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.

1

“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

The Marriage of Angelica and John

Two hundred and forty-one years ago on Saturday—23 June, 1777—Angelica Schuyler ran off to be married. Today’s post is excerpted from the draft first chapter of my biography of Angelica. I will be presenting Chapter 4 at SHEAR’s second book workshop in Cleveland next month, and talking about Angelica at a panel on women and ideas in the Age of Revolutions. The research for what follows owes a lot to Stefan Bielinski’s Colonial Albany project, a brilliant resource for the people and spaces of Angelica’s childhood.

Hogarth Marriage a la ModeOf course, John Carter was an utterly unsuitable match for a daughter of Catherine and Philip Schuyler. Like the other old families of Albany, the Schuylers were deeply intertwined with local and provincial oligarchies. Marriage was the most important means by which these bonds were maintained. Thus had Catherine’s brother Jeremiah married Judith Bayard, granddaughter of a mayor of New York City. Philip’s sister Geertruy was first married to her cousin Pieter Schuyler. Only as a widow might a woman in Albany’s elite consider marrying a man of lesser status. Geertruy’s second husband was a physician, John Cochran. Catharina Livingston, who first married Stephen Van Rensselaer II, spent ten years a widow before she married the church minister, Eilardus Westerlo. These patterns were not the result of strict enforcement. They were naturally occurring. Children of great families grew up with one another. They shared common points of reference, expectations, and desires. When the time was right, they married. That was how it went for Philip and Catherine—that was what they expected for Angelica. Except now she was twenty-one, and her country was at war. John Carter was unsuitable, but he was there.

At length, the snow began to melt. The wide Hudson ran higher and faster. The new year would bring renewed campaigning—soon enough, the British army would cross Lake Champlain, and then the defence of the Hudson Valley would begin in earnest. This was what preoccupied Angelica’s father. His mind was as much at Crown Point and Ticonderoga as it was in Albany that winter. But if he did not keep watch over Angelica and the young man from Congress, surely her two sisters did. Elizabeth and Peggy must have known, they were so close they formed a little unit of their own. Perhaps they were enlisted in the project, helping to distract their mother from the courtship going on under her own roof—as if three boys and an infant child weren’t enough distraction along with a troubled, distant husband. Whatever jealousy there was among the sisters was soothed and diminished by Angelica’s seniority. She was the trailblazer. They would have vicarious excitement, and without the risk. For there was something risky in what she was doing. She was waging a rebellion. That spring, as the green buds emerged, she and John Carter made their plans.

On June 12th 1777, general Schuyler rode north to inspect the forts and garrisons on Lake Champlain. Reports had come that John Burgoyne, the British general in command of the invasion, had assembled a fleet and begun embarking men. Schuyler was at Ticonderoga by the 18th. But he did not bring with him the man from Congress who was there to audit his accounts. John Carter stayed in Albany, making preparations of his own. Some time after Philip went north, his wife Catherine followed, on the way to meet him at the Saratoga house—just as she and Angelica had done almost exactly a year before, when the rumours at Albany had so alarmed them both. This time, though, Angelica did not accompany her. With both parents gone, she left Peggy in charge of the remaining household. Then she took John Carter to Van Rensselaer Manor. That was Angelica’s stroke of genius, for at that house was everyone she needed. There was the twelve-year-old Patroon, Stephen; his mother, Catharina; and her recent husband, Domine Westerlo, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. All the ingredients to put on a respectable Albany wedding.[1]

Angelica and John were married on Monday, 23rd June. At twenty-one, she was already older than her mother had been on her own wedding-day. But she could not enjoy the same festivities her mother had done twenty-two years earlier. Even Catharina and her husband’s blessing could not make up for a marriage kept a secret from her parents. Even Brom Ten Broeck, Stephen’s legal guardian and Philip Schuyler’s oldest friend, could not make things right. He and his wife watched Angelica grow up—but much as they loved her, they could not condone her decision to marry without her father’s consent. The newlyweds had to leave, before Angelica’s parents returned. So on Thursday, they gathered themselves up again, said their goodbyes, and crossed the Hudson river, leaving Albany. They didn’t go far. On the east bank was Green Bush, the home of Angelica’s grandfather, Johannes Van Rensselaer, and his second wife, Gertrude. There, as John put it, “we were received by the amiable & venerable Proprietors with the greatest Friendship and Cordiality.” Johannes and Gertrude promised to use “all their influence” with Angelica’s parents.[2] Everyone knew there would be a reckoning when they returned.

To head off Philip and Catherine’s anger, warming them to the fait accompli, the newlyweds sent a letter to meet them on the road from Saratoga. It was not a success. For two days, Angelica’s parents refused to respond. When finally her grandfather relaxed his own pride, and sent them an invitation to dine at Green Bush on Sunday, a chance meeting of the two couples in Albany led the plan to unravel. Neither Angelica nor Catherine would allow herself to be the first to yield. Those three days were a struggle of will and affection. In the moment she acknowledged Angelica’s marriage, Catherine would have to recognise her daughter’s independence—a daughter who had been her closest confidante in every week and month that Philip was away; a daughter who had run off when her back was turned to marry a man she barely knew. On Monday, the Schuylers relented and arrived at Green Bush. Catherine “was in a most violent Passion,” but Johannes said something that cut his daughter deeply—he told her she did not take after her mother, Engeltie. Perhaps that put her grievance in perspective. She would not lose Angelica completely.

The next day, the Schuylers received Mr and Mrs Carter back into their home. If anyone expected a warm reconciliation, though, this was not it. The storm had passed, but left an atmosphere of tension in its wake. It would take time for Angelica’s mother to forgive her, not only for the subterfuge but for depriving her of taking any part in her own eldest daughter’s wedding. But there was no reversing what had happened. It was best to put aside the hurt. Philip “restored his daughter to his full confidence,” and told John that “he was now my father.” The general added, pointedly, that “he would take the Freedom of giving me his advice when he thought I stood in need of it with the Candour of a Parent.” Clearly, his son-in-law had a propensity for recklessness that would need curbing. It was Angelica, though, who had let down her parents’ expectations, she who suffered from their retaliation. “My charming Angelica is much distressed at their behaviour,” wrote John. The coming weeks were going to be difficult.  “If they continue their coldness,” he concluded “we shall soon quit their house.”

If times had not been as they were, all this would have played out quite differently. John Carter would not have been in Albany, and Philip Schuyler would not have been away from home so much. He could have dedicated more attention to finding a suitor for his daughter. And for her part, would Angelica have been so ready to reject her parents’ rule over her life—to make her own decisions and to see them through against all obstacles? She lived in bold times, and dangerous ones: times of civil war, when brothers fought with brothers, and fathers fought their children. In the summer that Angelica married John Carter, prospects for the United States seemed poor. The city of New York had fallen to the British. John Burgoyne’s army was sailing down Lake Champlain. There had been a tenant uprising at Livingston Manor, a sign of the rebel gentry’s weakness. Hope and fear were intermixed. That is the nature of a revolution, in a family as much as in a country. These are strange times, bold and dangerous. Angelica Carter is only half afraid.

_________________________________

Image: Detail from William Hogarth, Marriage a la Mode, II, The Tête à Tête (1743-1745).

[1] Mary Gay Humphries, Catherine Schuyler (Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1897), p.191, refers to the wedding taking place at the Patroon’s house. I think I’m the first to make a connection to the presence there of Domine Westerlo.

[2] John Carter to Walter Livingston, 3 July 1777, New York Historical Society. Subsequent quotations are also from this letter.

@tomcutterham