Eighteenth-century gentlemen were not shy about taking credit for their achievements; think of those boldly-written names at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence.) But the accomplishments of most women took place in a less-public sphere, and were seldom of the kind that could be signed: a safely-delivered child, a perfectly baked cake, a well-run shop or trade, a farm managed while a husband and sons were away fighting the war.
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (1757-1854) is known today as one of the founders of an orphanage whose work continues today, as the defender of her husband Alexander Hamilton’s reputation, and as the devoted mother who held her family together after Alexander’s untimely death. This is a powerful legacy in itself. But Eliza was also believed to be a skilled needleworker who not only took pride in her handwork (see here and here) , but also enjoyed creating for others even as an elderly woman with failing eyesight.
Her needlework is qualified with that “believed to be”, since none of her surviving pieces are signed. But family stories and traditions are strong, and help establish provenance even if a “signature” is absent. It’s also easy to believe that Eliza, like every woman who sews, embroiders, or knits today, enjoyed the relaxation and self-expression that her needle could provide, as well a way to put a bit of herself into gifts made for those she loved.
Certainly this child’s dress, below left, believed to be Eliza’s work, would belong to that last category. It’s been beautifully conserved by Filaments Conservation Studio, and is now on display, above, through August at the Museum of the American Revolution as part of their “Year of Hamilton” celebration. The dress is on loan to the Museum through the generosity of Douglas Hamilton, fifth-great-grandson of Eliza and Alexander Hamilton.
Dated to between 1810-1840, the dress is thought to have been made by Eliza for one of her nine granddaughters born between 1811 and 1838. It might also have been worn by one of her grandsons. Babies and young children at this time were dressed in much the same way, and there’s nothing in this garment to indicate the wearer’s gender.
According to Textile Conservator Virginia J. Whelan, the dress was intended for a young child (around six to nine months ) who was still too young to walk. The skirts are intentionally longer, and meant to drape over the legs of a child and trail across the arm of whomever was carrying the baby. Adult fashion influenced the dress, too, with the higher waist of the dress and the scooped neckline reflecting early 19thc women’s fashions. Stitched channels around the neckline and below the waist contain tapes for adjusting the fullness and fit, and to tie and fasten the dress at the back.
My favorite parts of the dress are the little sleeves, right, which to me resemble an angel’s wings. Ms. Whelan explained their elaborate construction:
“The ruffle is a width of fabric with hand-worked embroidery on one edge that is then gathered at the other edge and applied with hand-stitching to create the sleeve. Each short, puffed sleeve is constructed of two staggered rows of applied ruffles. Gussets were inserted in the sleeves to allow extra movement by the wearer. The outer scalloped edge is a buttonhole stitch and there are alternating designs (four-prong, twig-like shapes alternating with a diamond shape made of dots) worked in a satin stitch.”
There’s further embellishment, too. Whitework as well as cut-and-drawn work enhance both the sleeves and the skirt. The scalloped hem is designed to echo the ruffled sleeves.
It’s no secret that babies throughout history have been prone to unpredictable mishaps and messes. To modern mothers accustomed to wash-and-wear-and-wash-again baby clothes, all this snowy-white cotton requiring careful washing and ironing (and quite likely the skill of a professional laundress) would be a nightmare. Nor have babies themselves ever cared what they wore as long as it is warm, comfortable, and dry.
Yet the very fact that this dress has been preserved and passed down through generations of Hamiltons shows how much the garment was cherished. It’s easy to imagine Eliza - famous for her devotion to children - thinking of the special small person who would wear this with every stitch she took, just as that small person, when grown, must have looked back at this gown and fondly remembered the grandmother who put so much care and love into its creation.
Many thanks to Virginia J. Whelan, Filaments Conservation Studio, and Mark Turdo, curator, Museum of the American Revolution, for their assistance with this post.
Child’s Dress. Made by Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, New York, 1810-1840, on loan from Douglas Hamilton. Upper photo copyright 2019 Virginia J. Whelan; lower photo copyright 2019 Susan Holloway Scott.
Read more about Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton in my historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton. My new historical novel, The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, is now available everywhere, in stores and online. Order here.