While we’re on the subject of rare books… another book I needed to hunt down—this time for Josiah—was an 18th century edition of the letters of Saints Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna, all first and second century Christian bishops.
For a variety of reasons, religious matters interest Josiah, to the point that he’s something of an armchair theologian. Like most Bostonians at the time, he’s a Congregationalist, but he has a lot of questions. And he’s not one to accept another’s say-so with having first examining matters himself.
Such things run in Josiah’s blood; he’s the grandson of a minister. And thanks to the father of my main character, he received a private education that included the study of Latin. In the 18th century, knowing Latin opened intellectual doors: most everything worth reading could be read in Latin. And Josiah has a knack for languages.
Following the Reformation, theologians were increasingly interested in the writings of the early Church Fathers, as the differing Christian factions sought to establish themselves against Catholicism. The argument was that the Catholic Church has veered from its apostolic moorings and needed to be purged of its accumulated trappings. (Disclosure: I’m a practicing Catholic.)
Being married to a theologian and patristics scholar, I knew that if my character was going to read the Church Fathers, then I had better find the actual book, double-check its contents, and come up with a plausible account for how my character acquires said book. Not the easiest task! Fortunately, Josiah is an officer on a merchant ship, and with that comes mobility. When one travels the world, one is more likely to find things that other people wouldn’t.
This edition was edited by a Lutheran divine name Littig, who published the volume in Leipzig in 1699. It includes an opening essay by Professor Littig, followed by the letters of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp in both the original Greek and Latin translation on facing pages.
A rare book, indeed! And when Josiah finds it in a Savannah, Georgia bookshop owned by a grumpy French ex-pat, he knows that this is the book he wants!
But will he manage to haggle his way to a bargain? When that surly Frenchman knows exactly what kind book he has, beyond a shadow of a doubt?
Molly, the protagonist of my current work-in-progress, is a talented mantua-maker (the 18th century term for dressmaker). Like today’s fashion designers, Molly sees her work as art and herself as an artist.
When it comes to fashion, Molly and I are nothing alike. I am neither a trendsetter nor trend follower, nor do I sew well. I know how to thread my sewing machine. I can make curtains, pillowcases, and simple clothes, like skirts. And that’s about it! In order to write this book, I have not only had to study late 18th century fashion and historical sewing techniques, but I needed to learn how clothing is constructed, simply.
A daunting task. Where to begin?
Vogue Sewing Book
I picked up the 1975 edition of the Vogue Sewing Book at a tiny thrift shop on West Street in Annapolis, fifteen years ago. (I well remember the shopping trip—my husband and I were either engaged or newlyweds and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering downtown Annapolis. Those were lovely days.) I’ve referenced the Vogue Sewing Book often over the years and especially as I’ve tackled this writing project.
Among the most important things I’ve learned from the Vogue Sewing Book: tailoring requires getting… up close and personal. Very personal. This was especially true of the 18th century men’s clothing, which was fitted snug against the body, without the aid of Lycra. Tailors were men for a reason!
Where would I be without the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking?American Duchess makes and sells historical footwear and is well-known in the historical costuming world. This book is mainly an instructional manual on how to sew period costume using period techniques but also includes narrative on the history of each fashion, commentary on materials, and instructions for how to put the bloomin’ things on!
The authors also point out some historical inconsistencies with regards gown names. For example, the Italian gown, which was the gown from the mid 1770s through the beginning of the 1790s, sometimes goes by robe à l’anglais. But the English gown, which is an entirely different style that was fashionable earlier in the century, also goes by robe à l’anglais. (Kyoto, for example, uses robe a l’anglais for labeling both.) For me, understanding the difference between the two was crucial.
Finally, American Duchess maintains a blog. This post goes over the basic types of 18th century gowns—an excellent primer for us non-experts. And their “Historical Analytics” series has helped me get inside Molly’s artistic, dress-designing head.
Corsets (stays) get a bad rap. The idea that women were restricted in too-tight harnesses, causing them to faint at every turn, is mostly fiction. No woman in her right mind would put up with such nonsense—not when there’s life to live and work to be done. Only vain, silly women tied their laces too tight.
What are stays? Support garments, plain and simple. They kept the girls and the mama belly/spare tires in their proper places, so that gowns fit correctly and lay smoothly. Stays also helped with posture. And like most garments of the 18th century, they were custom fitted to each woman.
To learn more about corsets or to purchase your own, check out Redthreaded. Browsing their site, you’ll notice that different centuries have different types of corsets, designed to accommodate the reigning fashions of the day.
Interestingly, while mantua-makers were women, male tailors were in charge of making women’s and children’s stays. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. Tradition?
18th Century Notebook
Another website I reference constantly is the 18th Century Notebook. This site has links to historic examples of not only clothing, but also accessories and common household items. For example: at a few points in the story, we see Josiah, my male lead character, carrying hard coinage. I needed to know what he was carrying his money in. From perusing the 18th Century Notebook, I learned about different kinds of men’s wallets, purses, bags, and pockets and was able to make a historically accurate choice.
As it turns out, historical costumers love Instagram! And I’m among their thousands of silent stalkers followers, salivating over their pretty 18th century creations in silk, lace, and ribbon. Using Instagram’s “save” feature, I file away any interesting pictures, similar to the way people use Pinterest.
Not surprisingly, many of these costumers are real-life friends with each other. Once you follow one of them, you will eventually figure out who knows who, etc. etc. (Social media is weird.)
When it comes to 1780s and 1790s fashion, my favorite Instagram account is @modernmantuamaker. One example of her work: this amazing late 1780s/early 1790s gown:
This online exhibit from the National Archives about early 19th century merchant shipping and its paper trail is amazing. I’ve referred to it again and again as I continue with Book Two revisions.
From the exhibit’s introduction:
This exhibit features early federal records that document the first voyage made by the Ship Mount Vernon of Salem, Massachusetts in 1803. At that time, tall ships from Salem, like the Ship Mount Vernon, traveled around the world exporting and importing cargoes from the West and the East, including exotic locations such as Canton and Sumatra. These documents, and the information recorded on them, are typical examples of records for thousands of American ships of that time. They are also documents that were an integral part of the daily life of seamen, merchants, and officials.
All of the documents in this exhibit are from records created by officials of the Salem and Beverly Customs District for keeping track of American vessels, the cargoes that they carried, and most importantly, to account for the import and tonnage taxes that were the main source of federal revenue in those early days of the Republic.
As Josiah, my lead male character, says, “Paperwork is Custom House’s raison d’être.” While I would never bore my readers with the intricate details of said paperwork (snooze…), it’s always fun to see historic documents and artifacts. If you have a few spare minutes, head over to the National Archives site and take a look!
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