Appalachian Button Jamboree

I’m not completely clueless when it comes to button collecting, and I even knew there was a Western North Carolina Button Club. But I recently attended my first button show and I was completely blown away!

You can’t collect old clothes without seeing a lot of buttons. I even have quite a few of them just in case I need some replacements or a random one to match a set. And I have a lot of interesting old ones to use in my own sewing. But to see thousands of buttons mounted, sorted, and ready to buy was a new experience.

Buttons are a big business to a lot of people. Even in a small local show the buying and selling seemed to be brisk. As a button neophyte, I decided to just look and learn. And I learned a lot.

One category I liked was painted wooden buttons. I actually have a few, mainly florals like the black one at bottom right. But what about that ice skater?

I also saw lots of interesting ceramic buttons. I can see how in this medium the possibilities would be limitless.

Celluloid buttons  were plentiful, but most were pricier than these examples. But look at that little clothespin!

More celluloid.

My favorites were the metal buttons. This little owl with stars and moon was great.

There were also lots of sports themed buttons, like this skier.

But “Wow”is right. These metal with enamel bits and “jewels” were so stunning!

Some of the sellers told me they got into button collected as a result of trying to find unique buttons for their weaving, knitting, and sewing projects. I can relate to that. Imagine this button as the closure of a wrap or coat.

Most of this tray of buttons had thread or textiles as part of the button. I do love the wrapped and embroidered ones.

A few sellers also had some additional haberdashery and dry goods in their booths.

There were also a few vintage sewing machines. It does stand to reason that most people who are interested in buttons would also want to see machines and ribbons and sewing patterns.

There was also a display area where members’ collections were shown off.

But my favorite thing of all was a small display of antique clothing that was laid out on a table.  Attendees were allowed to examine the garments. It’s not often that I get the chance to look at so old a garment, both inside and out. This 18th century gentleman’s coat showed many signs of having been worn and repaired quite a bit.

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A Tour of Textile Town – Spartanburg, SC

It began with a brochure. I’m not sure who the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau thought they were targeting with this brochure, but as it turns out, it was me and friend Liza. She had picked it up on a recent trip through the area, and then asked if I were interested in joining her on the tour. And of course I was.

We met at stop nine, which really should be stop Number One, the Spartanburg Regional History Museum. I have written about regional museums many times, sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not. This time we got lucky.

As expected, the museum was heavy on the textile industry. That was a good thing. This huge cotton bale was sitting there for visitors to feel and marvel at the softness of it. In the background you can see the steam whistle that governed the lives at the Beaumont Mill, which was located just down the street.

After Reconstruction, Spartanburg promoted itself as the Lowell (Massachusetts) of the South. The combination of cheap labor, no labor unions, and the proximity of the cotton crop led to the rapid spread of textile factories across the region.

By the 1920 there were dozens of textile mills across Spartanburg, today most, if not all, closed.

One of the fun features of the museum was this wall of doors, which could be opened to reveal facts and artifacts.

Many were on the textile theme, as this door that told us just how poorly textile workers were paid.

Others touched on other topics such as education and sports. In the first college football game played in South Carolina, Spartanburg’s Wofford College beat nearby Greenville’s Furman.

In a refreshing change from what is often seen in local museums, the discussion of war focused on the homefront and local involvement in the various conflicts. A Revolutionary War battle, Cowpens, was fought in Spartanburg County, so there was a small display on the battle. There were several WWII era training camps in the area, and they too were featured. The homefront was remembered, as in this wallet for ration coupons and tokens.

Along with the display doors, artifacts are also stored in flat drawers with can be pulled out and studied. Unfortunately, there was usually little to no explanation about the contents.

However, where else could one get such a great look at a nineteenth century slipper?

There were few clothes on display, and this circa 1895 dress was labeled as Edwardian, and was displayed backward.

From the museum we headed to an actual mill, the Beaumont. The building was recently repurposed as part of the local hospital system. They have included a good display showing artifacts and photos from the history of the building.

As mills closed across the Carolinas in the 1990s, much of the machinery was sold to factories around the world. This is a survivor, a C & K shuttle loom.

This was probably used to make plaid cotton.

Beaumont was visited by photographer Lewis Hine in 1912, when he was documenting the child labor so prevalent at the time.

During WWII, Beaumont devoted their entire output to cotton duck.  Above is an advertisement to try and encourage workers to apply for war work at Beaumont.

It’s really interesting how old, empty mills, considered to be a blight on the landscape less than twenty years ago, are now being converted to all sorts of uses. The work at Beaumont is very well dome, and I loved how the history of the building is remembered.

The mill village at Beaumont is still there, and most of the houses are in good shape.

Click to enlarge

Next on the list was the village of Pacolet. This town is a bit outside Spartanburg, but we were enticed by the promise of an intact mill village and the presence of a museum. Unfortunately the museum was closed (on a Friday, no less) and we could not convince the people at the town hall to drop by and unlock the door, even though a sign on the door hinted that that might be a possibility.

I see Pacolet as a real lost opportunity to show all the aspects of the mill complex. There is a great map painted on the wall next to the museum, but orientation is difficult, and some of the building no longer exist. But the village is remarkably intact, and so are some of the ancillary structures.

Best of all is this 1915 school, which was built for the children of black mill employees. It’s a remarkable survivor of the era, when few black people were employed by the mills. This structure is in bad need of preservation. And yes, there are windows, all on the other side of the building.

As the day was drawing to a close, we had time for just one more stop. We picked the facility of German manufacturer Menzel which has two sections of the Berlin Wall installed on their grounds. This has nothing at all to do with textile history, but who could resist seeing part of this symbol of the Cold War?

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Vintage Miscellany – May 13, 2019

This photo was added to my collection for a couple of reasons. First, the poster in the background is for the Colonial Theater, which was the name of the one theater in my hometown. Not that I think this was taken in Canton, NC, but the girl on the right sure looks a lot like my high school classmate Deborah.

The best reason for owning this photograph is because of the sweater “Deborah” is wearing. If I can’t have the sweater, at least I can have the photo of it.

And now for some news…

    •  Recycled tee shirts should soon be a reality.
    •   Here’s another reason to buy only vintage cashmere.
    •   The Western shirt just keeps on going.
    •   There is a Fashion Transparency Index. See how your favorite brands fit in.
    •   Meet five French millennials who hand-stitch couture.
    •   What is the value of a clothing collection?
    •    “Nike is taking tangible steps to grow women’s basketball.
    •   Is it time for a Laura Ashley revival?
    •   I wish I could be as brave as Dolly Shepherd.
    •   “Holy shit, that is some old-timey racism.”
    • And finally, it’s that time again – the Met Gala and the new “blockbuster” fashion exhibition of the Met’s Costume Institute. This year’s theme is Camp, which I was all excited about until I realized the show is not being sponsored by LL Bean.  All kidding aside, I thought this was an exceptionally hard theme, especially since most attendees of the Gala are interested only in looking good.  From what I saw, the idea of camp was just not fully recognized on the red carpet. Some have argued that the same is true of the exhibition.
    • I’m pretty sure I’ll not make it to New York this summer. I try to save trips into the city for when there are exhibitions that really interest me. From what I have heard from attendees of Camp, it is structured a lot like the (hated by me) Punk exhibition of several years ago.  That is, there’s a bit of historical dress at the beginning just so a few iconic pieces (Poiret lampshade dress, anybody) can be trotted out before the onslaught of clothing made within the past ten years, some of which is still hanging on the racks at Saks. And to whoever first thought of stacking exhibits in tiers, a pox on you! Can you imagine putting the Monets and Cezannes and Leonardos ten feet above eye level? If fashion is art, then treat it as such.

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Golden Pirates of the Silver Screen – NC Maritime Museum

On our recent trip to the North Carolina coast, we visited the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. It was a big surprise when we got there and saw they had a special exhibition of movie pirate costumes and other great stuff.

If you ever visit the NC coast you can’t escape all the pirate references.  Our coastline is full of inlets and hidey-holes that were custom made for the colonial era pirates. The notorious Blackbeard is especially associated with the region, as it was a favored hideout and playground for him and his crew. He eventually lost his life in a battle at Ocracoke on the Outer Banks of NC.

The NC Maritime Museum thus is a natural place to tell the story of colonial piracy. In fact, Blackbeard’s famous ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, was scuttled in Beaufort Inlet, within sight of where the museum stands. When the wreck of Queen Anne’s Revenge was found in 1996, the museum began receiving artifacts from the find.

My hat’s off to the people at the NC Maritime Museum for taking advantage of the renewed interest of pirates and the pop culture associated with them. Yes, movies tend to glamourize piracy, but the museum’s permanent exhibits on piracy give a perfect counterbalance to the Hollywood version.

This is the costume worn by Errol Flynn in the 1935 film, Captain Blood.  This was the movie that made Flynn a Hollywood star and which first paired him with Olivia de Havilland.  The costume is part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Let’s not forget that women were pirates as well as men. The 1995 film Cutthroat Island starred Geena Davis as a pirate. This costume was labeled as a “woman’s pirate costume” from the film, and though the mannequin is styled to resemble Davis, there’s no indication that she wore this costume. I could not find a photo of her in it either.

This is a man’s costume from Cutthroat Island. Both costumes are in the collection of a local event, the Beaufort Pirate Invasion.

This costume from a private collection can be seen the the television series, Black Sails.

And here is Blackbeard himself, as portrayed by Ian McShane in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The costume is on loan from the Disney archive.

When looking at movie costumes, it pays to keep in mind the period of history which is being represented. I found it interesting that all these costumes have some version of a colonial era man’s waistcoat (vest).

 

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Definitions of Pants: Bloomers, Knickers, and Trousers

Several years ago I presented a paper to my regional Costume Society of America on my research on women hikers and their wearing of knickerbockers (knickers). Sometimes when a person (in this case, me) gets too wrapped up in her own topic, she forgets that others might not be as well acquainted with terms that denote a specific item. In this case, I was asked the question, “What’s the difference between knickers and bloomers?”

Later experience has taught me that for some reason, people tend to equate nineteenth and early twentieth century pants for women with bloomers. And the truth is, that most women who were wearing pants of any type before 1920 were wearing bloomers. They were the accepted garment for women’s sports and exercise attire. Some women were wearing them for bicycling. And for a brief moment in the mid nineteenth century, women dress reformers wore long bloomers beneath shorter dresses and coats.

The difference between knickerbockers and bloomers is chiefly in the volume of the fabric making up the legs. Bloomers are very full, while knickers are more fitted. Also, knickers end just below the knee and are finished with a buttoning band. Bloomers can range from above the knee to the ankle, and are often gathered at the hem with elastic.

But what about trousers, pants that fall straight from the hips to the ankles? While not common, yes, women in the nineteenth century did sometimes wear trousers, which was considered to be a male garment. I’ve seen quite a few photos of women on farms and ranches wearing trousers while doing work. The great photo above shows three women hikers wearing trousers.

But what about a woman in the nineteenth century who lived her life in trousers?

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

Yes, there were some. Above is the famous Mary Edwards Walker, physician and fashion rebel. This photo of her sold in February for $9375.  I came across it while reading the latest issue of a well-known magazine for antiques lovers. What made me stop and think was the caption of the photo which twice pointed out that Dr. Walker was wearing bloomers in the photo. I hope you can tell from my descriptions of bloomers, knickers, and trousers that she is actually wearing trousers, not bloomers.

Should the writer of the article known the difference between trousers and bloomers? Does it matter?

The Swann’s auction site describes Walker’s garment as ” pantaloons or bloomers.”  Pantaloons seems to be a fairly accurate term, though many people associate the word with Little Bo Peep.  Personally, I would describe the garment as trousers, though Walker herself referred to them as pants.

Unafraid of controversy, in 1897 she wrote, “I am the original new woman . . . Why, before Lucy Stone, Mrs. Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were—before they were, I am. In the early ’40’s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants . . . I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.” Swanns Catalog

When accused of wearing men’s clothing, Walker famously replied that she was wearing her own clothes, not those of a man.

 

 

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Education, Museums, and the Daughters of the Confederacy

One of the reasons I love travel to historic sites is that it gives me a chance to reconcile the past with current events and with my own thoughts about the past. Growing up in the South, one can’t help but to have been exposed to the ideas spread through the Jim Crow era. We are all still under the influence of what we learned in school and from our elders in the aftermath of The Lost Cause. Much of that education was greatly influenced by a group of privileged White women, the Daughters of the Confederacy (DOC).

Actually, my exposure to these ideas was probably much less than the average Southern Baby Boomer, being brought up in the Appalachians of North Carolina. The great majority of Whites living here in 1860 were not slave owners. That does not mean they thought slavery was wrong; it means they could not afford the high cost of enslaving people. When the call to arms went out in 1861, men from my region signed up to fight. I can’t say what they thought they were fighting for. The mythology says it was to “whip the Yankees’ asses”, and a big part of me believes this.

Anyway, as the war dragged on, enthusiasm for the war began to wane. Deserting soldiers from the mountains made their way home (Cold Mountain tells a fictional version) and were hidden by their families. Families that were barely making a living before the war were pushed to the brink of starvation without men to help with the farming and because of high taxes imposed by the Confederate and state governments. There were bands of raiders and life was perilous. The only positive was that the region saw very little actual warfare.

Unsurprisingly, the war left a bad taste in mountain people’s mouths. But over time, things began to change. Prosperity returned as the men who fought for the Confederacy were aging and dying. Across the South, even here in the mountains, there were grand reunions where the old guys were brought out to have group photos taken and for them to tell wild tales about the glory of battle.

And that’s where the Daughters come in. All those Confederate monuments scattered across the South were largely the work of the DOC. It was their mission to memorialize the heroes of the Confederacy, but more than that, they were able to change the way people in the South viewed the conflict. And in many states they were able to have history textbooks written that supported their view of the war and The Lost Cause.  For several generations the ideas put forth during the Jim Crow era by organizations like the DOC have continued to be spread. People tend to believe what they were taught as children, and these ideas are passed on to the next generation.

I’d really never given the  DOC much thought until a worker at a small museum we visited on our trip east somehow got on the topic of Confederate monuments. He told us that most people were wrong in thinking the KKK was responsible for all the monuments because they were the work of the Daughter of the Confederacy. This seemed to somehow justify the monuments, as how could a bunch of privileged White middle-aged women a hundred years ago have had anything but honorable intent.

His words really stuck with me, and I spent the rest of the trip looking more closely at how the Confederacy was represented in museums.  The photo above shows an apron made by a Mrs. Dewey early in the war. The eleven stars represent the eleven states that had joined the Confederacy at the time the apron was made. According to the exhibit notes, Mrs. Dewey wore the apron at tea parties at her home in New Bern to show her support for the Confederacy.

Down the street in New Bern is the historic district that is administered by the Tryon Palace. This is the Jones House, which was used as a prison by the occupying Union troops after the city was taken in 1862.

The building was closed, but a display outside told a bit of the story of the most famous prisoner held here, Emeline Pigott. I didn’t know the story of Miss Pigott, but evidently she is quite well-known in the New Bern and Morehead City area, as we encountered her story in both towns.

This is a display in a history museum in Morehead City, near where Miss Pigott lived. They have a recreated dress and hoop skirt, showing how Pigott was supposed to have smuggled supplies to the Confederate soldiers hiding in the area. She was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Jones House.

The carriage in the photo is said to be the one she rode in when returning home  after being released from prison. According to a leaflet given out at the museum, she was released after threatening to expose the crimes of some influential New Bern men. The leaflet reads like a silent film melodrama, with Miss Pigott turning to spying after her lover was killed by the Yankees at Gettysburg. She had incriminating papers on her when arrested which she sneakily tore into bits and ingested.

In order to get a full picture of how the Civil War is presented in museums in the South, you would have to visit many more than the half dozen or so we saw during this trip. Above is part of Fort Macon State Park, which guarded the entrance to the ports of Morehead City and Beaufort. Normally there is an excellent display of artifacts (including Confederate) in the fort, but the artifacts were damaged due to high water from Hurricane Florence last year. It’s a shame, because Fort Macon does a really good job of interpreting the fort’s participation in the conflict without romanticising it.

I know it must be difficult for small historical societies to fully interpret the history of a region considering the lack of funds and the fact that displays have to be built around the artifacts in the collection. Often the story of a place is as much legend as it is historical fact. As in the case of Emeline Pigott, sometimes it is difficult to determine what is truth and what is legend. Still, it seems a bit odd that two historical organizations put so much emphasis on the story of a Confederate smuggler and spy.

As much as I want to see the stories of women included in our museums, I was left feeling disheartened that of the two women I encountered, one was known for her tea parties, and the other was the old female spy cliché. The objects associated with them seemed more like relics than artifacts.

The Morehead City chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy was named in Miss Pigott’s honor. In 1926, several years after her death, the chapter erected a Confederate monument in the county seat of Beaufort.  All the while the DOC was busy pushing their version of the Civil War and The Lost Cause.

In a more positive note, a new museum opens tomorrow, May 4, 2019, in Richmond, Virginia. The American Civil War Museum has a very interesting backstory, and so to learn more I suggest you listen to an episode of the podcast Backstory which explains how an old Confederacy museum based on relics has become a modern museum that attempts to tell the story of the Civil War from multiple perspectives.

 

 

 

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Rocky Mount Mills and Mill Village

When it comes to travel, I’m a big believer in planning. So it came as a surprise to me to run across this cotton mill complex in Rocky Mount, NC. We were just passing through, but the sign made me slow down and take a small detour. What it led to was a textbook example of a 19th and early 20th century cotton textile mill and village.

The mill was first constructed in 1818 on the bank of the Tar River. The mill that is there today is not that old, as the original building was burned in 1863 by Union troops under the command of General Ferris Jacobs.

In pre-steam and pre-electrical power days, mills were powered by falling water. The earliest mills had to be built on a river with falls, or the falls could be made by damming the river as you see here. Part of the rushing water would be channeled into a mill race, which cannot be seen but still exists.

On the side of the Tar River across from the mill is a nice city park with good vistas of the complex, or they would have been good before the leaves leafed.

The mill complex had become run down, as production there stopped in 1996. The buildings sat empty and decaying until the site was bought by Capital Broadcasting Company. The part of the mill you see above now houses loft apartments.

This building in front of the mill was the power house, but today it serves as an event center. The little structure behind the water tower was the canteen. Other buildings in the complex are being used as restaurants and breweries.

It’s no surprise that this was the mill owner’s home. One of the founders of the mill was Joel Battle, and this was the home of his son, Benjamin Battle. Battle house was built in 1835.

Like most mill villages, low rent housing was available for rent to the workers in the mill.  The village at Rocky Mount seems to have been quite large, and much of it survives. There was also a beautiful old school that is no longer in the village.

When the site was bought by CBC, most of the houses in the village were ramshackle and vacant.

But today, the restored village looks like this. The houses are owned by CBC and are rented to tenants. The original tenants in the early to mid twentieth century could have only dreamed of the modern living spaces within.

Rocky Mount Mills had such a long history that it witnessed many changes in the making of cotton yarn and the people who made it. The first workers in 1818 were enslaved people, along with a few free blacks. After the mill was rebuilt after the Civil War, the jobs within were for whites only, though some black men held jobs outside the mill as loaders of materials going in and out of the mill. The mill was finally integrated in the 1960s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Along with the restoration, the owners have begun an initiative to collect and preserve the history of the mill, which included the memories of people who worked in the mill and lived in the village. Some of these videos can be seen on the Rocky Mount Mills website. The research is being conducted through UNC Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop.

Some people have complained that the project is just more gentrification by and for rich white people. Having just been to Rocky Mount and having seen its downtown that is almost completely deserted, I have to hope that people will see the possibilities in Rocky Mount, and that even more old buildings can be re-purposed as living and working spaces.

 

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