It's easy enough to see how the nobility and royalty dressed in the 18thc; there must be scores of portraits, paintings, and prints documenting the wardrobe of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. But it's much more of a challenge imagining the clothing of ordinary women whose lives weren't as thoroughly documented. Thanks to the professional staff of Colonial Williamsburg, I've shared several posts featuring the clothes of Colonial American and English women c1775, and here are the links to the posts for a mantua-maker's apprentice, a housewife of the middling sort, a maidservant, a seamstress, and a female blacksmith.
The latest in my series shows one of the newer apprentices in Colonial Williamsburg's historic trades program. Jenny Lynn is serving her apprenticeship to become a tinsmith. Tinsmiths (also called whitesmiths) made and repaired objects - including pans, pots, kettles, cups, lanterns, plates, funnels, and saucers – that were commonly found in most 18thc homes and workplaces; see herefor more about the tin shop and tinsmith's historic trade at Colonial Williamsburg.
Finding Jenny working in an 18thc tin shop isn't a 21stc equal-opportunity anachronism. Diderot's famous Encyclopédie, published between 1751-1772,showed women workers in the plate on tin making: "Metallurgie, fer blanc": (detail, lower right). There are documented examples of women tinsmiths in 18thc Britain, France, and colonial America, including a daughter continuing her mother's trade in South Carolina.
But while women are mentioned in advertisements, newspapers, and other documents, there are no known images of colonial women tinsmiths. When it came to researching what Jenny should wear for her apprenticeship in the shop, CW's historians in the Costume Design Center chose to dress her as a working-class tradeswoman. She's shown here wearing a brown wool gown over a striped linen petticoat, a checked linen apron, a cotton neckerchief filling in her neckline, and a linen cap covering her hair. Everything is handsewn. Long hand-knitted wool mitts, lower left, would have kept her forearms warm and protected them from sparks while keeping her fingers free for work.
She's also wearing stays (the 18thc word for a corset.) Not only would stays have been worn by her 18thc counterpart to maintain a fashionable and respectable silhouette, but the boned undergarment helps support her back during long days at her workbench.
Her most important garment for work, however, would be her black wool apron, or pinner, because it pins to the front of her bodice to protect her gown and petticoats. The women in the Diderot plate are wearing similar pinner aprons. At first Jenny wore a pinner of white linen, the most common kind for the time. But the white linen didn't work for tinsmithing. The white failed to offer enough contrast while working with the brightly polished metal. More importantly, the hot flux used in soldering the tin is made from acidic pine rosin, which ate through the linen apron.
Jenny switched to a black wool pinner, and both problems were solved. The wool resisted the acidic rosin and any stray sparks from the fire, and presented good contrast for working. Jenny isn't alone, either. Based on historical records as well as preferences, the male tinsmiths and several of the blacksmiths wear baize (a heavy woolen) aprons as they work, too.
A note about that black pinner. When I wrote a post last year about how the mantua-makers at Colonial Williamsburg were experimenting with black silk pinners for embroidery, I inadvertently ignited a minor furor on social media. Purists among reenactors maintained that if there wasn't primary source proof of the black pinners in use in colonial Virginia, then they should not be employed for interpretations. Ever. However, when that proof doesn't exist, sometimes even the most conscientious scholars have to rely on hands-on experience and a bit of ingenuity as to what works and what doesn't - exactly as an enterprising 18thc woman would have done as well.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.