Behind the Seams: Conserving an 1840 Wedding Dress
Patrons walking into the Cumberland County Historical Society’s 2017 exhibit, Trends & Thread: Women, Family, and Society in 19th Century Samplers, are welcomed by an array of samplers and the histories of those who wrought them. Displayed in Todd Hall is the sampler embroidered by Eleanor Jacobs, which hangs next to her olive-green, silk wedding dress worn in 1840. Her dress stands next to a picture of Eleanor Jacobs and her daughter, bringing Eleanor’s story back to life.
Before its exhibition, Eleanor’s dress required a complete restoration to return it to its 1840s condition. Because my specialty is in nineteenth-century costume history and textile conservation, the museum and its curators trusted me with rescuing this beautiful artifact. It began as a simple repair job. Seams were separating, only one metal eye and two metal hooks remained for the back closure, and insects ate into the dress’ silk, which left holes that needed patching. Although meticulous stitching and patience are required when handling these condition flaws, they are relatively easy to repair. Upon further analysis of the dress, however, these were not the only issues. As evidenced by various construction details, someone completely altered Eleanor’s dress in the twentieth century.
Whoever altered the dress separated the bodice and the skirt and cut out half of a skirt panel’s fabric. The sewer then reattached this newly acquired silk to the bodice and increased its width to accommodate for someone much larger than the original wearer. Additionally, the dress featured machine stitching in the lining of the newly attached bodice pieces. The sewing machine was not invented until 1848 so Eleanor’s dress, worn in 1840, should have featured only hand-sewing.
Continuing with alterations regarding the dress’ bodice, someone added a metal snap for the back closure. Snaps were not invented until 1885 so only hooks and eyes should have been utilized. The hem was heightened approximately four inches during this alteration and it did not exhibit nineteenth-century sewing techniques, meaning this was not an original adaptation of the dress. Due to cracking silk at the bottom of the hem from overuse and age, the hem cannot be lowered back to its original length. The skirt’s original pleating was replaced with gauging, or gathering, which weakened the silk and led to tears.
Fortunately, the bodice’s added silk panels provided extra original fabric that, once removed, patched any holes and tears in the dress. I separated the skirt and bodice from one another in order to undo the skirt’s modern gauging and replace it with period-accurate pleating. Using nineteenth-century sewing techniques, I reattached the stabilized skirt to the bodice. Nineteenth-century hooks and eyes were sewn into the back closure and invasive additions, such as the metal snap, were removed. Because the modern woman who altered the dress cut out fabric from the skirt, I had to play with the pleating in order to ensure its accuracy. After approximately forty hours of conservation work, Eleanor’s dress left her “surgery” looking almost as she appeared in 1840.
When I applied to be an intern for the Cumberland County Historical Society, I emphasized my desire to gain experience in a museum’s archives. Not only did the museum help me fulfill this by placing me under the supervision of Cara Curtis, the museum’s Archives and Library Manager, the staff encouraged me to explore any additional interests. While my main project for the semester was processing a large donation of paper files, during my time at the museum I learned new exhibit installation skills and gained conservation practice. Cumberland County Historical Society is a wonderful institution that emphasizes the practicality of experiencing the multi-faceted field of the museum profession.
Emily Bach, Shippensburg University, Applied History Major, Spring Intern 2017