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I’ve known about this for some time, but I can now tell you that the fantastic Threads of Feeling exhibit, which I saw in 2010 at the Foundling Hospital Museum in London and reported on here, is going to be on show at the De Witt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, throughout 2013.
This was, as you will no doubt remember, a fantastic exhibit, detailing the range of 18th century fabric samples given as tokens by mothers and sometimes fathers of foundling children when they were accepted into the Foundling Hospital’s care. These tokens were kept and preserved in the Hospital’s “Billet Books”. By examining them carefully it can be deduced what type of clothing would be worn by ordinary people in 18th century England. The archive of these tokens is a veritable treasure trove, as few clothes worn by ordinary people from this era survive, as, naturally, they would have been reused in various ways until they disintegrated.
The exhibit was curated by Professor John Styles, who will also curate the Colonial Williamsburg exhibition. I understand there will also be a symposium.
Professor Styles has, of course, made a special study of these fabrics in his fantastic book, The Dress of the People, which I reviewed here. He writes:
Threads of Feeling is an exhibition of the mid-eighteenth century textiles preserved in the records of London’s Foundling Hospital. The exhibition was first displayed at the Foundling Museum in London in 2010-11. It will open for a year at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA in 2013. Meanwhile, it continues as an online exhibition at:http://www.threadsoffeeling.com/
So..if you live in North America and were frustrated by the exhibit being only in London you will now have your chance to see this thought-provoking exhibit. When I have more details of dates etc I will, of course, let you know.
John Styles the Curator of the wonderful Threads of Feeling exhibition currently to be seen at the Foundling Museum, and which I reviewed here, is going to give a talk about the exhibit, together with a questions and answer session at the Foundling Musuem, on Wednesday 2nd February from 7.30p.m till 8p.m.
This promises to be a fabulous event, as John is not only the curator of the exhibit but the author of the magnificent book, The Dress of the People which I reviewed here and which, in part, examined in detail the tokens of fabrics left in the billet books of the Foundling Hospital by the poor and disadvantaged of the 18th century. You can see an example of one above. The collection of fabrics is therefore the most complete collection of 18th century working class fabrics in the UK. Examining the collection gives amazing insights into how the poor actually dressed. So, if you have ever wondered how Jane Austen’s characters such as Fanny’s Prices morther and her servant Rebecca from Mansfield Park dressed in Portsmouth , or how Nurse Rooke in Persuasion was attitred, then this is the talk (and book) for you.
I am hoping to go to this (she said frantically re-arranging dates in her diary) and of course if I do get there I will report back to you in full. But I do hope others of you can go: if you go here you can access all the booking details .
There is my sister; and really quite her own little elegant figure! and the face not unlike. I should have made a good likeness of her, if she would have sat longer, but she was in such a hurry to have me draw her four children that she would not be quiet. Then, here come all my attempts at three of those four children; — there they are, Henry and John and Bella, from one end of the sheet to the other, and any one of them might do for any one of the rest. She was so eager to have them drawn that I could not refuse; but there is no making children of three or four years old stand still you know; nor can it be very easy to take any likeness of them, beyond the air and complexion, unless they are coarser featured than any mama’s children ever were. Here is my sketch of the fourth, who was a baby. I took him, as he was sleeping on the sofa, and it is as strong a likeness of his cockade as you would wish to see. He had nestled down his head most conveniently.
Emma, Chapter 6
This passage shows Emma at her best; fondly talking about her family and her attempts to immortalize them, being honest about her ability and its limits. Her success in capturing the baby’s cockade is a very funny and revealing line. But exactly what was a baby’s cockade ? Shall we find out together? Yes, lets…..
Quite simply, a cockade was a formal arrangement of ribbons,a little motif, that decorated a male baby’s cap or hat. Here are some examples from the 18th century billet books kept by the Foundling hospital which I saw on display at their marvellous Threads of Feeling exhibition.
The cockade took its inspiration from cockades worn by the military in their hats during the eighteenth century.
Hogarth’s painting The March to Finchley, above in its home at the Foundling Hospital, and below
in clearer detail, has a central section which shows soldiers wearing black cockades in their hats (and doing unmentionable things..well, they are soldiers off to fight and it IS Hogarth).
Black was the colour associated with the Hanoverian royal family,who were of course the then ruling royal family not only in Hanover but in England.
Young children of both sexes in the long eighteenth century wore identical clothing- dresses- until the boys were breached and began to wear breaches or skeleton suits. The cockade was a means of distinguishing boys from girls as it would appear that certainly until the early 19th century only boys wore them.
SusanSibbald, shown below on the right of the engraving
confirms that cockades were worn by boys, certainly in 1811. In her memoirs she recalled seeing a baby boy on display in a drawing-room in Jersey wearing one, in a scene that has echoes of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice:
In the drawing-room Mrs Harker had her baby brought, only about two months old, to exhibit to Mrs Gibbons, and expecting it would be much noticed by her but she was disappointed for she barely looked at it and said she thought that children were not presentable until they were of age to introduce themselves. Poor Mrs Harker seemed shocked which obliged me to be doubly interested in the little infant which I thought from his being so young would have looked better in his nursery attire of bed gown and nightslip instead of a robe and sash and tied up sleeves a bare neck and a cap like a sunflower with a scarlet cockade to match the ribbons on the robe
Hogarth-again!-illustrated a young boy attired as Mrs Sibbold described in one of his paintings in the series of paintings which formed The Rake’s Progress. Below is the penultimate scene in the series showing the rake,Tom, in prison. Doubt reigns in the art world as to whose child he is, but he is most definitely a boy,wearing a red cockade on his cap.
Here is a section from that painting, to show you the details: do note you can enlarge all the illustrations in this and every post merely by clicking on them.
interestingly at this point in history(and until the mid 20th century) the colours pink and blue were NOT associated with any one of the sexes. Below is a predominantly pink cockade,worn by a boy at the Foundling Hospital.
Here is Sir Lawrence Dundas and his grandson painted by Johann Zoffany, painted in 1769.
You can clearly see that the grandson, not having yet been breeched, is wearing a long white gown with a pink sash.
This conversation piece of Sir Wiloughby de Brooke , the 14th baronet, and his family showing them at breakfast with their three eldest children at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Though he eventually had five children, his daughter was not born until 1769.This painting finished in 1766, therefore clearly shows the lack of distinction between the colours pink or blue, as all the children in the painting are boys.
Linda Baumgarten in her magisterial book, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, states the position very clearly.
It is often difficult for the modern viewers to determine a childs gender in paintings and prints from the 18th century. Because the corseted torsoes of boys echo the feminine shape of the girls there appears to be little if any difference between the clothing of girls and boys. Sets of childhood linens were unisex of either gender. Indeed both sexes of young children wore skirts when they were not in their shirts or bed gowns. Skirts apparently had an unspoken but genuine symbolic value in the society of the time. They symbolised children’s dependence in the same way that adult women all of whom wore skirts were also dependant on their husbands or fathers. People who wore pants(men) were the dominant member sof the family and society. Skits had also a more concrete, practical value for the mother of a child who was not yet fully toilet trained ;it would be easier to keep the child clean if clothing did not fit closely around the loins….Despite the unisex appearance of children’s garments there were distinct differences between clothing of boys and grils. The signals of gender were subtle and some may yet go unnoticed. Nevertheless, they were obvious to people at the time. The young boy at the left in Joseph Badgers painting(above-jfw) wears a a low-neck dress….boys, not girls, wore this particular style with coat sleeves, a complete front opening to the hem and full skirts…Gender distinction had nothing to do with the presence of petticoats, the colour of the fabric the use of flowers silk or delicate textiles.Clothing that was colour coded-pink for a girl and blue for a boy – did not come in to well into the 20th century”
So the question remains what did girls wear to distinguish them from boys? Studies of the Foundling Museum textiles reveals that in the mid 18th century girls did not wear cockades but a loose bow with long trials known as a top knot:
Ribbons attached to girls caps always took the form of what was called a topknot, a loose bunch of knotted ribbons with strands hanging down…The difference (between boy’s cockades and girl’s topknots-jfw)arose almost certainly from the military and therefore masculine associations of the cockade.
(page 48 Threads of Feeling exhibition catalogue by John Styles)
However, by the time Jane Austen was writing Emma, the situation regarding top knots may have changed.In the Jane Austen Society Report for 1991, Mrs Duncan-Jones wrote of Mrs Ogilby, friend to Elizabeth Barret Browning’s mother:
Mrs David Ogilby the friend of Mrs Browning says in her recollections : In those days (1848)young infants wore lace caps with cockades of satin ribbon: a round cockade for a boy an oval cockade for a girl.
Now this date-1848- is clearly too late for Emma,but there may have been a change in the fashion at some time in the early 19th century in respect to the top knot/cockade for girls. But what is certain is that Emma’s cockade was worn as was the usual fashion by her nephew, a boy and Jane Austen in that passage in Emma, which may puzzle us now, was recording a long held tradition.
I visited this exhibit on Wednesday, which is being held at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square until the 6th March, 2011. Brunswick Square was the home of the original London Foundling Hospital, a ground- breakingly original institution which cared for abandoned and illegitimate children who would otherwise have been left in the gutters to die. Founded in 1739, though the original building no longer exists in Brunswick Square, the foundation still performs sterling work in the form of the charity Coram,named after the Hospital’s founder, Thomas Coram.(More on the museum and the Hospital when I next post)
The children were deposited at the hospital by their desperate mothers (and,in an echo of Harriet Smith’s experience at Mrs Goddard’s school in Emma, sometimes by their fathers). Their parents knew that their child, once accepted, would have been given the best possible start in life (though the infant mortality rates were still alarmingly high even for this section of society).
The Hospital tried, ab initio, to keep the most detailed records of the babies in its care. The billets, or registration documents which recorded the admission of a child to the hospital, often contained a token left with the hospital by the mother as a meansof identifying her child should her circumstances improve and she could attempt to reclaim her child. In reality few managed to do this: between 1741 and 1760 only 152 children were reclaimed out of the 16,282 admitted to the institution’s care.
The tokens were sometimes tiny items of little worth:
But they could also take the form of a piece of fabric-a cap, or sleeve of a babies dress, or a piece of fabric from a gown owned by the mother. And it was the discovery of these fabric token which intrigued Professor John Styles. He realised that it was an invaluable archive of working class fabrics and clothes, from which it was possible to make deductions about the type of clothing worn by the poor of the mid 18th century. Clothing of the poorest in society, is rarely, if ever, preserved. Worn till threadbare then used as rags, very little survives in clothing collections. So the archive of swatches of fabric collected in the ledgers of the Foundling Hospital Museum was in fact a mine of information awaiting discovery and interpretation. And this is what the exhibition, Threads of Feeling, curated by Professor Styles sets out to do.
Housed in the basement exhibition area of the Museum, the billet ledgers are displayed in block display cases, the reverse sides of which are decorated with large-scale reproductions of some of the pages of the ledgers…
together with comprehensive explanatory notes…whilst the other side of the cases
provides detailed note on all the fabric tokens in the exhibit ( there are over 6o tokens on display)
The billets and tokens are divided into different sections: ribbons- the love token of many a girl who had been taken “advantage of” and succumbed to the charms of some swain at a fair. This flowered silver ribbon had attached to it a slip of paper with the inscription”This Silver Ribbon is desired to be preserved as the child’s mark for distinction”
Baby clothes-here is an example of a cockade made from silvered cotton dating from 1751. Emma Woodhouse, you will recall drew her nephew George wearing such an ornament(more on this in a later post) in Chapter 6 of Emma;
Here is my sketch of the fourth, who was a baby. I took him, as he was sleeping on the sofa, and it is as strong a likeness of his cockade as you would wish to see. He had nestled down his head most conveniently. That’s very like. I am rather proud of little George. The corner of the sofa is very good….
And this is a baby’s cap made of the linen material traditionally used for diapers, dating from 1753,a quite pathetically moving piece of clothing.
Some mothers left scraps of needlework-some fine, some basic,but all most probably worked by themselves. Above is a piece of a sampler-that piece of work undertaken to prove above all that the child who had worked it was a “good”, industrious,religious soul- dating from 1759 which accompanied a boy into the care of the hospital.
A lot of mothers donated tiny scraps of fabric printed with buds, birds, acorns or other symbols of new life. This tny scrap shows a multicoloured flower. The scrap of paper accompanying it reads:
Florella Burney Born June 19th 1758. In the Parish of St Anns SoHo.Not Baptiz’d, pray Let particulare Care be taken’en off this Child As it will be called for again…
This tiny but colourful piece of fabric was used as a template for a piece of clothing inspired by the exhibit. On the First Floor of the Museum, this outfit was on show:
It, in its turn, was inspired by the print The Female Orators by John Collet of 1768, showing street sellers in action.
The main character wears a short bedgown made of material with a sprigged pattern, possibly printed onto a cream or yellow linen ground.
Close-up of the spotted fabric…..
Close-up of Florella….and below, a close up of the bright red underskirt…which all goes to prove, as Professor Styles assets here and in his book, The Dress of the People that clothes for the poor of the 18th century were not monochrome and dull. They were as vibrant as any high street copy of couture clothes we see/buy today.
An installation by Annabel Lewis of the ribbon suppliers V V Rouleaux was also on display.
It began in the roof space of the stairwell of the museum just behind the bust of Handel,an original patron of the Foundling Hospital.
and hung down the stairwell…
right down to the ground floor….
….where it surrounded the statue of a foundling.
The Florella fabric is on sale in the Museum shop
I bought some as a memento….
A wonderful way to remember this fine exhibit.
If you can’t make it to the exhibit then I recommend you buy the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition which is available by mail order from Paul Holberton Publishing, all the details here. And if you want to read more on the subject then I can highly recommend Professor Styles’ book, The Dress of the People.
I should like to express my sincere thanks to professor John Styles for all his help in arranging for me to take photographs of the exhibition to share with you, and also to the Staff of the Foundling Museum for all their kindness.
This is a marvellous, thought provoking, once in a lifetime exhibit and experience. I can’t praise it highly enough. Go and see it: you will not regret it.
And a note to all frontier type re-enactors reading this post: thanks for visiting. Your comments have been very educational ;)
..to view two exhibitions, Threads of Feeling at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square
and Thomas Lawrence , Regency Power and Brilliance at the National Portrait Gallery.
I will of course be giving reports of my impressions of the exhibitions and their respective catalogues when I return, so I do hope you will then “virtually” join me to talk about them in depth.
As you know, the Threads of Feeling Exhibition at the Foundling Museum curated by Professor John Styles opens this week. Concentrating on the collection of 18th century fabrics preserved in the ledgers of the Foundling hospital, tokens left by foundling’s mothers, it throws a very revealing light on the type of clothing worn by ordinary people in that era, as was disclosed in Professor Styles wonderful book, The Dress of the People.
I thought you all might be interested in two recently published articles which give a little more detail of the exhibition. The first, accessible here is published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council,who helped fund the exhibition.
The second, is a fabulous interpretation of the exhibition by historian Kathryn Hughes, the author of two great books,The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton and The Victorian Governess. Go here to access it
And here courtesy of Amanda Vickery, Professor Style’s wife, is a photograph of a section of the specially re-printed cotton to be used for recreating a garment in the exhibition.
This is called Florella after the child who was deposited with the original scrap of material.
Above is an image of the original ledger from the Foundling Museum showing the linen / cotton printed with dots and red flowers. The Foundling, a girl, was given the number 8959 and was admitted to the Hospital on the 19th June 1758:
The written inscription reads:
Florella Burney Born june the 19: 1758: In The Parish off St Anns SoHo. not Baptize’d, pray Let partiuclare Care be Taken’en off this Child, As it will be call’d for Again; …’
I find it fascinating to think that this might be the type of fabric worn by Harriet Smith’s unknown mother, or by the poor of Highbury who are visited by Emma,or even Hannah, the servant at Randalls who could shut doors with exquisite quietness…I have been very kindly invited to the opening of the exhibition on Wednesday but sadly cannot attend due to other commitments, but I promise to give a full report of the visit I am going to make to it later in October.
The Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square is to hold a fascinating exhibition entitled Threads of Feeling. The Foundling Museum was established as an independent organisation in 1998 by the childcare charity the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, which is today known as Coram. Coram is the successor organisation of the original Foundling Hospital.
I confess I’m very excited to be going to see this exhibition and I will of course report back in late October, but I thought you would appreciate advance notice of what is to be on show.
The exhibition will showcase some of the thousands of pieces of 18th century fabrics in the Coram Foundation’s collection and will also put on show some garments specially made to recreate the type of garments from which these scraps were taken.
The story behind these scraps of fabrics is intriguing. When a mother left her baby in the care of the Foundling Hospital (see here for a little of its history) they often left a token with the baby, to be kept as an identifying record. In a few cases the babies- if they survived-were later claimed by their mothers and this identifying token assisted in the reunion process, especially if the mother was illiterate.
Sometimes the token was an object, such as these also in the Coram Foundation’s collection:
But often it was a small piece of fabric taken from the clothing worn by mother of the child which was then affixed to the child’s registration form and was subsequently bound in ledger, as shown below
Or the token could merely have been some ribbons which had once been attached to the mother’s dress, as in this example here:
As Professor Styles comments:
The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption, whereby the hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced. The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed. The pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother.
And this where they have been preserved for over 200 years, and now form the largest surviving collection of textiles worn by the ordinary people of London in the 18th century. Historically they are very important, providing fascinating insights into the type of fabrics and clothing worn by ordinary people, clothes which rarely survived more than a few years before being recycled into children’s clothes, cleaning cloths and rags etc.
The exhibition will be held in the Foundling Hospital Museum which is in Brunswick Square. Which was the foundations original home and also note, the home of John and Isabella Knightley in Emma on account of its good air ( which was an important part of the decision in assessing the location of the Foundling Hospital too) and was also the home from which the foundling Harriet Smith was reunited with Robert Martin.How appropriate.
The exhibition runs from the 14 October 2010 until the 6 March 2011, and I do hope some of you will be able to visit it.