Category Archives: Use this source!!

The unexpected Abolitionist Roots of a New England Thread Company

corticelliThe Nonotuck Silk Company holds a fascinating place in textile history. The company began in the 1830s with a failed attempt to breed silkworms in Massachusetts. Silkworms only eat mulberry leaves, and when the health of the imported mulberry trees declined, silkworms had nothing to eat and efforts to raise them for their cocoons failed.


The remnants of the failed silk thread business were later operated by the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an abolitionist commune in Northampton, Massachusetts. The group imported silk cocoons and used the mill to spin thread. They funded their abolitionist work with income generated from this business. Curiously, you may recognize one of their members:

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Yes, this is Sojourner Truth! She was a member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, worked in the silk mill. Silk thread production was the association’s primary source of income.

The association’s community operated like a commune, with shared meals, group housing, education for their children and assigned work duties for every member in the mill or farm. The community fell apart by 1846, but one member, Samuel L. Hill, retained the silk mill and continued to operate the silk thread business. They were operating under the Nonotuck name again, and in 1852,  Corticelli silk was their signature product. They developed a high quality silk thread (known as machine twist) strong enough for use in sewing machines. Elijah Singer (the sewing machine manufacturer) placed a large order for this new product. Sewing machines were just becoming the rage at the time, and machine twist thread business boomed for Nonotuck.

toostrong In 1922, this company merged with another and operated the new business under the Corticelli name. The business records of the association are held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. I had the chance to take a look at a few of their financial books and membership logs when I was in graduate school.

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Source: https://www.masshist.org/blog/1013

Before I was introduced to Ann Lowe, I was hoping to create a thesis from this story. A lot has been written about the New England Silk Industry though, and the amount of information available about the Northampton Association’s work (in direct relation to their textile production—I was a Decorative Arts student and needed to have a solid textile history focus) was pretty light.

corticelli spool silk box
Corticelli had some of the prettiest advertising and labels in the industry at the time.

Getting an informative and innovative thesis out of this would have been quite a process. Looking back, I think things worked out in the best way for my thesis—although I wish I could find time (and a few incredible sources) to pull together an interesting paper about the Northampton Association someday.

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You can read this book now at Archive.org!! https://archive.org/details/CorticelliHomeNeedlework

Archive.org has some related documents: A Color Card, And a fantastic needlework instruction book from 1898. And the youtube video below will show you the location of the Association’s silk mill in Northampton, Mass. I’m visiting Northampton at the end of the month and one of these days, maybe during this trip if the weather is nice, I’m going to hunt for old spools at the banks of the little Mill river!corticellidogssm

19th Century Fashion Plates

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This illustration was prepared for an October 1886 edition of Le Moniteur de la Mode (Source: Archive.org)

The fashion publications of the late 19th century featured colorful and highly detailed illustrations of the latest looks. The details needed to be crisp: affluent women were sharing these pictures with their seamstresses to recreate European designs.


Archive.org is an amazing resource for early fashion illustration and this search will get you started down a fun historical fashion rabbit hole. The website also has the added benefit of being easy to navigate. Perfect viewing for a lazy summer day when you aren’t feeling particularly academic! I’ve spent most of this sunny holiday weekend drinking lemonade on our deck while hiding from academic projects.

Although I did get into this book from 1918 about learning costume design and illustration….and Ann Lowe was just at the beginning of her fashion career in Tampa in 1918…so maybe this counts as background reading? 😉

An Ann Lowe Dress in Vogue, 1955

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A Smith College date stamp on a copy of Vogue.
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In high school and early college, I was one of those girls completely obsessed with Sylvia Plath. When I was waitlisted at Smith, I was crushed—although my 2nd choice, UMass Amherst, turned out to be the perfect place for me. So you can probably see why it was so exciting to flip through some magazines that she probably read!

When I was in college, some of the bound Vogue magazines in the collection of the UMass Library were originally from (nearby) Smith College and it was THRILLING to be a little English major, flipping through the actual copies of 1950s fashion magazines, with their covers stamped with a Smith College date stamp and think that maybe Sylvia Plath held this, if she ever took a breather in the Nielsen Library and let herself zone out to Vogue for a few minutes…

Browsing through the bound volumes of old magazines is one of my favorite historian hobbies. Life, Look, Time, Ladies Home Journal and of course—–fashion magazines. There’s just something about flipping through the original hardbound copies that gets you closer to the period. I’d like to think that most historians are dorky like that. 😉

And writing about a time period–even if you are just working on a piece of fiction— is a lot easier when you have primary source material in front of you. Microfilm isn’t the same AT ALL.

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The cover of the August 1, 1955 edition of Vogue

As one of the leading debutante and wedding gown designers in New York, it’s very possible that Ann Lowe’s work appeared uncredited in Vogue many times between the 1930s and 1960s. It’s also very possible that her designs appeared in the magazine under the name of the designers she worked for, such as Hattie Carnegie.

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Nina Auchincloss in her Ann Lowe debut gown, 1955.

I’ve seen some uncredited examples of dresses that are definitely Lowe’s work and dresses that are possibly Lowe’s work, once you get familiar with her preferred necklines and sleeve designs, her work starts standing out to your eye!

But here is one of the only credited examples of Lowe’s work that I’ve been able to find in Vogue from that period—this one from August 1, 1955, in an editorial about the year’s leading debutantes. Nina Auchincloss was Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepsister. My own scanned copy of this photo is a bit too blurry to post, so I pulled this copy (if you noticed the tell-tale highlighting around Lowe’s name, this is clearly a Google Books scan) from an article I wrote a few years ago for the National Archives.

The National Library of Australia: An online treasure trove of fashion history? Yes!

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When Christian Dior had tea in Paris with Ann Lowe, he looked like this.

When my Ann Lowe research led me to a hunt for very detailed recaps of Paris fashion shows she attended, my usual sources covered the topics in a frustrating and broad way. American newspapers gave the shows drive-by coverage.

This is from the Reuters news service and used internationally...slightly detailed and a good start...but not enough to help me set a scene...
This is from the Reuters news service and used internationally…slightly detailed and a good start…but not enough to help me set a scene…

American Vogue was OKAY, but their focus was more on the styles that were being translated into Paris copies. British Vogue was MUCH better—although a bit hard to get your hands on—and French Vogue would have been an outstanding source, if I understood French.

French Vogue from the 1940s...going straight to the source is always the best...if the language doesn't get in the way!! (Most Art History people know French...I do not.)
French Vogue from the 1940s…gorgeous, right? And going straight to the source is always the best…if the language doesn’t get in the way!! (Most Art History people know French…unfortunately, I do not.)

 

 


I’m not quite sure why an  Australian Newspaper Archive is such a fabulous source for detailed recaps of couture fashion shows in London, Paris and New York. But a newspaper search on the TROVE website brings back amazing results–mostly from “Australian Women’s Weekly.”Blog_6Blog_5Play with the date ranges and the keywords, and you’ll have hours worth of browsing ahead of you! Along with the amazing search functions, it is very easy to download pdfs and jpgs. I’m sure this would be helpful for topics outside of fashion too, so TROVE might be worth checking out whenever you are on a source hunt!

Hark! The Google Newspaper Archive! Not completely dead…just hard to find!

IMG_4328Just a quick note to provide a link to the Google News Archive . I thought this was dead—-but it’s just not an active project for Google and it looks like they’ve stopped adding to it. They’ve also stopped actively promoting it and the only way I could find a link was through a Google search 🙂

What is the Google News Archive? And why am I so excited about it? It is an easy way—and one of the only FREE ways to search newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th century. The results turn up as scans from the actual pages.

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Not a fashion related article—but a scan of the front page of a 1907 African American newspaper. Dozens of issues of this paper are available in full on Google News Archive “Published every Saturday in the Interest of the Race” I love this kind of stuff!!

While a digital subscription to the New York Times will also give you access to scans of their original issues, Google News Archive does a MUCH better job at providing content from hundreds of small, regional papers. The New York Times won’t give you many (or any!)descriptions of the gowns worn at an inaugural ball for a southern governor in 1914, for instance—but a patient search on the Google News Archive WILL and sometimes that’s the kind of stuff I need to find!

Just searching Google under the “News” heading won’t take you to this resource, you need to be a cool kid (which you are!) and know the link:

Here’s the full link again https://news.google.com/newspapers

 

Fashionable Advertisements in the New York Times in 1929

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Macy’s was known for their lower prices during the twenties and thirties—they offered Paris Copies and note that although “other stores may copy them as speedily as Macy’s. But probably NO STORE will copy them as reasonably as Macy’s.”

I’m spending  a lot of time in 1929 today. March 3rd to be exact. Ann Lowe moved to New York (from Florida) around that time, and taking a look at the New York Times from that period is helping to set the scene a bit. Ann lived in Harlem and operated her business from a small manhattan workroom. Of course her business was not large enough to place ads in the Times, but her work was competing with the stores that were advertising dresses—especially the ones advertising Paris copies:

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This ad talks about the wide variety of Paris Copies available at a store I’d never heard of: Russeks (?)

A little while ago, I blogged about archive.org. The New York Times is a fantastic supplement to that website. You can start with a search, and pick a date range— but once you select an article, you actually have the chance to switch views and see a full pdf of the paper as it originally appeared. You can turn all of the pages, zoom in to get a closer look. A great way to use archival news sources to get a feel for the everyday. And such a great way to find out more about the women’s clothing businesses that were advertising to an affluent audience. Google was creating an amazing newspaper archive around 5 years ago, an international newspaper archive with a search function that was OUTSTANDING for any researcher—but then they stopped developing it, and it slowly faded away.

Russeks department store must have also faded away decades ago. But, thanks to the wonders of the internet, a vintage blogger (Thank you Manic Vintage!!) has  written  about this department store, and even shows a dress and some magazine advertisements!

 

 

If you don’t know about Archive.org, you must learn!

worth_3Are you familiar with Archive.org? The Internet Wayback Machine is a part of it, but there’s also so much more to find there. It is sort of like combining Google Books,  the dusty stacks of your favorite old library and youtube– there’s a LOT of information on this website, and searching can get a bit overwhelming and noisy until you learn to narrow down your searches.

The site compiles scans of thousands of books (that are out of copyright and now public domain, I think?So mainly before the late 1920s) along with trade catalogs and magazines.

These are views of Charles Worth’s Paris Salon in the 1920s. Some of Ann Lowe’s clients would have visited these very rooms during their trips to France! Seeing this kind of primary source helps to set scenes:

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A search for “Women’s Fashion” at the main page will bring up a torrential overflow of links. Learn to fine tune your requests a bit and narrow it to “silk dress”, and you’ll find a number of interesting (and useful!) sources.

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Source: Color Plate, Godey’s Lady’s Book, April 1864

 

How do I use these sources? I use this site on days when I’m hoping to find the kinds of articles and illustrations which would have inspired an early 20th century dressmaker (like Ann Lowe), but I’m stuck at home and I don’t have a library to wander through.

Illustrations from the "Fashions of Today" section of "History of Feminine Fashion"
Contemporary fashion Illustrations from the “History of Feminine Fashion” book.
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These gowns were all designed by Ann Lowe in 1928—the influence and inspiration from dresses from the fashion book are clear

And I also use this site when I don’t feel like thinking very hard and I want to find some neat film clips. If I’m writing about 1970’s New York City and I need some real views of the streets and the people? Archive. org to the rescue!! This website is also home to the Prellinger Archive and that makes it such fun research for vintage news clips and other films that are too long to be for news shows—but too short to stand alone. I’m not sure where you would have been able to see this Harper’s Bazaar fashion update originally—but here we go.  I’m cheating a bit here because this clip is being shared here through youtube, but I found it first on archive.org:

 

 

Advertisements are another truly entertaining part of this site…an early advertisement for an ELECTRIC sewing machine:

Some of these books are as entertaining for their advertisements!
Some of these books are as entertaining for their advertisements!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And what car demonstrated the height of technology and elegance in the 1920s London?Ad

And how much was a dress length of silk in 1899, anyway? Ann Lowe’s mother would have looked in a dry goods catalog similar to this one:

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Source: https://archive.org/stream/catalogueno96dry00chic#page/n0/mode/2up

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you don’t have a library to wander through, archive.org can be the next best thing.

If you need a few links to get you started down a fashion history rabbit hole or two:

https://archive.org/details/YoungLadiesJournal1881

https://archive.org/stream/AHistoryOfFeminineFashion/cu31924058783865#page/n0/mode/2up

https://archive.org/stream/catalogueno96dry00chic#page/n0/mode/2up

A stack of old Vogue Magazines at the Umass library! Yes, I am a bit dorky--because this picture was taken during a vacation!
A stack of old Vogue Magazines at the Umass Amherst library! Yes, I am a bit dorky–because this picture was taken during a vacation!