Thursday, September 29, 2011

Two Livingston Ladies: A Tale of Two Shoppers

As a consumate shopper myself (and fashion historian), I can't help but be fascinated by the Livingston's shopping habits--especially clothes. There isn't much in the way of eighteenth century clothing left in Clermont's collections so for the most past, I am left eagerly pawing through the documentary references I can find.

So when, in the course of doing other research, I bumped into records from both Alida Schuyler Livingston (1656-1729, pictured at right) and her grandaughter-in-law Margaret Beekman Livingston (1724-1800), I was all excited when I started finding references to clothing items. Here are two women that we have minimal imagery of (only three portraits between the two of them) so knowing about day-to-day clothing for them and their families is difficult. What on earth were they wearing!?

The two sets of records are of very different kinds so the information they provide is a little different too. From Alida, I have a collection of transcribed letters in "Livingston Then and Now." They date from between February 1697 and June 1724. Because this is not a complete list of her correspondance, just a dozen or so missives between she and her husband, there are gaping holes about other sources from which she may have done purchasing. From Margaret, I have a few pages from an account book ranging between November 1776 and April 1779. For whatever reason, this book doesn't appear to give a very complete accounting, even in the narrow range of dates it provides. Nevertheless, in spite of their flaws, both sources reference items of clothing that give us hints about the past.

I'll take what I can get.

So what do they have to say?

Alida wrote letters to her husband Robert, who was often in New York while she was in Albany or minding the manor at the Roeliff Jansen Kill. The two missed each other, and often expressed concern or endearments in their missives. But the letters were also practical exchanges of information. Located, as he was, in a major shipping capital, she often wrote requesting that he purchase certain supplies for her--clothing items among them. Other times he wrote requesting things from their stores at home. A few times, clothes simply became part of the discussion of daily life.

In November of 1711, amidst sorowful descriptions of Alida's plight supervising the Palatines, she added several mundane requests onto the end of letter, including, "Robert has to have a pair of shoes."

The shoes must have been slow in coming, because she mentioned it twice more in successive letters that month. Although, by the second request, apparently everyone's shoes were wearing out: "Don't forget my shoes and Robbert's and Hendrikje's and Naetje's shoes at Jackson's." And later, "A pair of shoes for Robbert; he wear Hensje's shoes when he goes to the mill." Shoes were required clothing for those who wished to demonstrate status so having to share a pair between the boys must have been a trial.

In July of 1711, the requested a "box of lace" and "a piece of black chalon, 1/4 black sewing thread, 1/2 black mohair and black camisole buttons." (Chalon is a light weight wool fabric) It appears that someone was getting a black garment, though I can't determine for sure what it was or who it was for. Much later in 1724, Alida was ordering more garments from her husband in New York: a cap and a "black garment"--probably a dress since it needed to be made "in accordance with your body."

At other times, Robert requested thing from home or clothing simply was part of the conversation. Alida once mentioned her husband's wigbox, suggesting that he had joined in the popular (and expensive) fashion of wearing styled wigs. Another time Robert requested that Alida send him both his leather and linen stockings and also that he "urgently" needing some night shirts, as "[I] have only 4." In the same letter he requested that Alida send down some cloth with which to make new "dress-coats." His were "all going to pieces."

When Alida gave birth to their last child in 1698, she was feverish and sick (most likely from an infection), but still gave her stays (corset) to her sister "to enlarge them on each side." Aparently she had no hope of losing enough weight to get back to her old size.

So that was Alida. What about our old friend Margaret Beekman Livingston. Margaret was born in 1724, the same year that Alida was having her "black garment" made. Her account book pages (which appear to have been written out by her eldest son Robert the Chancellor, since they once note that "mama is to pay.") are written some fifty years after Alida's later letters.

Nevertheless, some things never change. Margaret was still making sure her children had shoes to wear. In August of 1777, Margaret paid 6 shillings for "shoes for Edward," her teenage son. In March of the next year (while she was building a farm house in which to live until the mansion was ready), she paid 1 pound for "shoes for Sarah." Sarah is not the name of any of her children so I can only assume that these were for a servant or other dependant.

More shoes came in April of 1779 when Gertrude and Margaret (her daughter, also nicknamed "Peggy") were getting married. Peggy caught a new pair and so did her younger sister Alida (named after her great grandmother). At 8 pounds for one pair and 6 pounds, 5 shillings, 4 pence for the other, they much have been some pretty ones! (Maybe like these from the Bata Shoe Museum)

Gloves were also an important accessory in the 18th century, and Margaret lists several glove purchases: one pair in 1778 for 9 shillings and another that might have been for Peggy's wedding for 6 pounds, 2 shillings. Both of these purchases were made from "Mrs. Provost."

While hunkered down for the winter of 1778 (after the mansion had been burned) there is only one notable clothing purchase including one pair of silk stockings (L5.2.1) and 4 yards of cambric (a nice, but not extravagant fabric).

A few other fabric and notions purchases can be found in the record. "two pieces of tape" were bought for 3 shillings in March of 1778. Tapes were a woven linen or cotton ribbon of sorts, commonly used for apron strings amongst many other things. (At right is the small loom on which these were woven.) Later came 2 yards "crape" (crepe) for 6 pounds. And finally for Alida's big purchase in 1779 (including the white shoes), there was a "half a piece of linnen" at L6.13.4 and "shalloon" (the same as the "chalon" from above) at L20. Whatever else was purchased that day didn't get recorded, but the total was over 72 pounds.

Whew! Little Alida's shopping high must have made her giddy.

So what does all of this tell us about the Livingston ladies? We can't always find what colors they bought or how they fit (or didn't) into the current fashion trends. We can't tell how much Alida's purchases cost. And both sources give us only the tiniest picture of what these wealthy women were consuming during their long lives.

But even that tiny picture is a step forward to understanding their clothes. We can see that Margaret Beekman Livingston was buying things in a wide variety of qualities when we compare the different prices of the shoes and gloves. We can see the Alida was commited to wearing her stays (there's always a debate about how universally they were worn), even right after giving birth. And we can see the struggles she went through to keep her children in shoes, something that many parents are still wrestling with--although not always dealing with the supply issue.

Like I said at the beginning, there is not that much information surviving on this topic for the Livingstons so I'll take what I can get.

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