Friday, 16 September 2016

Photographic Evidence: Dating Historical Photographs

What happens when you think you’ve found that key piece of information that proves your theory, and it turns out to be not what you had first expected? Often times, dress historians are asked to date photographs. The person doing the asking often has a preconceived idea of who is in the photo, and also often what year it was taken based on family ‘history’. Often times, those preconceived notions are misguided, and we have to tell them that they are wrong about the photo.

Case study: “Skutching Flax, Pictou County 1847”
Pictou Historical Society

As you can see, at some point in the photograph’s life, someone added the date and label to the photograph. When catalogued, the registrar added this date and description to the catalogue file for the photo. Straight forward, yes? Well, no, not really. What first stood out to me was the appearance of the photo.  It may be a digital image of the original photo, but there are tell-tale signs to question the original dating. Photographic imaging in 1847 was carried out through the daguerreotype process.  This produced an image on a glass negative and is printed on metal, which, even when digitally copied, still resembles a glass photo printed on metal.  The photo above did not resemble this process, rather it resembled a photograph printed on paper. I then looked more closely at the image itself.

In Gilliam Rose’s article, she quotes Joan Schwartz arguing that “photographs are complicit with particular ‘visual agendas’ that they should be seen as ‘social constructs capable of performing ideological work” (cited in Rose 2000, 555). There were things that seemed ‘wrong’ to my eye if the photo had indeed been taken in 1847. Take for instance, the clothes on the woman in the front.  Her skirt and blouse were a dead giveaway that the photo was more likely from 1887 instead of 1847.  First of all, she was wearing what we now call ‘separates’ instead of a ‘dress’, as would more likely have been worn in the 1840s. Her skirt is cut in an A line shape instead of a full, gathered rectangle shape. Her shoulder line is square, with the sleeve cap gathered into a little puff at the top to accentuate that square line.  Women of the 1840s preferred a rounded shoulder line, and the armscye of the sleeve was worn down on the arm, not up on the shoulder point, to accentuate that rounded shoulder.  The neckline is also more in keeping with the 1880s, being high and tight to the neck instead of cut lower on the bosom and in a more rounded shape.  This woman exhibits all the fashionable ‘tailored’ garments of the 1880s, not the more ‘feminine’ styles of the 1840s.

As Rose mentions, she wants “to insist that photographs cannot be used as neutral evidence of the way things looked” (Rose 2000, 556). This very quickly discussed photograph could be case in point.  The researcher was hopeful that it proved that linen production occurred in Nova Scotia in the 1840s.  It was heartbreaking to inform them that I believed what we were looking at was more of an early ‘re-enactment’ of historical practice for the purpose of the photograph.  As a living historian, I have often wondered how the reproductions we use in our programing will be seen by researchers in the future.  With this photo, I am now wondering how the photographs of our programming will be viewed by those very same researchers. And in viewing this particular photo, I was also struck by how little importance was given to getting the elements of clothing correct, especially in a period where the wearing of ‘old clothes’ was an important social function through masquerades.  The correct clothing could have been obtained and worn by the participants in the photo, and that alone may have fooled more of us here in the ‘future’.

Rose, Gillian. 2000. "Practising photography: an archive, a study, some photographs and a researcher." Journal of Historical Geography 555-571.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

finally finished weaving

I have learned this summer, that when it comes to weaving linen, your best laid plans should be set aside, as linen is a difficult mistress, prone to getting her own way. In John O’Neil’s Improved Method of Weaving Linen, I learned that “eight yards of calico is a fair day’s work, and two yards and a half of linen” (O'Neil 1810, 166). O’Neil also seemed to back up my thoughts on the dryness of the air having an effect on the linen threads (O'Neil 1810, 167). In the article Atmospheric Conditions and Industrial Efficiency, I learned that “the weaving of fine linen is one of the most trying industrial operations known in this country, as it has to be carried on in a hot and very moist atmosphere, in order to reduce the breakage of the yarn to a minimum” (Atmospheric Conditions and Industrial Efficiency 1923, 36). I managed to accomplish my own weaving in one of the hottest August's on record, I also think it was one of the most humid. I learned to not use a single ply thread in the warp.
The ladies at Colonial Williamsburg that I had been chatting with about my project quipped, “It’s only thread…” and I used a lot of thread this summer. But I am happy with the final product. I ended up using an Egyptian linen 2/16. A bit heavier than I originally wanted, but I also wanted to get this project completed this summer. After about a metre woven with the 2/16 as the weft thread, I was close to running out of the 2/16 and so switched to a spool of thread from my stash marked only as #10.  I have halved the number of threads in the check through the weft than are in the warp so that my check stayed an even square.  The threads were packing in nicely, and I am finally happy with the cloth. I ended up weaving about a metre per day, working around my mum's much needed naps due to chemo recovery.  I then processed the fabric by washing it in hot water, hanging to dry on the line, and then steam pressing it before using it. I only broke two threads, one on each selvage, which I then fixed by bringing new threads through the heddles and weaving them in.

Given that the eighteenth century was full of turmoil for the residents of Nova Scotia, with the deportations of the Acadien people, immigration of the Planters from America before the Revolutionary war, and then a second wave of immigration through the refugee crisis of the Loyalists, it is easy to understand why textile production does not seem to have become widespread until the mid-nineteenth century. Extant newspapers from Halifax, Shelburne, and Saint John all contain many advertisements for goods and textiles that were imported and sold from all over the world. As I enter into the time of year when I am processing the year’s harvest, I can understand why the production of food would be paramount in a settler’s mind, certainly one that may or may not have the skills needed to create textiles. I will continue my explorations of weaving linen, but with a different focus. I do not feel that it is a necessity to weave one's own cloth for the accuracy of cloth when used in garment construction, certainly not for men’s shirts or women’s body linens. We are still able to buy reproduction fabrics that are of good quality for much cheaper than I can even buy the thread.  I will weave apron fabric in linen only, as the width of the fabric will be noticeable when made up. I think that my eighteenth century counterpart would approve.

My bibliography for the summer, and the resulting paper 

1769. The Nova Scotia Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser . Halifax: Henry, Anthony, January 31.

1769. The Nova Scotia Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser. Halifax: Anthony Henry, August 8.

1923. "Atmospheric Conditions and Industrial Efficiency." The British Medical Journal 36.

Baumgarten, Linda. 2011. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bolt, Barbara. 2007. "Material Thinking and the Agency of Matter." Studies in Material Thinking 1-4.

Goodrich, Eugene. 2016. "Domestic Textile Production in Early New Brunswick." St. James Textile Museum publication.

Hood, Adrienne D. 1996. "The Material World of Cloth: Production and Use in Eighteenth-Century Rural Pennsylvania." The William and Mary Quarterly 43-66.

Johnston, A.J.B. 1995. "From Port de Peche to Ville Fortifiee: The Evolution of Urban Louisbourg, 1713-1758." In Aspects of Louisbourg: Essays on the History of an Eighteenth-Century French Community in North America, by Carol Corbin, William O'Shea Eric Krause, 3-18. Sydney, Nova Scotia: The University College of Cape Breton Press.

Lawson, Murray G. 1950. "The Domestic Exports of Halifax, 1754-1757: A Ststistical Summary." The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 419-421.

Nellis, Eric G. 1986. "Misreading the Signs: Industrial Imitation, Poverty, and the Social Order in Colonial Boston." The New England Quarterly 486-507.

O'Neil, John. 1810. "Improved Method of Weaving Linen." The Belfast Monthly Magazine 166-167.

Rees, John U. 1999. "Some in Rags and Some in Jags, but None in Velvet Gowns: Insights on Clothing Worn by Female Followers of the Armies During the American War for Independence." ALHFAM Bulletin 18-21.

Shammas, Carole. 1982. "How Self-Sufficient Was Early America?" the Journal of Interdisciplinary History 247-272.

Tryon, R.M. 1916. "Household Manufactures in the United States: A Quarter-Century of Developments 1784-1809." The Elementary School Journal 234-249.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. 1998. "Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labour in Eighteenth-Century New England." The William and Mary Quarterly 3-38.