Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Faking the Family Tree

Dining room at the Gibson House.
A family crest hangs over the dining room fireplace at the Gibson House. The vivid red and gold shield on a bright black background is eye-catching. Dinner guests would be unlikely to miss its not-so-subtle implications about the importance of the family lineage. In a scroll along the bottom, the motto reads “In the name of Gibson.” 

Gibson family crest, c. 1896.
Gibson House Museum 1992.123
The tradition of coats of arms (of which the crest is the top part) dates to the medieval period in Europe, where knights would carry shields with specific designs. The design elements were intended to convey the achievements of the person who carried the coat of arms. Later, families would take a coat of arms as the family logo.  Typically, only noble families were permitted to do this and so the coat of arms came to be associated with the aristocracy.

A coat of arms, however, is not given to a surname forever. Official heraldic rules (laid out, with slight variations, by governments across Europe) state that a coat of arms belongs to an individual and his direct descendants in the male line. A true coat of arms was acknowledged and allowed by the king. 

Sketches of coat of arms, 1896.
Gibson House Museum Archives.
The Gibson crest reflects an invented tradition, a family logo created in the moment rather than one being handed down through the generations with the official seal of approval. Rosamond Warren Gibson had this Gibson coat of arms designed in Paris. Original sketches of the design, preserved in the Museum's archives, include some notes about the Gibson ancestor who might lay a claim to nobility. It appears to be John Gibson of York, who petitioned the King in 1655. The notes do not include a source for this bit of family history.

Mary Hammond Family Crest.
Private collection.
Rosamond's sister, Mary Warren Hammond, did the same for her family. Both sisters included water birds (a stork for the Gibsons) on their crest, possibly to represent their shared Warren lineage. (Mary Hammond's crest also includes an elephant, which is a reference to her great-uncle Jacob Crowninshield; he brought the first-ever elephant to America in 1796.) 

In a related example of burnishing the family history, the Warrens paid for genealogical research to create a family tree—a copy hangs in the front hall of the Gibson House. (So, if you're keeping score, that means that by the time guests sat down for dinner, they were subject to demonstrations of Warren AND Gibson family lineage.) It was later discovered that the research was incorrect; the family tree is simply another example of the eagerness of many wealthy 19th century Bostonians to link themselves to English nobility.

For Anglophiles like the Gibsons and Warrens, displaying a family coat of arms, or a family tree, was a way to connect to a medieval English past. In the Victorian era, coats of arms were wildly popular (even if most of them were bunk). It’s not hard to imagine Rosamond and Mary traveling together in Europe and deciding to purchase a coat of arms to bring home, as a souvenir, as a pretty decorative item, and maybe most significantly, as a conversation starter about the family history.

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

The coat of arms was recently restored thanks to a generous gift from Robert Severy.

To learn more:

A Complete Guide to Heraldry, Arthur Charles Fox-Davies (1909). Via the Gutenberg Project

Friday, April 26, 2019

Finding Old-School Fashion in the Fast-Paced World

Getting dressed in the 1860s and 1870s was a complicated process. Women’s fashion included many layers and separate articles that combined to form the perfectly assembled outfit, or “costume,” as we refer to it in museums. The Gibson family women had access to designer clothing and custom-tailored dresses and gowns, which they wore to showcase their social status and fit into society. Each piece of clothing had a specific purpose or occasion to be worn. Opera gowns, morning gowns, day dresses, and tea gowns were all popular styles in the 1860s and 1870s. Much of the clothing in the Gibson House Museum’s collection dates from the 1870s and 1880s, when the matriarch, Catherine Hammond Gibson, and her daughter-in-law, Rosamond Warren Gibson, lived in the house together.  
Turquoise bodice, c.1870s
Gibson House Museum (2019.3)
When I first began cataloging the clothing from the Gibson House Museum’s collection, I was overwhelmed with how to begin. I soon found that it was not as complicated as I’d thought; cataloging artifacts is as simple as assigning an accession number and recording details about the object.

One of the first articles of clothing I cataloged was a beautifully detailed turquoise dress that has aged rather poorly. There are some tears and discolorations in the fabric, which make it more difficult to picture how it would have been worn in the 1870s or 1880s. Like many of the dresses from the Gibson House Museum’s collection, it was taken apart, either to be washed or because alterations needed to be made. Although some of the fabric is in poor condition, as a whole, the dress is exquisite; its delicate silk fringe and vivid color caught my eye.

This dress is from the late 1870s or early 1880s. It was likely a dinner gown, or worn for other formal evening events, because its material was expensive and it lacks signs of everyday wear and tear, such as perspiration stains or dirt at the hem. It is possible to date this dress because of two distinctive elements. First, it appears the dress was fitted for a bustle, since there is extra fabric at the back that is typical of the style. Bustles were popular from 1870 to 1880, although their appeal diminished over time as women’s dress reform movements advocated for less restrictive clothing. Second, the dress is bright turquoise, made from synthetic dye. Following the Industrial Revolution, synthetic dyes became the preferred medium to color clothing, as opposed to natural dyes, which provided a limited palette. 

Turquoise skirt, c.1870s
Gibson House Museum (2019.3)
The dress has machine-made silk fringe, which adorns the neckline, sleeves, skirt hem, and the additional triangular pieces of fabric. (This fabric was likely added onto the waist of the skirt for added volume, or to cover an expansion.) The dress also has a satin ribbon, which creates flounces on the front of the skirt and trims the bodice and sleeves. Although it does not carry a maker’s tag, the dress was most likely purchased from a designer in the Greater Boston area. Many of the other dresses from the Gibson House collection were designed by J. E. Chapman, a Roxbury-based dressmaker that created custom designs. The Gibson family women would have traveled to this dressmaker’s shop to be measured and attend a design consultation before having a dress custom-made.

In an era of fast fashion, it is really hard for us to understand the deep connection women of the period had to their clothing. In many ways, this is because the creation of a single dress took more time, money, and resources than it does today in an era of cheaply-made, mass-produced clothing. Although the fashions of the 1870s and 1880s are very different from what we wear today, clothing continues to provide access points for social acceptance. 

- Nicole Gauthier, Simmons University (Curatorial Intern, Spring 2019)

You can view the gown, and many other rarely-seen pieces from our collection of historic dress, at "Sketch the Story," our special interactive ArtWeek Open House on Sunday, April 28, 2019.  

To learn more:

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Sound of Music: The Importance of Music in Victorian Homes

Listening to music within the home was something that was deeply cherished among Victorians of all social classes. In a world that was limited to objects such as music boxes to reproduce sounds in the home, live music was especially appealing. Many forms of outside entertainment were sought after, but attending these events could prove inconvenient given New England's challenging weather and limited transportation options. Naturally, it made sense to bring the entertainment into one's home, thereby giving rise to the presence of a music room within many upper-class Victorian houses. At the Gibson House, the music room is the most lavish room and was a place where the Gibson family regularly entertained guests and friends.  

Mason & Hamlin Symmetrigrand Piano, 1908
Gibson House Museum (2006.08)
The piano became an especially fashionable musical instrument to possess, either an upright or a baby grand, depending on the wealth of the family. Since at the time many popular songs were made available in sheet music form, amateur musicians could play to their guests and family. There is quite an extensive collection of sheet music at the Gibson House Museum, collected over the years by the family. Along with individual pieces, there are bound albums containing a number of miscellaneous works, such as polka music and waltzes. The majority of the music is from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries (18791934), and was largely published in Boston. (The name Oliver Ditson & Co. appears often, indicating it was, perhaps, the family’s company of choice when purchasing new music.) The Gibson family’s music collection contains many pieces by well-known classical composers, including works like Fugue in G Minor (The Little) by J. S. Bach and Danse Polonaise by Xaver Schwarwenka, which you can listen to here and here.

The Gibson House sheet music collection includes one song that Charlie Gibson composed himself, entitled Dreams. He wrote the words and music in 1922 for the well-known baritone Emilio de Gogorza. According to some notes that Charlie wrote about the Gibson House music room in 1938, de Gogorza came to the house while Dreams was being written and sang it, offering his suggestions for edits. Charlie also noted that his piece had been sung at concerts in Boston and broadcast on a New England radio network. We have records of his attempts to get the piece published by Oliver Ditson & Co., which unfortunately were not successful.
During the period 1800–1914, it became common to hold chamber music recitals in upper-class homes. It was typical for both children and adults to play musical instruments, and most families considered music part of a well-rounded education. (This was particularly true for young women, who were expected to be capable of demonstrating their skills when potential suitors and other guests visited the home.) In the case of the Gibson family, Charles Sr. played the flute, Rosamond and each of the couples three children played the piano, and Charlie also played the violin.

Music Room, Gibson House Museum
Photo courtesy John D. Woolf
As the music room was an important part of the home, great care was taken to decorate it to enhance the enjoyment of the listeners. Chairs were usually very comfortable, and decorations such as plaster casts of musical composers and pictures and books related to the arts added to the ambience. In the Victorian home, where typical wall colors were reds, greens, or blues, subtler hues were considered more suitable for this artistic room. Walls would often be covered in fabrics such as grass cloth, Japanese cottons, velvet, linens, and sometimes tapestries.

The Gibson family put extensive thought and effort into the decoration of their music room, which is filled with cultural delights, ranging from an English replica scale model of the royal carriage commemorating King George VI to a Japanese lacquer apothecary cabinet. Chinese palace vases and cane chairs sit by the fireplace, and Chinese rugs are scattered across the floor. Having such a room in their home was important to the Gibson family, as a way to show their guests exactly how worldly and cultured they could afford to be. 

-          Olivia Spratt, Curatorial Intern (Spring 2018)

To Learn More:

Friday, January 4, 2019

Matching Sailor Suits for the Gibson Cousins

Henry Freeman Allen, c.1918
Gibson House Museum (2006.18.20)

Until the end of the nineteenth century, most American children were dressed like miniature adults. Prior to age three, boys and girls alike wore “dresses,” or long shifts that were simple to get on and off and easy to launder. At about three or four, girls began wearing more elaborate dresses, like their mothers, and boys were “breeched,” or put into pants, like their fathers. 

Beginning in the 1860s and 1870s, however, specific clothing for children became popular. And one of the most popular, and enduring, outfits for young boys was the sailor suit. Queen Victoria dressed the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in a custom-made sailor suit in 1846, modeled on a real Royal Navy uniform. The prince’s portrait was painted in this outfit and it set off a craze for sailor suits that would last into the twentieth century. 

Henry Freeman Allen, 1923
Gibson House Museum (2006.18.32)
The Gibsons were not immune to this popular style of dress. The Museum owns two sailor suits, one navy and one white, which belonged to cousins Henry Allen, the son of Mary Ethel Gibson Allen, and Warren Winslow, the son of Rosamond Gibson Winslow. The cousins were quite close, and it’s easy to imagine them scampering through the house in their matching outfits while sisters Rosamond and Mary Ethel came by to visit with their mother.

The sailor suit may have been a popular choice because the central pieces—a middy blouse and long pants—were easy to wear and relatively comfortable for children’s play. That’s in contrast to some of the other popular clothing for young boys at this time period. Fauntleroy suits, inspired by the 1885 novel Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett, included matching velvet suit jacket and pants and a shirt with an elaborate ruffled collar.

Samuel Hammond IV, 1904
Image courtesy Sam Duncan
Scottish Highland costumes, again popularized by Queen Victoria and her children, were modeled on traditional Scottish dress and included a kilt, waistcoat, jacket, plaid, and cap (and often matching socks and capes, as well). The Scottish suit on display at the Museum was loaned by Sam Duncan, Gibson House Museum Board President, and was worn by many generations of the Hammond and Duncan families.

Both Fauntleroy suits and Scottish costumes would have been worn in more formal settings. The sailor suit, a more casual look and easier to reproduce, remained popular well into the twentieth century, for both girls and boys of all social classes.

The sailor suits and Scottish costume will be on display at the Gibson House Museum through February 25, 2019. Visit the Gibson House Museum website to plan your visit!

- Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Curator

To learn more:
·         Boy's Sailor Suit, Narrative Threads, The Textile Museum of Canada