It's a still-too-popular myth that early Americans were unfashionably plain and self-sufficient, wearing simply braided hair and clothes of homespun fabric. In this unrealistic vision of 18thc life, women not only tended the sheep, but spun the wool, wove the thread into fabric, and then cut and sewed all the clothes for their family.
Well, no. Very little fabric was produced at home, and nearly all of it was imported. People who lived along the coast were eager to follow the fashions of Paris and London, and the latest styles were imported along with fine woolens, silks, cottons, and linen. Even settlers and Native Americans living on the frontier traded for woolen cloth made in England. European visitors were surprised by how fashionable Americans were, and how the ladies in Philadelphia, Charleston, and New York followed the same trends as their sisters abroad.
These two portraits show how swiftly and thoroughly fashion came across the Atlantic. The portrait, left, of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, was painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun in 1785. The queen wears her hair in the latest style, a la hérisson, or the hedgehog, devised by her hairdresser Léonard-Alexis Autié. Monsieur Léonard (as he was known at court) cut the front of the queen's hair shorter, brushed it with a scented "hard" pomade made from beeswax, curled it on narrow rollers or with heated tongs, and frizzed it for extravagant volume. Unlike today, frizz was an 18thc lady's best friend, and the more, the better. Loose falling side curls towards the back soften the effect. Finally the entire hair is dusted with a starchy powder to whiten it. (See here, here, and here for more about 18thc hair powder and pomade.)
The queen not only favored this hairstyle, but found it was a good "support" for the oversized turbans, plumes, and poufs she liked to wear during this period. While white-powdered hair was beginning to fall from fashion - it disappeared for good with the French Revolution - the queen continued to powder her fair hair to an even whiter pallor, the better to show off her complexion in contrast.
Variations on the hedgehog style were popular throughout the 1780s. Many of the ladies in portraits by Thomas Gainsborough sport hedgehog-inspired hair, and the hairdressers of the recent movie The Duchess gave Kiera Knightley wigs with stupendous hedgehogs.
In 1787, the style was being worn in New York City, too. The second portrait, right, by American artist Ralph Earl, is of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, wife of then-member of the Continental Congress Alexander Hamilton; she's also the heroine of my upcoming bookI, ELIZA HAMILTON. The Hamiltons were a fashionable young couple in Federalist New York City and in Philadelphia, attending the theatre, balls, and dinners with equally fashionable friends, and would have been very aware of European styles in hair and dress.
In her portrait, Eliza has clearly followed the royal trend-setter. Some historians (male, and dismissive of fashion history) describe her as wearing a wig, but that's her own hair, frizzed and powdered into an elegant hedgehog. It's a surprisingly close copy of the queen's hair, down to the horizontal falling curls at the back, although Eliza chose a simpler headdress of fine linen or silk gauze instead of Marie-Antoinette's plumed turban.
That snowy white hair must have taken a considerable amount of powder to achieve, too, for beneath it Eliza's natural hair color was described as a very dark brown, almost black - you can see it showing through the powder. So much powder made a statement of affluence as well. Hair powder was considered a luxury good, and while flour could be substituted as a low-cost alternative in a pinch, the best powder was imported, a finely ground mixture of starch, bone, and orris root for scent. It's likely that Eliza wore her hair this heavily powdered only for special occasions, and by the time she sat for another portrait in the 1790s, she'd given it up, and is shown wearing her own dark hair. There is, however, a record of Eliza receiving a gift of hair powder in 1780 from Martha Washington - a thoughtful present from another 18thc lady who enjoyed a good powdering.
Above left: Marie Antoinette with a Rose by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lower right: Portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton by Ralph Earl, c1787, Museum of the City of New York.
As well as going under the Mound House of Estero Island, I entered the house itself, which has been lovingly restored to one of its earlier incarnations. Indoors included an immense bathroom (from a later period), which holds some fascinating exhibits for both children and adults.
But what caught my Nerdy History Girl attention was the lamp in the restored living room. A guide told me it’s an Angle Lamp, and showed me an old advertisement for it. Turns out this was a well-known type of kerosene lamp, which was around for quite a long time, and whose advertisements appeared in numerous periodicals.
Many of us tend to assume that, as soon as a new lighting invention came along, the old ones went away. But of course not. Just as today, we don’t always have the latest model refrigerator, people in the past, for the most part, kept their stuff until it didn’t work anymore and couldn’t be fixed. I exclude, naturally, the people who always have to have the latest thing, because they were around too, needing the most up-to-date caves, I’ll bet.
With lighting, it’s not necessarily a matter of making things last, though this is part of the story. People continued to use older types of lighting because the newfangled inventions were either suspect, e.g., for safety reasons, or simply for practical reasons. Thus gas began lighting the streets of London long before it lit private houses. In between, it blew up some buildings. Electric utilities came into being in the early 1880s, but it was a while before they became ubiquitous. And it was another while before many people deemed electric light safe, healthy, and/or not hideous.
I recently spotted this amusing illustration on the Instagram account of Patrick Baty, an expert on the history of paint and colors (and a good friend of this blog), and he has graciously permitted me to share it with you here. It hasn't appeared anywhere else, because it's from his family papers, a drawing done by one of his ancestors to amuse the rest of the family. As always, click on the image to enlarge it.
The illustration is entitled Preparations for the Grand Review December 1827. Patrick describes it as a "piece of family satire. Drawn as a result of a letter from my 3rd great-grandmother, Elizabeth Susanna Graham, from Hove to the housekeeper at their London house. 'Get as many nurses as you can collect against our coming up' [was the order.] As Madame la Générale, she orders: 'Fall back there - eyes right.'"
To explain a bit more: moving a large family from one house in the country to another in London must have been a considerable challenge for Mrs. Graham in 1827. Here she stands, sword in hand and a feathered turban on her head, reviewing the possible nurses that have been gathered. Another lady (whose name I can't make out, but who is wearing an equally formidable hat) beats the drum and says "Rub a dub, rub a dub, who'll enlist?"
The nurses are a mixed assortment of women, wearing equally assorted attire. The caption in the upper left gives them each a brief statement, ranging from "I have a sweet voice & good lungs" to "I speak grammatically." Most poignant is the statement of the elderly woman who's first in line: "I have lived 50 years in my last place."
Whichever of the nurses is finally hired (perhaps all!), it's clear that there will be certain strict standards to maintain. The family carriage is fast approaching in the background, filled with heads that likely belong to the children, and flying a standard that proclaims "Perfection or death." I feel sorry for those nurses. . . .
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• The tale of an unusual portrait: President John Quincy Adams painted as a hornpipe dancer?
• Noble squares and charming cheesecake: a Regency tourist's London diary.
• Who knew that corset rust was a serious washday problem?
• The cheapest bookstore in the world: James Lackington and the creation of modern bookselling in 18thc London.
• Tattoos as memory-prompts: the introduction of Social Security numbers brought with it a very modern anxiety.
• Image: Mourning bonnet with skeletal black lace leaves and mauve poppies, c1885.
• Fashionable blues of the 18thc.
• A tough place to work: in a box, submerged, digging out dirt from a river bed, 1873
• Radical motets from a 16thc nunnery by the youngest daughter of Lucrezia Borgia.
• Martha Washington's diamond ring, a rarity in 18thc America.
• From immigrant shopgirl to multi-millionaire: how Clementine Cahn built a real estate empire in 19thc New York City.
• Erica Wilson, the Julia Child of needlework.
• How to bathe like an 18thc queen.
• Image: Locket engraved on the back: "Hair of Mary Tudor, Queen of France, cut from her head Sept 6 1784 when her tomb at St Edmundsbury was opened."
• The art of silhouette (and courting) in Winslow Homer's illustrations for James Russell Lowell's The Courtin', 1874.
• A guide to choosing the right kilt.
• How preserving a 19thc opera house in Leadville, CO became one family's obsession.
• Katherine Parr, Henry VIII's sixth wife, collaborated with Thomas Tallis to compose music to rally her husband for war.
• Image: Ola Brooks of Mount Carmel, TN, placing index tabs, 1933.
• The unsung delights of a well-designed endpaper.
• Robertson's fantastic phantasmagoria, an 18thc spectacle of horror.
• On-line exhibition: postcards from early burlesque performer Miss Kitty Lord, chanteuse excentrique Anglaise, and her tour of Egypt, 1908-12.
• The advertisement of a tailor in Portsmouth, NH, 250 years ago. Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily. Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection
Loretta and I both have a well-documented (here, here, and here) weakness for automatons and other mechanical trinkets for the very wealthy in the 18thc. Automatons were often made as a collaboration between jewelers and watchmakers, and it's difficult to say whether this luxurious little beauty is a music-box masquerading as jewelry, or an ornament that makes music. Imagine a gentleman taking this from the deep pockets of his coat to entertain his friends, or a lady keeping it among the other amusements on her bedside table, ready to wind up and play for a special child.
Automated music-box, gold, Geneva, c1785. Victoria & Albert Museum.
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There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.