Roundtable: Making American Pompons Great Again

This Colonial Couture post is by guest contributor Ben Marsh, senior lecturer in history at the University of Kent. His current research project is “Unravelling Dreams: Silkworms and the Atlantic World, c. 1500-1840.”

Super Bowl LI

Super Bowl LI

In July 1760, an American correspondent writing to a former neighbor in Surrey, England, graciously thanked them for dispatching a package across to South Carolina, risking the perils of transatlantic post during the Seven Years’ War, to send some cosmopolitan gifts. The gift of a fan was heralded as a “curiosity,” the suit (probably linen, though this descriptor was scored out) was apparently “universally admired,” but the real coup in the package was unquestionably the pompon. Not only was the pompon the prettiest these Americans had apparently ever seen, but the girl it was intended for was delighted “the more so as they are the first of ye fashion that have reach[e]d this part of the world.”

The author, Eliza Lucas Pinckney, was initially going to express her gratitude by waxing lyrical about the quality of the pompon’s constituent materials–a common method of acknowledgement that would have served not only to recognise their cost and high craftsmanship, but also to underscore the recipient’s expert knowledge, fine eye, and sense of contemporary couture. But instead, deliberately scoring out the comment about materials, she valued the accessory by reference to a very different benchmark, making a local statement about colonial identity and power. Because the pompons were the first to reach South Carolina, the author emphasized that her daughter “has an opportunity of set[t]ing the fashion” in her continent.

How much, really, did she love the gifts? How much did this twelve-year-old relish the chance to stake a claim to leading her peers among the young belles of Charlestown in a new trend in hair ornamentation? Her mother wrote, “I doubt whether she would part with them to purchase a peace with the Cherokees who are become extreamly troublesome to us.”

I want to return to that deliberate, counterfactual framing of fashion-value, but first, let’s deal with the pompon. American pompons have obviously come a long way since February 1760. (I’m not sure what Harriot Pinckney Horry would have made of the New England Patriots cheerleaders at Super Bowl LI, but I’m guessing she’d have been supporting the Atlanta Falcons anyway.) That the pompon, then a cluster of short eye-catching tied or fastened variegated materials such as bright ribbons or feathers, was somewhere near the cutting edge of fashion is attested by the fact that celebrity-actor David Garrick’s wife Eva Maria wore one for their eventful joint sitting for Hogarth in 1757, as did other British elites in portraits in the late 1750s, including those profiting from the sugar estates of the British Caribbean.

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David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Marie Viegel (William Hogarth, ca. 1757-64)

Within five years of Harriot Pinckney Horry’s stylish acquisition, others had caught up and the pompon had reached American portraiture, offering a splash of color in John Singleton Copley’s alluring pastel rendering of Mrs. Samuel Henley (now at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts). Listed in the London Magazine as early as 1748 as “worn by ladies in the middle of the forepart of their headdress,” the pompon (derived from the French trendsetter the Madame de Pompadour) was often floral or artificially floral. One can almost see it as a heroic retreating expression of the botanical motifs that were beginning to lose ground and prominence in other ways in mid-century, and also as a particularly feminine expression, since male attention to hair remained mostly preoccupied with wigs for a few decades further.

In the 1760s the pompon was striking enough to indicate status, but mostly restrained enough to avoid the biting satire that accompanied fantastical arrangements and hairstyles into the 1770s. Though tinsel could be used (along with lace), as hinted at in the only example in the “Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities” which lists “Gold & Silver Commets & Pompoons for Lady’s Hair”, the pompon was therefore not yet as woolly or as bally as it would become. And the notion of a pair of clustered lightweight handheld streamers would only be perfected and adapted to plastic America in 1965, thanks to Fred Gastoff’s vinyl strips, designed for use in any weather in the newly popular pastime of cheerleading.

We are incredibly fortunate to have a number of textual and material remnants from the eighteenth century that are indicative of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and her family’s achievements in the collection, production, and display of fashion. These include two full sack back silk gowns of Eliza’s and her fabulous pair of Thomas Hose shoes, as well as the ivory satin wedding garters that Harriet wore when she married planter Daniel Horry in 1769. But decorative items such as the pompon have proved much less likely to survive in theirs and other collections–being lightweight, fragile, and ephemeral.

What the pompon letter and other such exchanges tell us is not only that elite women in colonial America were attuned to the latest trends, mindful of opportunities to innovate, used clothing as a signifier of power and political identity, and helped to shape circuits of production and exchange–all of which has become a lot clearer thanks to some great recent contributions to the field. It also shows how mindful they were of opportunities to use fashion as a means as well as an end: as a framework within which to educate metropolitans about the nature of colonial life and society.

What we hold most dear, implied Eliza Pinckney, even while lauding the pompon, is relief from the Cherokee threat to South Carolina that British (and Virginian) actions had lately worsened. Brutal events were unfolding in Fort Saint George even as Mrs. Wilhelmina-Catharine Troye King folded the pompon into the parcel in February 1760, and by the time of Eliza’s reply, violence had spread further, exacerbated by Lt. Col. Archibald Montgomerie and his Highlanders’ bloody campaigns among the Lower Towns and then their retreat, having failed to relieve the starving garrison at Fort Loudoun.

In almost repudiatory terms, Pinckney lamented: “I hope the good people of England wont give all their superfluous mon[e]y away…but reserve some for their poor fellow subjects in America.” Contemplating the victories in Canada and elsewhere, she warned that “if they…neglect the protection of their old Colonys you may soon have importations of distressed people from the southwardmost part of North America to exercise your their charity upon.” Pinckney’s conscious decision, again indicated by the strikethrough, to soften this from a second person possessive adjective (“your”) to a third person one (“their”) cushioned the link between her addressee and the suggestion of superfluity, excess, and waste. But the message was inescapable: the pompon was important, but so were other things that Mrs. King was less aware of, or immersed in; the first was used to expose the second.

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Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s Dress, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian

This aspect of Pinckney’s letter shares much in common with her description of an encounter with British royalty some seven years earlier, when appreciation of luxury objects and gifting had framed an opportunity to share insights with Augusta (Dowager Princess of Wales and mother of George III) about empire, place, and family. Pinckney had summarized the audience in 1753 as being “pretty extraordinary to an American,” recounting the discussions in an evocative description that I’ve tried to do justice to and contextualize for the exciting exhibition launched this month by the Yale Center for British Art and Historic Royal Palaces: Enlightened Princesses: Caroline, Augusta, Charlotte, and the Shaping of the Modern World.

This collection brings together nearly three hundred objects to explore the ways that the Hanoverian princesses shaped the nation’s society and culture, and also features the Smithsonian’s spectacular Pinckney gold dress–with the exhibition relocating from New Haven to Kensington Palace (London) from June to November 2017. As both the exhibition and the pompon letter show, elite women could be cheerleaders in many different ways, operating within and across the language of fashion, and acutely attuned even before the imperial crisis to how they could advance the visibility and interests of their stake in empire.

The young Harriet Pinckney’s ambitions for the cherished pompon sent to her in February 1760 may have been as straightforward as the New England Patriots cheerleaders’ with theirs–to draw the eye, advertise, stabilise, and compete. But in her mother’s hand, the object was repurposed. I guess you never know when a pompon might take an unexpected turn, but those who lately stitched them into “pussy” hats may be pleased to learn that there is some pedigree in their backstory, and wear them with pride (though be careful where you get them).

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For great pieces on Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s shoes, see this blogpost by Kimberley Alexander (aka @SilkDamask). For updates on the exciting restoration of Pinckney’s Sack Back Gown, held by The Charleston Museum, see The Pinckney Project’s Facebook page. For examples of great recent contributions in breaking down fashion and consumption, see Zara Anishanslin, Robert DuPlessis, Sophie White, and Kate Haulman. More to read:

Natalie Guice Adams and Pamela Jean Bettis, Cheerleader: An American Icon (St. Martin’s Press, 2005).

S. Cox, An Illustrated Dictionary of Hairdressing and Wigmaking (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1966).

Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Unidentified person [1753] and Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Wilhelmina-Catharine Troye King, (Mrs. Thomas), 19 July 1760, in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012): http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/PinckneyHorry/.

Daniel J. Tortora, Carolina in Crisis: Cherokees, Colonists, and Slaves in the American Southeast, 1756–1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Mary Trasko, Daring Do’s: A History of Extraordinary Hair (Paris and New York: Flammarion, 1994).

Carolyn L. White, American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1720: A Guide to Identification and Interpretation (Rowman Altamira, 2005).

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2 comments on “Roundtable: Making American Pompons Great Again

  1. Congrats to the author and thanks to the Junto for continuing to highlight the value and potential of material culture, specifically dress, through these posts. I couldn’t help but recall Sophie White’s article “This Gown… Was Much Admired and Made Many Ladies Jealous”: Fashion and the Forging of Elite Identities in French Colonial Louisiana.” Among the many fascinating anecdotes is the sale of French pompons in 1750s New Orleans; these were imported from La Rochelle.

    I hope that Juntoists are able to visit the Enlightened Princesses exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art. There are many pertinent and sometimes unexpected tie-ins for Early Americanists, ranging from the Pinckney story and South Carolina silk to the Yamacraw delegation of 1734. A number of rare books and works on paper are also exhibited that cover everything from contemporary political satire to natural history.

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