J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Running Away to Join the Hive

The Hive is a gathering of Revolutionary-era living historians helping each other raise the level of their portrayal of New Englanders in 1775—particularly during the yearly reenactments of the Battle of Lexington & Concord. People are meeting on the first Sunday of each month at the Buttrick House across the street from the National Park Service’s Visitor Center in Concord. (Not the Visitor Center in Lexington; nothing across the street there.)

The January gathering featured a “Runaway Runway”—a fashion show-style display of outfits based on newspaper advertisements seeking the return of indentured workers or deserters from the late 1700s. The Hive’s webpage on that event includes photos and descriptions of several desperate characters, well worth a look. (There are rewards for spotting some of these people, after all.)

Runaway advertisements are excellent sources on what people wore. Many offer detailed descriptions of exactly what each escapee was wearing when last seen. They’re thus a better guide to daily dress for common folk than formal portraits, which always show the well off as they wanted to be seen and sometimes show them in imaginary outfits. On the other hand, some of those runaway folks might be a little too “common” to be typical; they were disproportionately new immigrants or people with some native or African ancestry, almost by definition poor and/or enslaved. The typical New England farm family dressed somewhere in between a person running for freedom with what he or she could carry and a merchant paying good money for his portrait.

So as not to lose the wigs-and-hair thread for this month, I note a few hirsute comments in the runaway ads quoted on the Hive site:

MARY NOWLAND; her age I know not but she is old sold her hair of gray and black to the peruke maker, face of putty, red hands well worn and short of height, her teeth are good.
Eighteenth-century wigmakers found older women's hair the most valuable because it was long and soft and—though not in this case—already white.

CATHERINE WATERSON...She has very long black hair, which she wore either clubbed behind, or platted, and rolled round her head, wears no cap
“Clubbed” meant folded and tied back in a stiff queue (or ponytail). “Platted” was “plaited” or braided, and in this case wrapped around her head.

a Servant Man name MATHIAS...6 feet high, pale wearing his natural hair, as it remains, short.
This ad is curious to me because it gives no last name for the man, who is obviously somewhat mature. But I can’t actually find any of these ads in the online newspaper archive I have access to, which is still a work in progress.

a boy, who calls himself NICHOLAS KELLY,...about 12 years of age but very poorly grown, brown hair tied sometimes
Which means that sometimes young Nicholas didn’t tie his hair back in a queue, but let it hang loose. (More about boys’ hair coming soon to Boston 1775.)

The next Hive meeting is on Sunday, 4 February, 1:00-5:00, with the topics “A Field Guide to British Uniforms,” “Mending 101,” and “Make a Petticoat” (bring your own supplies). The day before, there’s a $35 workshop on constructing a woman's cap in an authentic style that’s nonetheless flattering to you.

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