Most historical research for a novel involves words, and more words: letters, journals, diaries, and other books. But sometimes research means things: objects that were significant to my characters, and somehow survived: a tangible, magical link to the past.
Despite the popular history myths, 18thc women didn't sew the their all the clothing that their families wore. Nor did they shear the sheep and harvest the flax, process all the fibers, spin the thread, and weave the cloth; even if you lived on the edge of the wilderness, there were skilled tradespeople who took care of all that, and merchants ready to supply their wares at every price point. But while creating jackets, breeches, and gowns was left to tailors and mantua-makers, women did make the less challenging items like baby clothes, neckcloths, handkerchiefs, shirts, and shifts at home.
Sewing by hand was a useful skill, and considered a virtuously industrious one as well for women of every rank. But for many women, sewing was also a form of personal satisfaction and self-expression. The past (and the present!) is filled with women for whom sewing a neat, straight seam of perfectly even stitches or completing an intricate embroidery pattern is a matter of pride, accomplishment, and zen-like peace. Stitching for a special person could create a personal, even intimate, gift as well. Hand-made items can come with love and good wishes in every stitch.
Eliza Schuyler Hamilton (the heroine of my new historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton) enjoyed sewing, embroidery, and knitting. I've already shared one surviving example of her needlework, this lavish embroidered mat to display the miniature of her then-fiancee, Alexander Hamilton, made during the summer and fall when they were engaged but apart. Here are a pair of handkerchiefs that, by family tradition, were also made by Eliza, and carried by her and Alexander at their wedding in December, 1780.
The larger handkerchief, above, would have been Eliza's. Made of fine imported linen, it shows skilled cutwork over net inserts as well as precise stitching of the highest level, suitable for a special event like a wedding. (Given its size, I'm wondering if this might have been a neckerchief for wearing around the shoulders - a popular style in the 1780s - rather than a handkerchief, but since the archival description calls it a handkerchief, then so shall I.) Surviving, too, is the gentleman's handkerchief, below, with an embroidered geometric pattern with floral accents. Again, the legend is that Eliza made the handkerchief for Alexander, a romantic gift that he must have treasured.
Today the linen on the two handkerchiefs is yellowed and so fragile that they cannot be unfolded, but the beauty and the undeniable care (and likely love) that went into each one of those long-ago stitches remains. The fact that both pieces were set aside and treasured for more than two hundred years shows how special they must have been - and even now, in their special, acid-proof archival box, they're still stored together.
Many thanks to Jennifer Lee, curator, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University, for showing the neckerchief and the handkerchief to me.
Pair of wedding handkerchiefs, c1780, Alexander Hamilton Collection, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University. Photographs ©2017 Susan Holloway Scott.
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.