Guest Post: Julia de Recour, the Digital Archive, and the Histories of Atlantic Children of Color

Baltimore

Vue du Port de Baltimore, ca. 1834 by Louis Garneray (photo courtesy of the Enoch Pratt Free Library)

Today’s Guest Post comes from Nathan H. Dize, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University.  He specializes in Haitian literature and history. His dissertation, currently entitled “Mortuary Poetics: Power and the Performance of Mourning in the Haitian Literary Imaginary,” explores how Haitian writers and artists revivify the dead through creative acts of mourning to challenge official memories and mythologies of the Haitian past. He is a content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789.  He is also the co-editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation,” which interviews translators of Haitian writing. Nathan has published articles, reviews, and translations in journals such as sx archipelagos, the Journal of Haitian StudiesFrancosphèresSX SalonContemporary French Civilization, and the Haitian History Journal of which he is also an advisory board member. Follow him on Twitter @NathanHDize.

In September 1782, Julia de Recour boarded the St. Patrick in Cap Français with her mother, a woman of about 40, to join some relations in Baltimore. When she arrived, Charles Biddle writes that she had the “good fortune” of attracting the French First Consul, Charles François Adrien Le Paulmier le Chevalier d’Annemours, who immediately took her as his wife.[1] Biddle describes Julia as a lively French lady and a “spritely brown girl of 16.”[2] Biddle’s account of Julia’s travel on the St. Patrick is shrouded in innuendo, particularly when Julia took to the ship’s deck in the cold to dance and “perform some other monkey tricks.”[3] Without providing more information Biddle writes in his autobiography that we do not know when or where Julia died, but that it is reasonable to believe that she was not living in 1792. As Saidiya Hartman once wrote of the enslaved girl immortalized in William Wilberforce’s speech before the House of Commons in April of 1792, “a few musty lines […] are the entire story of a girl’s life.”[4]

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Following the Fashions: A Basic American Pastime

AJ1Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Amy Sopcak-Joseph, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Connecticut. She is working on her dissertation, “Fashioning American Women: Godey’s Lady’s Book, Female Consumers, and Periodical Publishing in the Nineteenth Century.” Follow her @AmySopcakJoseph.

It’s that time of year again: time to stash away all of your white pants and head to the nearest Starbucks for a PSL. Love it or hate it, that sugary “Pumpkin Spice Latte” is more than just a drink that allows us to ingest autumn. The PSL reached cultural-icon status when it became the trendy accessory of someone “basic”–a term encompassing a larger set of consumer choices linked to appearance, food, and leisure activities that signal an uncritical devotion to trends. Calling someone “basic” became a kind of epithet against people who like things that are mainstream or, as some writers have suggested, feminine.[1] Some women have taken ownership of “basic,” embracing it as an identity (see social media posts enthusiastically tagged #basic).

Is being “basic” really that bad? Is someone superior–morally or intellectually–for not liking things that are mainstream? Judging other people’s consumer choices and assigning them political or cultural meaning is as American as apple (or pumpkin?) pie. In the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, when the United States was transitioning from an agrarian economy to a capitalist one, considerable anxiety emerged about the consumer choices of the burgeoning middle class. Not unlike the criticisms of 21st-century women whose tastes and identity might be called “basic,” some found women’s purchases and self-fashioning to be particularly alarming. Ministers and reformers argued that these choices demonstrated women’s uncritical adherence to the “tyranny” or “evils” of fashion, a devotion that could negatively shape the future of the republic. Continue reading

Creole Comforts and French Connections: A Case Study in Caribbean Dress

Today’s #ColonialCouture post is by Philippe Halbert. Follow him @plbhalbert.

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“Vêtement dit à la creole,” Galerie des modes et costumes français, Charles Emmanuel Patas after Pierre Thomas Leclerc, 1779, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In 1779, a fashion plate depicting a woman’s garment “in the creole style” was published in Paris. Consisting of a lightweight muslin gown with wrist-length sleeves, the dress was “in the style of a chemise,” the basic female undergarment of the period.[1] Worn over a petticoat, the gown was to be pinned at the bust and loosely closed with a sash or belt. In addition to enumerating its various components, which included a separate caraco jacket, the engraving’s caption remarked that the fantastic ensemble was “of the sort worn by our French Ladies in America.” At the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, French colonial possessions in the Americas were largely confined to the Caribbean Basin, a region where interactions between people of indigenous, European, and African descent brought about innovations in everything from architecture to foodways. Although the inhabitants of French-controlled islands like Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, were not beyond the reach of Parisian novelty, the heat and humidity necessitated certain sartorial adaptations. Continue reading

“We Are One”: The Confinement and Consent of Colonial American Busks

Busk Photo 1_

A busk for a woman’s stays, wood, American-made in Canada, 1782. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.


Welcome to #ColonialCouture, our second annual roundtable on fashion in early America and material culture in the Atlantic World, which will run here for the next two weeks.

Today’s post is by Cynthia Chin, a doctoral student at Georgetown University who is researching eighteenth-century material culture, with a particular focus on what Martha Washington’s surviving extant gowns tell us about her, and the world in which she lived. Follow her @cynthiawriter.

Off with that happy busk, which I envy…” John Donne, To His Mistress Going to Bed

While Fashion Week Fall 2018 finds iconic designer John Galliano (ironically, and not so ironically) “liberating men with corsets[1] – the women of eighteenth-century British America were confined and complexly bound by stays and busks. Women during this period wore stays[2], often with a busk inserted inside. A busk is a flat, stiff, oblong object, and in eighteenth-century British America, most frequently carved from wood.[3] Providing additional structure and shaping to a pair of stays, a busk would be slipped inside a vertical channel in the stay’s center-front.[4] The wearing of a busk ensured that a woman achieved the fashionable (and socially prescribed) straight, flat, conical, enlongated torso that dominated the female aesthetic in the long eighteenth century. Continue reading

Guest Post: Elizabeth Seton and Me: Or, How I Almost Wrote a Book about a Saint Without Mentioning God

Today’s guest post is authored by Catherine O’Donnell. Her book, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint was published this month by Cornell University Press. She is also the author of Men of Letters in the Early Republic (UNC Press, 2008) and is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University.

When I arrived at the archive in Emmitsburg, Maryland, my heart sank. My subject was Elizabeth Seton, woman of the early American republic and saint in the Roman Catholic Church, and the archives to which I’d traveled are held on the grounds of her shrine. In order to be at the archives first thing Monday, I’d arrived on a Sunday and decided to see what was happening nearby. The building adjacent to the archives is a minor basilica, so what was happening was Mass. When a guide asked whether I’d visited the Altar of Relics, I winced. I felt oddly guilty about bring my historian’s purposes and questions into this reverent world. I also knew that biographers pride themselves on not writing hagiographies, and that many academic historians pride themselves on not being biographers at all. I felt I was blaspheming both a faith and a profession. Continue reading

Making the Personal Historical: Reflections on Pregnancy and Birth

Lady and Children

“A Lady & Children,” 1780 mezzotint, the British Museum.

Human reproduction is simultaneously unchanged and radically different over time and across cultures. This paradox has preoccupied me for over a year as I carried and gave birth to my first child one year ago today, and as I watched my sister follow the same path soon after. Throughout my pregnancy, delivery, and now early motherhood, I’ve found myself thinking often long-dead women and pondering how vastly different our experiences of the same condition must be.

Pregnancy and birth generate intense  feelings. Most parents experience joy, hope, and fear. As a historian, I regularly identify with the women I encounter in the archive. The empathy born of our shared biological and emotional experiences generated two additional emotions that most new parents may not: gratitude, on the one hand, and anger on the other. Continue reading

Sarah Parker Remond: Black Abolitionist Diplomat

The meaning of the American Civil War has been, and still is, one of the most contentious issues facing the United States today. An aspect of the war that seems to be less spoken about though, was the role of Black women internationally during the Civil War. Wars of the scale of the American Civil War rarely lack an internationalist component. For the already internationalist American abolitionist movement, when the Civil War began in 1861, the abolitionist struggle shifted south with the work of women like Harriet Tubman and Charlotte Forten, but there were still important battles being waged internationally over the war and its meaning.  

The Black woman who took the international abolitionist stage during the Civil War was Salem, Massachusetts’ Sarah Parker Remond. After having been in the British Isles for almost two years prior to the war, Remond’s abolitionist tour expressed a stronger sense of urgency, as the war provided a tangible arena for potential ending of slavery. While doing so, she developed notions of performative citizenship. Performative citizenship was an aspirational basis of struggle for realized citizenship based on Black abolitionist women’s proclamations of African-American identities. Those identities were based on economic and intellectual analyses of the central role their race’s plunder played in American economic growth. Continue reading