Monday, May 20, 2013

Shirts Are To Be Covered

One of the best college courses I ever had was on the Gilded Age taught by Dr. Daniel Vivian.  The guidelines for the final term paper were rather broad so I chose to do mine on men's clothing trends 1880-1915. It seemed straight forward at first since I have spent a great deal of time working to understand this but it was unexpectedly challenging to prove basic aspects of men's dress during the period (the basics of which had endured for many years prior), which had become ingrained in me, to someone who was not familiar with the subject. I used this 1912 barroom scene to illustrate to the reader how commonly accepted it was during the Gilded Age that a man's shirt should be at least somewhat covered by another garment when going out of doors or in mixed company.  All of the customers, while seemingly working class and not at all well to do, are observing this custom.  Three out of the four are wearing jackets.  They have come in from the outside and will be leaving again before the bar is closed.  The only subjects not covering their shirts are the bartenders- settled in, the first ones in and last ones out, and isolated from company that could be offended.  The practice of men wearing a shirt as an outer layer is a very modern practice- it did not occur to men in 1912 who were even just going out for a beer with the guys after a hard day's work

The practical application of this is that a garment layer of a washable material and that was easier to obtain was necessary between the body and more expensive and specialized garments such as the waistcoat and coat.  Body soils disintegrate textiles and the outer layers (often made of wool) were seldom washed.

Yours &c.,
The Victorian Man

Monday, May 13, 2013

Making Mrs. Beeton's Tea Cakes

While perusing this reprint of the 1861 edition of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management

I found this recipe for tea cakes that looked easy enough to recreate and thought would be nice for a picnic that Amy and I were planning to take.

Unfortunately, I wound up sick when we had the picnic planned and noticed (late) that they were best served fresh out of the oven, so they became breakfast on Sunday instead.  (One disclaimer- I had it in my head that tea cakes should be of a reasonable personal size and made them about the size of a biscuit but in hind sight, I realized that Mrs. Beeton was getting only eight cakes from this large recipe.  I only made a quarter of this recipe and wound up with six, so she was apparently intending for them to be much larger.)

The main aspect I had to be careful about adapting correctly to my modern oven was the baking temperature being referred to only as "moderate." I thought I remembered that being more or less 350 deg. but to be sure, I jumped ahead in time briefly to reference this (original) book I have from 1924:

While recipes arranged in the way we are used to now (with an ingredient list, baking temp., etc.) were not very new by this point, this was still a transitional period for cookbooks. I also have one from 1920 where the recipes are written basically the same way as Mrs. Beeton's. The valuable thing about this book for projects like I was working on is that it combines the old descriptions for oven temperature (e.g. "moderate") with a specific temperature below the recipe. For example:

This makes cross referencing between the descriptions and specifics of oven temperature possible. "Moderate," however, ranges from 300 deg. to 375 deg. in this book, though, so some guess work is still required. In the end, I settled on 350. Converting pounds to cups, the "German yeast" to something more readily available, and doing only one quarter of the recipe to make it a more manageable experiment, the ingredient list became:

1 2/3 Cup Flour
1/8 tsp. Salt
2 Tbsp. Butter (softened)
1 egg (beaten)
1/2 Tbsp. Active Dry Yeast
1/2 Cup (give or take) warm milk

The best results will come from leaving the butter out for 1 1/2-2 hrs before mixing to come to room temperature, then beating it with a fork rather than microwaving or otherwise melting.

Combine the flour and salt, then work in the butter with a fork. Dissolve the yeast in the warm milk (may take more or less- use enough to make a soft, smooth, but not too sticky dough) and add the milk, yeast, and egg to the rest of the ingredients. Knead and cover. Leave to rise until doubled. An easy way to make this part of your breakfast is to mix it just before bed and leave it to rise overnight.

Once risen (or in the morning) preheat your oven to 350, make the dough into biscuit-sized cakes, place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, and leave for 15 minutes or so to rise a bit more.

Bake for 15-20 minutes. Serve soon after coming out of the oven with butter and/or preserves.  We found them to be VERY good!

Our simple bread with coffee and tea breakfast would not at all have been considered a full breakfast in Victorian England. More on that later!

Yours &c.,

The Victorian Man

Friday, May 10, 2013

Rounding Out My 1840s Suit

After several years of studying, observing, planning, wishing, etc, etc, reasons FINALLY started cropping up near the end of last year for me to make an 1840s suit of clothes. The first occasion was The Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco . A few a my pieces were still a little on the "late" side, though. After another couple of projects, the last piece missing is the waistcoat (the one I have been using is very nice but just barely too late to be ideal).  I am implementing the Past Patterns 018 single breasted shawl collar waistcoat 1845-1858 pattern for the first time.

100% of these patterns that I have used have been impeccably drawn, true to size, and can't be beat on authenticity- you get practically a book of documentation with most patterns.  This will be bias cut in a green fabric with textured stripe woven in.

The fabric came from Regency Revisited, . Their selection is far and above what appears on the website and it is owned and operated by two of my favorite people- Jan and Walt Dubbeld.

Examples exist in photographs, art, and extant garments from the middle decades of the 19th Century of waistcoats cut on the bias and made with slanted embroidered designs creating a similar effect.  This was done with both striped and plaid designs and with the slant running in either an upward or downward direction.  Here is an example of one in the MET dated by the museum to 1835-40 that is embroidered with the slanting lines facing up:

Here is a similar example from the Fashion Museum in Bath, England that they date to the 1840s.  Also embroidered but with the pattern facing down:

This fellow from the ca. 1840s-50s is wearing what appears to be a bias cut waistcoat in a plaid pattern:

Another example of this from ca. 1849 (from the Daguerrian Society or Eastman House Colloection):

Ca. mid 19th Century (guessing 1850s), bias cut with stripes facing up:

And this fellow from the ca. 1850s with his stripes facing down but not to the center:

They seem to have achieved every possible variation. My stripes will face down and to the center.

Yours &c.,

The Victorian Man

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ebay as a Research Tool?

The potential for fraud on Ebay is, of course, ever present but there is no shortage of extant objects for sale there from the Victorian era that, if you can achieve a reasonable level of satisfaction of authenticity, can be used as interesting, unique, and diverse documentation of material culture.  Most of the time I spend on Ebay is not actually trying to acquire items, but searching for images of the sort of extant objects I am researching at the moment that I can be reasonably convinced are authentic.  I always assume I am going to run into fakes and that the descriptions are flawed if not totally wrong- the seller's objective is to make money, critical research is my responsibility.  One of my main points of interest is historic fashion, both understanding and recreating it, so much of what I am looking for are examples of this.  If I become reasonably satisfied of an object's authenticity and the images of it can potentially contribute to my broader understanding of the subject, they go into my LONG timeline of images that I keep to constantly reference in my attempts to understand and recreate aspects of material culture of the past (largely fashion) in the most complete, in depth, and authentic way possible.

It was 2010 before I realized that Ebay was a possible research tool; I was searching on line for images of extant mid-late 19th Century sack coats and came on this:

I have actually never been convinced that it is an authentic piece so would not use it for documentation of details of 19th Century sack coats, but it opened the door.  There is always the danger of particularly well done and subsequently well weathered reproductions making their way in, but I have found a number of interesting pieces that I judged to be likely authentic that I will highlight on this blog from time to time. Some of my favorites have been this velvet neck stock:

This complete suit from the ca. early 1900s:

And this tail coat from the ca. 1820s:

Once in a great while, I have been satisfied of authenticity, the garment appears to be about my measurements, it is in impeccable condition, no one else seems to notice it, and it finds its way onto me (rarely and for especially fancy and civil occasions ONLY). This coat and trousers are from ca. 1907 (dated on the inside pocket of the coat) and the scarf was with them; I found the waistcoat a couple of years later:

That's my darling Amy with me- we were attending a historical ball at the incredible Inn at Irwin Gardens in Columbus, Indiana.  The tie is also an extant piece- late 19th or very early 20th Century from a vintage shop near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Importance of Art as Documentation in the Era of Early Photography

"All of your sources are lying!" was an often repeated phrase by one of my history professors and one that anyone who makes a serious attempt to recreate aspects of the past will find to be frustratingly true.  The emergence of photography allowed for crucial evidence to be left to us of a vast many realities of the period in which they were taken.  Photography played a large part in making the Victorian Era more completely documented than any period before it.  We can see details of clothing, physical characteristics of the subjects, and an infinite number of other aspects of material culture in "real life" detail seldom possible from a painting or print.  Photography had the ability to remove some of the elements of "artistic license" one might fear when using a painting for documentation.

But this license was not eliminated and photographs do lie.  To begin with, the vast majority of early photographs, even those that appear candid, were planned and posed, even when movement blurring the image was not an issue. An example of this is the well known images of dead soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg- while they were, in fact, of dead soldiers, many were "arranged;" you do not necessarily see them "as they fell."

There is also the issue of the rarity of someone having a photographic portrait done; if a subject only had the opportunity once every few years, or once in their life, the possibility exists that they were putting their "best foot forward"- wearing and looking as well as they could rather than how they did on an ordinary day.

Ca. 1852

Even when a subject sat for a portrait in the clothes and with the tools of their trade, they often looked conspicuously clean and orderly.

Blacksmith, ca. 1860

As the 19th Century wore on and photographic processes were refined, more depictions of harsh realities of real life emerged, such as in Jacob Riis's book, How the Other Half Lives, which contained real life photographic images of New York slums.

For the entirety of the Victorian Era, however, various forms of art from genre painting (representing the artist's impression of every day life) to Impressionism supplemented photography with windows into aspects of life that would have been impossible or impractical to capture in a photograph.  Henry Mosler's painting Just Moved depicts a scene that would have been unlikely to have been captured photographically:

Mosler gives us a sense of the relief but disarray and tasks to come by painting his impression of the moment when a young couple has gotten their worldly belongings into a new dwelling and finally sit for a moment and bask in the victory.  While artistic licence is most certainly a reality here, the artist was portraying what he perceived as relevant to the experience- right down to the husband/father's braces hanging loose from his trousers.

Which leads us to the importance of perception- uncovering physical realities are only half of unraveling the past- the other half is how they were perceived by the people experiencing them. Projecting 21st Century ideals onto the realities of the past leads only to misunderstanding. Art of the period can help us to avoid this. The artist presented what he/she considered pertinent and in the way they considered it to be pertinent. One of the most valuable aspects of Impressionist art is that it is presented like the details that stand out in a memory and therefore emphasize what someone at the time considered relevant in a memory- we are left less needing to assign importance ourselves (risking missing what the subject perceived) as with a photograph.

Sargeant, A Boating Party, 1889

The other obvious supplement that art can make to photography of the period is color.  Working in an historic home that is painted the vibrant colors fashionable in the first decade of the 19th Century, I am often confronted with the perception by many that history was as colorless as a black and white photograph.While this ca. 1880 photograph leaves much to the imagination in regards to color:

This painting from about the same helps us understand the gaps:

Art and photography must be used in tandem when attempting to understand the realities of life in the Victorian era in order to avoid being imprinted with inaccurate "slants" that each might present to us on their own.

Yours, &c.
The Victorian Man

Why Victorian?

For most of my life, I have had an insatiable passion for the common things that made up life during the Victorian Era (which can be literally defined as Queen Victoria's reign, 1837-1901) and a preoccupation with recreating them.

"The Long Story" by William Sydney Mount, 1837

1901 Golfing Fashion

Naturally, there is bleeding over both before and after, which is why I have defined my focus as "the long 19th Century"- roughly 1789 (the French Revolution) through 1918 (the end of World War I).

French Fashion, 1789

Actress Mabel Normand, 1918

When I was younger, I tried to assign rational reasons for why THIS was THE era I was obsessed with.  After having been deeply involved in living history related to both the Revolutionary War  and the Regency/Federal Period (and having made some of my best friends in both), I realized that there are those of us who are emotionally drawn to the tangibility of very specific points in history and that arguing "for" one period over another is irrelevant and unnecessary.

Me portraying a sergeant in Benjamin Logan's Company, 1777, on a cold day.

In early 19th Century clothes on horse back at Locust Grove

For whatever reason, there are some of us who derive gratification from exploring the minute details of specific points in time.  We should do so because not only does it give us personal satisfaction, but our findings can contribute to the massive, twisting, turning, and ever changing puzzle we call "history." No one can know or do it all, so by pursuing in depth what we truly love (and making known our findings) we contribute to a broader, more comprehensive understanding.

Through all of the work I have done on other periods, for me, the natural drive to dig deeply has remained in commonplace details nestled very neatly into the entire expanse of Queen Victoria's reign. If you were to catch me on a night when I get to choose whatever sort of reading I may to immerse myself in before going to sleep, 99 times out of 100 it will pertain to some aspect of domestic life during this period (often England but also America). From a young age, I have soaked up whatever I could about it from clothing, photographs, art, buildings, food- the list goes on and on. What follows will be my sharing of notes with you from my "digging deeply."

Yours, &c.
The Victorian Man