Renovation heaven…or is this hell?

Now that I’m home in my own colony once again, I thought it was high time to describe what the heck we’ve been up to this summer.  Well, turns out, it was a LOT! So here goes: Once upon a time in the year nineteen hundred and sixty-five, a cute little couple who had been married 35 years, lived through the Great Depression and never had much aside from their family home, finally achieved their dream come true…a little vacation cabin in the woods a half mile from the ocean.  He was a school teacher and they worked hard saving for this place, which was now nearly falling down.  Though they moved to RI for work and settled there, this to them was always “home”. People called it a “tear-down” and said we should start over.  But for their sakes, we were bound and determined to save it. I took a deep breath, left my management job in the corporate world, took a seasonal job in the museum field in another state, and JUMP…we were on our way.


As it appeared in the winter of 1965



Happy Anniversary Walter and Pauline! We discovered that banner in the bottom of the corner cabinet and decided to just leave it there. They’d have been married 87 years this summer if they were still with us.

When we arrived, the place didn’t look all that bad at first glance.  To my delight, original furniture, light fixtures, and tchotchkes belonging to my grandma were still there, untouched.  Except for the beds and upholstered furniture which we immediately got hauled away to the dump, most things were in good shape and salvageable and I began to have visions of making it a little 60’s time capsule.

We soon discovered, to our utter horror, that the floor joists supporting the entire structure were all broken or eaten away by wood-boring insects, and the supports for the second floor over the porch were bowing forward.  I may have cried a little, thinking we’d never save it until several kind neighbors reassured us that all was not lost.  Three contractors later, we found someone actually willing to help us.

There was also this horribly unsafe walkway between the actual loft space and a secondary loft bedroom that Gramp created when we needed an extra room.  Basically, it was just a couple of boards stretched across the ceiling rafters.  As a kid I thought it was fun and cool, but clearly it had to go because…codes.  Right?


Gramp’s improvised walkway, completed in the late 1970s. Good thing I took a photo to commemorate it because it’s GONE, as is the back loft (from where I’m taking the pic) which was never meant to be part of the structure.

The first thing we had to do was eradicate mold in the crawl space, or the dudes wouldn’t work down there.  We didn’t blame them, but there wasn’t time to hire someone so hubby decided that he’d don a hazard suit and do it himself. This is the sight to which I was treated…mmmm, sexy!


Several gallons of bleach later, we were in business and work began in earnest. Once the floor was supported, the rooms no longer felt like trampolines, furniture didn’t lean inward and doors didn’t scrape against the floorboards, the next step was to rebuild the porch that was supporting the second floor.  There wasn’t any way it was going to look like the original because apparently, one can no longer obtain rounded cedar posts that still has the bark intact.  What to do, what to do?  Fortunately, Grampy kept every single thing related to this cabin, including every cent he paid for every screw, nail, hook, window, light fixture, and piece of furniture (most of it still there, by the way) in a folder which was now in my possession.  Sure enough, there were the original plans, with the porch as it was intended before it was modified to suit his specification.  Texted a picture of the plans to the construction manager, and voila!


After the sagging porch supports were replaced.  We are slowly repairing the screens.

I’d started my job at the local historical society, so living here for the summer had become a necessity, and as you can all imagine, construction in a vacation hotspot at the beginning of the season can be chaotic…they were trying to make all of their customers happy and finish the major work before the 4th of July so that we could all enjoy our homes.  Our job was small, relatively speaking, so once the structural stuff was done all we needed was a bathroom.  Yeah, try living without a functioning bathroom.  I’d describe all the times the toilet was removed and I made desperate phone calls to get it reinstalled in between the steps it took to get the bathroom done, but that’d bore you to tears.  Suffice it to say that we lived in a cold-water flat with no kitchen and no heater (it was 42 degrees at the beginning of June) for a while, but at least we didn’t have to go in the woods with the bears.  Ok, there was that one time that I stayed with the neighbor across the street because there was no bathroom at all, I had to work the next day so we couldn’t go home, but that’s a minor detail.  Mr. H. is handy so he fixed the kitchen sink, got the water heater going, fixed the leaky toilet so we didn’t have to replace it, got the actual heater going, repaired some woodwork, scraped the old varnish off the window trim, repaired screens to get at least one more season from them, sanded cabinets so I could re-stain them, washed stained floors a million times, sanded part of a floor that was too far gone with 60 grit paper and a hand sander, re-painted thus saving a rusty old glider from the 1930s, found the septic,  built a stone wall around the yard, and basically was my hero.  He did a lot of this using Gramp’s old hand tools that he discovered in a closet.  He’s a lot like him, and I’m sad that they never had the chance to meet.  They’d have been partners in crime at rummage sales, buying in bulk, picking free stuff up off the side of the road like Fred Sanford, and fixing things the old-fashioned way.  There is still more to be done next season, such as repairing the porch screens, grading the yard, cleaning and treating the exterior wood, and possibly a new roof, but we’re getting there.  Right now, I’d like to think my grandparents are smiling down at us in their little cabin in the pines.

Enjoy some before and after photos.


Access to the crawl space is right here. This was my grandparents’ bedroom and is considered the “master”.  The bedrooms are so small that nothing larger than a double bed will fit.


Complete with original 1960s port and starboard lights. Yep, we’re Lucy and Ricky with twin beds because we didn’t want to crowd into a double.

My mother did the large painting years ago for my uncle.

My grandmother, Pauline Hayes, in the kitchen in July 1965

My grandmother in the kitchen in July 1965


Sigh.  A great mess.  We feared we’d have to paint the cabinets but were able to sand all the junk off them and restain.  The Formica countertop is original and we were able to save it, along with all the hardware!




Yes.  That is the same clock you see in the 1965 photo.  The table and chairs are from the 1930s.

This bedroom was always known as “the Indian room”.  There’s no picture from 1965 but we put it back the way it always was.


The room as I remember it.  I often slept here as a kid.


My grandfather painted the picture on the wall and made the birch frame for it.  My mother made and painted the pillow.  And what would Maine be without a mosquito in a party hat?


Here’s my grandmother in the loft in 1965.  I searched high and low for those curtains but couldn’t find them.  I got something fairly similar in the end.  That quilt was still there, but the jury is still out on whether we can get it clean enough to save it.


Here’s the hot mess we found when we got there.  Yikes!

Here it is after a little bit of work. For some reason, I took pictures before I got the bed made. Right now there’s only a twin up here but more beds could be added in this space later.


I was able to find some 60s curtains on eBay, and my grandmother’s afghan was still in the house.  My mother did the painting of the mill in Newfield, ME.   The floor up here is unfinished but I sort of like it that way.

Yikes, is all I can say here.  The vanity was too large for the room.


We put in a vintage sink similar to the one that was originally there.  The original floor had been changed and the floor we found in its place was beyond repair, so we had a wood-look vinyl floor installed.

We put some of the vintage advertising items we found in the house on a shelf in the bathroom, and we installed a cabinet above the toilet. The original medicine cabinet and light fixtures were still here.




Some shots of the living room from the 60s, and Grampy in his chair. Check out that giant ash tray!

This is the condition we found it in.  The original wagon wheel light fixture and lamps were still there.  The carpet was a mess and we hoped and prayed the original hardwood floors underneath were salvageable.

Yes they were!  But SO dirty.


All paintings were done by my mother and were originally in the house.




My husband made Moby out of a leftover piece of pine.




Still looking for groovy cushions like these originals on the 1930s glider.  Haven’t found them yet.









Can this really be work when it feels like fun?

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write, dear readers, and I figured all three of you were probably wondering what has happened to Mistress Molly.  The sole reason I haven’t posted recently is that most of my time is now spent in a location where I have limited to no access to Wi-fi, a computer, or even a television, and I find it difficult to type out something reasonably coherent using only my phone.  However, during the past few weeks, I’ve studied and learned the history of a region that was dear to the hearts of my late grandparents and that I’ve visited for most of my life, met some fascinating and wonderful people working with both historians and the public, have been able to learn about and try processes over 200 years old, along with their associated tools, and have been privileged to work somewhere doing something I’ve dreamt of doing since I was about 7 years old. While I may need to go back to the dreaded corporate rat race in the fall, at the moment I’m doing something that is so enjoyable it never feels like work.   For now, that is enough.  Enjoy some photos…eventually, I’ll be back.


Yes, we cheated and threw in a color packet!








Cape Neddick

It’s 7 of a foggy, drizzly May morning at what is probably the most photographed lighthouse in New England, known affectionately as “the Nubble“.  20150608_123617

I’m alone here, with the only sounds being the lonely cry of the gulls, the chirping and tweeting of the little song sparrows in the bushes, and the crashing of the sea against the rocks. The sky is cloudy and gray, and the sea a darker slate. The fragrant lilacs are in bloom, flags fly from yardarms all along the road, while weathervanes twirl in the breeze.  A Canada goose waddles around on the greening grass at the base of the lighthouse, while a family of what we always called “coots” (likely common eider ducks) float by, and a cormorant swoops down from above in search of his breakfast.  Boon Island with its early lighthouse, visible on a clear day, can’t be seen, but the faint outline of one of the Isles of Shoals is visible in the distance, as is the point out by York Harbor.



Boon Island on a brighter day


Not actually an enemy sub! The shadow of the Isles of Shoals on a sunny day.



A lone fishing boat passes slowly by out on the horizon, on perhaps a perfect day for luring fish in the slight fog. Red buoys marking lobster traps bob in the surf, and there are what appear to be traps stranded on the rocks. But the tide is low and comes in higher and quicker now than I recall as a child when the mud flats below the soft sand at the high tide mark were vast and there was a long walk to take a dip in the icy cold water.


Long Sands Beach

A lady walking her small dog walks up, snaps a photo with her phone and then vanishes.  The red fourth-order Fresnel lens in Nubble’s tower flashes on and off as it has for over 100 years. Yet something is missing…the plaintive call of the foghorn that we could hear upon awakening in the cottage a half mile from the beach and about 2.5 miles from the lighthouse. Its mournful note, sounding every 10 seconds on a foggy or rainy day is still in my head, and I’m saddened that it has been retired. Mariners can still sound a horn with a radio signal if necessary but it’s seldom heard anymore and not quite the same.


The fourth-order red Fresnel lens in the tower.  This is not the original that was here, but a replacement using an original lens from the correct period.

The sky brightens slightly and an old gray-bearded gentleman walks up and stares at the sea.  If not for his plaid shirt, blue jacket, khaki pants and baseball cap, he could be imagined as a sea captain of old.  He disappears down by the rocks and I’m again alone with only the cry of the gulls, the thunderous crashing of the sea upon the granite outcropping, a strong memory of the smell of the thick, peaceful pine woods near the sea, and the sound of the old foghorn permanently imprinted on my soul. IMG_1882

Cape Neddick lighthouse, also known as Nubble Light.IMG_555120150609_171935



If the shoe fits, it’s too expensive…or is it?

Today’s post is all about the shoes, and since I have what might be known as “bad feet” and “bad knees”, the result of long ago injuries that are too boring to mention, I have done lots of experimentation with real and reproduction shoes in all centuries.  Don’t even ask to see my closet full of modern shoes and boots! Ok, maybe just ONE pic of some groovy boots and some high heeled shoes…

So let’s get started, shall we? I’ll go backward, starting in the recent past and ending with a focus on the 18th-century. The first thing to know is that in addition to being a clothes-horse, Molly is also a shoe-horse (or perhaps it is shoe-whore?) and her favourite pair are these black satin beauties from the 1960s.  Oh so painful, but worth it for a few hours in a killer dress.  Like this one from 1962. This is Mum, and I’m told this dress was green, not aqua.  Gotta love old Kodachrome.  I have this vintage fabric (yep it’s green) and a pattern so if I ever get skinny enough I’ll make the dress (waits for hell to freeze over…). I tend to wear these shoes on holidays.

Jumping backward to the early 20th-century, seeking a pair of shoes or boots for an event set in 1912, I came across a pair of original boots from the early 1900s and they were actually my size, which is just about unheard of for those of us with modern gunboats for feet, as my petite grandmother used to say.  They weren’t terribly expensive, so I bought them.  They were rather beat up and the leather was a little cracked, but I set to work with some saddle soap, mink oil, and black polish.  To my surprise, and with some help from American Duchess‘s video they turned out to be rather nice.  Lauren talks about a particular brand of the product she used, but I can tell you that I just used what I had around whilst caring for my riding boots.  Here they are. And yes, yes I actually wore them.  Carefully, and indoors, but I wore them, and they were surprisingly comfortable.  Who says our ancestors didn’t know what they were doing?  Before:

And after, on my gunboats: (the pic from my phone is a bit grainy)


Another pair I found was from the 1880s with side buttons!  They were so cute but teeny tiny and despite the fact that they were supposed to be a size 7.5, they turned out to be not much bigger than a 5 (US sizes). They were old enough that I hadn’t really planned to wear them even if they did fit, and my goal was simply to restore them.  I worked them over with saddle soap and mink oil, kept them on display for a time, and then donated them to a local museum for their collection.   I don’t think there is a before photo, but here’s how they turned out.  It was worth a little work and a little love to restore these original boots to a fraction of their former glory and to preserve them for the future.


Our next stop is the 1860s or the American Civil War period.  This is far enough back that the originals are likely to be more fragile, so I was more concerned about documenting the style and finding appropriate repros to wear than about finding extant shoes to own. Examples of extant shoes from the 1860s demonstrated that side-lacing boots with low heels, square toes, and leather “foxing” at the toe and heel were very popular (there are examples of original mid-19th-century shoes all over Pinterest if you are interested). Generally, Mr. Robert Land in Canada is considered to be the best repro shoemaker for the 1860s period.  He’s notoriously difficult to reach, and the latest word is that he is no longer in business.  Another good option is NJ Sekela, who also seem to have larger women’s sizes.  I have 3 pair of Robert Land’s, which I purchased at a shop in Gettysburg several years ago (at different times), unfortunately at full price, but I felt like somewhat of a desperado when I heard he was going out of business.  I’ve also heard that Fugawee is decent, and they certainly are for the 18th-century, though I don’t have any of their Civil War boots (we’ll get to the 18th century soon).  These are my Robert Land boots, based on originals.  One pair has elastic on both sides (yep, they had it then), one pair laces up the front like traditional boots, and the other pair laces up the inside.


I don’t typically participate in living history from the 1830s-50s, but if I did, I might get away with using the black front-lacing boots, the side-lacing boots (even though the heel is slightly higher than earlier in the century, where the style was completely flat), or even the boots from the earlier 1800s.  These are from American Duchess, who has reproduction shoes from many different time periods, and were used for the Regency time period, War of 1812, etc. I have difficulty with completely flat shoes, but sometimes one has to suffer for the sake of history.


Now my favorite…the 18th-century!  Be prepared, there are tons of shoes.  The 18th-century is really what it’s all about for me, and in my quest for increasingly greater accuracy (and at a time when I had a really “good” soul-sucking job to fund said quest) I’ve tried just about every shoe that is out there.  I started with Fugawee, because they weren’t TOO expensive.  Ok, that’s not exactly true…I started out with a couple pair of modern shoes that kinda sorta looked somewhat like colonial shoes, and that I modified to hold buckles.  Yikes, watch out, the Farb word is coming at you. It’s not insulting if I call myself that, right? Thank goodness I’m sparing you the wicked bright pink linen outfit, though I spy a little peek there, and shower cap.  BEHOLD, I give you THE SHOES OF SHAME!

See, I’m perfectly willing to embarrass myself in the interest of education.  Clearly, this arrangement wasn’t going to work, so I set out trying to get myself some comfortable, appropriate shoes.  The first ones I tried were the “Martha” from Fugawee because I thought that pleated tongue was way cool.  Never mind that I’ve never seen that on any extant museum shoes, this was a step up in the world.


And here they are, with the buckles seen in the first photo.

These proved to be uncomfortable, as the toe box was sloped and not roomy enough, so I sold them after a few wearings.  My poor friend who bought them soon dispensed with them for much the same reason.  On to the RED ONES, thought I!!!!

I purchased the next pair, along with a pair of “mules” or slip-ons for camp from Burnley and Trowbridge.  These were quite a bit better and I wore them for a while, but I felt that the heels were a compromise…they were too high to be square like the heels on men’s shoes, and I always felt like maybe the heels should have been better shaped.  But, they’re billed as walking shoes, and they do work for a number of people.  I found them to be decently comfortable.


Mules…work nicely for “slippers” when slogging to the blue plastic necessary in the middle of the night.


B&T red walking shoes with brass basket-weave buckles.  Cute, but the heel shape didn’t look like 18th-century women’s shoes to me.


These are red calamanco (wool) shoes from 1765 in the Deerfield museum.  Notice the difference in the shape of the heels?  Yeah, so did I.

I liked the red leather, and could document it to extant shoes in the Kyoto museum (check out the book on Taschen’s website here.  It can also be ordered through Amazon.)


The only vendor who had shoes even remotely like these, was American Duchess.  So I tried them.  They are nice, but they are decidedly modern in construction and so, although they look the part pretty well, they are a compromise.  Perfect for costumers, but slightly less than perfect for living historians who will be outdoors in the mud, gravel roads, uneven ground, and all sorts of weather conditions. The first pair are “Georgianas” painted red, and the second pair are the “Kensingtons” in red leather.  I sold the first pair because the paint started flaking.  I still have the second pair (shown with my original paste buckles which ended up not fitting on the shoes) but I saved them for wearing indoors with nicer gowns because I didn’t find them to be really sturdy for camp use.

Once I had red shoes, I needed a better pair of black ones, so trolling Ebay, I happened to find a reasonably priced pair of handmade shoes. They were from Michigan, or somewhere out in the great white north, and made by a guy that is clearly out of business, since I couldn’t find any reference to him at all online.  These look like elephant skin or something but are rather cool.  For some reason, they seem to fit a variety of sizes from 7.5 to 9 US regular width, and for handmade shoes with no insole they are pretty comfortable.  I wear them occasionally but they’ve essentially become the lending shoes.


My next experiment was to get a pair of white satin Georgianas from American Duchess and have them dyed green by a professional, to match my green sack back gown.

Full views of the sack backs!  Photo courtesy Jeanne G. at the Joy Homestead.

Photo courtesy Jeanne G. at the Joy Homestead, Cranston RI

Well, as they say, the best-laid plans often go awry.  When I got them back from the dyer (specializing in wedding shoes), they were all blotchy and awful, and the lady complained that they were “the cheapest material” she’d ever worked with.  Um, no, they’re real silk and she was used to working with synthetic satin for wedding shoes.  Sigh.  They ended up being dyed black, but at least they fit my original buckles.


I still wasn’t completely happy with the rounded toe, and I wanted a slightly higher heel, and a “calimanco-look” shoe, so I sold these and went with the “Dunmores”, again from American Duchess.  These were a perfect fit for my extant buckles and I happily wear them, very carefully, to indoor events.  As a knowledgeable friend once advised…those buckles were made for a lady to wear, right?  I’d also love to try the AD “Frasers”, because they have a white rand and a thicker heel for mid-century, but alas…not in the budget right now, and as one can no doubt see, I probably have enough shoes!


In between all of this, I went back to Fugawee looking for sturdy leather shoes with medium chunky heels and ended up with the “Debbie” as well as the “Cheri” because I wanted something that tied instead of buckled. Again, these are decent shoes, with a fairly good early to mid-18th-century shape and I wear them in camp as long as the weather isn’t going to be wet or muddy. Then there’s AD’s fancy “Pompadours” just because they look nice with a fancier gown and there are no buckles to get caught on one’s petticoat hem whilst cavorting about with a fyne gentleman-of-fortune.



Photo from American Duchess website.

But I wasn’t done with red quite yet.  I really wanted some red shoes that were hand made and truly authentic, even if I had to save them for better events and wear them outdoors sparingly. Enter Gossville Shoes.  I met Bruce at an event in the colony of Connecticut. Bruce observes the Sabbath on Saturday, so he was only displaying and not selling shoes on the day I was there.  But I HAD to have the red ones, as they were a pretty good copy of the above calimanco shoes (owned by Mary Flint Spofford in 1765) from the Deerfield museum, only in rough-out red leather.  I wasn’t coming back to the event on Sunday, but he allowed me to quickly slip my foot inside the sample to see if it would fit, and indeed it did!  I told him that I would email him my order and would pick up the shoes at a later event.  Several months later, he was at an event at the Col. Paul Wentworth house in Rollinsford NH, and I stopped by on a Sunday to pay for my shoes and have him install my buckles, as I didn’t dare.  These shoes are more expensive than most but really worth it.  After all this experimentation, please take my word for it!



Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes





Mine, all mine! These are polished, rough-out leather

So by now, you think I’m really done, right?  WRONG!!!!  What about shoes for muddy events in camp, Molly?  Well, how about a pair of men’s flat shoes from Flying Canoe Traders?  Flying Canoe has a website, but they don’t have a place to order shoes from there.  They were originally based in Canada, but now have US representatives based in Ohio.  John and his assistant whose name, unfortunately, escapes me at the moment, are extremely friendly and customer service oriented.  Shoes have to be purchased at an event because they will fit you there, and allow you to walk around in their shoes for a while to make sure they are comfortable before installing the buckles and taking your money.  They are a modern shoe, with a modern sole and a rubber heel with a metal shank for support, but they’re comfortable, you won’t slip and fall on yer arse on cobblestones or wet grass, and though purists may object, they look reasonably like 18th-century men’s shoes. The toe box is rather square for my liking and, they ain’t cheap.  But they ARE comfortable and supportive, especially for people with foot, ankle, knee, or hip issues clomping around on the uneven ground in camp.  Both my husband and I have been wearing these for a while, and I own both a smooth-out and a rough-out pair.  The rough-outs from Flying Canoe may be going up for sale after what I discovered this weekend, but bear with me just a bit longer.


I have a friend who is a sutler (Big Bear Trading Company– check them out on Facebook) and a few years ago, a re-enactor was deaccessioning her collection of “stuff” and Bear had it on consignment.  It was mostly Civil War stuff that my friend bought, but suddenly, I spotted the Holy Grail.  It was a pair of beat up, men’s style, rough out shoes from the late 1970s or early 1980s, complete with some cool cut-brass oval buckles and nailed, stacked heels.  I don’t know who made them, but they are well made and may be from G. Gedney Godwin, who still makes and sells shoes.  “Bear! How much are these?” “Twenty bucks Mum”. “Twenty bucks?! Including buckles?!!!” “Yes Mum”.  “I’ll take them!!!!”  “Dontcha wanna know what size they be, Mum?”  Oh yeah.  Turns out they were my size, though about a half size smaller than I take in repro shoes in order to have room in the toe box.  But for 20 bucks I took them and put some of those cedar expandable shoe trees in them to stretch them out. and there they sat for a couple of years because I couldn’t fit insoles or heavy socks in them.  That is, they sat until this past weekend, when I broke them out and wore them with thin silk stockings because it was rainy and muddy out.  I figured who cared about the 20 buck shoes, and if I wrecked them I wrecked them, no great loss, right?  WRONG!  These shoes were incredibly comfortable (all stretched out by now) and I had none of the achy ankles, knees, and hips that I tend to get after an event, even wearing the men’s Flying Canoe shoes.  In fact, I am so in love with these little shoes that after hearing from a shoemaker (Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes) that in fact rough-out shoes in the 18th-century frequently were polished or “blacked” I brought them home, cleaned off all the dried mud, and polished them up with black shoe polish, followed by a coat of mink oil.  I’m planning on purchasing some “black ball“, 18th-century shoe polish made with tallow and ground animal bones, to keep them nice.  Finally, after all the experimentation, sometimes the “cheap” second-hand shoes (well, cheap to me but decidedly not cheaply made) are indeed “the ones”.


Rough out shoes “before”


Rough out shoes “after blacking”. I used modern polishing materials. For now…

And lest you think I forgot the 17th-century?  Oh no indeed.  Two pair from American Duchess for your viewing pleasure.  It is obviously quick and easy to order from AD, and their shoes are good.  They are just mass produced and somewhat “modern” in construction- perfect for costumers (and I mean no disrespect there. Costumers rock!) but a compromise for the progressive living history enthusiast.  For those folks wanting a really, really good 17th-century shoe, there is Sarah Juniper in the U.K. There you have it…if just one person learns from my sometimes expensive mistakes, it will have been worth it.


Being Molly’s first foray into acting on camera.

Since Molly on the shore likes nothing better than being by the sea, and since today is Rhode Island Independence Day, after all, the ruminations concern colonial Newport. We’ll get to the acting momentarily, I promise.  By May of 1776 little RI had had enough of King George’s tomfoolery and became the first to renounce allegiance to Merry Olde England.  Ironically, RI was the last to ratify the Constitution in May of 1790.  RI participated heavily in the triangle trade…sorry folks, we’re in the north so many believe we didn’t have much slavery, but unfortunately we can’t hide the sad and disturbing fact that our little state played a significant role in that trade, and that southern RI and Newport, in particular, had a large enslaved population during the 18th-century.  RI obtained molasses from the West Indies and turned it into rum in the many distilleries in the state.  Newport had approximately 22 of the roughly 30 distilleries in the state.  In fact, an original stillhouse, now a private residence, exists in Pawtuxet village to this day on what was once “Stillhouse Lane” (now Ocean Ave).  The rum manufactured in RI was traded for slaves in Africa, who were then sold to the plantations in the West Indies in exchange for more molasses.  Britain’s attempts to control commerce in the colonies angered Rhode Islanders, and in 1772 Lt. William Dudingston’s harassment of shipping in order to enforce maritime law and prevent smuggling led to the famous Gaspee incident.


Not the Gaspee (actually, the sloop Providence)


Also not the Gaspee but…it’s the closest photo I had.

Cut to the 21st century.  Brown University, in conjunction with both the Rhode Island and Newport Historical Societies, is using a revolutionary technology to tell the story of “an event that took place in revolutionary America”.  Brown’s virtual reality artist in residence, with the assistance of some history students, is using a 360-degree stereoscopic camera, loaned by Google, to tell the story of the Gaspee incident. This team will be using properties such as the Stephen Hopkins House, and the John Brown House in Providence, as well as Colony House and other properties in Newport.  There was a large scene with many extras filmed already, with Lexington’s Buckman tavern serving as the stand-in for Sabin’s tavern in Providence, which is no longer standing. Here’s where the acting comes in.  I was contacted by friends at both the RI and Newport Historical Societies, asking whether I’d be willing to participate.  My “yes” was almost as rapid as a speeding musket ball, which is odd considering that I have no known acting talent.  Ok, yeah I was in the “King and I” musical in high school many, many years ago, but that doesn’t really count, right?  I decided that a) it’d be fun, b) it would be using virtual reality to teach kids history, which would be WAY more engaging than standard classroom lecturing, c) it would be an excuse to wear my colonials on a random day and, d) it’d be FUN!



Thus, Molly found herself making her on-camera debut portraying Samuel Adams’ second wife Elizabeth Wells, also known as Betsy.  Even though I knew it would be only a brief scene where Sam discusses a letter he’s received from RI (don’t you like how I’ve just decided to call him Sam as if I know him?), I wanted to know as much as I could about Betsy before playing her.  I’d hoped to find a portrait somewhere because if at all possible I would try to replicate her clothing and accessories as nearly as time and budget would permit. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find anything other than that Betsy was a “pleasant and hard-working woman who…supported him in every way” and had helped to raise the children from Sam’s first marriage, also to a woman named Elizabeth, who died after giving birth to a stillborn son in 1757.  Betsy was also considerably younger in 1772 than I am now, and my “co-star” was also younger than I, but I hoped I had enough youthful enthusiasm and few enough wrinkles to pull it off.  I knew that old Sam wasn’t all that successful as the town tax collector, and even though he was influential politically and well respected, he certainly wasn’t rich.  So the notion of wearing a gorgeously trimmed silk gown with fancy accessories (like the portrait of Mrs. Hancock) went out the window rather quickly.  I decided that I’d wear a slightly worn blue wool gown with a quilted petticoat, but that my accessories would be slightly more upscale than a middle-class woman working in her home might wear, in order to reflect Sam’s influence amongst the townspeople.  Therefore I chose a white ruffled fine linen handkerchief around my neck, a white embroidered apron, a fine linen cap with a silk ribbon, fine linen mitts, and original paste stone shoe-buckles on higher heeled shoes.


Yep, these antique buckles are really installed on my shoes.  They were worn by some lady 250 years ago, and they were meant to be worn, right?  I carry the shoes in a box, wear them indoors only and really carefully.  Then I change back to another pair of shoes, wrap them up, and carry them out in their box.   They are used for short, special events only. Never outdoors walking around, never for dancing or anywhere they might be damaged.


Miss Dorothy Quincy (later Mrs. John Hancock) also painted by John Singleton Copley in 1772.  Note her very fine silk gown with all the trimmings.  This painting resides in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


The real Samuel Adams painted by John Singleton Copley in 1772.  Note the plain red wool suit.  This portrait resides in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston.

The gentleman portraying Sam was someone I already knew from the living history and museum world and since we weren’t required to have a hot love scene or anything, I figured we’d manage just fine together.  He chose a nicely worn wool coat, with slightly snazzier breeches and waistcoat, and a fabulous embroidered cap for the indoor scene. Filming was on a beautiful spring day at one of Newport Historical Society’s (NHS) properties, the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house.  I got out of my car in my “colonials” and was promptly greeted by some dude yelling “HEY THE BRITISH ARE COMING!!!”, even though I was wearing a blue gown and there was no red coat in sight.  You wouldn’t know it from the photo, but the house is on busy Broadway right in the center of town near Washington Square, so the filming was interrupted several times by sirens, motorcycles, and loudly idling trucks.  We did some practice scenes in front of the house to loosen up a bit while we were awaiting an NHS staff member to come unlock the house.  Once we got inside, the house was fantastic, and of course, I was drooling.  One of the kids…I mean students…said to me “so you like old houses, huh?”.  Understatement of the year.  I won’t digress too much, but the house is worth seeing for the original details, the beautiful paint colors based on the original colors uncovered on the woodwork and walls, the delft tiles on one of the fireplaces, and the back kitchen with the unusual wall treatment.  Read all about the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house here, and please visit if you get the chance.


The Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house, Broadway, Newport, RI


The Colony House, Washington Square, Newport, RI

We’d gotten our lines the afternoon before and had repeated them aloud at home, and even goofily practiced them in the mirror,  but it was still a bit nerve-wracking.  Sam had more to say than I did, but we both kept stumbling over our lines and how to say them.  I don’t know how many times we did the scene…we rehearsed with one of the students repeatedly before we did it on camera. Once we were on camera, even with hidden cheat notes, we kept saying the wrong thing, forgetting to say something entirely, making each other laugh, joking around when we blew it– you name it.  One of the students stepped in a few times to coach us on how better to deliver the lines and to make other minor corrections these novice actors might need.  Indeed, for the first few takes I was simply saying my lines, trying to put the emPHAsis on the correct syllAble, and generally failing every time.  Forget hand gestures and facial expressions because I’m actually lucky I can walk and chew gum at the same time without tripping and falling flat on my face. Anyone ever fallen flat on her face whilst wearing stays?  Because I have.  Once you’re down, you’re like a turtle on its back and it’s bloody difficult to get back up without flashing your undergarments or requiring a hoist.  Fortunately, it didn’t happen this day, even though my shoe buckle got caught on the hem of my petticoat and ripped it out so that I nearly tripped while standing on the top step of the house.  In any event, by the hundredth read through (in truth I don’t know how many times we actually did it), we both managed to say the lines correctly, with the appropriate inflection, facial expressions, and gestures and we got a “that’s IT!” and a high-five from one of the students. It took us about 2.5 hours all told, while the scene itself was approximately 2 minutes long.  The time estimate was pretty well on the money though.  We were scheduled from 1- 4 p.m. and we finished up at around 3:30.

Front Stepsa

Sam and Betsy on the steps of their home. Sam has just received a letter about which he is quite distraught.  I dunno, we don’t look too distraught, do we?  I think we’re actually laughing at this line… “Surely the colony of RI cannot allow this to occur?” “Perhaps not. And don’t call me Shirley, wifey”.  Don’t worry, THAT won’t be in the final cut.  Photo courtesy Adam Blumenthal, Brown University.


With Adam and the students, setting the scene.  This is a good example of what a shot with the 360-degree camera looks like.  Photo courtesy Adam Blumenthal, Brown University.

It was fun (seriously fun), and while I’d love to do it again, acting well ain’t as easy as you might think.  Many of you are in the drama field and already know this, so for you guys, I’m stating the obvious.  But until I tried it, I really didn’t know what it felt like to act in front of a camera.  I will never again assume that an actor has an easy job and makes easy money.  I can’t imagine having to learn an entire series script and deliver it convincingly. Acting is extremely hard work, and really talented actors deserve all the awards they receive, especially those who do their own stunts.  And older ladies don’t often get great roles, so Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, you’re my heroes.  You’ll no doubt be able to see my small scene of bad acting once the whole thing has been put together, though I highly doubt it will lead to any sort of fame and fortune, thank goodness. Seriously though, if just one kid learns something from it, the whole project will have been worth the time and expense for everyone who participated in, conducted research for, and funded this project.  Besides, did I mention that it was FUN?!  Add that to a gorgeous spring day with the flowers and trees blooming all around, the smell and feel of the breeze off the ocean, and the inexplicable sounding of the fog horn in the distance (there was no fog to be discerned that day), and you’re set up for quite the magical experience.   I’d do it again in a minute, and I can’t wait to see the final project with the performances of all the participants.














Patriots’ Day!

Almost every year for the past ten years or so we’ve been going to an event on the Saturday of Patriots’ Day weekend at Minute Man National Historical Park.  Technically in the town of Lincoln, MA it basically spans most of the original road from Lexington to Concord. We discovered the place in the late 1990s quite by accident when I was scheduled to take a certification exam in Boston very early in the morning and I was seeking a place to stay the night before.  Lexington sounded good. Of course, I had been there as a kid with my parents and grandparents, and I distinctly remembered walking across the North Bridge in Concord as well as recalling the two statues; one in front of the North Bridge and the other on Lexington Green.  What I hadn’t remembered was the rest of the park itself, and it is quite possible that we didn’t even stop to visit the battle road trail in between the two more famous locations.

In any event, Mr. H. and I had an extra day to explore, and explore we did! We walked most of the “battle road” trail, reading all the park service signs along the way marking significant events from April 19, 1775.  I was particularly moved by the markers of the British soldiers who were buried where they fell- young men who didn’t ask for war, and never made it home to their parents, wives, and children at home across the ocean.  It became my tradition to pick a few daffodils and wildflowers from the field near the North Bridge and place them on the grave of the two soldiers buried near the bridge.


When we began to participate in living history in the early to mid-2000s, one of the first events I wanted to attend was “Battle Road” on Patriots’ Day weekend.  At the time, I had less of a clue about historically accurate clothing (eek, yikes, exclaim how you must) but I recalled walking the trail several years before, and I knew the history of the area and what happened on April 19. So we attended in an unofficial capacity and while I’ll spare you the photos of our early clothing attempts, I found the place to be strangely “magical” and just needed to be there every year. Some of you will doubtless understand what I mean.  In more recent years with tightening of regulations in order to show improved historical accuracy to the public, we’ve attended with groups in a more official capacity, and have served as interpreters or participated in staged scenarios during the tactical “battle” in the afternoon.


Hartwell Tavern (in summer) along the battle road and Hartwell Tavern interior (below)

The event can be crowded and there are designated areas for the participants to park in order to leave the major lots clear for the visitors, so we typically arrive fairly early in the morning when there are very few if any, “modern” people out and about.  There might be an occasional dog-walker or bicyclist but generally, all one sees are people in 18th-century dress– militiamen, King’s soldiers and officers, and townswomen with little colonial kids.   That has changed in the last couple of years with the “Tough Ruck” for fallen soldiers taking place in the park at the same time.  However, our routine has always been to take a quiet walk along the dirt road lined with trees and stone walls, past some of the original houses (or remains of such), then to greet our friends.  We contemplate the general alarm of the countryside the night before with the beating of the horses’ hooves of the alarm riders, church bells tolling and the sound of signal gunfire calling the militia out in the wee hours of the morning (generally 3 musket shots in a row, as quickly as could be loaded), how the inhabitants of the homes might have been feeling, and what actually happened that day.  For me at least, it effectively transports to a different time and place.

The event opens to visitors mid-morning, and that time is usually spent visiting with friends who are demonstrating 18th-century life at Hartwell Tavern and the Smith House, as well as talking with and answering questions for the visitors.  We find a shady place for “nooning” if the weather is warm, or a sunny place if it is not, then the main event occurs right after lunch in the afternoon.  In this case, it is a tactical weapons demonstration rather than a “battle” where the soldiers are dropping “dead” on the road, but the way it is scripted and organized is still very effective.  Opposing fire, casualties, and simulated warfare are prohibited by the National Park Service.  This is partly a safety issue, but also a matter of respect.  Many National Parks are on battlegrounds where people actually died, and in some cases, are buried.  Respect for the memories of those people on both sides of the conflict is of profound importance.  The Park Service’s policy is explained here (reference is to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary War, but the policy is the same).  In any case, at about 1 p.m. the ropes are placed to get the visitors off the road, and we begin to hear firing in the distance. We see horsemen from both sides riding up and down the road, and the Regulars and their officers begin marching east, returning from Concord.



They fire occasionally (black powder “blanks” only) demonstrating their formation for firing, the commands, and their weapons.  We also see the militia in the distance, running to take positions in fields, behind barns, behind stone walls, amongst the trees, etc.  They also fire, but both sides fire at oblique angles to each other to demonstrate their weapons, as there can be no opposing fire.  Still, the way it is scripted, the running up the road, the smoke and the chaos, is quite effective.




For a couple of years when we were not part of any scenarios and remained behind the spectator lines I found a group of kids who were running around with toy guns screaming “AIM, FIRE” and randomly “shooting” each other.  I formed them up, explained the commands, trained them a little to keep them quiet for their parents (I don’t actually know the drill itself), and explained what had happened that day, as well as what was about to happen when the action got to our location.  Then I told them that when the “British” came down the road and reached them, they were going to remain in line, I was going to give them the command and we were going to go for the officers like the militia actually did on that day.  Ok kids, here they come! They were jumping up and down with excitement.  Even better, one of the officers in front was my friend, so this would be quite fun.  I lined the kids up and yelled loudly enough toward them that the kids could hear me but not too loudly (as I didn’t want the soldiers on the road to mistake it for a real command)  “Make ready.  Present. FIRE!” The officer saw us when I waved to him and yelled asking how they dared to fire upon officers!  Later on, a soldier walked through the crowd near us and I told the kids that it was their chance to take a prisoner.  They didn’t, as it was all in jest of course, but the kids got a huge kick out of it.  The parents were grateful that they were occupied for a bit while waiting for the action to get to them.



This year, we were asked to participate in an evacuation scenario at the Whittemore House, a location east of the “Parker’s Revenge” site, where the main action would be concentrated.  This is much further east than the Hartwell Tavern and Smith House, and as a consequence, we didn’t get there this year to see some of our friends.  However, Mr. H. and I were asked to portray Jacob and Elizabeth Whittemore, at their actual house! These houses that are still standing are known as “witness houses” (how we wish these houses could speak to us of what they’d seen!).




Two other friends from our group were asked to portray the Whittemore’s daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Moses Reed.  The family was living in the house on April 19, 1775 and until recently it was a mystery as to why Jacob and Moses didn’t join the militia that day, rather choosing to hide in the woods with their women and children.  It was unlikely, or at least improbable that they were cowards, so it was assumed that they must have been Loyalists.  But if they were Loyalists, would they have hidden from and feared the King’s army?  I don’t have that answer.  However, the real story was recently discovered by a local historian.  Mrs. Reed had at least 2 other young children already (some reports say 3 plus the baby, but we’ve only been able to find evidence of 2 others), had given birth to a baby girl on April 1 and was still feeling decidedly unwell. Mr. Whittemore had lost two previous wives (including Sarah’s real mother Esther) to childbirth and it is supposed that Mssrs. Whittemore and Reed remained with their family out of concern for Sarah and the baby.  In fact, Sarah was carried out of the house on a mattress (probably stuffed with straw) when the family fled and hid in the woods as the army was returning to Boston from Concord on the afternoon of April 19, with good reason it turns out, as a skirmish took place in front of their home shortly afterward.  Mr. Reed later joined the Continental army and went on “multiple campaigns”, so there goes the “they were Loyalists” theory. Read about the Whittemore and Reed families in this Boston Globe article.   I was curious about whether Sarah and her baby survived, so I looked the family up on  Sarah Whittemore Reed lived until 1830, dying at age 79, and baby Sarah Reed Smith died in 1865 at the age of 90.  It is significant that she was born at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and died at the end of the Civil War.  So for those of you who ascribe to the old wives tales about how “they all died young back then”, there is your proof, right?

At the appointed time, we waited with our household valuables in a wheelbarrow at the back of the house, Moses with his musket over his shoulder in case we should meet with trouble. Although it is supposed that the family fled from the back of the house directly into the woods, this was a public scenario, so when other townspeople arrived we were to come into the road from behind the house.  A neighbor was waiting along with us with her “great grandchild” in her arms. When a group of other women arrived, it was time.  It was strange and awkward at first, and we had to remind ourselves not to laugh or smile. As we did not have any sort of period-appropriate mattress available, we thought at first to put Sarah in the wheelbarrow, but we quickly realized that wouldn’t work.  So Sarah was supported between her Dad and Step-Mum, bent double with pain, and carrying her “baby”.  Moses was next to us pushing the wheelbarrow, piled high with our “stuff” and carrying his musket as we struggled up the road.  At one point I noticed that no one was speaking, exclaiming or running, which I thought we’d actually be doing if we were frightened, so I shouted to the two young ladies ahead of us, inquiring if they had as yet seen any soldiers coming after us. I then asked Moses if he had the silver, and asked my husband if he’d loosed the animals (better to round them up from the woods than to let the soldiers have them).  Despite our original awkward giddiness, once we heard the gunfire in the distance and were on the road it started to feel real.  It was getting hot in the afternoon and it’s slightly more difficult to run or walk quickly in stays because breathing is somewhat more shallow, so I was sweating and breathing hard. What if my daughter were sick and I didn’t know whether she and her baby would live or die, what if the soldiers came, killed our men and molested us? What if they burned the house down and stole our animals, our money, and our valuables? What would we do, how would we live? If they caught us, should we beg for mercy or pretend to be Loyalist? People began to ask us “is she all right?”, not knowing if something was wrong and we actually needed help or an ambulance!  That’s when we knew we’d been convincing.


We waited and watched the skirmish in front of “our house” from behind the visitor lines, then returned “home”. Afterward, we took a few pics, relaxed on the lawn hoping to be able to talk about the family to visitors (sadly they all left after the action finished), and began planning how we’d make our scenario an even better one next year.  It was a privilege to portray the Whittemore family, and we would like to thank the National Park Service, the hard working park rangers at Minuteman National Historical Park and the Whittemore House, the organizers and participating units of the Battle Road event, and our friends from McAlpin’s Corps of Loyal American Volunteers.  See you next year!





Why I’m crazier than most of you, or…a gown revision.

After moving a couple of years ago, I threw out or donated so many things I wasn’t sure what made it here and what didn’t. While looking through my stash for some fabric for a friend, I found a bag of what at first I took for scraps.  Nope.  It was an old gown that I’d taken apart!  I made the gown years ago from a bedspread, block printed in India, and wore it to a few events until later research suggested that the center front closing style was popular later than the 1770s.  I took it apart intending to re-make it, and there it sat in a bag in the plastic tub used to transport and store the “great fabric stash”.  The gown was originally a center front closing style with a separate, pointed-in-back- bodice, a low neckline in front, and a high neckline in back.  Here’s what it originally looked like, in our former house, on Lena.  What?  See her leaning?  Lena.

Now, many of you will say that it wasn’t bad, it’s fine, leave it alone, etc. Perhaps it wasn’t bad.  But I’ve studied and learned a lot more since then, and this style was loosely based on a gown in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1, Englishwomen’s dresses and their construction, 1660-1860, page 40.  The date in the book says c. 1775-1785, but the general consensus now is that this is a high-fashion style, usually done in silk, possibly with self-fabric trim, and probably would not have been made in this type of fabric initially and almost certainly would not have had a separate, seamed bodice back.  More on that coming up…


The background of the fabric itself is perhaps a bit too green, as green was difficult to achieve in the 18th-century before the invention of synthetic dyes.  It was definitely possible, especially on silk and wool (there is an especially lovely shade of emerald damask that was popular), but was usually achieved with blue overdyed with yellow or vice versa, simply because there were few if any, natural dye materials that yielded green directly.  So it would have been uncommon as the background color on a cotton print, and I have yet to find an extant block printed gown with a green ground. Doesn’t mean there isn’t one, I just haven’t seen it yet.  I’ve found some references to green linen, but we don’t really know whether they meant green the color or “green” as in untreated fabric. However, the shade of green on this fabric is close enough to brown to be acceptable, the block print itself is a good one, and I really couldn’t fathom just throwing it out.

I also know what you’re thinking…that you’ve seen block printed gowns in this center front closing style all over the internet, in museums, on Pinterest, etc.  Yes, yes you have. Indeed, a reference to a gown in a similar print and style can be found in Sharon Ann Burnston’s, Fitting and Proper, 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society.  A color print showing the gown is found on the cover.


The extant gown is browner in color, tan really, but there are other extant printed cotton gowns with a dark or brown ground with the center front closure in museum collections. There are also references to dark ground chintzes or “calicoes” taken by runaways in Don N. Hagist’s., Wives, Slaves, and Servant Girls, Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers, 1770-1783, as well as in many local newspaper advertisements from merchants and sellers of fabric. We’ve all seen photos of the actual gowns on museum websites.  Here’s the difference: the gown in Fitting and Proper on pages 4-6 is dated c. 1740-60, but altered in the late 1770s or early 1780s.  In fact, Ms. Burnston’s second edition states “…I am left to conclude that the edge-to-edge CF closure on this gown is not an original detail, this gown would have had robings. Its present appearance is almost certainly the result of a later alteration c. 1775-80, even though there are no signs of the telltale creases in the bodice front which usually indicate the former presence of robings.”  To paraphrase Ms. Burnston, all of the other stylistic elements of the gown (including the cuffs) suggest the earlier date, and it was extremely common to alter gowns to suit the current fashion.

Based upon this information, I decided to alter this gown in reverse.  Problem #1 was that the bodice was separate from the skirts rather than cut in one piece, and I was racking my brain to figure out how, without another large panel of left-over fabric, to put the gown back to an en-fourreau style.  When a friend said to me “it really can’t be done”, I remained undeterred.  Having seen a gown in the collection of the Newport Historical Society that was completely pieced, I decided that was my solution.  I cut off the point at the bottom of the bodice, pieced and pleated the back upper bodice, pieced that onto a longer piece for the middle back of the skirt, and re-pleated the back in the en-fourreau style.  The piecing is visible upon close inspection, but from a distance, when wearing with an apron over it, etc., it is much less noticeable, especially after it was steam pressed.  Just so you can all see what I did, here is the mess close up…


Even before I pieced and re-pleated the back, I had cut down the back of the neckline (which is just pinned in the photo below and doesn’t quite look neat yet), so that would be fine as it was, and I set about figuring out what I wanted to do with the front of the bodice. Note the difference in the back pleating from the photos below to the photo above.  The bodice originally had seams, not pleating.

For the front, I initially considered cutting the fronts away, using those pieces to create a stomacher, adding robings and being done with it.  But, what if I had an event set at a later date and I still wanted to wear it as a center front closing gown?  Hmm what to do, what to do? I had a couple of almost long-enough pieces I could fold to use as robings (I ended up piecing those robings near the shoulders to make them longer), but had only limited scraps of fabric other than that.  So I took out my stomacher template, arranged and pinned the scraps onto it, and decided that it would indeed look cool to have a pieced stomacher that I could pin over what was already there.  Again, the piecing is visible if looking closely (the guys will get slapped if they try that trick in person), but once steam pressed it would hardly be noticeable.  I elected to baste the robings just to the shoulder strap pieces rather than attaching them all the way down, pinned the stomacher and robings over the closed center front, and presto, I had a convertible gown with removable robings that I could wear either way, depending on the year in which an event was set! I also re-set the sleeves to adjust the seam allowances, because they always seemed just a little too short.

The next problem I encountered were two large borders at and near the bottom of the skirt.  When I made the gown, the bedspread fabric had a double border.  Since I didn’t know yet that gowns typically did not have borders, I simply incorporated it.  When I cut those off, naturally it made the skirt much too short, even for a “work gown”.  In order to fix it, I had to piece the bottom using multiple small pieces.  I figured it wouldn’t really show much once the gown was finished. Even in the photo it only shows in certain places, and once steam pressed, it was fine.


Once finished, I was very pleased with the result.  Please excuse the “exposure”, but I wanted to show the actual neckline once I tried it on. The skirts could stand to come further to the front, but for now I didn’t want to fiddle with re-pleating it.  A few pounds off and it will become less noticeable.  It’s not looking too promising, but if I can find large enough scraps I will put together some cuffs, like the gown in Fitting and Proper, which will also help to extend the sleeves a little as well.


The final Before and After.  And yes, before you all ask, that bright green linen petticoat has been taken out of service.  I loved it, but bright green dye on linen?  Nope.  Some of you will also wonder if I feel compromised that the gown has been pieced so extensively, without much attempt to match the pattern.  The answer is no, I don’t.  I’m actually glad to have a pieced and altered gown, as this was fairly common during the period.  There are many instances of extant gowns that were altered from the stomacher/robing style to the center front closing style popular in the 1780s, so I’m also glad that I’ve altered this one to easily convert from one style to the other.  I’ve also seen, as mentioned above, an extensively pieced gown in the collection of the Newport Historical Society, and can cite that as documentation for piecing on a gown.  All in all, I’m happy with the final result.

Severity’s bodyes and jacket

Good day, pilgrims!  This blog has turned out to be about a variety of things, and today it shall be about my latest project.  While I spend most of my time in the 18th-century, once in a while I have the opportunity to visit the 17th.  I’m rather partial to virtue names (think Humility Cooper, Desire Minter, and Fear Brewster) so for the 17th-century, Molly Ross becomes Severity Makepeace.  The name Severity started out as a friend’s jest about Puritanism, and it sort of stuck.puritan-valentines-day-cards

Several years ago I had the good fortune to be able to purchase a set of what I like to call my “pilgrim stays”, based on the famous “Dorothea bodies” found on the dead body of Pfaltzgrafin Dorothea Sabine von Neuberg when they dug her up, undressed her corpus delecti (among others), and studied then preserved her clothing. Imagine that?  Blech! My own personal opinion in all seriousness is that it was a profoundly disrespectful act, but without it, we would know less about clothing and support garments from the turn of the 17th-century.  Therefore, I reckon they get a pass on that.  Dorothea died in 1598 so we consider her “bodyes” to be close enough to the 1620 “pilgrim” period to be a plausible style. Details are found in Arnold, Janet Patterns of Fashion, the Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women c. 1560-1620. Additionally, Wasted Weeds has a blog on how to make a copy of these bodies, for those interested.  I was able to purchase mine due to simple luck, rather than having to make them.  The elderly lady who owned them was much shorter than I, so they don’t fit perfectly, and as a compromise, I extended the shoulder straps, perhaps even slightly too much, so that they would sit lower on my long torso.  Since the time of purchase, there has been more information uncovered indicating that a pair of bodies for the working class would likely not have been boned with baleen, but rather made from thick linen canvas supported with buckram. Being large busted, I haven’t tried this option yet, but suffice it to say that the bodies I have are lightly boned through the body with reed caning, made from tightly woven but not heavy linen, and have no boning at all in the bust area.  They are sufficiently supportive that I’m willing at some point to try the un-boned option, or even remove the boning from the existing bodies and add a layer of buckram. If the bodies are tight enough, they will likely provide sufficient figure control.


At around the same time I purchased the bodies, I was less confident with my garment construction and stitching skills, so I commissioned someone to make me a “pilgrim jacket”. Sadly, I made several mistakes.  I used a pattern (really the only one commercially available at the time) that was loosely based on several different original garments. While not absolutely “wrong” I chose to have a stomacher simply because I tend to like that look, but it appears to have been much less common. I also chose dark purple wool, which I later discovered may not be the best color option for a working class woman’s jacket.  I based this choice on photographs of “pilgrims” from Plimoth Plantation (where several of my friends are on staff. Yay friends).  However, this living history museum is constantly researching and improving their presentations based on documentation they uncover, so things have changed a bit through the years.  In any event, while I can still use this jacket at certain events and get away with it, I decided to focus a bit more on accuracy and make something new.  Please ignore the loose hair, wide belt, poison bottle, pistol, and motor vehicle in the photo below. It’s from a parade with a pirate entertainment group and was the best photo I could find that showed the jacket in any detail.  For this particular event, we were mixing eras and wearing things that looked cool rather than being concerned about strict historical accuracy (hereinafter known as HA) .  Most of the time HA is the name of the game for me, but occasionally I like to attend an event where I can just have fun with my friends.


Wool colors for women’s jackets and petticoats tended to be shades of red, stammel (a bright red), russet (not what you think- more of a gray color), white, black, blue, and “sheep’s colour”. I had some decidedly pink mid-weight wool in my stash and figured that though it might not be absolutely ideal, it was close enough to a shade of red that I might be able to use it.  I had just enough.  The petticoat I plan to use with it is actually a knife pleated, dark brown 18th-century style petticoat, bound at the hem with greenish-yellow woven tape. Even though the jacket will cover the waist treatment when I am fully dressed and no one will see it, I’m considering taking the waistband off and re-pleating it with cartridge pleats, and moving the closure to either the center-front or to one side, rather than leaving it with the 18th-century apron-type front and back panel ties.


For the jacket pattern, I chose the “Tudor Women’s Jacket” from the Tudor Tailor.  While this UK based company focuses on the earlier Tudor period (1485-1603), the end of the Tudor period is close enough to the time when the Saints and Strangers departed on the Mayflower and founded Plymouth, that the styles hadn’t changed much.  For further reference, I consulted Clothes of the Common People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England: A User’s Manual, whose general editor is Stuart Peachey.  He and his team clothed all the people involved in Tales from the Green Valley, and consulted with them on 17th-century agriculture and husbandry.  Click here for a link to the Green Valley website, and here for a link to their YouTube channel.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it is a series well worth watching.  I personally like the fact that the Brits don’t go for drama the way even PBS did with their Colonial House series. They simply present the practicalities through all seasons of life on the farm in the 17th century, rather than focusing on the human emotional drama. But I digress…


Here is my progress on the jacket thus far:  I used the lapped seam method to construct the body of the jacket, the sleeves, and to set the gores in the skirt. I did this primarily because it is the way I know best, and I didn’t find any compelling evidence that it was not done this way.  Neither my pattern nor any of my books had detailed construction instructions, so I simply went with what I know.  I have preliminarily set the sleeves with pins and need to try it on, then attach them from the inside with a tight backstitch, unless I find some evidence that I should do it differently. Inside armscyes are left raw in the 18th century, but I think I will leave the lining free then fold it in and whip stitch it down so that the insides of the armholes look finished.  There are two ways to attach the wings…one is to set them into the sleeves directly, and another is to finish them first, then attach them to the shoulders with a whip stitch.  I haven’t yet decided which way I want to do this, but I don’t want my shoulder seams to be too bulky so the whip-stitch method may be the more prudent option.  Then, hem the whole thing, add some ribbon ties to the front for closure (alternatively I could use hook and eye, or even straight pins) and voila, it’s done! Stay tuned for post construction photos.


Here’s the update I promised with photos of the finished jacket.  I didn’t have anyone to help me get into my 17th-century stays, so I’m wearing an 18th-century pair.  I also had to take mirror selfies, since no one was home to assist (sorry!). I’m mostly pleased with the jacket.  I panicked, thinking it wouldn’t fit so I pieced a couple of plackets to the front, which I’ve overlapped in the pic.  In reality, it would have fit, but been somewhat tight if I hadn’t done that.  I’m not thrilled with the curved seam on the addition to the front but that was how the pattern was designed so I went with it.  I plan to lose some weight, at which time I can remove those pieces.

Why my Pinterest site stinks, or the importance of documentation and citations of original sources. How not to make the same mistake.

This post will start off with an admission of guilt.  When Pinterest was first introduced many of us, myself included, thought of the site only as a great bulletin board where we could save wicked cool photos of fabulous…insert your favorite thing here.  In my case, it was historic clothing.  I went mad in all my spare time, and sometimes when I really should have been doing something else, pinning and repinning things I found online.  I couldn’t forget that incredibly fabulous pink 18th-century gown or that fancy men’s waistcoat, now could I?  Unfortunately, what I neglected to do more often than not, was to find the original source of the image and link to that site.  By simply hastily re-pinning someone else’s pin that appeared on my home page, I perpetuated what so many were already doing– creating bulletin boards with pretty pictures and no citation of the original source material.  Many people, in turn, kept my error alive by re-pinning my re-pinned pins (say that 5 times fast).  Once I realized my error, I stopped pinning intending to fix things and, in fact, have not used the site in quite some time.  Unfortunately, my boards are out there and while I would love to go fix them all, I’m afraid it is quite a daunting task.  I might get to it, and I might not.  In the meantime, people are still looking at my boards and continuing to re-pin.  The very sad part of all this is the fact that, because so many of us did this, most things that come up in an image search online now are from Pinterest, have no links to the original museum website or image source, and thus are much less valuable for research and documentation. Why am I admitting the error of my ways, you ask?  Precisely because by sharing, others might avoid making the same mistake.

That said, you may well ask, how do I go about documenting my historic clothing?  I still use internet searches of course, but now I try to locate the original source prior to using it.  Just because it is a photo of an 18th-century gown online doesn’t mean its context applies to my particular situation.  For example, many calico and chintz fabrics were imported into the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations during the course of the 18th-century.  However, these fabrics were not necessarily brought in similar quantities into the port of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony just 70 miles north of Newport.  Therefore, when attending an event in RI, Mistress Molly is more likely to wear a chintz gown than she is when attending an event in Boston (though there are exceptions, one of which might show up in a later post).  Similarly, when attending an event in one of the New England colonies, I’m less likely to wear a jacket than I am when portraying a Loyalist refugee from New York, where the Dutch influence was much more apparent with the wearing of jackets and chintz prints.  Therefore, my search also includes context and if I can’t find something online, I may locate the reference I seek in either a local library, my own library, or if I’m lucky, in a primary source document written in the period (such as a ship’s manifest, a letter, a portrait or period illustration, etc.), or an actual museum garment with provenance.  I generally make collages of photos to document fabric, color, and style once I find the appropriate references.

Here is the first example: The primary source for my gown below is an original gown from the Snowshill Collection that now resides in the National Trust Collection in Gloucestershire, UK. The secondary source is Bradfield, Nancy Sayer Costume in Detail 1730-1930 (pp. 33-34).  Bradfield’s book describes the gown and two stomachers as being made from “bright mustard-yellow fine woolen cloth”, and dates the gown broadly as made/worn sometime between 1755-75.  The National Trust Collection’s website further describes the gown content as linen, silk, wool.  The lining is made from white linen and the fashion fabric is a silk/wool blend.  This type of material was more common in the 18th-century than we can find today, so my copy with the second stomacher made by accomplished seamstress Wendy Strawn (sometimes I make my own clothing and sometimes I don’t) is made from a darker mustard yellow wool broadcloth.  At the time that Wendy and I were consulting on the gown, the original photos were not yet available on the National Trust website and we didn’t know for certain what color the gown actually was, nor did we know the exact fabric content.  18th_century_gown_English_mustard_yellow_Snowshill_Wendy

The second example is almost cheating…I found my documentation on the Duran Textiles website.  The original fabric is from a Swedish “short gown” or jacket and Duran Textiles copied the fabric and reproduced it in several colorways.  Since red is my color, I chose the red rather than the original brown colorway.  This was an expensive fabric, so at the time the budget only allowed for me to get a discounted remnant (or gremlin as my Grandmum’s friend used to call it) that was just enough for a jacket.  I can wear this one when I portray a Loyalist refugee fleeing from NY to Canada.  The jacket style (sorry I didn’t include a photo of that in my collage) was taken from Arnold, Janet Patterns of Fashion 1, Englishwomen’s Dresses and their Construction, c. 1660-1860, (p. 26, view C).  The book states that the original jacket, again from the Snowshill Collection, was dated 1760-70 though the original cuffs are the larger ones, fashionable earlier in the century.  Therefore, I chose to make my cuffs smaller and I don’t even think they were attached yet in the photo below. I made the jacket using the “lapped seam” technique found in Baumgarten, Linda & Watson, John, Costume Close-Up, Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790 (pp. 39-42), even though the actual jacket in that publication is a different one.  I also made a copy of that jacket in a lightweight blue and green on white India block-print fabric (not shown).

Another reference to this original jacket can be found on A Fashionable Frolick ‘s website.


I could go on and on with these little collages…but I’ll spare you. Please feel free to email me with any questions or comments.  Also, check out my Pinterest if you dare (you’ve been warned!). Who knows, some day I might be motivated to fix it!

Minutemen in York County? Who knew!

This week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by my friend Alex Cain, a historian, college professor, and member of McAlpin’s Corps of Loyal American Volunteers, at Jefferds Tavern, part of the Old York Historical Society.  Alex presented information comparing and contrasting the response of Essex and York counties to the “British” Intolerable Acts. I trust he won’t mind me paraphrasing some of the main points (pun intended!) briefly here.  At the time both counties, though one is now in Maine, were part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In October of 1774 most citizens were afraid of warfare, which they felt was a foregone conclusion.  As a result of the Intolerable Acts, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was formed.

In the Merrimack Valley, citizens were gearing up for war.  Haverhill and Methuen formed artillery and minute companies even before the Provincial Congress was formed.  New elections were ordered to remove and replace loyalist officers of the militia companies, and minute companies comprised of the younger men (average age 18-25) were formed for rapid deployment in case of emergency.  Contrary to what we have all probably been taught in school, these men were NOT untrained, unseasoned farmers who grabbed hunting weapons and routed the King’s army by chance.  In fact the militia companies were organized into companies, regiments, and battalions and were well trained, possibly initially with the cumbersome Norfolk drill, and later with the 1764 Crown manual which was more efficient.  While the “patriots” did use guerrilla tactics on April 19, they were trained to face the King’s army on a field of battle. More on exactly who trained them, momentarily.


York County responded more slowly.  In November of 1774 representatives met in Wells and decided to attempt to pursue “peaceful resolution”.  However, along the seacoast there was a general fear of the British navy with, as it turned out, good reason (read Alex’s blog post on the 1775 burning of Falmouth here: “The Church is Also Burnt but Not the Meeting House”). For this reason, less than a month later, realizing that war was likely inevitable, York County began preparation.  Biddeford was the first to stockpile ammunition and form a minute company.  In early 1775 the town of York ordered a military watch at the harbor.  It’s my personal theory (full disclosure- haven’t found an exact reference to it yet) that it was in the vicinity of what is now called “Sentry Hill Road” in York Harbor.


As I mentioned above, military units in what was then Massachusetts Bay Colony emulated the King’s army.  In order to maintain enlistments, salaries and expense reimbursement schedules were established.  These tended to vary by location and time of year, with higher pay during the farming season.  Contrary to myth, citizens were not poorly armed and equipped, as towns took steps to ensure that their minute companies were well prepared with blankets, cartridge boxes, muskets, and ammunition.  Companies in MA also sought artillery pieces for defense. People were making and selling powder horns, scabbards, and belting.  Bayonets were scarce, and companies were taking steps to acquire them, as they realized that they needed to match the might of the British army.

The militia units were trained by a man named George Marsden, a Grenadier from His Majesty’s 59th regiment.  Haverhill was a safe haven for British deserters, and Mr. Marsden had fled Boston during the siege.  He was hired first by Andover, Bradford, and Haverhill.  He was later hired to train companies in York, Wells, and Pepperell, and then served in a regiment from Maine.


When fighting began on April 19 in Lexington and Concord, towns in the Merrimack Valley were notified approximately 2 hours after the initial incident in Lexington.  Towns in York County were not notified until very late that night or the next morning, and they concentrated on protecting the coast.  A regiment from Andover could likely have cut off the King’s army at Boston Neck before they made it back into the city.  But…as Alex stated, they stopped for lunch.

There was much more information provided, but I won’t steal any more of Alex’s thunder here.  Please see his blog Historical Nerdery for further information. Following the lecture, the York docents served soup, corn bread, cider, and cookies colonial style at long wooden tables in front of the fire at Jefferds tavern.  They run a fantastic program and I would urge you to visit them.  Old York Historical Society