Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Teaser: A Surprisingly 18th-Century Vacation

Recently my parents decided to take a cruise, their first, and they graciously offered to let me come along. Who passes up a free cruise?! Well, maybe not quite free since I paid in many, many hours of driving, constantly letting my father commandeer my iPhone to check his work e-mail, and helping them not get lost on the boat which was a daily occurrence. It was kind of like babysitting large toddlers, bless them (I am totally exaggerating. We had a wonderful time!). I saw my first actual sunny beach, and we got back yesterday. I haven't the time just now, but I'll have to make a couple of longer posts to squeeze all the best pictures in and I think they'll be worth looking at.

The nicest surprise came from our stay in Charleston, SC, where the ship was docked. I had NO IDEA what a colonially intact area it was, particularly the tip of the peninsula, which was chock full of BEAUTIFUL 18th century houses, cobblestone streets, and tiny gardens. We only had time to tour one house and it was stunning inside.

One of the many glorious exteriors of the Charleston houses

 I was definitely not allowed to take pictures in this house but I cheated. I couldn't help it. Can't you just see a woman in a rustling silk sacque gown sitting down to play that harp while a man in embroidered satin waistcoat reads in the chair?

We also toured the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, where several signers of the Declaration of Independence were held prisoner, and George Washington gave an address from the porch of the building. I was beside myself with 18thc happiness, until we got into a room I had been going to skip altogether because it didn't look very interesting. 

Good thing my mother convinced me to glance around. The first thing I saw was an embroidered waistcoat. Then another. And a fan. And a pincushion. And then a, TWO gowns. I really thought I was going to die right then and there because I was separated from genuine extant 18thc gowns by nothing but glass. You have to understand...I live in the boringly un-18th-century Midwest, and if the St. Louis Art Museum has any 18th century textiles, they are keeping them tightly under wraps. Certainly coming across gowns on a cruise vacation was the farthest thing from my thoughts! 

Oh yeah. I took pictures from every possible angle. You will see them ALL. The thing that surprised me most was that they were BOTH sacque-backs, worn by women of Charleston...I would have figured on en fourreau for sure, if not "quarter back". That was a big shocker.

 So I'll do a couple of posts when I get time, one on the architecture and gardens we went through, and another full post on the clothing and accessories from the Old Exchange.

And this is...oh sorry, that's not Charleston. I am a horrible person but I just had to rub it in that I was in the Bahamas and we went to the most incredible deserted beach that several of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies used in filming. Miles and MILES of barely knee-deep crystal blue water. I'd live as a bum on that beach if I could have stayed.

More to come!


  1. Okay.

    First of all, you were in my backyard. (So to speak.)I live about 2 hours away from the Charleston area you visited. Secondly, I went to the Bahamas on a first-time cruise with my parents a month ago.

    So I guess what I'm trying to say is... GET OUT OF MY HEAD.

  2. I'm a little tired and stupid right now, so maybe it's actually obvious, but why did it surprise you to see two sacques from Charleston?

  3. Haha little miss Snippet, apparently I am totally stalking your life by accident because you are that awesome ;) CRAZY coincidence!

    Cassidy, I guess I was under the impression that A) sacques were considered super-dressy, B) they were more favored by the French than the English and even less so by the colonists and C) Charleston didn't seem big enough or well-established enough in the 1770s to have had the kind of society that merited really dressy gowns? I'm not sure if I just picked up some really out-of-date info and drew up my own erroneous conclusion, or if sacques really were not the norm and these two just happened to survive because they were rare. It just seemed

    I will say I found something fascinating on the signage near the gown, which was going to come out in a future post but I might as well tell of the gowns was made of silk that came from America. Apparently one of the ladies in Charleston was given silkworms, raised them, collected their silk, and sent it off to England to have fabric gowns made out of it. CRAZY.

    1. Durr. I'm tired too. I meant to finish that sentence "It just seemed unusual...I feel like I haven't seen very many extant sacques in books with pictures of gowns that were verified as being worn in the colonies."

    2. Oh, I see! I think that, in general, people don't realize how built up America was at the time. Maybe because the term "colony" sounds so basic? But Charleston was one of the Big Cities. And the sacque I posted a pattern of a while ago was from Albany, which wasn't even as big. They seem to have been pretty popular among American high society - here's a portrait of a couple from Charleston (abroad in Italy at the time, but there are other Copleys painted in America that show them - and here's one from New England and not by Copley) where the woman's wearing one. There were very formal versions, and probably anyone who had to do physical work wouldn't have been wearing one, but there's that print that shows a "paintress of macaronis" in one, so the form in and of itself couldn't have been too formal.

      I think the silkworm cultivation was mentioned in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Age of Homespun, if you want to read more about it.

      Not to lecture you or anything! I just like sharing links.

    3. No way, I love the fact that I will never know everything about 18th century clothing and it's a constant research and learning process...I always appreciate links! Thank you :)

  4. Charleston is on my "list"--I've always wanted to visit what was once the cosmopolitan center of the southern colonies! I was researching the southern campaign of the Revolution a couple years ago and was shocked at how established and cosmopolitan of a city it was--music societies, concerts, a vibrant social season! I want to go...too bad I can't go for a week in about 1775! I hope you enjoyed your vacation!

  5. Thanks Rowenna! Wow, yes, my mom and I were amazed by the gorgeously well-preserved number of homes, but I had no idea it was such a hub of activity back then! That is fascinating that it wasn't JUST a busy harbour.

  6. Annabelle-

    Charleston was pretty swanky by the mid-18th century. And yes, silk was attempted in the coastal South Carolina area at least as early as 1732. I have a copy of a newspaper printed in South Carolina that year which has the first of a 2-part segment on how to raise your own silk worms. I had NO BLOODY IDEA that someone managed to grow enough to make a dress! Eliza Pinckney (local Charleston legend for successfully growing Indigo before anyone else 'round these here parts) attempted to cultivate silk worms around 1740, but I don't think it was a success for her either. That dress blows my mind. Write the post, woman!

    And tell me next time you're in town. I'll brush my teeth and take the next bus to Charleston.

    1. Holy crap! I'm looking at my photo of the plaque over the dress, and it IS Eliza Pinckney's dress (not the one in the picture up there...I promise I'll post it shortly): "She also dabbled in silk production, using the leaves of the mulberry tree gathered by the slaves' children to feed the worms. Her maids would later reel the silk in preparation for weaving. A French Huguenot Artisan in England reputedly wove the silk strands into fabric. While in England, Eliza Pinckney had three dresses made from her silk. One was given to the Mother of King George III, who lost the colonies, one was given to Lord Chesterfield, who was considered a friend of the colonies, and the third is the one you see here in Charleston."

      That was one heck of a lady entrepreneur.

  7. Great post, and isn't that gown spectacular?! What a thrill it must have been to see it in person!

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