Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Louise Godey and Laura Peterson's Christmas in America

Today was one of those rare times where I could no longer stand the chaos of my work surface.  My table looked like it had been hit by a hurricane of fabric, pins and paper towels.  And, in order to set up my photo tent for pictures, some tidying needed to take place.  Mainly a little folding, stacking, shoving into a cabinet or drawer, then a paper towel sweep of snippets and thread bits into a basket, careful there were no needles attached to lengths of thread.  This practice feels good, empowering, for half a day. Then slowly it rises to the surface again like the Loch Ness Monster.

Having completed the girls holiday finery, I was hoping to begin dresses for Louise and Laura's dolls, Lily and Petite Chiffonette. Their gowns may end up being Etrennes, New Years gift for "my" children.  But, I'm not confident that the French tradition, Etrennes, crossed the Atlantic  We do know that Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol did, as well as a jolly German tradition, the Christmas tree.  By 1850 the tree was being displayed in parlors.

At first, the decoration of these fragrant evergreens reflected the whims of folk tradition. Celebrants added nuts, strings of popcorn or beads, oranges, lemons, candies and home-made trinkets. However, widely-read newspapers and ladies' magazines raised the standards for ornamentation. (One suggestion: cotton batting dipped in thin gum arabic then diamond dust made a 'beautiful frosting' for tree branches.) Homely affectations gave way to more uniform and sophisticated ones, the old style overtaken by the urge to make the tree a showpiece for the artistic arrangement of glittering baubles, the stars, angels.

The transition to a Christmas economy in America, occurred only gradually, with both merchant and consumer acting as architects. In the 1820s, '30s and '40s merchants had noticed the growing role of gifts in the celebration of Christmas.  Starting in the mid- to late- 1850s, importers, craftspersons and storekeepers consciously reshaped the holidays to their own ends as shoppers elevated the place of Christmas gifts in their homes for the holiday.

The Godey's and Peterson's would have celebrated the holidays with Christmas balls and fine buffets.  The children would be dressed equally as elegant as the adults, and therefore Louise and Laura were sewn new gowns for Christmas.

After the successful pattern and stitching of Laura's chemise, or blouse, with long sleeves, I set off to make a similar one for Louise with short puffed sleeves.  This pattern can be used many times over with lace insertions and variations of collar and cuffs.  I am quickly depleting my stash of the tiniest laces and will have to replenish my supplies quickly.  Sadly, I've forgotten where I purchased certain styles. 

Louise's soft teal gown is a silk taffeta.  It boasts six pointed lappets, each trimmed with a silk covered button and tassel at the tip.  Shoulder "points" are equally embellished.  The bodice is a deeper cut variation on Laura's first gown - the gold and burgundy striped silk dress. 

The covered buttons were not as difficult as I initially made them out to be, and they certainly embellish the garment in a richer fashion.  Louise was given a matching hair bow for her tresses.

It was my intention to make both girls dancing slippers, possibly in white.  "Alice shoes" I would call them.  But, I felt I ran out of time.  Girls would wear the short boots with their dresses just as fashionably as slippers.  Another time perhaps.

For Laura's second dress, I chose a hand-dyed velveteen in deep peach, and a darker peach, almost mocha silk, for her skirt.  While taking my first needle felting class, I was perusing the shelves of The Tin Thimble and found these fat quarters of velveteen.  It was a luxury purchase at $15.80 a fat quarter, but I purchased them all in hopes of maybe piecing them together, or using them for small jackets and coats. 

I had several shades from blush to peach to mocha silks to consider as complements to the velveteen.  One choice was the silk I used for Mignonette's recent new dress (with the French jacquard ribbon).  I almost did use it, but decided it was not rich enough in color to set off the hand-dyed velveteen.  This decision was made after I lined her jacket with the blush silk.  As it turned out, it was a good choice for the lining since the white of the chemise gave it sufficient color.

The jacket was a little bear to construct.  The velveteen felt thin enough to use in laying out the pattern, but upon construction, I was tugging with frustration in turning it inside out of the silk lining.  I was then disgruntled as it looked more like a bed jacket than a fancy belled sleeved topping.  Fifty percent design, fifty percent sewing.  I spend an incredible amount of time in the design and it often takes place during the construction phase.

I set it aside and began working on the skirt.  I wanted to try a center point waistband for this one.  I also considered bordering the skirt with pintucks.  Twenty-five inches of pintucks times three.  Then decided against it in favor of a bias band of silk.  The jacket still needed something to make it purposefully complement the skirt.  So once again I made silk covered buttons for embellishments.  The sleeves of the jacket each have one little tassel at the notch.

The simple design of the skirt will allow me to make other jackets for her to go with it. 

One of the nice things about taking the time to make covered buttons is that you can use simple, inexpensive plastic buttons for the base.  When done, they dress the garment up in a way that lends a certain fancy flair to the overall appearance.

Laura also received a matching hair bow for her new outfit.  The girls are now set for the holidays.  In the next few days, I am planning on making new gowns for their dolls, Lily and Petite Chiffonette. 

The painting below is by Eastman Johnson (American painter, 1824-1906).  Its title, Christmas Time the Blodgett Family (1864 Detail), depicts a family during the season with their undecorated evergreen to the right, and in the back of the scene.  The full blown fancies of Christmastime would evolve over time. Tree decoration would soon become big business. As early as 1870, American businessmen began to import large quantities of ornaments from Germany to be sold on street corners and, later, in toy shops and variety stores. Vendors hawked glass ornaments and balls in bright colours, tin cut in all imaginable shapes and wax angels with spun glass wings.

Decorated trees (and cards), however, were only window dressing to the custom of Christmas gift-giving that blossomed in American during the 1870s and 1880s. Gifts had played a relatively modest role in Christmases of the past. Now they lavishly gilded the already popular holiday. Louise and Laura would have been young married women by this time, with families of their own.

One of the reasons we love our dolls, is that they never age.  And, if we want a lady doll to dress, then we can have one of those, too.  I hear people say that Christmas brings out the child in us, but I treasure it today in a different way.  It is subtle, but still brings me great, and sometimes giddy joy. 

Betsy posted a lovely quote by Elizabeth Akers Allen, the other day.  "Backward, turn backward, O Time in your flight, Make me a child again just for tonight!"  Merry Christmas!  Enjoy each and every moment of this most welcome holiday season!

Miss E. Mouse

Christmas Time The Blodgett Family (1864)

Mother Goose and Santa Claus (circa 1890)

A Visit From St. Nicholas, McLoughlin Bros. (1896)

Louise Godey and Laura Peterson's Christmas Finery

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