of many small photos surrounded by many other similar photos, making it very easy to simply re-pin something and move on without expanding the file or double-checking the source. In addition, the Pinterest search function only scans keywords in the description and tags, not the source material for the image, so even if you are interested in this artwork as a fiber arts piece, you will have a tough time finding the artist! Clicking on an image never guarantees that you will be taken to the primary source of the image. Pictures can be pinned from anywhere on the web and often have been filtered through two or three websites prior to being added to Pinterest’s archives. It can be a wild goose chase to track the original information down!

Movie costumes are another source of confusion, including this spectacular Rengecy dress that has been making the rounds as the real deal, but is actually a costume from the film “Immortal Beloved,” a period drama with many beautiful costumes:

“Immortal Beloved” costume design by Maurizio Millenotti, circa 1994

Immortal-Beloved-25466_3The dress being worn by Valeria Golino as Giulietta Guicciardi during the film.

Fashion works in cycles: what’s old eventually becomes new again! In the case of this dress by George Halley, the opposite happened. I don’t know who first found this pinned as a Regency dress, but it took off. Though it has a high waist and square neck like a classic Regency gown, is actually from 1967!

George Halley Evening dress (nylon, silk, glass, metallic thread, plastic), circa 1967

There are lots of 1960s dresses that are great a mimicking a Regency silhouette (there are also 1960s gowns that look like they are from 1906 and even some gowns from 1906 that look like they came from 1806, so always check the source and your garments carefully). Once again, spreading misinformation is bad, but there is some good to be had out of it. If you happen to have a 1960s dress that happens to look like a Regency dress, voila! Instant costume!

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GUILTY!

A Brief Plot Summary of My Thesis: The Ephemeral Museum

There and Gone

Postcard, circa 1968 (eBay)

Postcard, circa 1968
This postcard was found on eBay. The auction for it ended on Dec 11, 2012 10:45:59 PST, so by the time you see this, it will be gone or the auction page relocated to a new url. This link will survive for 90 days before it will be deleted from the eBay servers.

The most comprehensive museum in the world is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre or any other brick and mortar complex. That glory goes to the Internet: the most comprehensive museum of human culture ever devised. You can “google” for almost any information, artifact, or opinion and receive informational responses in minutes. Images uploaded onto now-dead websites can be “dug up” with a few easy-to-learn computer tricks and “preserved” on multiple computers belonging to a wide range of folks around the globe. Of all the websites archiving information, the best artifact database system in the world is the plethora of auction/storefront websites like eBay, Etsy, and Ruby Lane. These sites are ever-changing and chock full of amazing artifacts in their rawest forms. Here is an exceptionally small sampling of iconic historical items found on these sites gleaned from only the one hour’s worth of browsing:

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1770-90 (Etsy)

Embroidered Waistcoat, circa 1770-90 (Etsy)

Black Dot Paste Buckle, circa 1780-1800 (eBay UK)

Memorial Ring for Elizabeth Cox, circa 1818 (Etsy)

Silk Jacket, circa 1866-73 (Ebay)

Silk Day Dress, circa 1869-1874 (Ebay)

Straw Bonnet with Silk Ribbons, circa 1875-1885 (Etsy)

Silk Velvet Dinner Dress, circa 1880 (Ebay)

Leather Lattice Button Boots, circa 1860-1870 (Etsy)

Mythological Shell Cameo, 19th to early 20th century (Ruby Lane)

Wedding Dress and Photo, circa 1920 (Etsy)

Leather Peep-Toe Heels, circa 1940 (Etsy)

Halter Dress with Bow, circa 1955-60 (Etsy)

Mini Dress, circa 1960 (Ebay)

Wedding Dress, circa 1960 (Etsy)

1970s shoes

Platform Shoes, circa 1970 (Etsy)

All of these item photos are linked to their current listings, but in 90 days, the eBay listing links will become defunct while Etsy listings may last for a year or more even after the item sells. How long Ruby Lane listings last is dependent upon the individual sellers.

With such a wealth of human culture changing hands in the span of a 3 day auction, these websites have become the most ephemeral museum in existence. Every trip through the thousands of pages yields a fresh exhibit crammed with items that are often untouched by the restorer’s hand and newly discovered after years of lying in a trunk, forgotten. Unlike a physical museum that keeps objects for years–carefully archived and cared for–an item in the “museum of the internet” can disappear from the public view faster than you can say “Buy it now!” The sales pages and images may vanish after only a few days, leaving nothing but residual code and memories of an amazing item that is now, once again, out of reach.

Frustration

There are a few wonderful websites that are dedicated to preserving the information found on the internet. One of these precious few is Isabella’s “All the Pretty Dresses,” which archives exemplary examples of antique clothing found on internet sales websites.  No doubt you’ve come across a fair share of “Golly, I wish I had the money to buy and save that dress!” listings in your lifetime or even watched an item only to find that it ended an hour ago, before you could get a bid in. Hopefully the gowns themselves went to caring bidders, but what about the information?

Embroidered Button, circa 1740-1780 or 1860-1890 (Etsy)
“It’s taken me a lot of research, this beastie! Though replications are still made by hobbyists today and there was a resurgence of this style as a hobby in the early 1900s, the fact that this one has a wood mould (bone was used after the late 18th century) and is rather large, I’m concluding it is from the mid 1700s or earlier.” – faginsdaughter, Etsy seller

The information, you see, is just as valuable as the artifact itself. The goal of a museum shouldn’t be to squirrel away expensive artifacts so that no one can see or study them. The goal of a museum is quite the opposite: to educate, save, and preserve so that cultural items can be shared with posterity. Collecting and archiving isn’t about owning the the item; it’s about sharing the knowledge contained in the item. With so many rare and wonderful artifacts passing through our servers each day, as history lovers, museum workers, or caring hobbyists, aren’t we responsible for the preservation of such knowledge no matter where we find it?

Mother of Pearl Buttons in Box, circa 1880-1910 (Ruby Lane) 

Combing through such a large swathe of internet for relevant artifacts is a huge task that would take a coordinated team of people to complete. There’s a massive amount of raw data to process. How do you decide what’s worthy of archiving? I am an obsessive history hoarder and would want to archive as much as possible, but even a “real” museum has parameters to follow when it comes to collecting. Not every twisted old Victorian boot or 1950s bow-covered prom dress needs to be meticulously archived, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore such items all together. Designers and name brands are important, but exceptions and common goods are important, too.

International Flags Windbreaker, circa 1985-95 (Ebay)

An all-too-common 1980s windbreaker jacket in hideous colors may not seem worthwhile to us because many of us have clear memories of wearing them, but what about our children? I was born too late to witness the Gunne Sax trend of the 1970s first hand, but my mother remembers coveting one in a store window.  Yet, as time passes, fewer and fewer Gunne Sax dresses will survive.

Maxi Dress, circa 1970-80 (Etsy)

Imagine that disappearance factor multiplied for 1950s cat-eye glasses (now 60 years old), or 1920s beaded collars (80 years), or 1890s watch fobs (120 years). Every generation sees our contemporary common goods become scarcer until that item becomes a mysterious object from a bygone era.

Bobbin Winder/Thread Holder with Pincushion, circa 1870-1930 (Ruby Lane)

Thousands of these cultural items are passing through our internet portals each day. We’re generating tons of archival information. If only we could document it all!

I Need Your Help making a Stuart Crystals Wikipedia Page!

Help Wanted!

I was doing research the other day on Stuart Crystal Jewelry and was stunned that there wasn’t a Wikipedia page for it. I attempted to create one, but according to Wikipedia, I do not have enough credible sources to back up my article. I am pasting a copy of what I wrote (along with the few sources I found) in the hopes that someone else here might be able to either expand on what I wrote, add sources, or perhaps make a fresh version of the article. I think that Stuart crystals are historically important and if Morris the Cat can have a Wikipedia page, why don’t these pieces of history have one?

Here is the entry I drafted:

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History

Stuart crystals are a form of 17th and 18th century mourning jewelry. Stuart crystals get their names from the House of Stuart. The crystals were pieces of political jewelry that commemorate the execution of King Charles I in 1649. The first jewels were made from locks of King Charles’ hair preserved under faceted rock crystal (quartz), often decorated with his initials or miniature portrait. They were worn by Royalists who opposed the king’s execution on the grounds that as God’s chosen leader, Charles I was above the law and his death was not justice, but murder. Later, the crystals were adopted by Jacobites who opposed the deposition of James II and the Stuart monarchy in 1688. Since supporting fallen monarchs was dangerous, many Stuart crystals are small and were worn in secret. However, as the 17th century continued, Stuart crystals evolved into mementos mori and generalized commemorative jewelry. They remained popular into the 18th century until larger, more neoclassical jewelry came into fashion.

Description

Stuart crystals come in three main forms: slides, rings, and earrings. Original Stuart crystals were rings or ribbon slides, but many were later converted into other types of jewelry. Stuart crystals almost always contain hair, often woven so finely it appears like cloth. [1]

In addition to hair, a Stuart crystal may contain gold initials, filigree designs, colored foil, portrait miniatures, and enameled symbols. Skeletons, skulls, doves, angels, cherubs or putti, and flowers are the most common type of symbolic charms found inside Stuart crystals.

References

Gordon, Cathy. “Stuart Crystal Jewelry.” Web. 18 June, 2012. http://imageevent.com/bluboi/stuartcrystal

The Three Graces. “Reference – Helpful Terms & Glossary.” Web. 18 June, 2012. http://www.georgianjewelry.com/reference/helpful_terms

McFerran, Noel S. “The Jacobite Heritage.” Web. 18 June, 2012. http://www.jacobite.ca/

British Broadcasting Corporation. “Charles I (1600 – 1649).” Web. 18 June, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/charles_i_king.shtml

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I know that it isn’t a full article or anywhere near complete, but I thought it would be nice to have at least a little stub for people who are trying to find out more information about these fascinating gems. There are tons of historians and jewelry experts out there who could really help fill this little gap . Any information (and especially sources) would help!

Ruby Laners and Costume History Enthusiasts, here’s looking at you!

If you are savvier with creating entries than I am or want to view the critique on the entry I submitted, here’s the link to the Wikipedia Talk page so you can edit it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:Articles_for_creation/Stuart_Crystal_%28Jewelry%29

I also posted this as a note on Facebook so you can share it with anyone you know on FB who might be able to help:

https://www.facebook.com/notes/the-pragmatic-costumer/stuart-crystal-jewelry/474290149267295

I’ve never actually made my own Wikipedia page before, but I knew when I submitted it that it was a little low on sources (and pictures). Sorry if it seems like I’m getting a little frazzled by this, but I’m a strong believer in sharing information and making research easier for everyone. If you have any sources, links, or information that could help out, please leave a comment!

Thanks for collaborating on this project with me!

An Introduction to Costuming

Costuming in an Age of Overload

I believe that history should be respected, loved, and preserved. While museums are wonderful at keeping historical treasures safe, the best way to ensure that something survives is to keep using it. What better way to learn history than to wear it?

When you create a period costume, historical accuracy should always be taken into account, but I’ve noticed that period costumes begin to lose details and character as the time gap expands. There are too many generalizations about colors, styles, themes, materials, gemstones, hairstyles– after a while everyone begins to wear the exact same costume with no variances or individuality, like buying a pair of shoes in every color. Sure, you are stylish, but what’s the fun of wearing the same ol’ outfit everyone else is wearing?!

I begin this blog in the hopes of finding others out there who have a passion for history, fabric, romance, and realism: those seeking to re-create history using a harmonious mix of period, vintage and handmade modern pieces. Since nerdiness runs swift in my veins, everything I do is backed up with extensive public and private research. Each entry will detail a catalog of items you can pick and choose from, many from sellers on popular websites like eBay, Etsy, and others, all with links so if something catches your eye you can pounce! If you feel like striking out on your own, there are plenty of historical references included in each entry to guide you: paintings, prints, original pieces, museum pages, and similar. Besides the existing pieces I find, there will be patterns, articles, and online freesources to inspire you to get creative.

Remember: There should be no fear that your costume is “wrong” unless you are specifically seeking to re-create the past because the research and exactitude makes your heart feel fizzy with excitement. The basic rule of costuming remains: A costume has character, preferably yours!