Kimberly Alexander is an Adjunct Professor in the History Department at UNH, Durham, where she teaches courses in museum studies and material culture. She earned her Ph.D. in Art & Architectural History from Boston University and was a founding Curator of Architecture and Design at the MIT Museum. She’s also served as Curator of Architecture and Design at the Peabody Essex Museum and Chief Curator of Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. Dr. Alexander has published several books and essays, and has recently had papers presented at history of fashion conferences in London and Florence. Her current catalog and exhibition project is titled “Cosmopolitan Consumption: Georgian Shoe Stories From the Long 18th Century.”
How does one select a sampling of dozens of pairs of eighteenth-century shoes and translate the assemblage into a coherent museum exhibit housed in one charming, but tiny gallery? How does one translate a five-year study of eighteenth-century consumption patterns, cultural diffusion, and gentility in the Atlantic shoe trade into a show that will excite the imaginations of early Atlantic scholars yet appeal to the general public? How does present a material culture and fashion history exhibition in a refined Athenaeum situated in a corner of New Hampshire?
For the last two years, my co-curator, Sandra Rux of the Portsmouth Historical Society, and I have been grappling with these very questions. The challenge goes beyond the physical: How does one take a representative sample of some forty-five pairs of shoes, slippers, pumps, mules, and dancing shoes and display them in an attractive and compelling manner? The greater challenge lay in using the exhibit to communicate some deeper aspects of the eighteenth-century Atlantic community, particularly: What do these shoes reveal about what was valued in this culture? What meanings did their wearers impute into these consumer items and markers of gentility? What is it about these objects that made succeeding generations feel they should be saved, preserved, and displayed?
Of course, the first steps in curating an exhibition are to: 1) identify your several layers of audience and/or stakeholders; and 2) to develop strategies for motivating and connecting with them. The answers to these questions are contingent on our own clear sense of the underlying reasons for any piece of scholarship: Why an exhibit on eighteenth-century shoes? With very few exceptions, most of us can connect with footwear: shoes mark special occasions; shoes can empower us; shoes can provide comfort and warmth. If your shoes do not fit, you will remember that day of discomfort with blisters and pinched toes.
In this, Abigail Adams speaks to me when she sagely expressed the universality of footwear:
I hate to complain…No one is without difficulties, whether in high or low life, and every person knows best where their own shoe pinches.
Abigail Adams knew shoes. She knew that a pair of shoes could tell much about their wearer, about a person’s struggles and trials as well as her triumphs and successes. She knew that shoes did not make a woman—or a man—but they certainly could tell stories.
I wanted this exhibit—“Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850”—to introduce scholars and the public to a sampling of these intriguing shoe stories from Abigail’s world. I wanted the exhibit to tell “shoe stories,” set within a cosmopolitan Atlantic world and carrying the elegant fancies of fashionable London to the gentility of provincial British America. I hoped to recover a lost history—the journey of the fashionable shoe from London’s trendiest shops in the days of the Georgian kings (1714-1820) to the striving farms and bustling seaports of early America.
So, what will visitors see when they travel to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and enter the Randall gallery?
In one vitrine, they will find the wedding shoes of 21-year-old bride Deborah Thaxter (1752-1832), whose mother had died a few years before her daughter’s 1773 wedding. Deborah had shoes made from the fabric of her mother’s 1739 silk brocade wedding gown. The memory of her mother was carried literally and figuratively into her new life with her new/old shoes.
Also on exhibit is a pair of shoe buckles believed to belong to Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock, as well as London-made shoes worn by Dorothy Hancock, who moved to Portsmouth when she remarried after John’s death. A pair of French garters (c. 1800) features early metallic clasps, as opposed to the ribbons typically used by men and women to secure their stockings just above or just below the knee. One garter says ‘Halt’ and the other ‘You can go no further.’ Some garments are on display, including one pairing of an 1837 silk brocade wedding dress and matching shoes.
Through these objects and their shoe stories we hope to enable visitors—scholars and the public, alike—to explore the process of how shoes were made, sold and worn during this “long eighteenth century.” Through the lives and letters of clever apprentices, skilled cordwainers, wealthy merchants and elegant brides, the exhibit takes readers on a journey through bustling London streets, ship cargo holds, New England shops and, ultimately, to the feet of eager consumers. It traces the fortunes and misfortunes of wearers as shoes were altered to accommodate poor health, flagging finances and changing styles. We sail to London in 1765 to listen in as Benjamin Franklin and cordwainer John Hose caution Parliament on the catastrophic effects on British taxes on the shoe trade; journey to Philadelphia in 1775 as John Hancock presides over the Second Continental Congress, while sending shoes and stockings to his beloved Dolly in Boston and then off to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1789 to peer in on newlywed Sally Brewster Gerrish dancing with George Washington in her silk brocade shoes during his first presidential tour.
Of course, on these pages and elsewhere we have debated, but perhaps not resolved, the rather tricky challenge of making history accessible to the general public.
Our strategies for enthralling the public and intriguing scholars necessarily incorporate a range of events: a shoe-shopping day, featuring discounts offered at participating merchants; a symposium on shoes, 1750-1850, featuring fashion scholars Edward Maeder, Mary Doering, and Abby Battis, with an accompanying workshop; and ongoing lectures throughout the spring. For many of us, these need not be mutually exclusive, of course, but they do recognize the self-selecting nature of multiple audiences.
“Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850” runs through June 5 and is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 1 to 4 p.m. at the Randall Gallery in the Portsmouth Athenaeum, 9 Market Square, Portsmouth, NH. For more information, go to www.portsmouthathenaeum.org or visit the Athenaeum’s Facebook page.
Lenders to the Exhibition:
The Bostonian Society, Buttonwoods Museum, Mary Doering, Jean Demetracopoulos, Historic Deerfield, Historic New England, Jeffrey Hopper, Ipswich Museum, Lynn Museum, Maine Historical Society, Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden, Portsmouth Historical Society/John Paul Jones House, Saco Museum, Strawbery Banke Museum, Richard Thorner, University of New Hampshire Museum, Warner House, Colonel Paul Wentworth House
Sisters Mission Fund
Julia and Stephen Roberts