Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Another Shoe with a Legendary Story, c. 1651

Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Susan reporting:

Recently we speculated about a pair of shoes that tradition claimed had been worn by Queen Anne Boleyn. They were pretty shoes with a pretty story, but the facts won out, and reluctantly we had to agree with historians who said the shoes couldn't be hers.

Today we offer another shoe that may or may not have graced a famous foot. This elegant mule is made of pigskin, silk, and gold galloon lace, and was likely produced in England or France around 1650. It's a stylish shoe, with a curved heel, raised sole, extended vamp, and a square toe that's so exaggerated that it's sometimes called a forked or horned toe. There's no doubt regarding its date; see another similar shoe here, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The legend connected with it is another story. The shoe is exhibited in the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA as "thought to have been worn by Penelope Pelham (1630-1703) at her wedding to Josiah Winslow in 1651." That qualifying "thought" probably puts the shoe's provenance into the realm of wishful thinking, much like the countless rings worn by Martha Washington.

But whether worn by Penelope or not, the shoe does challenge some deeply ingrained traditions from American History. Every American school child knows how the Pilgrims dressed – in all-black suits or dresses with big white collars and funny hats with buckles on the front, and more big square buckles on even bigger shoes – because that's how they look on every school bulletin board and in every Thanksgiving advertisement. Pilgrims never wore shoes as elegant as this one.

Yet there's no doubt Penelope qualifies as a member of the early Puritan "aristocracy" of the Plymouth Colony. She was a Pilgrim. As a child, she emigrated with her parents to Massachusetts, where her father became the first treasurer of Harvard College. Though she and her family returned to England, Penelope eventually married another Plymouth Colony resident and Harvard graduate, Josiah Winslow (1628-1680), whose parents had been aboard the Mayflower. In 1655 the couple returned permanently to the colony to manage the Winslow estates. Josiah eventually became the colony's first native-born governor, while (more) legend claims that Penelope set the standard for beauty and culture.

Beauty and culture? Pilgrims? The truth is much more complicated than the Thanksgiving stereotypes. Despite their religious and political beliefs, many of the Plymouth colonists were educated, sophisticated individuals. They weren't afraid to display their wealth with possessions like elegant, lace-trimmed shoes. 

While they lived in London, Penelope and Josiah sat for matching portraits. The image of Penelope, right, shows her as a stylish lady with curled hair and a gold chain around her throat. She sits swathed in bright-colored satin that follow the idealized romantic traditions of 17th c. court portraiture – and this in a Puritan London ruled by Oliver Cromwell and Parliament.

Odds are against anyone ever knowing for sure whether Penelope wore this particular shoe on her wedding day. But she could have – and we don't believe for a moment that she would have worn those cartoon Pilgrim clodhoppers with the big buckles.

Above: Women's shoe, c. 1651, associated with Penelope Pelham Winslow, Pilgrim Hall Museum
Below: Penelope Pelham Winslow, unknown London artist  c. 1651, Pilgrim Hall Museum


Heather Lawrence said...

Fascinating! You're right I would never think of this lady as being a Pilgrim.

Lady Burgley said...

There are so many misconceptions about history. We all "think" we have the true story, when perceptions are constantly changing. This lady's story is an excellent example.

Chris Woodyard said...

A series of paintings by the so-called “Freake-Gibbs” painter c. 1670-80 illustrates just how elaborate "Puritan" dress can be, while at least partially conforming to sumptuary laws. See

Margaret Gibbs wears what appear to be square-toed mules like the Pilgrim Hall shoes, although without the galloon.

Anonymous said...

Penelope Winslow may have been "setting the standard for beauty and culture", but her husband Josiah was also setting some standards of his own.

As governor of the colony, he overturned the policies of trust that earlier Englishmen had maintained with the Native Americans. Josiah Winslow's duplicity and demands destroyed these relations for the sake of expanding the colony and making a greater profit for the colony's investors. Ruled by greed, he ignored the warning signs, and plunged his colonists into the horrors of King Philip's War, the most costly war in percentage of lives lost ever fought on American soil.

Diane Costanza Studio said...

I enjoyed reading this post. It is amazing how blinded we become by stereotypical ideas of history like we have of the pilgrims.

Thanks for the post,

Audra said...

Lovely guest post! I live an hour from Plymouth and never really 'got' this aspect of the pilgrims. It makes sense of course -- and makes them seem a lot more human!

Recycled Cottage & Garden said...

I have done a lot of research on the Plymouth Pilgrims as I have ancestors among them. It is sad that the history writers didn't seem to understand the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans. My ancestor John Cole had the first ordinary (tavern) and was several times fined for selling on the Sabbath or to the Indians. I don't see the Puritans as having taverns, but the Pilgrims...they knew how to have a bit of fun and enjoy what they had.

SarahN said...

I stumbled upon this post while researching Penelope (my 11x great-grandmother). Very neat! I'd love to see her portrait and other family artifacts in person. Interesting note, Penelope is a direct descendant of Mary Boleyn, Anne's older sister. Thanks for the informative post!

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