Neo-classical finery

Early 19th-century fashion

Women’s fashionable gowns of the early 19th century were markedly different in style from their predecessors. No longer were the bodices tightly fitted over the cone-shaped stays of the 18th-century. Full skirts and side hoops were put away as well. The new styles, inspired by a fascination with the classical world, were characterized by a much narrower silhouette. Dresses were constructed of light-weight, clingy materials like cotton muslin and thin silk, and were worn without the highly structured undergarments of the past. White was an extremely popular color choice for gowns worn by women of all ages and at all times of the day–and year, for that matter. fashion c1810Hairstyles and accessories changed as well. Most women cut their hair short and wore it close to the head, with feathers and turbans for decoration. High-heeled shoes were cast aside in favor of flat slippers of fine kid or satin, a type of footwear which was highly inappropriate for the winter climate of northern New England.  And woven shawls, often with colorful borders, became a popular (and warmth-providing) accessory.

This revolution in fashion–coming out of Napoleonic France and inspired by Neoclassicism–held sway for almost 25 years. Not until the mid-1820s, did the fashionable silhouette start to expand with wider skirts and the return of corsets, and finally late in the decade, enormous sleeves.

The Saco Museum has two gowns made during the first decades of the 19th century. One, a gown of ivory figured silk, exemplifies this Neoclassical style. The silk is thin and light, and would have clung to the body of the woman who wore it. Originally, it would have undoubtedly been worn with an underdress, which has not survived with the outer garment.

Gown, figured silk, early 19th century Saco Museum Collection

Gown, figured silk, early 19th century
Saco Museum Collection

The gown has the high waistline and the low gathered neckline of the period. The sleeves are short and puffed, and are trimmed with box-pleated ivory ribbon. The hem is edged with narrow ivory lace, which may have been added later. Worn with a pair of flat slippers, possibly of a contrasting color, and a vividly bordered shawl, the gown would have been the centerpiece of a most fashionable ensemble.

Sleeve detail, ivory silk gown Saco Museum Collection

Sleeve detail, ivory silk gown
Saco Museum Collection

This gown will be one of many featured in our upcoming fashion exhibit, From the Elegant to the Everyday:200 Years of Fashion in Northern New England. Come see it in person! And stay tuned for more glimpses of the garments that will make up this exhibit.

Tara Raiselis, Museum Director

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Upcoming costume exhibit, March 15-May 3

From the Elegant to the Everyday:  200 Years of Fashion in Northern New England

French fashion, 1814

French fashion, 1814

When the prize goods of the privateer Fox of Portsmouth, NH, were sold in Saco in July 1814, auctioneer Samuel Larkin had every expectation that the items would bring good prices. The sale consisted almost entirely of a wide range of fabrics and fashionable clothing accessories, including muslin caps, fancy wigs, “Barcelona” handkerchiefs, men’s and women’s hose, and hats for everyone in the family—all of which had been seized from English ships during the War of 1812. Americans had long looked to England as the source of the latest styles and for the fabrics and accessories needed to keep up with the prevailing taste. The inhabitants of smaller cities and towns, like Saco and Biddeford, were just as concerned about dressing fashionably as those who lived in larger urban areas such as Boston. Residents of northern New England were eager to purchase quality goods so that they too could “cut a fine figure”.

Ladies' Home Journal, 1910

Ladies’ Home Journal, 1910

July fashion, 1875 France, L’Élégance Parisienne

July fashion, 1875 France, L’Élégance Parisienne

The desire to keep up with current fashions changed little over the next century and a half, although people began to look to places other than England for the latest styles and fabrics. The mechanization of the textile industry, the invention of the sewing machine in the 1850s, and the availability of ready-to-wear clothing by the early 20th century made it easier and more affordable for people of all classes to dress well. Clothing styles changed, but people continued to strive to look their best.

Although most of the costumes in this exhibition will be drawn from the Saco Museum collection, there will also be a number on loan from institutions in both Maine and New Hampshire.  We are very excited about the opportunity to display some beautiful 18th-century garments from Strawbery Banke Museum and the Warner House Association in Portsmouth, NH.  These include two complete men’s suits: one worn c. 1785 by Samuel Cutts, the older brother of Col. Thomas Cutts of Saco, and the other owned by merchant Jonathan Warner, c.1750-1770.  Ladies’ wear will also be well represented with a silk brocade gown (textile c. 1770, remade later) and a printed cotton open robe, c. 1770-1790.

Wool broadcloth cloak, late 18th century Saco Museum Collection

Wool broadcloth cloak,
late 18th century
Saco Museum Collection

The Saco Museum has in its collection two ladies’ cloaks which date from the late 18th century,a beautiful red broadcloth ladies’ wool cloak and matching hood, as well as a c. 1780s black silk cloak with an enormous hood to accommodate the large hairstyles of the day.

Printed cotton day dress, mid-19th century Saco Museum Collection

Printed cotton day dress,
mid-19th century
Saco Museum Collection

The exhibition will include not only examples of “best” dress, but also items of everyday clothing.Fashionable attire was not confined to just special occasion garments or the clothing of the elite; even ordinary clothes reflected the current style of their day. The Saco Museum collection includes a number of mid-19th century day or work dresses, the type of garment that survive in far fewer numbers than wedding or other special occasion items of clothing.

Clothing from the 20th century will include a dress from 1910 worn by local resident Jennie Wardwell Sands, two fashionable dresses from the 1920s (one a blue velvet frock worn as a wedding dress in 1934), as well as several items worn by young residents of Saco and Biddeford while attending school in our local communities.

These are just a few highlights of From the Elegant to the Everyday.  Stay tuned to this blog for more tidbits and stories of exhibition objects in the upcoming weeks!

Tara Raiselis, Museum Director




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A pair of blue kid “Revolutionary” shoes



The Saco Museum has a variety of costumes in its collection, ranging from the late 18th through the mid-20th centuries.  We have a nice assortment of accessories as well–plenty of hats, fans, parasols, purses, and some shoes.  However, most of our shoes date from the 19th century and later.  This is a sad fact for me, since I will confess that 18th-century fashion has always been my favorite and I have a fondness for 18th-century footwear.   This pair of shoes is probably the earliest in the museum’s collection and dates from the very end of the century.

It is unclear when this pair entered the collection, or who the original donor was, but they did come with a very interesting handwritten note glued to one of the soles. The note reads:

blue kid shoe note

Shoes brought from Paris at the time of the French Revolution. The uppers are of colored kid.

But is the note correct?  Many objects enter museum collections accompanied by what museum curators and antique collectors often refer to as “granny notes”–notes made by a previous owner about what they believe to be true about an object’s origin or history. Sometimes these notes are accurate and provide important information about the item. Other times, they are quite incorrect about the date of manufacture or the original owner. (There are a number of examples of misidentified objects in the Saco Museum costume collection–you’ll be hearing their stories in the future!) And sometimes the notes are partially right and partially wrong, but provide enough clues so that with additional research we can approximate something of the real story.

metmuseum davis shoes

Silk brocade shoes by Thomas Ridout, London, 1750-1770. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.300.1406a, b.

First, a very brief summary of 18th-century fashionable ladies’s shoes. There were shifts in the style from one decade to another: the heel height went up and down, the tongue shape changed from square to pointed, and the toes went from pointy to rounded to pointy again. For most of the century women wore heeled shoes with fabric uppers, often of silk or silk brocade. Early in the century shoes were closed with ties, while by mid-century metal buckles were used to secure the shoe over the instep. Both men’s and women’s shoes were made as “straights”, which means that there was no right or left shoe–each was exactly the same. “Crooked” shoes, those with right and left soles, were not produced in large quantities until after the Civil War. Although there were many shoemakers working in the colonies, most fashionable ladies’ footwear was imported from England.

The last decade of the 18th century saw many changes women’s shoe styles. By 1800, most footwear was made of leather and silk was only used for trims and laces. Heels had almost vanished by that date as well, although occasionally a wedge or tiny heel still appeared, and the toes tended to be quite pointed. The most popular colors of the day were borrowed from the excavations at Pompeii or inspired by Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and Italy. The colors of the classical world were revived: white, tan, pastels, rich Pompeiian reds, and exotic Nile greens were all the rage. And new and inexpensive techniques for applying color and pattern to plain leather surfaces were introduced with the use of roller-printing on kid and other fine leathers.

single blue kid shoe

So where do our “Revolutionary” shoes fit in? This pair of shoes are indeed made of kid leather which has been dyed a pale blue and roller-printed in black with an abstract scroll pattern. They have no heels; the thin leather soles are completely flat and straight–no right or left. The uppers are made in two parts, butted and sewn together at the sides, and are lined with a plain linen fabric. The toes are quite pointy. All of these features are indicative of shoes made between 1795 and 1805.


Great Britain, c. 1790s. Victoria and Albert Museum.

But are these shoes from France? It’s hard to tell. They have no maker’s label inside, which is not uncommon for the period. Most shoemakers did not mark their wares until later in the 19th century. I have searched other museum collections online for comparable examples, and while I have found similar shoes, those which have a known country of origin seem to have been made in England.  So our “granny note” would seem to be at least partly correct, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story.  If only we knew who originally wore these shoes, and how they came to reside in a museum collection on the Saco River in Maine…

Tara Raiselis, Museum Director

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An “Ancient pocket book” in the Saco Museum collection

crewel pocketbook open

Pocketbook, wool embroidery on linen, c. 1760-1800. Saco Museum collection.

Both men and women carried pocketbooks in the 18th century–they were a useful as well a highly fashionable accessory. Most pocketbooks were rectangular in shape, and those carried by men tended to be approximately 4″ x 8″. Gentlemen carried important business and personal documents, as well as currency, in their pocketbooks and kept them in their coat pockets for safekeeping. A lady’s pocketbook was generally smaller than a gentleman’s and probably contained sewing supplies and sundry papers; she would have tucked it into the pocket which she wore under her petticoat (see our earlier blog entry, How did Lucy lose her pocket?  Ladies’ pockets in the Saco Museum Collection).

The majority of 18th-century pocketbooks were made of leather, but most of those that survive today in museum collections are of the more decorative variety. Perhaps leather pocketbooks were used until they wore out, while ornamental examples were put aside and saved by succeeding generations. Leather pocketbooks were also generally a purchased commodity and may well have had fewer sentimental associations than embroidered pocketbooks, which were often made by a close female relative or friend. However, if a man lacked such a talented (and motivated) woman in his social sphere, he could purchase one at a milliner’s shop. Certainly, carrying an elaborate embroidered pocketbook rather than a simple leather one made a statement about one’s social status.

pocketbook open

Although the decorative embroidery on the exterior of pocketbooks was done in a variety of stitches and in both silk and wool, flame or Irish stitch worked in wool was the most common for pocketbooks produced in New England. Most were embroidered on a linen ground, with a plain lining of linen, wool, or silk, and often had cardboard interfacing between the two layers for added stiffness. The fabric layers were bound together with twill tape, which was also used to hold the pocketbook closed. The majority have a pouch on one side with a flap which folds over to form the front, while others fold in half when closed and contain pockets for documents on both sides. Some 18th-century pocketbooks were also embroidered with the names or initials of the owner and occasionally a date. 

pocketbook closed

The Saco Museum pocketbook is 4″ x 8″ when closed, lined with salmon plain-woven linen on the inside, and bound with bright pink twill tape.  The pocketbook folds in half when closed to form a rectangle, instead of having a shaped flap. Each side is further divided to provide two areas in which to place important documents or currency. The dividers are lined with an interface of coarsely woven stiff linen. The twill tape tie is now frayed and worn, a testament to the many times it has been used. The exterior is somewhat faded, but on the interior much of the former depth of color is still evident.

pocketbook detail

Tara Raiselis, Museum Director

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Music in the Civil War

In 1862, a reporter for the New York Herald wrote that, “All history proves that music is as indispensable to warfare as money; and money has been called the sinews of war.”

Continuing with the theme of exploring the Civil War through different points of view, another important aspect of the American Civil War was music! Although it is often times thought of as part of the backdrop to the more exciting events and well known battles, music impacted the way the war was fought.

From a logistical stand point, music provided structure and order during battles and camp life.  Beginning in the morning with a reveille and ending at night with taps, music was used to call soldiers for breakfast, for inspections, for drills and for dinner.  During battles drum calls issued commands to soldiers, while other drumbeats with fife accompaniments helped soldiers march. Fife music was popular during the war because the shrill tone of the fife could be heard well above the rumbling of cannon and the other noises on the battlefield.  Music was important to the emotional well being of the soldiers as well. It provided a source of comfort and entertainment during the hardships of the war.  It helped to keep up moral before and during difficult marches and battles.

There were patriotic songs for each side: the North’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “May God Save the Union” and the South’s “Dixie” (originally a pre-war minstrel show song), “God Save the South,” and “The Bonnie Blue Flag”.  Some songs became so popular that that both sides would claim them as their own, changing the lyrics accordingly.

Last week the Saco Museum had a drum making activity available for families and children as a part of our Civil War Family Event Day series!

drum making day







Links to lyrics for the songs mentioned:






Anna Kelley, Education and Program Manager

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