Tuesday, December 19, 2017

From the Archives: The Unsupervised Tailor's Apprentice & the Christmas Coat for a Cat, c. 1775

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Susan reporting,

Most memoirs written by veterans of the Revolutionary War concentrate on glorious battles won, comrades lost, and patriotic fervor, and the memoirs of James Potter Collins (1763-1844) are no different. Born in Tryon County, NC, Collins enlisted in a local militia company at the age of seventeen, and saw action in several of the most important battles of the southern campaigns. But Collins's memoirs also include this entertaining anecdote from his days as a twelve-year-old tailor's apprentice with a bit too much unsupervised time.

"I had been at work about two months when Christmas came on – and here I must relate a little anecdote. The principal [the tailor] and his lady were invited to a party among their friends...while it devolved on me to stay at home and keep house. There was nothing left me in charge to do, only to take care of the house. There was a large cat that generally lay about the fire. In order to try my mechanical powers, I concluded to make a suit of clothing for puss, and for my purpose gathered some scraps of cloth that lay about the shop-board, and went to work as hard as I could. Late in the evening I got my suit of clothes finished; I caught the cat, put on the whole suit – coat, vest, and small-clothes [breeches] – buttoned all on tight, and set down my cat to inspect the fit. 

"Unfortunately for me there was a hole through the floor close to the fireplace, just large enough for the cat to pass down; after making some efforts to get rid of the clothes, and failing, pussy descended through the hole and disappeared; the floor was tight and the house underpinned with brick, so there was no chance of pursuit. I consoled myself with a hope that the cat would extricate itself from its incumbrance, but not so; night came and I had made on a good fire and seated myself for some two or three hours after dark, when who should make their appearance but my master and mistress and two young men, all in good humor, with two or three bottles of rum. After all were seated around the fire, who should appear amongst us but the cat in his uniform. I was struck speechless, the secret was out and had no chance of concealing; the cat was caught, the whole work inspected and the question asked, is this your day's work? I was obliged to answer in the affirmative; I would then have been willing to take a good whipping, and let it stop there, but no, to complete my mortification the clothes were carefully taken off the cat and hung up in the shop for the inspection of all customers that came in."
–– Autobiography of a Revolutionary Soldier, by James Potter Collins, published 1859

With his own master away from the shop for the holiday, Michael McCarty, above, a tailor's apprentice in the Historic Trades program, Colonial Williamsburg, was inspired to copy Collins' achievement, and make a miniature red hunting coat for his own cat. The coat was made to measure like every 18th c. gentleman's coat would have been, and cut and sewn entirely by hand of fine red woolen, trimmed in black with tiny covered buttons and gold-thread buttonholes. And just like young Collins' cat-coat, Michael's handiwork was on display in the shop window throughout the Christmas season, below left – although someday I'd really like to see it on the cat, too.

Update: I visited Colonial Williamsburg this past weekend, and although the tailors have now moved further down Duke of Gloucester Street to a new shop of their own, I'm happy to report that their holiday decorations still include the little red cat's coat, prominently pinned in the window.

Photographs copyright 2013 by Susan Holloway Scott. 


Ana said...

I don't know where else to post this, so I hope it's not a problem if I do it here: will the Breakfast Links post for Dec 11 be returning? (+ Will there be one for Dec 18?) I haven't had the chance to check it out before it disappeared.

Take care,

Sarah said...

Having made quilted jackets for those of my cats who feel the cold, I suspect Puss was not impressed.

Kate said...

Yes— he makes it sound so easy — getting a cat into vest, coat, and breeches! Thanks for this :-)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ana ~ The Dec. 11 Breakfast Links were a victim of Human Error (mine.) I was attempting to post on my phone while traveling, and the fumbling thumbs...fumbled. It's gone for now, but since so few people saw it, I'm going to recreate, add a few more links, and repost after our Christmas break, the first week of January. Sorry for the inconvenience!
~ Susan

Ana said...

Susan: ah, I see - thank you, I look forward to it!

Unknown said...

What a fun story! I'm happy the young apprentice didn't get into trouble for his day's work. :) Thank you!

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