Today we have a fur coat, owned and worn by Rebecca Darby Nourse Chinn (1904-1982) of Dawsonville and Rockville.

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The coat was donated by Mrs. Chinn’s daughter, who described it as “Mother’s raccoon coat,” worn while attending Swarthmore College in the 1920s.  Rebecca Nourse (pronounced “nurse”) grew up in Dawsonville; she attended the Dawsonville School, the Andrew Small Academy in Darnestown, the Fort Loudoun Seminary in Winchester, Virginia, and then Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, where she graduated in 1927 with a degree in biology.  After college, she taught at Gaithersburg High School until her 1929 marriage to Raleigh Chinn; later in life she worked as a librarian at the Twinbrook Library.

Her entry in her senior yearbook at Swarthmore.

Her entry in her senior yearbook at Swarthmore.

The raccoon coat – a large, enveloping affair – was a fashion fad of the 1920s, particularly among college students. Along with ukeleles, galoshes, jalopies, and Rudy Vallee’s megaphone, such coats became a symbol of 1920s youth, both at the time (see: Rudy Vallee singing “Do the Raccoon” (1928), or the contract-signing scene in “Horse Feathers” (1932)) and in later decades.  Raccoon coats are often thought of today as a strictly male style, but women also adopted the look, and why not?  A nice big fur coat was fashionable, looked expensive, and kept you warm in that open-topped car.

1924 photo of a Mary LaFollette of D.C., from the Library of Congress collections.

1924 photo of a Mary LaFollette of D.C., from the Library of Congress collections.

Mrs. Chinn’s coat is in good condition, though slightly bald in spots (it was worn by the donor’s daughter and grandchildren as a costume for many years) and missing a few of the large brown leather buttons.  It has a high shawl collar, deep cuffs, and two slash pockets edged with raccoon tails; the lining is brown satin on the top, and tan plaid wool on the bottom.  There is no store label.

Buttons (and tail-edged pocket)

Buttons (and tail-edged pocket)

The lining

The lining

The basic design of this coat, from collar to pockets to lining to buttons, seems to have been something of a standard style; a little poking around on the internet revealed examples of very similar coats for men and women, some without labels and some from a variety of shops and furriers. Here’s a man’s raccoon coat – same buttons, though without the tails on the pockets – by Saks Fifth Avenue, in the collections of the Met, and here’s one worn by Peter Lawford in “Easter Parade.”  A ladies’ version of the coat can be found in the 1927 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog as the “Swagger ‘Tomboy’ Model” (“collegiate style”). The only difference between this one and ours is that the Sears model is made of “natural gray opossum fur,” while our coat appears to indeed be raccoon.  Here’s the Sears description:

1927 Opossum Fur Coat SearsFor misses and small women, we offer here a fur coat of luxurious warmth and appealing smartness.  Made of genuine, Natural Gray Opossum Fur – only large pelts used and those of a selected grade – dense, long haired and very sturdy; of a pleasing silvery gray color with rich darker gray markings.  The pockets show attractive trimming of Striped Raccoon Tails.

The coat is called the “Tomboy” model, having been especially made for hard, strenuous service and cut on loose, comfortable lines in mannish double breasted style.  Fastens with large, novelty leather buttons.  The sleeves and yoke are lined with guaranteed, genuine Skinner’s Satin and for additional warmth and practical wear the lower part has All Wool Plaid lining.  Priced far below what you would have to pay elsewhere for a coat of this quality, and a value typical of those offered by our Fur Department.  Average length, about 44 inches. . . . Shipping weight 9 lbs.  $129.00.  (Nice cheap coat, right?  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calendar, $129 in 1927 would be $1,731 in 2013.)

Even better is this photo of Rebecca Nourse’s class at Swarthmore; several girls are sporting fur coats and collars, and the young lady holding up the left side of the banner, R. Esther Howard (Class Secretary), is wearing this coat.  (Well, presumably not the exact same coat.)  It’s a smallish photo; for a better version, check the 1928 Halcyon yearbook here.

1928 Swarthmore yearbook class photo
I don’t know if this coat was a college girl’s birthday present, something she purchased for herself, or what; regardless, Rebecca Nourse, like so many of us, wanted to keep in style (and keep warm) while she was at school.  But she wasn’t so faddish that she ditched the coat later; a good coat should last a long time.  To finish off today’s post, here’s a 1932 photo of Rebecca Nourse Chinn, in the front yard of her Rockville home; she’s wearing the coat.

RDNC in coat 1932

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DSC02838Here’s a wood and punched-tin foot warmer, by an unknown maker, from the mid 19th century.  It measures 9″ x 8″, and is 6″ tall. The wood frame and turned balustrade-style supports are constructed with mortise and tenon; there are no metal nails. The punched-tin sides feature a circle-and-diamond pattern, simple but decorative. A small tin bucket (now missing) would have been filled with hot coals and tucked inside; the punched holes on the top and sides allowed the heat to filter through. The top is braced with two extra pieces of wood, so you could rest your feet on it without touching the metal, and a metal handle allowed you to carry it around as necessary.

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This is a fairly typical form of American foot warmer; there are plenty of similar artifacts to be found at auctions and antique stores, most with the same turned supports, but with a variety of designs punched into the tin. If foot-warmer-collecting (actual or virtual) strikes your fancy, there are many other forms to choose from, from metal or ceramic hot water bottles to carpet-covered footrests (with a cup of hot coals inside) to soapstone blocks with metal handles to heated bricks, flatirons, and even hot potatoes. Foot warmers were used in carriages, sleighs, and trains; 19th century sources also note their usefulness in (large, poorly heated) churches.

The Sandy Spring Friends Meeting House, built 1817, in an undated photo.

The Sandy Spring Friends Meeting House, built 1817, in an undated photo.

Our foot warmer was donated in 1953 by Mary Briggs Brooke (1875-1964), a Quaker who lived all her life at Falling Green in Olney. According to Miss Brooke, this foot warmer was used “in the Sandy Spring Meeting House,” probably by multiple generations of Brooke ladies. It seems likely that it was used in the carriage or sleigh to and from the Meeting House, as well as during the service itself. Thanks to yearly summaries in the Annals of Sandy Spring, we know that some 19th century winters were mild, while others were not; for examples, winter 1871-72 was described as “of unprecedented severity,” and January 1875 was “the coldest… since 1867.” On today’s roads, Falling Green and the Meeting House are about 3 ½ miles apart; my quick and probably inaccurate internet search tells me that 4 miles an hour is an acceptable average speed for a horse and buggy – so let’s say it was an hour’s drive each way in an unheated (and possibly uncovered) vehicle. You can see why a foot warmer would be a useful item!

Buggies parked at the Meeting House, in an undated photo.

Buggies parked at the Meeting House, in an undated photo.