We have two contrasting artifacts for you today! First, a ladies’ bustle, from the mid-late 1880s:


Many people have a sense of what a bustle was: a method of supporting a fashionably large skirt in the back. But as a fashion trend, the bustle was not static. Bustles of the early 1870s were wide, drawing the still-full skirts toward the rear. Around 1880 the trend faded somewhat as skirts grew narrower, but as that decade progressed the bustle came back, high and narrow and creating almost a right-angle with the wearer’s back. The undergarments used to create these different silhouettes were many and varied; some were full petticoats or crinolines with the bustle built in, while others were separate accessories. They could be made of steel hoops, layers of fabric, ties and springs, padded rolls, or stiffened hair-cloth (here is a nice assortment of historical examples, and the Metropolitan Museum online collection shows a variety of options).

Our example was originally cataloged as a “child’s bustle,” but while children’s fashions often copied adults’, this bustle was in fact designed for an adult.  Its narrow width (six inches wide) and pronounced shape put it in the mid 1880s.  The waist tape is printed with the manufacturer’s label, now hard to read, but with enough left to inform us that it is one of Christopher C. Shelby’s designs:

T2074 label

Mr. Shelby, of Passaic, NJ, patented a number of “New and Useful Improvements in Bustles” in the 1880s; I’ve not found a definite patent design match for our piece, but it closely resembles this patent from 1888. Even better, similar items can be found in other museum collections, such as this 1884 “New Phantom” model at the Victoria & Albert Museum. (You can also learn how to make your own, here!) The ribs of this bustle are designed to collapse inward when you sit down – likely considered by many women to be a definite “improvement.” Here’s our bustle on a dressform, showing the resultant silhouette (imagine sitting in this if it didn’t accordion inward), and below that is an 1883 Harper’s Bazaar fashion plate, showing the bustle effect in use in “ladies’ walking and evening dresses.”

T2074 in action

Walking (left) and evening (right) dresses, from Harper's Bazaar, December 1883

Walking (left) and evening (right) dresses, from Harper’s Bazaar, December 1883

As for who wore this particular bustle, that’s not entirely clear. Donated by Bob Eckman, it was found on the third floor of a home in Rockville during 1980s renovation work, and we presume it was left there by a previous owner. This Queen Anne style house, at 114 W. Montgomery Avenue, was built around 1890 by Edwin Montgomery West (born 1862), a master builder locally famous for employing the “Rockville Bay” window on many of his homes. West lived here with his family until 1909, at which point they moved to Virginia and sold the house to Judge Winfield Scott Magruder. Judge Magruder’s daughter, Daisy Valeria Magruder (1881-1970), lived here the rest of her life. However, Daisy was a little young for an adult-sized, fashionable bustle of the mid-late 1880s. It could have been brought to the house by her mother, Eleanor Magruder, but I personally favor West’s wife, Olivia Bogley West (born 1873), or even better West’s sister Frances O. Green (born 1860), who lived here along with Edwin and Olivia. Age-appropriate Frances packing away an out-of-fashion accessory in the attic, then forgetting it when the house is sold, makes sense to me… but I’ve not found much information about her that could help to confirm or deny.


I wanted to throw in another artifact today, and I could have gone a few different ways: Another 1880s fashion piece? Something else forgotten in an attic? But instead I decided on this item, with a similar function but, er, in the opposite direction: A bandeau brassiere from the 1920s.


This silk and satin bra, made by the Modishform Company of New York (size 38), was donated by Eugenie LeMerle Riggs, who described it as “a bra designed to flatten, 1922-23.” Indeed, there’s not much room in this garment; the only concessions to the shape of the body underneath are two minor tucks in each side, and the manufacturer’s name is a nod to the wearer’s desire to achieve a “modish form” or silhouette.  Not every woman indulged in a binding brassiere in the 1920s, of course (or in a bustle in the 1880s, either), but the flat-chested fashion wasn’t limited to high-living flappers. The 1927 Sears, Roebuck catalog featured a variety of bandeau bras, “confining” brassieres, and a “Boyshform Brassiere” (fun fact: that company sued Modishform in 1922 for trademark infringement), which “is very popular, as it gives your figure that smart boylike appearance that so many women desire.”

T1674 detail

Unlike the possible bustle-wearers listed above, we know a fair amount about this bra’s owner. Eugenie LeMerle (1904-2003) grew up in Washington, DC, and graduated in 1931 with an architecture degree from what is now George Washington University, where she was voted one of the “six most beautiful women” on campus. She had a brief career as a ballroom dancer, before marrying George Riggs and moving to Ashton to raise a family. She donated a lot of her fashionable clothing, from various decades, to our collections.  In other words, I can well believe she was concerned with presenting an appropriately boyish silhouette during the 1920s.  This isn’t the best pose for showing off said silhouette, but how can I resist adding this fabulous photo of Eugenie LeMerle in 1923?

Framed photograph of Eugenie LeMerle, 1923. Donated by Eugenie L. Riggs.

Framed photograph of Eugenie LeMerle, 1923. Donated by Eugenie L. Riggs.


Whole books have been written about women’s undergarments, fashionable silhouettes, and what both mean for culture, social mores, feminism and femininity, and the like.  In other words, if these artifacts have whetted your appetite, there is much more to learn!  To get you started, here are some larger online exhibits of undergarments: The Victoria & Albert Museum provides a nice overview of late 19th century shaping undergarments;  the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History features a little more about the history of the bandeau bra; and the Museum at FIT has an exhibit (open through November 2014, if you want to visit) titled “Exposed: A History of Lingerie,” which includes an online version.


Bonus artifact! Men’s fashions have not been immune to the need for shape-enhancing (or –reducing) undergarments. However, we don’t have anything along those lines in our collections. Instead, enjoy a look at a now-rare form of support garment for men: a pair of sock garters from the 1950s, intended to help the well-dressed gentleman keep his non-elasticized socks from sagging unbecomingly about his ankles.  These were purchased as vintage pieces by MCHS volunteer Mary Lou Luff, for display in one of our exhibits.



T1025 and T2373

Today we have a pair of paper folding fans, dating from the 1890s. They are both 13” long, with paper leaves over a wood skeleton; the guard sticks are pronged, and embellished with a woven cotton cord (here’s a parts-of-fans glossary if you’re interested). The printed designs are natural/floral in theme, with a vaguely Asian air. Each was owned by a young woman from the area, carried as an accessory at parties or dances, and then saved as a souvenir.


T1025 one side

T1025 other side

In March 1894, Mary Briggs Brooke (1875-1964) of Falling Green, Olney, signed and dated her fan; she was 18 years old.

T1025 detail

“Mary Briggs Brooke March 94 -“

Though – somewhat despite the odds – it has retained its tassel and fringe for over 100 years, Miss Brooke’s fan is fairly worn and used in appearance; the paper is soft and tearing along the folds, and the ends are detached altogether (though still connected at the rivet). It’s not clear if the condition is due to a hard season of dancing and parties in 1894, or if the fan was a favorite dress-up plaything for Miss Brooke’s niece (who also lived at Falling Green for much of her life) or other younger relatives. The fan was donated to MCHS in 1964 by said niece, Mary Farquhar Green.


T2373 one side

T2373 other side

In contrast, our other fan was clearly used often by its owner (though it, too, could have been a dress-up favorite in later years). Maude Wagstaff (1883-1973) of Takoma* Park, DC, turned her paper fan into a kind of autograph book: The folds of the paper are decorated with signatures, dates, doodles, and inscriptions from friends and family members.  Dates noted across the fan include “Summer of 96,” “Summer of 1897,” “Fall of 1900,” and “Oct. 27th 1900” (or possibly 1910).  Her own name appears near one end.

T2373 Maude

T2373 dates and lighthouse

T2373 WBA poem

Again, we don’t know the specifics of Maude Wagstaff’s social life during those years – though, since she was only 13 or 14 in the summer of 1896, we can imagine her having a grand time fluttering her giant paper fan at her first ‘grown-up’ party – but in this instance we do have a photo that could relate to a summer of autograph-fan-using opportunities: here she is (on the right) with two friends, Louise Green and May Davis, at Marshall Hall, Maryland, around 1905.


In 1912, Miss Wagstaff married photographer Will Hazard; they moved to Garrett Park, and later to Takoma Park (Md). Over the years the fan was saved, and perhaps played with by her children and grandchildren; it was eventually donated to MCHS by one of those grandchildren, Patricia Barth.


In our collections we have many elaborate and costly fans, carefully preserved by owners and descendants for a variety of reasons, and representing styles and fashions that can be found with relative ease on museum, collector, and auction websites. In contrast, inexpensive souvenir-type fans were not necessarily designed for the long haul, and while our two examples survived, many did not. The value here – for the owner and her heirs – is likely to be sentimental, not monetary, and even the most precious reminder of the past can fall victim to time when it’s simply made of paper, sticks, and string.  …In other words, so far my internet searches for like items have come up short, and I’ve only able to find one other example online: an “autograph book” fan at the Tippecanoe County Historical Association.

But when in doubt, check the Sears catalog! In 1897, Sears, Roebuck & Co. was pleased to offer two sizes of “Japanese folding fans,” featuring decorated paper leaves and a “strong split stick outside,” the ends “handsomely corded.” The 13 inch version, essentially matching both of ours, sold for six cents each. (Still a bargain today, they would cost $1.65 in 2013 money.) Interestingly, although this style was “New” in 1897, the 1902 catalog’s “Complete Assortment of Fans” does not include anything along these lines; perhaps “handsome cording” was already out of fashion.

1897 Sears folding fans


*Today the Takoma neighborhood of DC leaves off the “Park,” but the 1900 census puts the Wagstaff family in “Takoma Park,” Washington, DC.


Today we have one of those artifacts that seem totally odd until you know what they are – and then you see them everywhere. (Well, in my experience, anyway.)  This is a coin purse in the style known as a miser’s bag or miser’s purse.  Made of crocheted silk, in shades of green, orange, cream, and rose (now faded to rusty brown), and decorated with cut steel beading, fringe, and tassel, it measures 16 inches long.

With both rings moved to one side, to access one end of the purse.

With both rings moved to one side, to access one end of the purse.

Coins or other small necessities could be tucked into each end of the purse through the slit in the middle section; then one of the metal rings is moved toward that end to secure your goods.  (This video explains it better.)  Like the proverbial needle-pointed slippers, they were popular handmade* gifts, especially from women to their fathers, husbands, or sweethearts.  An eagle-eyed viewer can spot them in Victorian paintings, prints, lady’s magazines, and the like; for example, a miser’s bag is the focus of this circa 1857 print by James Collinson. Some sources note that they could be carried draped over your belt, though others think they were likely just carried around in the hand. The name “miser’s bag” refers, essentially, to the fact that you couldn’t carry much money (and it was a little tricky to get the money out again).


The purse was donated to MCHS by Alice Diamond French, a local descendant of William Craig Diamond (1828-1873) who settled in Gaithersburg in the 1850s.  Family stories said that it originally belonged to her great great grandfather John Diamond (1781-1842) of Philadelphia; it was handed down through the generations and given to Alice in 1926, when she was 16.  It was evidently worn enough, through use or age, to require “repair,” and perhaps was used by more than one Diamond gentleman throughout the 19th century.  The family story does not, alas, indicate why this particular piece was saved so carefully. Alice’s grandfather, John Bernard Diamond, Sr., was a founder of the First National Bank of Gaithersburg, and served as its President from 1900 until 1926; I can’t help but see a potential sentimental connection between the banker and his family-heirloom coin purse, but who knows?

Miser’s bags were owned by both men and women, with the longer bags – of which our 16″ example is one – being appropriate for manly use.  So that part of the story is all right.  This style is often associated with the Victorian era – mid-late 19th century, somewhat after John Diamond’s 1842 death – so at first I was inclined to move its ownership down a generation or two, but a perusal of various museum collections has shown me several not-dissimilar examples dated “early 19th century,” so I will hedge my bets and allow the story to stand, barring further investigation.


And there is investigation to be done! Thanks in part to the recent work of Laura Camerlengo at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, miser’s purses are not only numerous (they were very trendy for a while, resulting in lots of extant examples) but also well documented.  There’s a current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (scroll down to “From Money to Marriage”); an e-book, summarized (for free) here; and the video, linked earlier, that shows how the purses worked. If you want to see more examples (of course you do! They’re colorful, sparkly, weird little purses!) there are plenty to be seen in the online collections of the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Fine Art, the Victoria & Albert (as “stocking purses”), and the Cooper-Hewitt. You’re welcome!

*For example, a pattern for a “knitted purse” can be found in Treasures in Needlework, 1870, by Mrs. Warren and Mrs. Pullan – not available digitally, but the 1970s reprint is fairly easy to find, if you want to indulge in some 19th century handwork and make your own miser’s bag.

Trend alert! Though I have no national statistics to support my anecdata, this summer I have noticed a lot of people in the DC area carrying umbrellas to ward off the sun. (I’ve also seen a lot of guys in suspenders, but that will have to wait for another post.) More and more women – and some men; after all, UV rays do not discriminate – are reclaiming the umbrella as a sunshade.

An outing on Chevy Chase Lake, ca. 1917.  The arrow points to Elsie Pitt Chaney.  Donated by Edward E. Chaney.

The umbrella/sunshade/parasol is an ancient idea, but it fell out of fashion in 20th century America. “Umbrella” (from Italian, 16th century) and “parasol” (from French, early 17th century) both originally referred to sunshades. In early 18th century France and England, carrying an umbrella was mildly embarrassing because it signaled to the world that you couldn’t afford a closed carriage. However, Anne Wood Murray of the Smithsonian (Antiques, 1961) surveyed American newspapers from the second half of the 18th century, and found multiple advertisements for the sale and repair of stylish, expensive umbrellas. By the 19th century, American and European women were often seen carrying parasols (as they were now called) in the latest styles.

Two ladies remain cheerful (and shaded) while they wait for their broken-down car to be repaired, near present-day White Flint, circa 1915.  Photo by Lewis Reed, donated by the Reed family.

Carriage parasols, designed for sitting decoratively in an open vehicle, were typically festive and tiny; some had folding handles (for convenient storage) or tilting tops (to better shade your face as you traveled). Walking parasols were a little sturdier, with longer ferrules (the bit at the top of the awning), sticks and handles. There were even “full-dress parasols” for particularly formal occasions. “Umbrella” came to mean the larger, more serviceable rain guards that we think of today, though of course they could still do double-duty as sunshades.

These gentlemen – watching the harness racing at the Rockville fairgrounds, circa 1910 – would probably have called their plain, manly sunshades “umbrellas.” 

Like many artifacts, parasols and umbrellas can be dated by changes in style, shape, material, and technology. For example, steel ribs were introduced in the 1840s, replacing the earlier and more expensive whalebone. Fringed edges were popular in the 1840s and ‘50s; a pagoda-like shade was stylish in the early 1860s; knob-shaped handles were all the rage in the 1880s.

Sisters Kathryn, Eleanor and Clara Beall of Olney, 1894.  Donated by Katherine Beall Adams.

Parasols lasted into the early 20th century, but then faded away, leaving only their rain-shielding cousins behind. Why?  In 1961, Anne M. Buck, Keeper of the Gallery of English Costume at Platt Hall (UK), blamed the fact that “today women turn their bare heads and faces to the sun like worshipers.” In 2012-today, though, we’ve moved back toward a view of sun exposure as a bad thing – though we’re protecting our skin for health, rather than aesthetic, reasons. So let’s bring back the parasol! And I don’t mean simply trotting out our department store umbrellas on a sunny day.  Think of the boost to the economy if elaborately decorative sunshades were a major market, not just a craft-show novelty.

The Library holdings include many photos of Montgomery County residents holding parasols and umbrellas; I’ve added in a few here. There are several pieces in the artifact collections as well, but unfortunately most of the parasols were donated in poor condition. (The umbrellas have fared a little better, being somewhat sturdier.) A slightly different problem is the fact that most of them are unrelated to Montgomery County, as for many years we accepted items like ones that county residents may have owned and used. And anyway, this post is getting kind of long and involved. So rather than tossing in all our cute but broken parasols, here’s a link to the turkey parasol featured last year plus a bonus one, below: Circa 1850, specific history unknown, donated by Barbara Smith. It has a silk cover, steel ribs and frame, and carved wooden handle. The ferrule has a little carved ring, and the entire thing is only a little over two feet long. The decorative rings and the short length mean this was a carriage parasol; for strolling or walking, a longer stick and a stout ferrule made a useful pseudo-cane when the sun wasn’t too strong.

In short (too late!) parasols are pretty fantastic, and we should all make an effort to bring them back into fashion. I can’t help but end this post with links to many, many more fabulous parasols in other museum collections (below), and a quote from one of my favorite novelists, Elizabeth Peters, whose Victorian heroine Amelia Peabody made good use of her own walking parasol:
“My parasol proved useful in pushing through [the crowd]; I had to apply the ferrule quite sharply to the backs of several gentlemen before they would move.” From Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters, 1975

Parasols at the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

Parasols at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Parasols at the Victoria & Albert, London

Parasols at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Just a quick post today, before we head off to the Thanksgiving holiday!

Our “turkey” parasol is one of the more fanciful artifacts in our textile collections, though unfortunately we know very little of its history. It has a modified-pagoda-shaped silk cover, a long (just over four feet) wooden shaft, and metal spokes and ferrule. The carved handle is shaped like a standing turkey, complete with colored paint and glass eyes.  The parasol itself is not in good shape, as is often the case with such fragile, and well-used, items; the spokes are too bent and broken, and the (rather fabulous) silk cover too tattered, to open the shade all the way.

The metal spokes, brightly patterned silk, and extreme length of the shaft put this sunshade in the early 20th century. The only clue to its provenance is the name “B. Altman & Co.,” meaning it was purchased at that store, probably in New York City. Other than that, its past is a mystery. During the early years of the Historical Society we were happy to accept almost any artifact or collection, and were occasionally – shall we say – lackadaisical in our pursuit of the written record. No doubt someone knew this parasol’s history at some point.  Every so often I am able to match up the unknown artifacts with the what’s-this paperwork; perhaps one day our little turkey’s history will be identified once again.