December 10, 2013

Getting into Eli’s World

Boston - 1775
The other night I bought a copy of Stacy Roth’s “Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation”.  One of the interesting topics that she mentions is “Worldview”.  Worldview is basically how a character sees the world around them.  What’s going on in their time and place?  What memories do they have?  What are their hopes and motivations?  Basically, back-story and setting for the character, so that they can answer questions or speak in a natural way, without the answer or presentation seeming like a rehearsed lecture.
The reenactors at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts do a great job at this.  A few years ago I visited there with some friends and the curator of the Pilgrim Hall Museum.  The curator knew many of the folks working in the Plantation village.  They greeted him as an old friend, but never broke character, asking if he’d been traveling, as they hadn’t seen him for some time.  After being introduced, one of the reenactors asked where I was from.  “Far north of here,” I answered, “Vermont.”  “Ah,” the character nodded, “Is that near the French?”  We then fell into an easy conversation about her garden, clothes and house.  At one point she casually mentioned the last supply ship that had come to the colony.  Later, while talking to another reenactor, he too mentioned the supply ship, but more in depth and from a different perspective.  All of the characters were on the same timeline.  They knew what was going on in their time and place, they had memories of past events, and they each reacted to them based on their beliefs.  They each had their own worldview.
I began thinking about the worldview of Eli Davis.  I’ve chosen a time, occupation, and birth date for him, but what about his beliefs and history?  What was going on around him in Boston during 1776?  What would his reaction to events be?  The best way to discover this was to research primary documents.  Larger events of 1776 can be found in history books, but for day-to-day, nothing beats a newspaper.
The Massachusetts Historical Society has a great online collection of period newspapers.  Yesterday I sat down and read The Continental Journal and Weekly Advertiser for December 5, 1776 to see what sort of news Eli would be reading at this time of year.
A quick summary:
  • First up, “An Act for providing Reinforcement to the American Army”.  Towns are being ordered to set up militias to be used in case the American Army needs men due to termination of enlistments that are expected at the end of the year.
  • Next, “An Act to prevent forging and altering Bills of public Credit”.  The new government is issuing currency, and it will be illegal to forge such currency.  There will also be a fine for offering goods at cheaper prices to folks who pay in gold and silver instead of the new currency.
  • A report from a local merchant ship that French and Spanish ports are open to American ships, and that those ships are allowed to fly the American flag.
  • In Philadelphia, alliance treaties are being set up with local Indian tribes.
  • Overseas, France has turned down a request by Britain to march troops through their country.  There is “very great confusions” in Ireland, and British troops are expected to be sent there.  Spain has ceded land in the Caribbean to France, and both French and Spanish fleets, with troops, are expected to land in Jamaica.
  • Closer to home, reports of losses at Fort Washington in New York after a battle there, with 1,700 killed and 96 wagons loaded with wounded.
  • The War-Office is ready to receive fire-arms and cannon, and to enter into agreements with manufacturers of such items.
In short, Eli is living in a world at war.  The American army is being defeated, and may be disbanding due to enlistments running out.  Possible allies are at war with each other, and the economy is being changed by the currency of a new government.  There are some gains with the Indians, but overall the world seems pretty unstable.
On the plus side, commerce in Boston seems to be doing well.  There are several advertisements for goods for sale, houses for rent, and trades being plied; goods range anywhere from mundane items such as cloth, to entire ships being auctioned off at the wharfs.  Though busy, the paper gives Boston a small-town feel, not unlike the tourist town that I live in during modern times.  Strangers are coming and going, but streets and shops are well known.
In addition to the paper, a map of Boston from 1775 helps further define Eli’s worldview.  Overlaying the map on a modern-day map begins to give a sense of scale, and road names that are unfamiliar start to take shape.  The advertisements stating things like “midway down King Street” make more sense.
Knowing more about the details of the area of residence that I’ve chosen for Eli makes it easier to shape him.  I’ve decided to continue this sort of research by reading the newspapers of the times, at roughly the same time of year as they came out originally.  I eagerly await this coming Thursday’s Continental Journal!

November 30, 2013

Shirt - A Basic Definition

I thought it might be fun to document a shirt using a dictionary from the time-period. This morning I pulled up the Google Books copy of A New General English Dictionary[1] from 1771.

First, the basics:
SHIRT (S.) a garment commonly worn by men next
[to] their skin, and generally made of linen.
Seems straight-forward enough. Just to dig a bit, I also looked up "garment" and "linen".

GA'RMENT (S.) any sort of cloathing or covering of
the body.
LI'NEN (S.) sometimes means cloth in whole pieces made
of flax or hemp, and sometimes shirts, shifts, sheets, table-
cloths, etc. made of such cloth.
And finally cloth:
CLOTH (S.) the matter or substance whereof garments are
made, which is sometimes composed of woollen, line, silk, etc.
Fair enough. In 1771, a shirt was a covering of the body, worn by men next to their skin, made of flax or hemp matter. So far so good. The shirt that I'm making was cut from linen cloth, will cover my body, and be worn next to my skin.

So what about the parts of the shirt?  The pattern I'm following has sleeves, gussets, a body, buttons, etc.

[SLEE]VE (S.) that part of a garment that [cont]ains the arm.

GU'SSET (S.) a piece of cloth much broader at one end than
the other, that is sown into other pieces to widen it, as women
do their shifts, seaman their sails, etc. ...

CO'LLAR (S.) ... also the narrow cape of a coat, the upper
part or band of a shirt, made fit to go about a person's neck;...
WRI'ST-BAND (S.) the broad fillet at the bottom of a shirt
sleeve, etc. wherein all the plaits are sewn or inserted, etc.
and which buttons round the wrist, etc.
Button didn't appear on its own as an entry, however I did find a description of what we would call cuff-links:

STUD (S.) ... sometimes 1 small button with two flat heads and
a neck between, used to button the wristbands or collars, etc.
of mens shirts; ...

The closest description of the torso of a shirt was found under "Body", which also contains an awesome definition of the physical body of a person:

BO'DY (S.) ... In Geometry, it is any thing
that has the dimensions of length, breadth,
and thickness, and particularly the tetrahedron,
consisting of four triangles...
With all the pieces and parts documented, I looked at the process:

SEW (V.) to stitch or join cloth, etc. together with a needle,
an awl, etc. ...
STITCH (S.) a single operation of the needle, awl, etc. ...
STITCH (V.) to sew or fasten things together with a needle
awl, etc.
THREAD (S.) small twine of flax, wool, or silk, spun or twisted
together, for the use of sewing things together.
THREA'D or THRE'DDLE (V.) to put thread, silk, worsted, etc.
into a needle.
Last, I took a look at the definitions of the tools needed:

NEE'DLE (S.) a small instrument used in sewing; and according
to the application, it is different denominated; as, a stitchig-needle,
a flocking-needle, a packing-needle, etc. ...
SCI'SSORS or SI'ZZARS (S.) an instrument used for
many purposes, but especially to cut cloth, etc. made
of steel or hardened iron consisting of two sides or
cheeks made very sharp, and fastened with a rivet to
move upon.

 While I'm using the modern versions of these tools, they haven't changed much over the years, with the exception of how they were produced.  At a later date, I may make a more detail post about needles, in particular.

[1] Dyche, Thomas, and William Pardon, ed. A New General English Dictionary Peculiarly Calculated for the Use and Improvement of Such as are Unaquainted With the Learned Languages. London: 1771. (accessed November 30, 2013).

Clothing Eli

Wow.  It’s been over a year.  Life got ahead of me, and this project was put on hold while my wife and I added a third daughter to our family.  Now that daughter is toddling around on her own two feet, I’m starting to find time to work on hobbies again.

Another project that I’ve been working on is an Italian Bauta costume.  I need a shirt for that outfit.  Conveniently, I can use the same style shirt for Eli Davis, Bookbinder.  I started to construct the shirt the other night using a sewing machine.  Yesterday I re-read this blog and was reminded of my goal to attempt using period techniques whenever possible.  Fortunately I had only sewn one seam by machine.  I’ve decided to make the rest of the shirt by hand.
In addition to using period techniques, another of my goals is to document this persona and his possessions as fully as possible, targeting the year 1776 in New England.
Documenting a shirt from the time period has been fairly easy, thanks to the previous works of numerous scholars and reenactors.  The instructions I’m following are from the website La Couturière Parisienne which shows a typical men’s shirt from the era.  The two books referenced by that page, L'art du tailleur (The Art of The Tailor) and  L'art de la linger (The Art of The Laundress) can both be found on the French National Library’sGallica website.
Another great page describing and documenting men’s shirts is this post from Two Nerdy History Girls.  They show detail that I was not able to see in places such as the links from the 18thCentury Men’s Shirts page at the 18th Century Notebook site.  Searching Pinterest for “18th century shirt” also turned up numerous photos from museum collections, all documented to the time period.
Finally, reaching out to the 18th Century Life Yahoo group led to some great tips on sewing, another pattern, some instructions on sewing buttons like those pictured on the Two Nerdy History Girls site, and a video on how to construct button holes.
One interesting thing that I did find, or rather didn’t find, while researching shirts was that, in the estate inventory of a bookbinder who died in 1799, no clothing was listed.  The inventory was taken a year or so after his death.  I wonder if the clothing had been given to others, or perhaps even sent to be made into paper for books?
In addition to researching, I’ve been slowing working on the shirt.  I’m finding that I actually enjoy hand-sewing, even if my stitching isn’t straight.  I like that I can sit on the couch in front of the TV or computer, while the kids run crazily around the room, and still make some progress.  There’s no need to drag out a machine, set it up, shoo the kids away from it, and so on.  All I need to do to work is to pick up the fabric, needle and thread.  Easy as easy can be.
I'll follow up with photos when the shirt reaches completion.