Confessions of a Costumier: Dressing the Laborers

About a month has passed since our 17th-Century Fashion Show, and we had such an amazing time!!!  A HUGE thank-you goes out to our lovely volunteer models (L-R) Mike Thomforde, Maggie Brosz, Joe Long, Valerie Long, Steve Ringel, Melissa Dill, Ron Matlack, and Judith Kirby.  Don’t they look great??

I finally have some time to begin sharing what was discussed during the program.  We covered SO MUCH about the evolution of clothes in the 17th century, but what I want to highlight most is the diversity in society.  I previously posted a teaser of these various styles, and it’s an important step in the evolution of our living history programs.  Fashions changed not just for the aristocracy, but all the lower classes as well.  A colorful range of people would have lived and worked in colonial Pennsylvania, and we strongly believe all those people should be represented at Pennsbury Manor.  This includes showing the variations in their wardrobe!

So today we begin with the lower class of residents at Pennsbury: The Laborers.  Whether you were plowing the field, tending the kitchen garden, or churning butter in the dairy, your clothes needed to be practical.  Below you see Mike and Maggie modeling appropriate ensembles.  Compare them with the 17th-century drawings by Marcellus Laroon, which depict the poor street cryers in late 17th-century London:

Outdoor laborers would have needed to dress for the weather and conditions required of their jobs.  While they might have a better set of clothes for Sundays or special occasions, out in the fields their attire had to be sturdy and comfortable.  Mike is modeling a shirt, coat, and breeches which are all linen and obviously too big to be made for him specifically.  He could have received hand-me-downs or bought clothes secondhand from a street cryer or ready-made from a store.  His monmouth cap was a universal style worn by land laborers and sailors alike for centuries.  If performing a dirtier job, he would don an apron like the one seen below on the vinegar-seller. 




Just like Mike, Maggie is dressed to tackle the hard jobs all laboring women would face depending on the season.  She might spend her days washing clothes, tending the Kitchen Garden and animals, brewing beer, or preparing meals at the hearth.  The older style of short gown, rather than the more recent mantua style (seen in a previous post), would have been safer for working around fires and less cumbersome when laboring in the garden or stable.  Her apron is made of a spare piece of rough linen and kerchief tucked into her bodice and out of the way.  The only sign of fashion is the striped linen petticoat. 








**You might be wondering why our models don’t have any shoes on in these pictures?  That’s because we haven’t been able to afford any.  We are fundraising to purchase reproduction shoes, because an interpreter in sneakers ruins the whole atmosphere created by historical dress, am I right??  To help out, you can visit our official website and click the “Donate Now” button at the bottom.**


Written by Hannah Howard, Volunteer Coordinator & Costumier


The Country Life: Beating the Winter Cold

Although the Penn family did not reside at Pennsbury in the dead of winter, the estate was certainly not dead; the staff worked to ensure the smooth running of Penn’s summer home in all seasons. Colonial gardeners were no exception, cultivating techniques to battle the cold and prepare for spring. As colonials tired of pickled and salted foods during the winter months, they longed for fresh produce. The hot bed, an important part of the colonial kitchen garden, allowed colonists to begin growing vegetables before spring thawed the ground.


16th-century engraving of a gardener working on his raised garden beds (“The Gardener’s Labyrinth,” Thomas Hill).  Raised bed allowed gardeners to adjust the composition of the soil, adding or lessening acidity depending on the plant being cultivated.  Hot beds were a variation on the standard raised bed frame.


In Pennsbury’s garden, the hotbed is located opposite the riverside next to the cold frames. A brick and wood structure, the hotbed protects seedlings from the bitter cold and provides the perfect environment for out-of-season growth. Colonial gardeners would have layered soil over fresh manure from the barn to create the heat source. Once the manure cooled to about seventy degrees Fahrenheit, the bed was ready for seeds. Straw placed on top provided additional protection from the elements. If prepared properly, the hotbed could retain its heat for several weeks.

Although its main purpose was to jumpstart vegetables in the cold weather, colonial gardeners would have used the hotbed year round to grow a variety of plants. We still use the hotbed for this purpose at Pennsbury (see below). For example, last summer, the gardeners used the hotbed to provide a space for growing flax. The hotbed gave us the perfect place to monitor the young flax plants and ensure they would be mature enough for the fall harvest.


A hotbed at Pennsbury Manor, 2011


Colonists were not able to simply walk into the supermarket and pick up fruits and vegetables during the winter like we can, but they were not completely helpless. They wasted no resources, and that includes time. While they could not beat Mother Nature’s icy grip on their gardens, they could manipulate the temperature of their own growing environment, the hotbed.


**Come to Pennsbury Manor’s Gardening Sunday on May 27 and see what’s starting to sprout in the Kitchen Garden!**


Written by Danielle Lehr, 2011 Intern

Edited by Hannah Howard

William’s World: Why Don’t You Joyn Us?

This post was written by Steve Samuel, a new volunteer interpreter in the Pennsbury Manor Joyner’s Shop!   He thought many people, like himself, wouldn’t know the difference between a Joyner and all the other woodworking trades, so he did some research…


Figure depicted in "The Joiner II," Denis Diderot, 1751

During Manor tours, it is not unusual for visitors as well as the occasional tour guide to stand in front of the Joyner’s Shop, and refer to the joyners as “carpenters”.  Historically, however, professional joyners distinguished themselves from carpenters as matters of both business and pride.

Dating to the mid-1400s, furniture making was overseen by the Guild of Master Carpenters, who subcontracted work to joyners, inlayers, turners, etc.  These specialists began forming their own companies (guilds) in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Each specified its distinct form of woodworking to make sure that others were not infringing on their trades.  They defined who could practice the trade, and who could not, not unlike our present-day labor unions.  In 1563, the Great Statute of Artificers established that the apprenticeship for a joyner would be 7 years.  The Faculty of Joyners and Ceilers or Carvers of London” received its charter in 1570.  Members were expected to adhere to regulations and quality standards, and could be fined for substandard work.

The Joiner I, Denis Diderot, 1751

In general, carpenters were mainly responsible for structural work.  They also made nailed, or “boarded” furniture.  They tended to work on-site.  Joyners, in contrast, joined pieces of wood together, using the mortise and tenon joint as the basis for construction of furniture, wainscoting and other fixed woodwork and paneling.  Much of the joyner’s work was performed in his shop, alone or with 1-2 apprentices.  In England and the early American colonies, the joyners were the true craftsmen of household furniture.  

Come by Pennsbury Manor next Sunday, May 6 from 1:00-4:00 to see our Joyners working in their shop.  Blacksmithing and Sheep-Shearing will also be happening around the site.

 For Further Reading:

Chinnery, Victor  Oak Furniture, The British Tradition (1979)

 Fitzgerald, Oscar  Four Centuries of American Furniture  (1995)

 Humphrey, Nick  Furniture and woodwork in Tudor England:  native practices, methods, materials and context   Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London