Thursday, March 26, 2015

Button it Up!

Aaahh buttons.  They can be nostalgic.  My grandmother used to cut the buttons off old clothes and save them in a jar.  They can be showy.  Amongst other reasons, the Amish do not wear buttons on their clothes because they are to proud.  And Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered some buttons from her earliest childhood, describing gold buttons with "a little castle and a tree carved" on them or "black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries" that she wanted to eat them.

We've kind of forgotten all the fancy buttons that once ornamented wardrobes (especially men's wardrobes) of the eighteenth century.  The standard pressed pewter, silver, gold, and brass that you can purchase through various reproduction suppliers (as seen at left) are only the tip of the iceberg.

I started on this whole line of thought today when I bumped into this picture at right.

These spherical little buttons are purported to have been witness to the swearing in of George Washington as the US's first president.  According to the Livingston family, they came from the coat worn by Chancellor Livingston that day.  Whether or not the story is true, their age suggests that they do come from that era, and they are a great example of the wide variety of decorative buttons available at the time.

Yet another button at Clermont was discovered in the 1970s as part of an archaeological dig at the site of the museum's HVAC bunker.  The dig produced thousands of artifacts, but this little guy stands out more than some of the rest.

The George Washington inaugural button was found in a layer of trash in the archaeological dig, just on top of the ash and rubble left behind when the mansion was burned in 1777.  It's a nice compliment to the Chancellor's buttons up above, since both are linked to the same event.

Buttons like this were bought as souvenirs or worn in support of America's new president at the event of the swearing in.  A number of different designs can be found in different collections these days, and some are quite fancy.  It is quite possible that Chancellor Livingston wore a full set of these buttons as he swore Washington into office.  Perhaps the glass buttons were on his waistcoat and the copper button shown here was on his frock coat?  A curious side question is: How did it come to be discarded in a waste heap near the Chancellor's mother's house not long afterwards?

Chancellor Livingston's clothes reflect a full range of buttons, including a set of very fancy-pants ones on a waistcoat and coat at the New York Historical Society.  To make this kind of button, a circle of silk was carefully hand-embroidered, cut out, and set over a button form.  They generally complimented the embroidery motif on the coat or waistcoat and were made at the same time.

Even though they are less ornate than the embroidered buttons above, thread buttons are my personal favorite. Death's Head Buttons (as seen at left) are some of the more common, and they can be spotted on a couple of Livingston portraits in the house.  Most readily, you can spot them on Philip the Signer's brown coat and black waistcoat in his portrait in the Drawing Room (below center).  They're easy to recognize since they look like a quartered circle.

I couldn't seem to find any examples of Dorset buttons (as seen at right) here at Clermont, but they were also a common thread button.  In the 19th century particularly, thread buttons became quite a fancy affair, often matching extensive passementerie on women's clothing.  
Finally, a pair of Chancellor Livingston's breeches (also in the collections of the New York Historical Society) offers a last look at common bone buttons.  Neatly rounded and finished, they give no suggestion of being rustic, as you might expect for something carved out of animal bone.  

Mostly today, buttons are a forgotten fastener on our jeans and coats and shirts.  Fancy buttons are the realm of children's clothing, scrapbookers, or novelty clothing.  

A century or two ago however, buttons were essential markers of style and taste, graced with extraordinary variety and often quite costly. In the eighteenth century, buttons were not wasted on underwear like petticoats or chemises.  Those things tied or pinned closed (straight pins, mind you.  The safety pin was a much later invention).  Buttons were proudly displayed on waistcoats, jackets, and some fine gowns.  Some (like the Chancellor's purple glass buttons) were even worth saving even when the garment they were originally attached to had long since worn out.  Others found their way into trash piles and are now battered archaeological finds.  Either way, they came in a wide variety of shapes and colors and styles--and they still do if you ever take a moment to look at them while you are getting dressed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

6 Livingston Babies We'd Like to Sqeeze

A big part of our interpretation at Clermont is home life.  The Livingstons were, by definition, a family.  Their lives were filled with the giggles, cackles, and cries of babies--especially when many generations had large families.  Here are just a few of the Livingston children who can help put a face on that aspect of daily life around here.

Honoria Livingston, 1909: Eventually growing up into the grand dame of Clermont the Museum, Honoria was part of the last generation to be born at Clermont.  Her mother Alice had the help of nannies to care for her, but she was not a distant figure by any means.  Alice's letters show that she worried over Honoria's first solid foods, played with her, and put her down to nap, making Honoria a central feature of Alice's day-to-day life.

Catherine Livingston, 1873-4:  Catherine was Honoria's half-sister, but was older than her by some 36 years.  She was their father John Henry's first child, but her mother passed away only shortly after she was born.  Catherine (named after her mother) spent years living with her Hammersley aunts until her father finally remarried, creating a household suitable for raising children in again (the guidance of only a father may not have been considered enough for so small a child).

Catherine eventually grew up and moved to England, where she changed the spelling of her name to Katherine to avoid the Irish associations and prejudice that apparently went along with the "C."

My kudos to the photographer for catching a beguiling twinkle in baby Catherine's eyes.

Eddie, 1872:  Alright, I have to admit, I don't know anything about "Eddie" except his name and the date of the photo, but that thick mass of hair and more twinkling eyes made him too endearing to leave out.

Don't miss his pretty white dress: baby boys and even boys up the age of 6 or 7 wore dresses (often white) for centuries--reaching into the late 1920s in some families.  Instead of suggesting femininity, dresses were indicating childhood in this case.

From a practical standpoint, keeping very young boys in dresses made it easier to change diapers in an age before snaps and elastic made clothing easy to put on an take off.  Before ultrasounds let us know the gender of a baby before it ever escaped the womb, selecting a gender-neutral  style (or just making dresses gender-neutral) also meant that you didn't have to have two complete sets of clothing waiting for your baby's birth.

Robert Clermont, 1908:  Katherine (also pictured above) grew up and got married and had her own kids in the first decade of the 20th century.  Here's Robert, her third baby doing his very best to wriggle out of her arms while she tries to get a formal portrait taken.

Robert was the inheritor of the most weighty boys' name in the Livingston family.  In the tradition of the founder of Livingston Manor, the Judge, the Chancellor, and plenty more, Robert had big shoes to fill.  Thankfully, the many distant cousins who also inherited the name Robert were all across the Atlantic Ocean in America, eliminating the inevitable confusion of never knowing who was actually being called when someone yelled out his name.

The best touch in this historic image is undoubtedly Robert's bare toes and just a hint of his baby belly hanging out.

Unknown, circa 1900-1905:  Alice Livingston loved photography, and she liked to experiment with her own studio set-ups.  This unknown baby way tucked into a photo album next to pictures of her father and her sisters so there is a chance that this pudgy little child is her niece or nephew (back to the problem of gender neutral baby clothes).

The photograph's clarity gives us a chance to get a really good look at the fine lace insertions and trim along the dress's hem--and of course, more chubby, bare baby feet.

But the inclusion of the toy drum is also helpful in recreating the noise of having a baby in the house.  The a-rhythmic tap, tap of a baby playing with a drum would have also been accompanied by the crashing noise of it being repeatedly dropped as it was carried around the house.

Eliot Hawkins, 1934:  
Eliot Hawkins was Alice Livingston's grand nephew, and he really is bordering on a toddler here.  Nevertheless, he has escaped the clutches of dresses and is instead clad in the other early 20th century uniform of boyhood--shorts.  His cute--or maybe mischievous--smile, pudgy fingers, and arms full of stuffed toys were captured by Alice Livingston as he visited her at Clermont one day.

Like Honoria, Eliot grew up and became an important part of turning Clermont from a home into a museum.  Not only did his memories flush out our interpretation of his family heritage, but he has continued to commit countless hours to the Friends of Clermont, who support us every day at Clermont.

Monday, March 9, 2015

It was NOT Alice's Wedding Dress: or Just Because it's White, Don't Make Assumptions

Nobody likes to be wrong in public, but I've done it this time!  Quite some time ago, I posted this blog, wondering if the creamy Parisian designer dress in our collections was Alice's wedding dress.  I was a little over-excited because--quite honestly--it's a pretty fabulous gown.

Aaand today history shot me down.

To be fair, I'm only partially to blame.  Some curator or even conservator before me labeled it a "wedding dress" on the box, and I just went with it.  But when I was researching pictures of Alice Livingston today, I found rather indisputable evidence.

Written on the back of a pretty, but kind of unassuming little photo of Alice was the following (see left):

Alice Delafield Clarkson/ Wife of John Henry Livingston/ Taken in her Wedding dress on honey moon in Florence 1907-8/ The hat was one got in Florence

Well there goes that theory.  So here is Alice's wedding dress, and it's a lot less glamorous than previously advertised--hopefully my disappointment wouldn't make Alice feel badly about her rather smart-looking tailor-made suit here.

It actually makes sense.  At the time I was wondering about the silhouette of this gown in comparison with other 1906 contemporaries; it was a little ahead of its time.  But this other dress fits right in.

It all goes along with something museums hear all the time. White dresses frequently show up at historical societies and other locations with the family legend being that it was Great So-and-So's wedding dress.

White is kind of a pitfall.  Today, the color has largely fallen out of fashion with the exception of wedding gowns so we tend to jump to that conclusion pretty quickly.  But historically, wedding gowns didn't start being consistently white until sometime around the middle or even end of the 19th century.  Even then, colors persisted into the 20th century.

Also, white was a popular color for pretty day dresses, as seen on Alice in this 1890s photo.  That means that a lot of everyday dresses (which to us look more formal anyway because they are full-length) get re-labeled as wedding gowns.

White was also a perfectly nice color for formal occasions, which just further confuses the matter.  Just a few days ago, a very nice Clermont board member brought in three 19th century gowns, all in white, and none of them wedding dresses.

So what does all this mean for this designer gown in our collections?  It means that Alice was still stylin' after she got married to John Henry.  Just because she was 35-ish and about to be the mother of two little girls didn't mean she was going to stop going to fancy parties.

That makes perfect sense since we have at least one other amazing silk gown (though this one was made in New York City) in our collections.  You'll have to excuse my wretched photos of it and instead use your imagination to conjure up the buttery-smooth feeling of silk charmeuse, the ethereal lace, and the gentle clack-clack of beading as Alice socialized at some really great dinner party, like a page out of the first season of "Downton Abbey."

Amusingly enough, this yellow gown also has a confusing label since Honoria seemed to remember wearing it to her her coming out party in 1928.  Unless she was deliberately wearing a gown at least 15 years out of style, I think perhaps that 50 years later Honoria's memory was a little fuzzy on who wore what, when.  That's okay; we can forgive her, I don't remember exactly what I've worn to every party over the past 10 years either.

I love having these two gowns side-by-side since the yellow one is most definitely made after Honoria and Janet were born (in 1909 and 1910), which supports an oral history interview done with Honoria in the 1980s.  "Oh yes," she said, "Mother and Father would have dinner parties--going way back, the early days."

And what does this comely dress (pictured in full at right) say about Alice's wedding?  That's a harder one to pick out since wedding dress customs have changed so dramatically over the past century. At the very least, it's good that we've put aside the Parisian dress, which was so dramatically different, and finally been put on the right track.