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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Monday, November 24, 2014

Looking Narrowly at Broadcloth with Hallie Larkin

This fall the Readex Report, published to highlight research that folks can do with that company’s digital databases, included costume expert Hallie Larkin’s article, “‘Suitable to the Season’: Using Historical Newspapers to Help Reproduce 18th-Century Clothing.”

She starts with advertisements for dry goods:
Merchant advertisements list the goods being brought into port. From nails to needles, advertisements provide detailed lists of merchandise available. Early American Newspapers allows a search of these ads by location, date and multiple keywords. As an example, broadcloth was one of the most frequently used fabrics in the construction of men’s clothing during the 18th century. A heavily fulled, wide (54-60 inches), dense fabric that wore like iron, it was one of the most important exports of England and one of the most frequently advertised imports into America. . . .

An advertisement appearing in the Boston Post Boy on 10 June 1765 lists “a large assortment of superfine Broadcloths with a variety of inferior cloths.” This ad clearly indicates that more than one quality of Broadcloth was available to the consumer. Would a seller today use the word “inferior” to describe any product?

Colonial advertisements rarely used product images, so words had to get buyers into the shop. In addition to price and quality, color was almost always a descriptor, as seen in this text from the Massachusetts Gazette on 5 June 1771:
Pea and grass Green, white, mazarine and Wilke’s Blue, cinnamon mixture, nutmeg mixture, coffee, chocolate, claret and bloom colour’d superfine, middling and low pric’d Broadcloths.
Everyone knows the color of peas, grass and white. Even claret is still easily visualized today. But this ad throws a couple of color curve balls. Mazerine? Wilke’s Blue? The color of mazerine I discovered is a deep blue color, named for Cardinal Mazerin in the 17th century. But what color was Wilke’s Blue? (I am still looking for a source that will answer this question.)
This isn’t my area of expertise, but I’m going to toss out the idea that “Wilke’s Blue” refers to the blue or purple dye from whelks. And that spelling might be due to the interest in John Wilkes in 1771.

Larkin’s article goes on to discuss another valuable source on people’s clothing to be gleaned from newspapers: advertisements for runaways that described what they wore in detail.


Chaucerian said...

From Andrea Feeser, _Red, White, and Black Make Blue_ (Univ. of Georgia Press): "A 1771 issue of _The Middlesex Journal; or Chronicle of Liberty_," for example, singled out a Yorkshire merchant and dyer for the distinctive manner in which they supported populist politician John Wilkes, who embodied liberty for Britain's middling classes: 'A clothier in Yorkshire has sent Mr. Wilkes up a present of cloth to make his liveries--the patriotic tailor of Leicester-fields has offered to make them gratis; and an eminent dyer in the Borough, not to be behind-hand in patriotism (as the cloth was white) has engaged to dye them of a true blue (and from Mr. Wilkes regard for the American colonies) with Carolina indigo.'"

J. L. Bell said...

Ooh, a direct tie between John Wilkes and blue-dyed cloth, from 1771! It's great to know how much expertise Boston 1775 readers command.

G. Thomas Fitzpatrick said...

And usually worn with buff-colored small clothes, which became a sort of informal "uniform" for English Whigs in
the 1766-1775 period. Which explain's Washington' adoption of blue with buff small clothes and facings for his uniform in 1775 and throughout the war.

J. L. Bell said...

That brings up another question. I had also read that buff and blue were the traditional Whig colors, and therefore adopted by Washington for the Virginia independent companies at the end of 1774 and transfered to the Continental Army in 1775.

However, it looks like the phrase "buff and blue" became popular only after the rise of Charles Fox, and British Whigs of that time were adopting the colors in imitation of Washington's army and not the other way round.

There are mentions of "true blue Whigs" from the very early 1700s, but are they paired with buff cloth as well? As there examples of British Whigs adopting that dress before 1775 (though perhaps not yet using the phrase "buff and blue")?

Daud said...

In 1786 the Honorable Artillery Company adopted Blue and Buff as well. But a centennial sermon preached in 1738 indicates that the buff, at least, was part of their uniform in the early days, "Our scarlet and crimson can boast no proved valor equal to their hardy buff." Some writers seem to have concluded (based on nothing, as far as I can tell) that the original uniform included blue coats.

J. L. Bell said...

That makes sense because the A&H Company was basically rebooting itself in 1786 after more than a decade of inactivity, signing up a lot of Continental Army veterans who were fond of those colors.

In 1738, it appears, the A&H was dressing in the same "scarlet and crimson" as British army regulars, but of course they couldn't go back to that right after the war.

Since "buff" was basically undyed cloth, it seems like it would be the default. Or, in the case of that 1738 sermon, perhaps the assumption of how an earlier, plainer, hardier generation dressed.