Sunday, May 3, 2015

An All-Seeing 18th c. Man of Mystery

Sunday, May 3, 2015
Isabella reporting,

My visit to the Massachusetts Historical Society last week was not all lovely gowns. Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts, had this military standard, or banner, to show us, too. Because the standard is now preserved behind glass, it was difficult to photograph, so I'm including the black-and-white image from the Society's collection for the overall view, and the iPhone photos so you can see that he's blue-eyed (all of them) and pink-cheeked.

Painted on both sides on silk that has split in places, the standard features a man's disembodied head that belongs in a Wes Craven movie. At first glance, the face appears to be covered with spots, but if you look more closely, you'll see that those spots are eyes. I counted over 30 of them, eyes that are complete with curling eyelashes and looking up, down, and sideways. Beneath the face is emblazoned "Vigilatibus",  Latin for be vigilant, or watchful, which would certainly be easier with all those eyes.

The mystery: no one today is quite sure of the standard's history or allegiance. Here's the MHS catalogue description:

A framed painted silk standard, double-sided, of a face with multiple eyes, believed by the donor to have been taken by British or Colonial New England forces from the French during the period 1756-1763. Efforts to substantiate this information have been unsuccessful. Given by Walter Gilman Page on July 14, 1900.

In other words, while Mr. Page made his gift (no doubt purposefully) on Bastille Day, Vigilantibus might have flown as a banner over French, British, or colonial American troops. Regardless of the the standard's owners, it certainly would have made an impression glimpsed through the smoke of battle or rising up in the New England woods during the French & Indian War.

So here's the mystery for our ever-knowledgeable readers around the world. Have any of you ever come across an 18th c. British or French regiment or military organization with "vigilantibus" as its slogan? Have you ever seen a similar many-eyed man in an 18th c. print or painting that might have inspired the banner? If you have, please let us know. After all, he's watching.

Once again, many thanks to Anne E. Bentley and the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Above: Vigilantibus standard, silk, 18th c. From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Below: Vigilantibus standard, photograph ©2015 by Kimberly Alexander.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Breakfast Links: Week of April 27, 2015

Saturday, May 2, 2015
Fresh for your weekend reading and relaxing - our weekly collection of our fav links to other blogs, web sites, articles, and images via Twitter.
• Homemade fortune-telling game, c. 1820.
• London's lost Victorian pneumatic railway: the world's second oldest underground.
• Nine beautiful libraries with extraordinary reading rooms.
• How 19thc. sailors' love tokens got into women's underwear.
• Tipu Sultan's ambassadors at Saint-Cloud in 1788: Indomania and Anglophobia meet in pre-Revolutionary Paris.
• In search of William Shakespeare's London.
• The gruesome murder of Thomas Webb, 1800, in Cuddridge, Hampshire.
Image: Swedish knitted wool wedding gloves, c. 1720-1775, worn by seven generations.
• Dream-like 1913 autochrome portraits of an engineer's daughter are among earliest color photographs.
• Books of art: images of medieval and Renaissance women reading.
• Windeby Girl (or was she a boy?): one of archeology's mysterious "bog bodies."
Child-stealing: the case of little Thomas Dellow, 1811.
Image: The enumerator in this 1901 census form must have been bored.
• "A jury of her peers": how American women finally got the right to serve as jurors, shockingly late in the 20th c.
• The rise and fall of the codpiece.
May Day festivities in the Georgian era.
• A very rare letter as old as Boston itself.
Image: Breathtaking painted and pierced mother-of-pearl figural fan.
• Fantastic Moorish music room in 19thc. house currently for sale.
Lord Byron's letter to Lady Caroline Lamb insisting that their relationship must end, 1813.
• Seventeenth-century gardens in the backgrounds of family portraits.
• Wondering about that too-awesome-to-be-true photo you saw on the 'net? Check out this blog to see if it's real or Photoshop.
Gender-neutral clothing isn't new; men and women have dressed similarly for centuries.
Image: "Come on, Dad!": poster from election of 1929, first for young women after universal suffrage.
• The Jealousy Glass: how to spy on a suitor without looking like you're trying.
• Setting the record straight on the bewitching history behind The Witch of Blackbird Pond (you know you read it in middle school!)
Olive Oatman, the pioneer girl with the tattooed face.
• Why can't we read anymore? Or can books save us from what digital does to our brains?
Image: The first female gardeners at Kew Gardens in 1896 were encouraged to wear men's clothing so as not to be distractions.
• Politics and slander: In 1731, the leader of the Opposition and a supporter of the prime minister fought a duel in London.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Friday Video: Origins of Monty Python

Friday, May 1, 2015
Loretta reports:

Though not the first appearance of what eventually became Monty Python, this show is part of their history.  Furthermore, it includes Marty Feldman, one of my favorite performers.

If you haven’t time for the whole episode, you might want to fast forward to the last sketch, the Four Yorkshiremen.

Illustration by me, with apologies to Terry Gilliam.

Readers who receive our blog via email might see a rectangle, square, or nothing where the video ought to be.  To watch the video, please click on the title to this post.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fashionable Survivor: A Rare Silk Damask Gown, 1777

Thursday, April 30, 2015
Isabella reporting,

This week I visited the wonderful Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston with one of our blog's good friends, Kimberly Alexander of the historic clothing blog Silk Damask. We had an appointment with Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts, to see a certain pair of 1747 emerald green damask wedding shoes. We swooned over the shoes (as true Nerdy History folk do) and I wondered aloud whether the shoes had matched the bride's dress.

"They did," replied Ms. Bentley. "I know, because we have the dress, too."

Out came the long, over-sized archive box that is always a sign of marvels to come. There were three beautiful dresses inside that box, nested together in their tissue-paper cocoons: a silvery-green 1840s silk dress and matching pelerine, the emerald silk wedding dress (more about that in a future blog) worn by Rebecca Tailer for her 1747 Boston wedding to Rev. Mather Byles, and the dress shown here, long ago incorrectly identified by family tradition as having belonged to Rebecca Tailer Byles' mother. It's more likely the wedding gown of Rebecca's daughter Abigail, who married Dr. Jon Clark VI in Halifax, NS, in 1777.

And it's so beautiful.

The silk damask is light and crisp and scattered with lavishly detailed flowers between pink patterned stripes. Most likely French, the silk would have been the highest fashion at the time, and it would have been expensive, too. In the middle of the American Revolution, this silk would have been imported in a merchant ship out-racing privateers, which would have added to its cost.

The dress is an open robe à l'anglaise, lined with linen. The front of the bodice closes not with straight pins (the traditional closure for most 18thc. women's clothing), but with the very modern fastenings of hooks and eyes, middle left. The low neckline would have been filled in with a fine linen neckerchief, and there are narrow bands of pleated trim with scalloped (pinked) edges at the cuffs of the sleeves, lower right.

With its open-front skirt, the gown would have been worn over either a matching petticoat or one of a contrasting color, a look that's common in French fashion plates of the 1770s. The skirt is longer in the back, suggesting that it was worn with a false rump. Kimberly and I also suspect that the skirts were worn looped up in the back for more fullness, although we didn't have time to hunt for the tell-tale signs of stitching for a cord or buttons inside the lining.

Abigail's mantua-maker was well aware of European fashion, and skilled in executing it. She took care to work with the striped pattern of the silk, cutting the sleeves on the cross-grain so that the stripes went around the arm. The back of the gown, upper left, is particularly well-done, using the pink stripes to accentuate the tapering of the waist.

By measuring the gown, we could also tell a bit about Abigail Tailer herself. We're guessing she was about 5' 4" or so in height, and the waist of the gown was 26", with some of that an allowance for her stays and shift - roughly a modern size 6.

The gown as it is now is preserved for study, not display, so I can only offer these detail photographs of it. On a mannequin, it would probably look much like this one, lower left, from LACMA's collections. There's another similar gown from the Manchester Museum featured in Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion 1.

What's the most exciting thing for me about Abigail Tailer's wedding gown? Learning that Kimberly and I were the first people outside the MHS to see it in more than forty years, and probably longer than that. It came to the MHS directly from Abigail's descendants, and it hasn't been featured in any exhibitions or books. It's been waiting patiently all that time in its tissue paper to be rediscovered.

I'd say it was well worth the wait....

Many, many thanks to Anne E. Bentley and the Massachusetts Historical Society!

Above: Gown, silk, 1777. Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society. Photographs ©2015 Susan Holloway Scott. 
Lower left: Robe, silk, 1775, Collection, LACMA.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A London Policeman's Work in the 1830s

Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Loretta reports:

We usually think of police as catching criminals, and certainly London in the 1830s had an ample supply of crime  But these statistics show another aspect of the work during the early days of the Metropolitan Police, very much in keeping with their mission at this time: preventing crime. And who knew they performed so many rescues?

Police Statistics
Police statistics
Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will allow you to read at the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

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