Priscilla Mullins Alden and the Search for a Dress in Pieces

Priscilla And John Alden

John and Priscilla Alden
Colored Postcard with a Colonial Revival view of the couple

Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Kimberly Alexander, professor of museum studies and material culture at the University of New Hampshire and author of Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). She is currently guest curator of “Fashioning the New England Family,” opening at the Massachusetts Historical Society on 5 October 2018. Follow her @SilkDamask.

Bradfords, Brewsters, Aldens, Winslows, Cottons, Winthrops.  Throughout the K-12 experience, these names filled the classes and textbooks of the students who now sit before us in college classrooms, crowding out other names, names like Weetamoo and Rondriquez and Tubman.  But, through the process of mythologizing that distills and filters facts, the men and women of the Mayflower have come to be somewhat flat and lifeless characters, rather than people who inhabited real bodies in a real space.  Consequently, this where even the smallest and seemingly insignificant fragment of material culture can add dimensions that revisit the past as a place of hopes and dreams, struggle and disappointment.[1]

Over the last few years, I have had the good fortune to work with a collection of such items, pulled together from museums and historic houses hundreds of miles apart, yet connected by memory and meaning. They are likely fragments from a piece of clothing or a household furnishing textile (such as a bed hanging), which once belonged to Priscilla Mullins Alden (c. 1602- c. 1685; of “Speak for yourself, John” fame).  This search for pieces of Priscilla’s textile “trousseau” has taken me to several Massachusetts museums and archives. Although far from complete, laying out the process for this work may be useful to others as I compose a ‘dress diary’ of sorts, which it is hoped, will also add voice to Priscilla Alden.

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Two images of the green wool damask fragment from the Massachusetts Historical Society, above and below. Photography by Laura Wulf

From one small fragment, this initially modest inquiry began with my work at the Massachusetts Historical Society as a Fellow several years ago.[2]  The project took on a larger significance when I located a second piece at the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, which I viewed on a research road trip this summer (August 2018). [3] A third fragment is housed at Radcliffe College, and has fortunately, been examined and discussed by then student, and now historian, Professor Whitney Martinko. Finally, just a few weeks ago, I located a fourth piece (now in private hands) that was sold at auction in 2011. Before elevating our hopes, it is important to note that each piece is small, ranging from the smallest at 1 ½  inches by about 2 inches, to the largest, at just over 5 inches in length by 1 ½ inches wide . Consequently, patching together a full pattern repeat will be a challenge; nonetheless, putting together these four small pieces has expanded current knowledge and brings at least one aspect of Priscilla Alden’s life a bit more out of the shadows. What did she wear during her time in Plymouth and Duxbury; how does the textile compare to others of the time period, both in England and in Plymouth, and why was it deemed significant enough to be saved and passed down from generation to generation? [4] Possibly Priscilla Mullins brought this garment with her when she and her family set out on the Mayflower in 1620, though it could also have arrived at a later date.

KA3The MHS fragment, a souvenir that has passed down in the family for generations, conveys some information about itself that can provide insight into the material culture of the transatlantic world in the seventeenth century.[5] The particular green-blue that arises was a popular color in both the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Each of the fragments has been exposed to different environmental conditions so there is a difference in the saturation of the green.[6] Because the pattern is visible on both sides of the cloth, it is known as damask, though one side would have exhibited a slightly glossy surface. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the most elaborate and expensive ensembles would have been for presentation at court—formal functions at royal courts in cities like London and Versailles. Since those styles set the look of power, they were also echoed, albeit in less extravagant form, in women’s everyday dress, especially among the elite classes. In the 17th century, as today, fashion changed –the overall shape, or silhouette of garments morphed from decade to decade. While those essential components remained the same for the clothing worn every day by women of different socio-economic strata, the quality of the textiles used and the dressmaking itself varied tremendously. Choice of textile, color, pattern and silhouette would change depending on high style, technology and trade routes—which would also affect what was perceived as most desirable.

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Ciuis Londinensis Filia (Daughter of a London Citizen), Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677), 1643. Courtesy, The Metropolitan Museum

The Mullins party (comprising Priscilla; her parents, William and Alice; her younger brother Joseph; and a servant or possible apprentice, Robert) hailed from Dorking, in Surrey, where William was a successful shoemaker, commonly referred to at that time as a cordwainer. The Mullinses did not emigrate as dissenters, seeking religious freedom, but instead traveled as “Strangers” aboard the ship—people who invested in the colony as a financial endeavor and were perhaps looking for opportunities for acquiring land and business in the new world. William brought with him extensive stock for his trade including leather and completed shoes and boots, knowing that these goods and his skill would be valuable resources in the nascent settlement at this time. With no regional shoemaking industry—or even established systems for treating the raw materials—he could count on high demand.  While ultimately we know little about Priscilla’s time in Plymouth prior to her c. 1622/1623 marriage to cooper John Alden, we can surmise that, in addition to the dress represented by this fragment, she arrived with very good shoes, probably of the latest style and certainly with several pairs. Sadly, the rest of the Mullins household died within months of landing, leaving Priscilla without family but with a fairly substantial inheritance, including her father’s shoe making supplies, and finished shoes and boots which would have held considerable value in this time of scarcity.[7] Priscilla also inherited land and livestock as well as clothing and household furnishings (including her mother’s), and domestic goods. In a climate of shortage and want, even the domestic and trade goods would have equated to significant wealth and constituted a substantial dowry for the young Priscilla. It is tempting to speculate that the dress from which this fragment comes made up a part of that dowry, or even that Priscilla wore it while being courted by John Alden. Having crossed the ocean as the ship’s cooper, John was slated to return to England in April 1621, but he did not do so, perhaps due to a burgeoning interest in his fellow émigré.[8]

Priscilla Alden’s homestead in Duxbury might seem a remove in time from Fashion Week. But, as AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman reminds us, “Everything has a history.” The fragments of Alden’s dress also constitute fragments of history, or memory, and of meaning that even today joins generations of Aldens, and now connects us to one woman’s experience in the founding of the colonies.

[1] The author thanks MHS Curator of Art and Artifacts, Anne Bentley, and the MHS staff for generously sharing their knowledge and for supporting this work.

Recent sources for 17th century material culture and women’s writing and material culture, see Michelle Marchetti Coughlin, who is currently writing on Penelope Winslow and has published http://onecolonialwomansworld.com which reconstructs the life of Mehetabel Chandler Coit (1673–1758), the author of what may be the earliest surviving diary by an American woman. A native of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who later moved to Connecticut, Mehetabel began her diary at the age of fifteen and kept it intermittently until she was well into her seventies. See also: http://mayflowerhistory.com/clothing/, and https://www.newenglandbeginnings.org/400-years-ago

[2] The MHS swatch underwent fiber analysis at the Historic New England conservation, which confirmed that the swatch was wool and came from Northern Europe. Thank you to Camille Breeze of Museum Textile Services for overseeing this significant finding.

[3] The author extends thanks to Alden House Director, Desiree Mobed for first calling my attention to the woven wool swatch at the Pilgrim Monument, Provincetown, MA.

[4] In the process of completing an exhibition and book at MHS “Fashioning the New England Family” I was able to ascertain that there are in fact four extant pieces of the textile: at MHS; at Radcliffe College archives; at the Pilgrim Monument, Provincetown, and another piece in a private collection. The most detailed examination of the MHS textile fragment was undertaken by MHS staff, curator Anne Bentley; Camille Breeze of Museum Textile Service, and the author, in 2016-2018.

In 2003, then student, and now Professor Whitney Martinko completed a paper entitled “On Damask and Priscilla: The Changing Role of Textiles in the Identity of an American Family” examining a similar woven wool swatch housed in collections at Radcliffe College. Under the direction of Professors Ulrich and Gaskill, her paper explored numerous facets related not only the physical artifact but also its connection the Alden family, the Colonial Revival movement, and more. It can be accessed here: doc01731120180726133120.pdf

Martinko also viewed the MHS fragment and therefore, her study is illuminating on both counts.

[5] The house in which she lived prior to taking passage on the Mayflower still survives at Nos. 58-61 West Street, Dorking, Surrey. Priscilla Mullin’s father, William, purchased the property in 1612.  For William Mullins will, see: http://mayflowerhistory.com/will-of-william-mullins

[6] Today, the fragment appears to be a green-blue, but, as a plant, insect- or animal- based dye, the color may have originally been quite different –a fugitive dye is one that is not color fast — before exposure to light or other environmental conditions might have altered it. A light blue warp and medium blue weft create the appearance of green.

[7] William Mullins’s last will and testament (proved July 23, 1621 at Dorking, County Surrey, England) is a fascinating its survival and goes into detail regarding his creation of a “share” created from his shoe and boot inventory designed to support not only his family but also the company.

[8] For information on the John and Priscilla Alden, see http://www.alden.org; for material culture related to those who first voyaged to Plymouth, see http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org. The author extends appreciation to Desiree Mobed, Director, Alden House Historic Site, and Associate Curator, Rebecca Griffin, at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth.

 

 

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