We have a lot of family photo albums and scrapbooks in the Historical Society collections, along with the archival equivalent* of ye olde traditional “Shoebox of Photos I Never Got Around to Dealing With.”  We also have a few baby books, the commercially printed kind with pages for recording the date of baby’s first teeth, first sounds, first steps, etc.  One of my favorites is this book, which combines the written word with a number of snapshots and photographic portraits to record the early life of one William O. Hazard, Jr., of Garrett Park.

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Billy, as he was called, was born on August 6, 1913 to William Oscar Hazard, Sr., and his wife Maude Wagstaff Hazard; he was their first child.  We don’t know who gave this copy of Baby Days: A Sunbonnet Record (Bertha L. Corbett, 1910) to the happy couple, but one or both parents used it to diligently keep track of Billy’s vital statistics and development milestones, including his first words (“Mamma, Da-da and stick”), his baptismal sponsors, and the guests at his first birthday party.

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The Barth family (descendants of Billy’s younger sister Edith) has donated a large collection related to the Hazards, including clothes, toys, documents, this book, and photographs. Mr. Hazard was a professional photographer, and – as one might expect – he took a lot of photos of his new family.  Choice images appear throughout Billy’s baby book, not only pasted onto the designated pages (“Some precious pictures” and “More snapshots”) but also scattered throughout, sometimes illustrating the written info, sometimes as a little extra.  To the Hazards, the images were as important as the words.

A formal portrait and several snapshots (including both Mother and Father) adorn the "More snapshots" pages.

A formal portrait and several snapshots (including both Mother and Father) adorn the “More snapshots” pages.

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Another photo of Billy, deliberately placed and perhaps showing him in his “First Short Dress.”

These 1915 snapshots, showing Billy enjoying the garden (and the company of a few chickens), are opposite the unrelated page that demands info on Baby's First "Creeping" (crawling). (Which was at 9 months, by the way.)

These 1915 snapshots, showing Billy enjoying the garden (and the company of a few chickens), are pasted opposite the unrelated page that demands info on Baby’s First “Creeping” (crawling). (Which was at 9 months, by the way.)

Baby books – introduced in the late 19th century, but particularly popular starting in the 1910s – are a fantastic source of information, with clues about the lives of babies both as individuals and in the broader historical context.  What illnesses did they suffer?  What gifts and presents were appropriate?  What types of questions do the different books ask?  (E.g., how many modern baby books ask about “first dancing lessons,” as this book does?)

There is scholarship out there on the subject; this Slate article from April, 2013 summarizes some points, and the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library at UCLA has a collection of, and I quote, “More baby books than you can shake a rattle at.”  However, today’s artifact is (at least in this case) intended less as an historic baby book, and more as an example of one family’s creative compilation of their child’s photographic record; the baby book became the photo album.  I had something else on deck for today’s post, but an NPR article caught my eye this morning: What happens to family photo albums in the digital age?  I was particularly struck by the suggestion that we’re in a strange place right now in terms of photo technology; we’ve moved to a primarily digital format, but we don’t yet have a handle on digital photo preservation, and that gap might one day prove problematic.  This might not be something you’ve worried about, blog readers, but believe me, historians, curators, and other museum people are concerned, and we’d like you to be as well.  (It will make our jobs easier someday!) Ready to start prepping your gigabytes of baby pictures, holiday snaps and other images for the future?  Here are some suggestions from the Library of Congress on how to start the process.  You’ll thank us later.

* That is to say, now the photos are stored in acid-free folders instead of shoeboxes.  (And I should clarify that these are donors’ collections of un-albumed photos, not photos the Society hasn’t gotten around to dealing with.)

 

 

If I were not such a dedicated and serious professional, that title would have been “OMG weddings!!” First, a confession: the idea for this post came from the Smithsonian’s Facebook page; they posted this wedding gown to go with the build-up to the (OMG!) Royal Wedding. Other museums and collections have likewise seized upon the theme (for more on the V&A’s take, see below). I love weddings, royal or otherwise, and I’m more than happy to jump on the bandwagon.

Mary Emma Magruder (1844-1927) married Thomas Worthington Waters (1850-1929) on November 21st,1871 in what is now Olney. The two-piece silk gown consists of a lace-trimmed bodice with a high-necked Bertha collar, and a long, full skirt with a five foot pleated rectangular train. Although rather plain at first glance, its construction and materials are high quality, and the style is pretty trendy for a rural town in 1871. The gown was donated in the early 1950s by the granddaughter of the bride, Emma Waters Muncaster, who gave us lots of information to go with it. The bride’s father was a prominent local physician; the gown is made of 20 yards of silk; the groom gave Mary Emma “a very handsome set of seed pearl brooch and earrings, mounted on mother-of-pearl, shaped to give the significance of Faith, Hope and Love.” The gown was worn again, by a granddaughter, at the couple’s 50th anniversary party.

MCHS has a lot of wedding-related artifacts in our collections, from gowns to gifts. We’ve done several exhibits (and a few pieces have been on this blog already, like this 1870s gown). Whenever we do an exhibit, the subject of gown preservation arises. I’m a big proponent of doing whatever you want or need to do with your own gown – carefully save it, for sentiment or for the next generation; give it to your kids for dress-up clothes; dye it blue and wear it again; sell it on eBay. If you choose the preservation route, it’s heartbreaking when something goes wrong. Knowledge of preservation techniques has changed over time; if your gown is wrapped in blue tissue – thought to be a good idea in the mid 20th century – please take it out! One lender told me that the drycleaners returned her 1968 wedding gown in a sealed box and told her never to open it again. (We did, anyway. The gown was okay, and we were not felled by noxious preserving fumes.) Hopefully what we do today will not turn out, decades down the line, to be equally dubious.

How you treat a textile means a great deal to its survival, but many will deteriorate despite your best efforts. Some materials suffer from “inherent vice;” like newsprint, the ingredients just aren’t going to play nicely together. In the late 19th century, high-quality silks were infused with metallic salts during the manufacturing process, creating an attractive weight and sheen – but these salts, over time, destroy the fabric. The resulting damage, called “shattering,” often looks like someone has taken a knife to the garment. Sadly this, the oldest wedding gown in our collections, has fallen a victim.

The dress doesn’t look too bad in this photo, and it was apparently in fairly good condition when it was donated. However, despite being carefully and appropriately stored along with the rest of our wedding gowns, this one has not fared well. The cream-colored silk has split and shattered; in many places, large pieces have fallen off, revealing the lining underneath. We placed the gown on a padded dressform in 2009, in order to photograph it and record the visual information as best we can – but due to its fragility, it cannot be exhibited for any length of time. Some of our other 1870s and 1880s textiles have similar issues, but Mary Emma’s dress is the worst.

What should we do in a case like this? Because the donor provided us with lots of information, we know that this gown is an interesting piece of county history. But what can we do with it? Although it can’t be exhibited, it can still be studied. The style and the evidently high cost of the gown tell us about the lifestyles and incomes of the families involved, as do comparisons with other Montgomery County gowns and textiles from various eras. Researchers interested in wedding fashions in general (not specific to the County) could use it as well. Exhibition is only one aspect of our collecting rationale.

Back to the Victoria & Albert Museum – and the loudest (or highest-pitch) “OMG!” inducer – the V&A has set up a publically-accessible database of wedding fashions and clothing, to which anyone can contribute their own photos and information. The project predates Royal Wedding Fever (it goes with an upcoming exhibit), but they’ve taken the opportunity to promote their site. As a textile researcher and wedding fashion afficionado, I can vouch for how useful (not to mention totally awesome) this project is, and I encourage you to add your own or your ancestors’ stories. After all – as the history given to us by Emma Waters Muncaster shows – preservation of information is just as important as preservation of the artifacts themselves; without the stories, a wedding gown is just pretty dress.

Detail: damage to skirt.

Edited: to fix glaring error in post title. And a poorly constructed sentence.