By: Emily Bach
When looking at one of the dusty, deteriorating cardboard-boxes covered with the ceiling debris of Pratt House, one might expect the garments inside to be of the same condition. Fortunately, many of the artifacts are in relatively good condition, despite the poor costume housing. This week we processed a four-piece dress ensemble that reflects this amazing fortune. Despite its previous cardboard-box home, this teal silk-taffeta gown with grey-green silk-satin trimming is in near perfect condition.
Donated in 1943 by Ferdinant B. Keidel and Louisa J. Keidel, this dress belonged to Ms. Emma Sophia Brauns as a part of her trousseau. She married Mr. Louis J. Keidel on July 11, 1866. Although the marriage year helps us pinpoint an approximate year for Emma’s dress, by analyzing certain construction details of the dress, we can be sure this dress was constructed in 1866.
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The teal silk taffeta day bodice features three grey-green silk-satin bands that start from the bodice’s shoulders and slope downwards. A ruffle trim of the same color slopes from the shoulder, as well, to two inches above the hem of the bodice in the front and the back. Prior to and during the Civil War, bodices usually featured trims sewn below the shoulders to elongate the shoulders and achieve the desired silhouette. After the Civil War, trims migrated upwards towards the shoulders, meaning this bodice was constructed after 1865 due to its trimming. The bodice also features two-piece coat sleeves, a style popular between 1864 and 1866. Seven gold metal buttons featuring black birds on a glass white background close the bodice in the front. Functional buttonholes, such as these, were popular during the late and post-Civil War years. Six silver metal hooks and eyes beginning just above the lowest button ensure the bodice would stay closed. On the bottom of the inside of the bodice are five metal hooks, which would attach to the skirt for added support.
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This dress speaks to the frugality of women wearing tailor-made dresses as it includes two separate bodices, one for day-wear and one for evening-wear. By separating the bodice from the skirt, a woman achieved a new dress by only donning a different styled bodice. The evening bodice features a low neckline and short sleeves, both trimmed with scalloped triangles. This type of scalloping was popular in the mid-1860s, which supports the dating of the dress to 1866. In addition, when analyzing the bodice closely, one can see stitch marks that resemble trimming. By observing these marks, it can be seen that a trim would have sloped downwards and come to a point in the center front of the bodice. There are six functioning button holes and five teal silk taffeta covered buttons because the bottom button is missing. There are six eyes and five hooks (one is missing at the third buttonhole down from the top) to ensure the bodice remained closed. Similar to the day bodice, the evening bodice has five hooks attached inside the bodice at the bottom that hook onto the skirt.
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The skirt's construction reflects mid-1860s fashion due to its shape and heavy gauging in the center back that would accommodate an elliptical cage, which was popular between 1865 and 1867. The skirt’s placket in the front closes with three hooks and eyes at the waistband. The peplum, an accessory introduced around 1866 to 1867, would cover the back of the skirt. This specific peplum is of the same teal silk taffeta as the rest of the ensemble and a bow decorates the peplum at the center top. The same ruffle and grey-green trim sewn on the day bodice is featured on the peplum as well.
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The only condition flaws found on this dress include the missing button on the evening bodice, a bone that has poked through the evening bodice, a missing button on the day bodice, staining on the peplum, and a splitting seam in the skirt. All of these are minor flaws. The missing button on the day bodice would not even be seen if it remained attached because the bodice’s ruffle covers the buttonhole and button.
Treasures such as this 1866 silk taffeta dress need to be removed from Pratt House as soon as possible to ensure the historic home’s poor climate control and debris does not deteriorate the artifacts within its walls. This dress is only one example out of thousands that show the benefits and importance of the rehousing and Adopt-A-Box project.