She wears her clothes as if they were thrown on with a pitchfork. —Jonathan Swift
Very few examples of complete clothing survive in the archaeological record of much of colonial America. What usually remain are parts of complete articles of clothing: clothing fasteners such as buttons from a shirt or coat and metal buckles from leather and fabric shoes. Shreds of woven and knit fabric have also been recovered, but much more common are the lead seals that were attached to bolts of European-produced cloth that were shipped into the colonies. Whole pieces of fully fashioned clothing were also regularly imported into colonial America (hats, dresses, shirts). Sewing and tailoring were common activities in the American colonies, where professional male tailors were charged with clothing the local population (Baumgarten 2002:52). For example, seven tailors were living in the community of Jamestown in the English colony of Virginia in 1608 (Kelso and Straube 2000:46). In the household, seamstresses were responsible for clothing the occupants and mending their clothes (Beaudry 2006). At Andrew Jackson’s plantation, for example, clothing and shoes for the enslaved Africans living there were made on site by women in a style that was created and approved by the overseers (Galle 2005:41). Archaeological evidence of sewing activities includes needles, straight pins, thimbles, bodkins, and awls (Beaudry 2006). With the exception of Mary Beaudry’s Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing (2006), little has been written from an archaeological perspective about the tools used in sewing and needlework (see Ulrich 2001).
This pattern of combining handmade articles with imported ones generated some amount of critique. Even colonists were scandalized by the ways
Their neighbors mixed fashions. In a 1619 letter, John Pory, secretary of the Virginia Company at Jamestown, complained about this issue in letters to the Company:
Noew that your lordship may knowe, we are not the veriest of beggers in the worlde, our Cowe-keeper here of Iames city on Sundayes goes acowtered in freshe flaming silkes and a wife of that in England had professed the black arte not of a scholler but of a collier of Croydon, weares her rough beauer hat with a faire perle hatband, and a silken suite (quoted in Bach 2000: 10).
As Bach (2000:11) explains, this quote is just as much about the disdain for inferiors as it is about disdain for the sartorial freedom in the New World: a keeper of cows felt that he had the right to wear scarlet silk clothing, a privilege usually restricted to noblemen, while the wife of a common laborer decorated her beaver hat with a bejeweled hatband and wore silk. This example is just one among many of sumptuary laws being ignored while peoples forged their own fashion in colonial America.
In this chapter, I examine how colonial peoples covered their skin and track how different peoples in colonial America used common imported items. I am especially interested in how colonial individuals used material culture in new and unique combinations to counter social mores and expectations. There are far too many examples of artifacts that relate to covering skin than can be covered in this brief chapter—such as shoes, hats, shirts, and doublets—so here I track three examples. The first is a practice rarely (if ever) captured in the archaeological record, but it is the most intimate method of covering one’s skin: tattooing and scarification. While such bodily enclosures rarely leave an archaeological signature, these practices were an important aspect of colonial life and were extraordinary statements of personal identity. Native and non-Native peoples practiced different ways of permanently altering their skin through tattooing and other forms of permanent markings as one layer of self-presentation. In the second example, I discuss the kinds of cloth that moved through colonial communities and to suggest some of the ways this cloth was used to clothe the body. In the final section of the chapter, I follow one kind of clothing fastener—in this instance a common eighteenth-century shirt button— across different parts of the Atlantic world.
Marking the Body: Tattoos and Other Skin Modifications
Archaeological perspectives on colonial clothing and adornment rarely take into account changes made to the body proper through permanent modifications. Tattooing, branding, and self-flagellation left little evidence in the archaeological record, but tools to mark the skin (tattoo needles) and other practices of altering skin by cosmetics, prosthesis (let us not forget George Washington’s wooden teeth), hairstyles and piercings do leave a small archaeological signature. Moreover, historical documents indicate how common and visually important such markings were in social presentations of the colonial body. Using this evidence, social anthropologists have sought to interpret colonial bodily modifications (e. g., Caplan 2000; Chaplin 1997; Lindman and Tarter 2001; Thomas et al. 2005). My intention in including a section on tattooing and body modification is to underscore the importance of bodily modification in the colonial world. An individual’s body, including skin color, gender, and markings, was the canvas on which he or she placed items of clothing and adornment, and individuals often manipulated this canvas to signal political messages.
Colonial identity was as much physical as it was material (Chaplin 1997:229). During the colonial period, the color and quality of an individual’s skin featured prominently in imperial hierarchies and heavily scrutinized; it marked where you fit within the colonial world. Colonial discourse about the body was fundamental to most imperial projects, especially during the eighteenth century when racial ideologies were beginning to be promulgated in the New and Old Worlds (Chaplin 1997:233; see also Chaplin 2003; Orser 2007; Pagden 1982). Colonial officials and authors were particularly interested in using skin color as a visual marker between colonized and colonizer, elite and non-elite. Concerns about skin color were closely linked to expectations about how individuals should dress, as can be seen in the casta painting depicted in Figure 2.5. People could then be classified not only by the color of their skin but also by how they dressed (if they covered their bodies at all), what they ate, and what they did for a living (Loren 2001b).
Tattoos were common among Native American groups throughout colonial America. These practices were an integral aspect of body presentation because they symbolized rank, knowledge, gender, and power (Jackson 1994). Both men and women were tattooed in highly visible places such as the face, arms, and legs. Most of these tattoos were black and red,
3.1. Saturiova Re della Florida nell America Setentrional in atto di andare alla Guare, drawing by Jacques LeMoyne de Morgues, ca. 1588. Courtesy of President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 41-72-10/446.
But colonial authors also described blue and green tattoos (Volo and Volo 2002:24). Bodily markings were of such interest to the European public that many historical images and descriptions of this practice exist. For example, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a Huguenot artist and member of Jean Ribault and Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere’s French expedition to the eastern coast of present-day Florida in 1564, depicted them on La Florida’s inhabitants in a series of drawings (Le Moyne 1875:2; Moser 1998:72).
Le Moyne’s illustrations (which were later copied by Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry) provide intricate detail about the sixteenth-century lives of Native Floridians. Like other travel narratives of its time, this ethnographic documentation was tied to the curiosity of Europeans about otherworldly exoticism. It documented many types of behavior and customs, including clothing, adornment, diet, and tattooing. Many Native American groups understood tattooing as a kind of clothing because it covered the skin while simultaneously presenting personal information about lineage, status, and identity (Sayre 1997:166; see also Loren 2001b). The Timucuan man depicted in Figure 3.1 wears shell earspools, a feathered headdress, a piece of fabric around his privates, and a pelt. Tattoos cover the rest of his body, and the density of tattooing covers his exposed skin so fully that to our modern eye he appears to be covered as if clothed in fabric.
European authors tried to understand the meaning behind Native American practices of tattooing skin and descriptions of marks and meanings were often included in historical accounts. For example, Thomas Har-iot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, which included Theodor de Bry’s engravings of John White’s drawings, provided an interpretation of tattoos so that Europeans who would likely never travel to North America could understand them. Plate 23 of this book features images of tattooed Algonquian people from the mid-Atlantic (Figure 3.2). The caption that accompanies this image reads:
The Marckes of sundrye of the Cheif mene of Virginia. The inhabitats of all the cuntrie for the most parte haue marks rased on their backs, wherby yt may be knowen what Princes subiects they bee, or of what place they haue their originall. For which cause we haue set downe those marks in this figure, and haue annexed the names of the places, that they might more easelye be discerned. Which industrie hath god indued them withal although they be verye sinple, and rude.
And to confesse a truthe I cannot remember, that euer I saw a better or quietter people then they.
The marks which I obserued a monge them, are heere put downe in order folowinge.
The marke which is expressed by A. belongeth tho Wingino, the cheefe lorde of Roanoac.
That which hath B. is the marke of Wingino his sisters husbande. Those which be noted with the letters, of C. and D. belonge vnto diverse chefe lordes in Secotam.
Those which haue the letters E. F. G. are certaine cheefe men of Pomeiooc, and Aquascogoc. (Hariot 1590:Plate 23).
Although Europeans were familiar with tattooing, their preference for white, unblemished skin (usually obtained through cosmetics) led them to view tattooed skin and the person housed within that skin with fascination, disdain, and suspicion (Morgan and Rushton 2005). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European explorers and missionaries encountered tattooed peoples throughout North America and Oceania
3.2. “The Marckes of sundrye of the Cheif mene of Virginia.” Plate 23 in Thomas A. Hariot, A brief and true report of the new found land of Virginia, 1590.
(Thomas et al. 2005). This body art was a powerful stimulus for Europeans, and sailors often returned from their voyages sporting elaborate tattoos. However, these markings soon became associated with the criminal classes. Morgan and Rushton’s (2005) analysis of late eighteenth - and nineteenth-century court records illustrates how the bodies of convicts as well as those of the poor were often marked with tattoos. For example, a 1739 English newspaper described a convicted thief as:
A Rogue of about 15 years of age convicted of stealing Weights out of Sadler’s Shop in the Borough, from a Natural Propensity to Villainy, had on his Breast, mark’d with Indian ink, the Poutraiture of a Man at length, with a Sword drawn in one Hand and a Pistol discharging Balls from the Muzzle in the other, with a Label from the Man’s Mouth, G-d d-amn you, stand. This the Rogue would have conceal’d, but a Discovery being made thereof, he was order’d to shew his Breast to the Court, who were all shock’d at so uncommon a Sight in so young a Ruffian. (Newcastle Courant, January 27, 1739, quoted in Morgan and Rushton 2005:51)
By the eighteenth century, European soldiers and sailors were being tattooed with more frequency. This behavior was seen as scandalous in most heavily Catholic European countries. For example, in eighteenth-century France, Christian men simply did not tattoo their skin. Yet after their first interactions with Native peoples of the Southeast, French soldiers (who were in America for their king and their God) often tattooed their bodies, to the horror of the Jesuit priests who accompanied them on their travels. Henri de Tonti’s 1697 account describes a soldier of “breeding” as being permanently marked with Christian symbols (Mary, Jesus, and a crucifix) as well Native American symbols and a depiction of a snake pointing toward his genitals (Sayre 1997:170-171). Not only was dress implicated in this account but also manner and comportment. Reports such as this led government and religious leaders to complain about the breakdown of French civilization. Yet this account also suggests that it was not only lower-status French subjects who were acting improperly; the soldier de Tonti described was a man of breeding, an elite who had been seduced into going native.
As Europeans encountered tattooed individuals more often and learned more about the practice, more of them wanted to be tattooed, suggesting that there was something inherent in the American experience that shifted the consciousness of some individuals about tattooing and unblemished skin. Sayre (1997:178-179) describes how French soldiers and colonial officials began to understand how Native American tattooing marked the status and bravery of individuals as warriors. For Europeans in the New World who chose to have themselves tattooed in the “Native manner,” these markings, while permanent, were only temporary tokens of “power and prestige” because Europeans who stayed in the Old World would never understand them in the same way. In other words, the symbolism of the markings worked only in the New World context (Sayre 1997:179).
Some markings made on the skin were far from voluntary, as is illustrated by the eighteenth-century practice of branding the skin of African slaves. Morgan and Ruston (2005:47) provide an example from an eighteenth-century newspaper account from Philadelphia:
Advertised in Philadelphia was one mulatto slave called Dave, owned by Henry Miller, “branded on the forehead with the letter M” This may have been a brand inflicted by the master himself, probably after an escape attempt. In 1766, Virginian Robert Munford advertised that a “fellow named Jack,” involved in “promoting the late disorderly meetings among the Negroes,” had run off for fear of being prosecuted for many felonies. He had red eyes, and had been branded with “R” on one cheek, and “M” on the other.
In the context of slavery, branding was perhaps the most aggressive act of body marking, especially when it was done to the face, the place on the body most available for public view (Burton 2001:57). While branding may have been voluntary in other world cultures during the eighteenth century (an example would be the penitential self-flagellation of Jesuits), in colonial America the act of branding enslaved peoples connoted complete power and ownership over another person’s body and control of all of that person’s bodily acts. This kind of body marking would permanently state to the public at large—for an individual’s whole life—that the branded person was owned by another human being.
Few implements used in tattooing and branding are found in the archaeological record of colonial America; most museum examples date to the nineteenth century. Tattoo needles have been recovered from colonial sites in Hawaii and some archaeologists have speculated that metal and bone awls found at historical sites may have been used not only for cutting through leather but also for marking the skin (Kirch 1997:197; Parker Pearson 1999:84). A recent archaeological find of a cilice from Fort St. Joseph, an eighteenth-century French, Miami, and Potawatomi community located in present-day Niles, Michigan, provides new insight into colonial practices of self-mortification (Brandao and Nassaney 2008; Nassaney 2008). Devout Catholics use cilices to punish the flesh (Brandao and Nassaney 2008). The cilice recovered from the site of Fort St. Joseph was a metal instrument worn underneath clothing that would pierce the flesh of a person’s arm or leg as he or she moved about. The Catholics of New France would have used such an item to atone for their sins and to control sexual desire, a constant concern in the New World, where many French settlers were tempted by the flesh of Native peoples (Brandao and Nassaney 2008; see also Loren 2001b).
Covering the Body: Lead Cloth Seals
A sense of the variety of cloth commonly brought to the American colonies can be found in a 1761 account of goods shipped to Charlestown. The shipment included:
Duggets, drabs, duffles, duroys, serges, and shalloons, camlets, and grosgrams, cloth broad and narrow, from fine broadcloth to Negro cloth, Cloathes ready made for an enormous importation, also blankets, flannels, hats in wool or beaver, stockings, shrouds, carpets, buttons and mohair. Linen from Cambrick to Onnabrig, sail cloth linen, ticking, chequered and printed Linens, haberdashery items, East Indian cottons, calico, white or printed, muslin, dimity and fustian. English silks, stockings, Indian’s silks, handkerchiefs, gloves, ribbons, and Laces (quoted in De Marly 1990:88).
Cloth was one of the most important items exported from Europe to the colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Breen 1993; Ulrich 1991; see also Anderson 1994; Welters et al. 1985). Thousands upon thousands of yards of imported textiles were shipped to the American colonies each year. Plain linens imported from Ireland, Scotland, and northern England were used for men’s shirts, women’s shifts, and summer outerwear for slaves and laborers (Baumgarten 2002:78). Wool textiles produced in England, including broadcloth and damask, were used for trousers, cloaks and overcoats (Baumgarten 2002:78). Cotton and cotton-linen blends that were obtained from Lancashire, England, were used for shirts, shifts, and chemises (Baumgarten 2002:79). English weavers also supplied most of the silks that were used for doublets, dresses, and other finery (Baumgarten 2002:83). In Amsterdam, Kampen weavers specialized in making a woolen fabric known as “duffel,” a coarse fabric commonly used for blankets, cheap coats, and shoe insoles (Baart 1987:8). Red stroud, a heavy woolen fabric produced in the Gloucestershire town of Stroud, was often imported for trade primarily with Native Americans, but European and African peoples used it as well (Adams 1989:14).
English wool and French ecarlatine (scarlet cloth) were also popular among Native American consumers (Adams 1989:14). Welters and colleagues (1985) record the broad range of European fabrics recovered from two seventeenth-century mortuary contexts: a Narragansett cemetery in Rhode Island (RI-1000) and a Mashantucket Pequot cemetery in eastern Connecticut (Long Pond). Textiles recovered from these sites include wool, linen, and silk as well as Native American-manufactured textiles. Their documentation of a variety of types of European-manufactured cloth in Native American contexts indicates that trade in cloth and European-manufactured clothing had expanded in North America by the middle of the seventeenth century.
European-manufactured cloth was traded with Native American consumers for a variety of reasons, secular and sacred (see Loren 2001b). Cloth was a physical medium for the religious reform of Native peoples: it would cover their nakedness and thus enable them to be recognized as Christian and civilized. For example, in a 1609 broadside entitled “Nova Britannia,” Robert Johnson discussed the need for imported cloth to trade with Algon-quian peoples living in present-day Virginia:
But of all things, that God hath denied that countrie, there is want of Sheepe to make woolen cloth, and this want of cloth must alwais bee supplied from England, whereby when the colony is thorowly increased, and the Indians brought to our ciuilitie (as they will in short time) it will cause a mighty vent of English clothes.
Although documentary sources provide ample information about the kinds of cloth that were being shipped into the American colonies for Native and non-Native peoples, remnants of colonial cloth in archaeological contexts are rare. When recovered, these small scraps provide detailed information about how cloth was used to fashion clothing within colonial communities. For example, Ordonez and Welters (1998) analyzed over 150 fragments of cloth recovered from a seventeenth-century privy located behind the Nanny House site on Cross Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The types of fabric in the assemblage included a wide variety of silk, wool, and cotton (Ordonez and Welters 1998). Scissors, a needle case, a large number of silk ribbons, scraps with cut edges, and fabrics that show different seaming and construction techniques suggest that Katherine Nanny-Naylor, the resident of the house, sewed, mended, and embellished her family’s clothing.
Archaeological contexts are often not conducive to the preservation of textiles such as those recovered from the Katherine Nanny-Naylor privy. However, lead seals originally attached to bolts of cloth, which are often recovered in archaeological contexts, provide evidence of the distribution and types of textiles that were used in colonial contexts.1 These seals were typically two lead discs joined by a connecting strip that were folded around each side of a textile and stamped closed. Lead seals were attached to the outside corner section of bolts of cloth as a means of identification and as a component of regulation and quality control. The marks on the seals provide information about place of manufacture, taxation, or local inspection by dyers, clothiers, or weavers (Luckenbach and Cox 2003). Most textiles exported in this period were produced by guilds of weavers rather than in factories (Adams 1989:16). Every textile produced in Europe during this period was subject to inspection to ensure the quality of the threads used, the warp and weft, and the selvedge and the consistency of dye (Reddy 1988:266). Additionally, archaeologically recovered lead seals sometimes maintain the impression of the textile to which they were stamped. By the nineteenth century, lead seals had become obsolete due to industrialized production of textiles (Adams 1989:18).
Although lead seals were small items that were easily lost from bolts of cloth, they have been recovered from colonial sites throughout North America, including in domestic contexts. The locations of the cloth seals that have been recovered suggest how cloth was used within the household and in other community settings. For example, several lead cloth seals recovered from the cellar of Harvard’s Old College building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, suggest that the people living there constructed their own clothing. In the late 1980s, excavations conducted in the center of present-day Harvard Yard revealed the cellar of one of the university’s first four buildings, the Old College, which was built in 1644 (Stubbs 1992). By 1678, the wooden building was falling in on itself, and it was eventually torn down. Archaeological investigations of Old College indicated that the cellar
3.3. English lead cloth seal from Old College Cellar, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 987-22-10/100195.
Was filled through several refuse deposits from the late seventeenth through the early eighteenth centuries. The seal depicted in Figure 3.3 is embossed with the initial “W” (or “WM”) and was likely attached to woolen fabric, perhaps from the London Dyers’ Company (Egan 1995).
That this site offers evidence suggesting that the inhabitants of the site wore English-made clothing is not surprising. This particular New England context was a bastion of Puritan ideology, where English and Native American students were trained in “knowledge: and godlines[s]” (Harvard Charter of 1650, Harvard University Archives). Students of the university followed the sumptuary laws dictated by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the university forbade the wearing of “rich and showy clothing” (Harvard College Laws 1700, Harvard University Archives). Worsted wool would have fit within what Harvard and the Massachusetts Bay Colony considered “proper” clothing; this fabric was used to construct or mend plain trousers, overcoats, or scholars’ gowns. Another example of what Puritans considered to be proper fashion comes from the writings of Increase Mather, later president of Harvard, who in 1679 noted:
A proud Fashion no sooner comes to this Country, but haughty Daughters of Zion in this place are taking it up, and thereby the whole land is at last infected. What shall we say when men are seen in the Streets with monstrous and horrid Perriwigs, and Women with their Borders and False Locks and such like whorish Fashion, whereby the anger of the Lord in kindled against this sinful Land! (quoted in Goodwin 1999:111-112, emphasis in original text).
Most lead seals I have researched originate from the European empire. For example, almost 40 lead cloth seals were recovered from seventeenth-century sites in Anne Arundel, Maryland, as part of the Lost Towns Project (Luckenbach and Cox 2003). The seals recovered were English in origin, indicating that this community obtained cloth exclusively from Britain, such as Kersey woolen twill commonly used for overcoats (Luckenbach and Cox 2003).
European-manufactured cloth was brought to Colonial America for a variety of consumers: not just European colonists but also Native peoples, enslaved Africans, and servants. The recovery of hundreds of cloth seals from Fort Michilimackinac, an eighteenth-century fur-trading village and military outpost located in present-day Mackinaw City, Michigan, provides detailed information about the exchange between fur traders and cloth importers and the intersection of the trade of these two categories of material. The fort was a major hub of the growing fur trade in the Great Lakes region during the second half of the eighteenth century (Adams 1989:1; Morand 1994). As Adams (1989:1) explains, goods such as cloth, Jesuit rings, and clothing were brought to the fort from Montreal to be sent to other traders in the region or traded with the Odawa (Ottawa) peoples living nearby for fur. The rhythm of the fur trade and of colonial exchanges in this region generally followed the pattern found in other regions: Native American trappers and traders trapped and processed furs that they exchanged for European-manufactured items (Sokolow 2003:150). European-manufactured cloth was in high demand among Native American consumers. Dean Anderson’s examination of Montreal merchant records indicates that wool produced in France and England as well as thread, yarn, leggings, chemises, linen and cotton shirts, wool doublets, waistcoats, and sleeves constituted the vast majority of goods sent to Fort Michilimackinac (Anderson 1991, 1994; see also Anderson 1991, 1994; Kent 2001:546-562).
Extensive excavations of Fort Michilimackinac revealed more than 250 lead seals from French and British occupations of the site (Adams 1989:1). The embossed markings and cloth imprints on most of these seals indicate that they were originally attached to French or English cloth. Included in the assemblage are 16 seals from French ecarlatine produced in Mazanet, 13 seals from French bays (a type of wool), one seal from common English grey wool, 20 seals from French woolen stockings, and two seals from Lyons silk (Adams 1989:38-43). These lead fabric seals provide evidence of just a portion of the kinds of cloth shipped to the fort that was then used to make clothing.
As with many other colonial sites, the lead fabric seals recovered from the fort indicate that its population constructed clothing from imported cloth that was appropriate to the community of soldiers that lived there (leggings and wool intended for trousers, for example), some silk for fine clothes (intended for elites), and large quantities of bright scarlet cloth intended for trade with neighboring Odawa communities (Anderson 1991; see also Kent 2001:540-546). As members of Compagnies franches de la marine, soldiers at Fort Michilimackinac wore a uniform that consisted of a long collarless single-breasted grayish-white coat (justaucorps), a blue long-sleeved waistcoat, breeches, and stockings (Volo and Volo 2002:186). Dress for civilian men usually included trousers, shirts, cloaks, and coats, while women often wore, shirts, petticoats, aprons, chemises, bodices, and pockets (Kent 2001:581).
When the evidence we find meets our expectations about dress and its related artifacts, does it indicate that people wore the dress that was expected of them? In the case of Fort Michilimackinac, lead fabric seals alone do little to adjust our preconceived vision of daily life. The lead fabric seals recovered from Fort Michilimackinac were removed from bales, and the cloth in those bales was cut into smaller lengths for trade. But what evidence exists that the lead seals from scarlet cloth that were found throughout the site were removed not just so the cloth could be cut for trade but also so it could be cut to construct clothing? We assume that the scarlet cloth was cut for trade because of published contemporary reports that state that red woolen cloth was used for trade with Native peoples. A more careful reading of historical accounts, however, can provide more information about how settlers at the site dressed. Through these documents, a different version of clothing at the fort emerges. Numerous settler accounts stated that they were desperate for clothing and sought the help of Odawa women as well as tailors who lived on the site (Morand 1994:68). Items associated with sewing and tailoring—needles, thimbles, and scissors—have been recovered from numerous context at Fort Michili-mackinac (Morand 1994:69). Settlers combined locally made and imported clothing at Fort Michilimackinac; narratives from visiting dignitaries and colonial leaders indicate that settlers and soldiers (not just coureurs du bois) often wore moccasins, breechclouts and leggings in combination with ruffled shirts and waistcoats adorned with gilt braid (Morand 1994:67-68; Kent 2001:555).
Although company warehouses were stocked with numerous fabrics and articles of clothing, such as coats, cloaks, and trousers, these items were not always accessible to everyone at the fort (Anderson 1991, 1994; Kent 2001:569). Moreover, the clothing in the warehouses may not have been appropriate to how people at the fort lived their lives; they may have chosen to combine leggings and ornate waistcoats for more practical reasons. These combinations of dress are telling regarding how soldiers and settlers chose to dress in a fur trade town: they opted for a combination of imported and locally made goods to create a style of dress that was relevant in their part of the colonial world.
Fastening Cloth to Skin: Common Shirt Buttons
Historical archaeologists have long been preoccupied with buttons found at historical sites. As White (2005: 50) states, “Buttons are the most common type of personal adornment artifact recovered on historical-period archaeological sites; they are found in great numbers and in multitudinous designs, materials, forms, and sizes.” Cheryl Claassen (1994) has provided detailed information about shell button production, an important aspect of American manufacturing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And White (2005) provides great detail about the production, distribution, and recovery of buttons in seventeenth - and eighteenth-century New England. This research on buttons complements other work on buttons in many publications in historical archaeology (e. g., Aultman and Grillo 2003; Hinks 1988; Noel Hume 1969; White 2005). Because buttons have been so extensively examined within the discipline, the question is not whether or not to include them as a category; the question is whether more can be said about this mundane object.
3.4. One-part stone button mold, Lincoln, Massachusetts, seventeenth century. Courtesy of President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 24-7-10/94279.
As White (2005:73) and others have noted, there is still much to say. Buttons are used to simultaneously enclose the body and adorn the body. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, only military men and wealthy colonists normally used buttons. Everybody else fastened their simple clothing with laces tipped by metal ends known as aglets. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, plain and ornate buttons adorned coats, underwear, vests, and shirts. The style, shape, size and manufacture of a button can indicate what kind of clothing was worn. For example, brass buttons are from military coats, while we know that fabric-covered buttons were used on long underwear.
Prior to the eighteenth century, only a small amount of button production occurred in North America. Rather, as White indicates (2005:50-52), until the second half of the eighteenth century, most button production occurred in Europe, primarily in England. Buttons were imported from Europe and sold to merchants, where consumers could buy them in varying quantities (e. g., a dozen, a gross, a bag). While most European and Native peoples purchased manufactured buttons in this period, archaeological evidence from several Native American sites in New England indicate that Native peoples of the region made their own buttons by casting molten lead (some of which was from discarded lead fabric seals) into stone
3.5. Octagonal copper-alloy sleeve button, from Old College Cellar, Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 987-22-10/100223.
Molds. Figure 3.4 offers an example of such a button mold from Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Although both Native Americans and the English used stone molds in the early colonial period to cast lead objects, most archaeologically recovered stone molds for buttons are from Native American contexts (Barber 1984; Loren 2007a: 93-94; Willoughby 1935:243-244). Buttons were made in these molds by melting lead or other metal that was poured into the one-part molds, which were usually made of slate (Hinks 1988:60). Elsewhere I have discussed the importance of the stone button mold in the lives of colonial Native American people living in the region that colonists named New England (Loren 2007a:95). Here, however, I wish to focus on a commonly used eighteenth-century button: the octagonal copper-alloy sleeve button with impressed designs (see Figure 3.5).
As White (2005:61) notes, sleeve buttons are easily recognizable when found intact. Sleeve buttons, or cuff links as they are commonly known today, consist of two small buttons joined together by metal links served to hold together the cuffs of shirts while at the same time adding a bit of style to the individual’s attire (White 2005:61-62). Sleeve buttons were manufactured during the colonial period in England and France and later in North America. They were octagonal, oval, and round in shape and were cast from a variety of materials, including copper alloys and gold, silver, pewter, copper, and brass (Kent 2001:640; White 2005:61). The etching on sleeve buttons ranges from ornate motifs (as shown here) to less-well-executed designs (White 2005:61). Octagonal sleeve buttons were very popular during the eighteenth century and were widely distributed throughout North America (White 2005:61). Because sleeve buttons could be transferred from one shirt to another, they were carefully curated, and it would be rare to find a person of modest social status with more than one set.
Not surprisingly, small octagonal sleeve buttons have been recovered from numerous English and French sites in eastern North America. The sleeve button in Figure 3.5 was recovered from the same late seventeenth/ early eighteenth-century context as the lead fabric seal depicted in Figure 3.3: the cellar hole of Harvard’s Old College. Almost identical sleeve buttons have been recovered from colonial Williamsburg and from the Bennett’s Point (18QU28) site, a colonial-period tobacco plantation located in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland (Baumgarten 2002:159; Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab 2007; Noel Hume 1973).
Each of the contexts in which this kind of sleeve button was recovered suggests a different kind of dress. Colonial Harvard was known for more somber dress, while artifacts of clothing and adornment recovered from Colonial Williamsburg and Bennett’s Point suggest that individuals living within these communities wore more flamboyant fashions (Baumgarten 2002; Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab 2007).
Octagonal sleeve buttons have been recovered from other contexts as well that suggest varied uses of these small items. For example, they have been recovered from the African Burial Ground National Monument, a cemetery where more than 400 enslaved and free African men, women, and children were buried during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries outside the boundaries of the settlement of New Amsterdam, now Lower Manhattan (African Burial Ground 2008). Bianchi and Bianco (2006:306) note that clothing fasteners made from metal, bone, and wood were found in direct association with approximately 8 percent of the burials in the archaeologically excavated portion of the cemetery. Six individuals were buried with sleeve buttons. In three burials, sleeve buttons were recovered from near the wrist of the individual, suggesting that the sleeve buttons were used to close the shirtsleeves the individual was wearing at the time of interment. Two sets of cast copper-alloy sleeve buttons very similar to those recovered from Harvard Yard were recovered at the African Burial Ground from the interment of a 40- to 50-year-old man, one near each wrist (Bianchi and Bianco 2006:343).
However, most sleeve buttons found at the site were deposited in ways that suggest that they were used for ornamentation rather than as closures. For example, in the three other burials from which sleeve buttons were recovered, they were in association with other parts of the body (Bianchi and Bianco 2006:310). Two turquoise enamel sleeve button faces associated with an adult woman (Burial 371) might not have been used to fasten a garment, as they were located beneath her left upper arm. In the burial of an adult man (Burial 392), the sleeve buttons were located near the neck of the individual (Bianchi and Bianco 2006:31). The locations of these sleeve buttons suggest that they were not worn to close the cuffs of a shirt but were used in a different way, perhaps not as a clothing attachment but rather as an object of adornment. Additionally, because sleeve buttons are almost always linked to the dress of colonial men (White 2005:57), the use of sleeve buttons in the clothing or adornment of an adult African woman at the time of her burial challenges our expectations of how such items were used in the daily lives of colonial peoples. Such uses open our eyes to new interpretative possibilities, not only as to the use of buttons as adornment in colonial African American contexts but also to unexpected uses of items of adornment in the larger colonial world.
Other examples of buttons used purely as ornamentation rather than being used for function redound through Native American ethnographic collections. Buttons of various sizes, styles, and colors are found woven into baskets and threaded with glass beads in earrings. Without evidence of where an item was placed on or near the body, as in the case of the African Burial Ground, information about how these items were used often eludes us in archaeological analysis. Buttons recovered from excavations are frequently interpreted as items that were lost from an item of clothing. As these examples indicate, sleeve buttons and buttons were used in at least two ways: to help enclose the body and to ornament the body. Octagonal sleeve buttons are a common find in the archaeological record of colonial America, and the interpretation of these items rarely goes beyond mentioning that they were a common, reasonably priced manufactured item that was available nearly everywhere in colonial America. Yet the evidence in this chapter suggests that they were used for more than one fashion and by more than one category of individual.
Tattooing, cloth, and buttons as well as eyeglasses, shoes, shirts, and trousers served to cover naked flesh. They also protected the body from numerous dangers, environmental or sensual. These practices were not only a concern for the colonial period but carried into centuries long after the American Revolution. Consider the design and fashion of middle - and upper-class women’s clothing during the Victorian period. It was not enough to simply cover one’s body; tight, corseted waists, expansive skirts, and narrow shoulders were purposely constructed to limit movement and protect the body (Davis 1994: 98; Entwistle 2000:163-164). Not only did these constricting fashions limit the amount a woman could eat at one sitting (a pleasure of the flesh) but they also prevented her body from doing activities such as housework, which disallowed middle - and upper-class women from being in contact with unhygienic environments (Entwistle 2000:162-163). Victorian dress reform in the nineteenth century critiqued restrictive dress and promoted new, freer fashions that included bloomers in lieu of skirts and union suits in lieu of corsets; fashions that were then critiqued, not surprisingly, for enabling sexual impropriety and social liberty (Entwistle 2000:164-165).
In the next chapter, I investigate some examples of adornments that were added to the body. Rather than just surface embellishment, adornments were an integral part of dress, an extension of the body that influenced dress, style, and even how someone could move through a social space. Adornments were both secular and sacred and were laid on the surface of the tattooed, marked, or clothed body to express aspects of social identity.
1. Not all seals were used for cloth. Other items were often marked with lead seals, including red paint brought to North America for trade with Native peoples (Gregory 1980:78-80).