July 31, 2014

Christmas in July

July 26, 2014 - My internship had me interpreting as a charity lady and sewing baby caps for the museum's new theme day: Christmas in July!  To interpret the role, I had to do a bit of research (history heavy post ahead)...

"A Family Separated by War" by Thomas Nash, Harper's Weekly, January 3, 1868

Background: Charity and American social welfare were not new concepts as the 19th century practices and philosophies were rooted in the English Poor Laws dating back to 1601.  In fact, religion greatly influenced such generosities as "saving souls" was considered a "moral duty."  This "duty" often fell to the relatives and neighbors of less fortunate families.  Then, it became an issue of the local community, often centered around a parish, and, in plenty of cases, social welfare became the duty of local officials.  This is when charitable organizations came to the scene: organized, voluntary, charitable groups were founded to address issues of the day such as pauperism, widows & orphans, epidemics, natural disasters, and immigrants.

Enter then the group that I represented: the Rochester Female Charitable Society.  Founded in February of 1822 at the home of Everard Peck, the group's main functions were to aid the sick & poor and establish a charity school, which served families too poor to pay city school fees.  Members of the charitable society were required to pay 25 cents per year for membership and contribute provisions, clothing and bedding collected from their communities.  These items then would be distributed by their system of "visitors" who brought the goods and money to the poor of each district.  In the beginning, the society served 15 districts, and, by 1872, the number had grown to 73 districts.  Eventually, the charitable society became more of a community chest, supplying the needs not met by the other agencies that had branched off from the original organization.

The Livingston-Backus House
(Image via: Wikimedia Commons)

Where I was: The Livingston-Backus House itself is named for two of its previous occupants - the Livingstons and the Backuses - and both families, interestingly, had connections with the Rochester Female Charitable Society.  Not only did Mrs. Livingston serve as the society's president in 1827, Mrs. Rebecca Backus, the wife of Doctor Backus (founding member of Rochester's first city hospital), played a leading role in various charitable organizations and assisted her husband in various public roles.  In fact, she was a civic leader in her own right as a founding member of the Rochester Female Charitable Society and elected president in 1833.

Entryway of the Livingston-Backus House
(via: https://flic.kr/p/9LvgVK)

All day I was stationed in the grand hallway of the house with a lovely, fellow interpreter.  More beautiful pictures of the Livingston-Backus House can be found here: http://backroadstraveller.blogspot.com/2014/01/the-livingston-backus-house.html.

So, besides the family connections to the Rochester Female Charitable Society, you may be asking why I was set up in Livingston-Backus House to sew baby caps?  And, what does this have to do with Christmas (in July)?  Well, the Ladies Hospital Relief Association held their first famous Christmas Bazaar in 1863 to aid the wounded, widows and orphans.  And, female charitable societies, like Rochester's, may have helped by contributing charity boxes - perhaps ones for new mothers, like the one I was putting together.  (In fact, I used a table and bench to display articles of children's clothes - shifts, petticoats, caps, dresses & pinafores - as examples of what might have been included in such charity boxes.)

 About the 1863 Christmas Bazaar: During Christmas week (December 14th to 22nd), the Ladies Hospital Relief Association collected more than 10,000 dollars through booths and other activities at their bazaar.  They then used their funds to send money and shipments of clothing and medical supplies to the U.S. sanitary commission for use in battle areas.  In fact, the ladies kept remarkably detailed records of the 1863 bazaar published in their report, which can be accessed here: http://www.libraryweb.org/~digitized/books/Report_of_the_Christmas_Bazaar.pdf

(Image & digital copy accessible here: http://www.libraryweb.org/~digitized/books/Report_of_the_Christmas_Bazaar.pdf)

Some of the features according to the report included vending booths (advertising just about everything and any professional service from china, glassware, clothing, fabric, jewelry, dry goods of all sorts, seeds, chemicals, photographs, lanterns, piano fortes, insurance & to doctors of all kinds), refreshment tables (staffed by young ladies wearing patriotic costumes), lunches and elegant dinners, side shows (featuring preserved mummies to live monkeys), an art gallery, "nationality" booths, and a "fairy land" selling all sorts of holiday gifts.

Returning to my task for the day - hand-sewing baby caps like the ones that charitable societies would have included in charity boxes, loaned out to new mothers and their infants.  I scaled the patterns for my infant caps from original plates found in the Lady's Economical Assistant, an 1808 guide to cutting women's, children's & men's clothing.  (Note: plates are comparable to the pattern by Kannik's Korner - Infant's Clothing, Second half of the 18th century.) Good for both domestic and charitable uses, the book includes advice on maintaining a box of linen to lend to "lying-in" or newly-mothered women.  According to the book, a proper charity box, which would be lent for a month after childbirth (plus a week extra for cleaning) should include the following clothing (cut with the "most strict economy," of course):
  • For infants: 4 shirts, 4 caps, 2 frocks, 2 bed gowns, 2 flannel blankets, 2 pairs of stays and flannel coats, 2 rollers, 2 upper petticoats & 24 napkins
  • For the "lying-in" woman: 1 bedgown, 2 calico night gowns, 2 skirts & a pair of sheets

Comparable to the list found in the Lady's Economical Assistant, the 1838 Workwoman's Guide also provides directions for these charitable boxes:
  • For infants: 3 shirts, 3 caps, 1 flannel cap, 3 night gowns, 2 flannel gowns, 12 napkins, 1 flannel band, 2 soft towels
  • For the mother: 2 shifts, 2 night jackets, 2 caps, 1 flannel petticoat, 1 flannel gown or shawl, a pair of sheet & a roll of flannel 

Pattern to scale (note: "fold edge" should be 6.5" & rounded bottom edge should be 6")

None of my scaled patterns from the Lady's Economical Assistant scanned well, but above is an example of one that made the most adorable, simple, tiny-tiny newborn cap.  Quick & simple directions: flat fell seam A and B to opposite A and B, gather and stitch caul into A to C, narrow hem face edge, stitch casing and run a drawstring through the bottom.  And, there, you should have your tiny infant cap!

Unfortunately, with all of the excitement of interpreting, I didn't have a chance to take pictures of my creations.  However, here are some pretty amazing baby caps:

19th century infant's cap MFA
(via: http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/infants-cap-46102)

Hand-embroidered infant's bonnet, c.1800-1820

Whitework Embroidery Baby Cap c.1820

Whitework Embroidery Baby Bonnet c.1830

19th century infant's cap MFA
(via: http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/infants-cap-46102)

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