Many of us are quite used to reading sources only for the information that they explicitly give us – burial registers tell us the dates of burials, and so on. But quite often those same sources can be very revealing about other issues, things that aren’t explicitly stated. The same burial registers can reveal an accident or epidemic in a village, for example, if there are a more of burials than usual within a few days of one another.
Thinking sideways about the sources in this way can lead us to a much fuller picture of life in the past than we might otherwise have had. In particular, it allows us to build up a picture (sometimes directly, sometimes by inference) of what everyday life was like for ‘ordinary’ people in the past – something that few historical sources do. In this blog, I’d like to highlight a few interesting examples of this from within our collections.
One of the most difficult things to discover about the past is what people wore in their everyday lives. Most of the clothing that has survived through to the present day tends to be high-status clothing, either belonging to an ‘elite’ or only worn on very special occasions. Even in the age of photography, it can be surprisingly hard to get a sense of what people wore: until relatively recently photographs were expensive and out of the reach of most people. A consequence of this was that having a photograph taken was often only done for special occasions, and was frequently quite a formal event that people wore their best clothes for, so the images don’t necessarily reflect what people wore every day.
One of the more unusual ways of finding this information is through photographs of people who had just been arrested, in the police force’s criminal records. We have quite a few of these images in our Constabulary collection (F5), and they usually include a photograph of the offender, alongside a summary of their details and the crimes they were convicted of. They’re mainly used for researching details of the crime(s) committed, but they’re also incredibly useful for giving us a snapshot of everyday clothing at the time, as well as the ways in which fashions changed over time or across social groups, as you can see from these two images taken eighteen years apart:
Interestingly, they can also tell us about tattoos and body art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the records also include any identifying marks, as in this example which shows the convict having a tattoo of a woman and a man on his right and left forearms:
Another thing that can be quite hard to discover from surviving sources are the more mundane elements of daily life. Often what has survived are official accounts, which don’t offer much of a window into the realities of the everyday. One of the best sources to use for this are wills. These, of course, tell us a lot about people’s possessions (which can be revealing in themselves, as we’ll see), as well as helping to confirm the names and relationships of relatives making them an important source for any family history. Very occasionally, however, they can reveal something of the nature of those relationships, particularly if family members had fallen out with one another.
This will from William Edwards in 1732 refers to ‘the many and great troubles expences [sic] and vexations occasioned me and my dear wife by the undutiful and disobedient behaviour and perverseness of my son William’, and left him ‘one shilling and no more’:
Wills also offer a glimpse into private living arrangements. In 1763 Richard Townson left his possessions to ‘unto Anna Maria Byer who lives and cohabits with me (and is Really and truely my wife)’, where most sources talk of married couples.
They can also reveal some of the more sinister elements of private life that aren’t captured in other records. In 1625 Richard Dawers left his daughter Anne (and her children, should she have any) £20 in trust so that her husband could not access it. ‘The cause of debarringe my sonne in law to have any medling or dealing therewith’, he wrote, ‘is in regard to his unkind & churlish dealinge with my daughter his wife, duringe my life time, that I doe much feare, if god give him not more grace, it shall goe worse with her after my death’.
On a lighter note, sometimes wills offer an insight into some of the more mundane parts of everyday life. Francis Lambe left his daughter daughter a pair of ‘waffinge irons to make waffers’.
Last but not least, my favourite: in 1596, Thomas Warr gave his daughter Alice ‘a cowe knowne by the name of Whurlock’ – proof that giving animals odd names isn’t confined to the present day!
As shown by one of this year’s Explore Your Archive themes #Archivecatwalk ‘the history of fashion is the history of people’. Archives can provide a unique insight into the fashion of the past from sources such as inventories, wills, household accounts, bills, photographs, drawings, magazines and periodicals, diaries and more. Sometimes they can provide evidence where little else has survived. I’ve picked a few examples from our collections for this blog, but there are many more out there!
Inventories, wills and bills
Inventories can provide evidence for the garments and quantities of clothing in households of varied status. Textiles and clothing are not only revealed through bequests in wills but in the given occupations of testators including clothiers, cloth-workers, glovers, haberdashers, hat makers, draper, cordwainers, weavers etc.
Bills and accounts give us dated evidence of prices paid for all sorts of clothing and textiles, such as this example in the papers of sisters Miss Mary Codrington of Walcot in Bath (died 9 March 1754) and Miss Dorothy Codrington (died at Bath in 1768).
We also hold a detailed bill for Lady Elizabeth Seymour dating to 1669 which is mostly for clothing. It includes white and coloured worsted stockings; fabrics including tabby, lutestring, satin, sarsnett, venetian, cambric, farindin, avignion, parrigone, tifiney; laced shoes, and a “pare of golosus”; damask and jessemy powder. Rather pleasingly it also includes an entry for 8 pounds of that most essential of items ‘iockaletta’ (no prizes for guessing!).
Women in the mid-17th century often wore low cut bodices laced down the front with ribbons and coming to a deep point, a linen collar (which was sometimes transparent) ¾ length sleeve with turn ups of lace. They would have worn gowns and petticoats (which are also listed in Lady Seymour’s bill). There was also a fashion for adding ‘patches’ to the face which satirist John Bulwer described as the ‘vain custom of spotting their faces out of affectation of a mole, to set off their beauty’. The shapes could vary from spots, to stars, crescents, or even ‘a coach and horses cut out of black ‘court plaster’. Amazingly this was a fashion which lasted for more than 50 years.
For men the custom of wearing a periwig was adopted following the King appearing in one in 1663. Samuel Pepys recorded his wearing of a periwig in his diary, and is seemingly a little disappointed not to have provoked more interest: “I found that my coming in a periwig did not prove so strange as I was afraid it would for I thought that all the church would presently have set their eyes upon me” The fashion lasted for nearly 100 years, although the use of powder did not begin until the latter part of the 17th century.
Nearly 100 years later, a 1741 inventory of the Earl of Ailesbury’s clothes in London and at Tottenham includes suits of cloth in various colours, flowered crimson velvet, bargen, camelet, flowered silk, 4 tied wigs and 3 bobs, silk and thread stockings, 4 swords, buttons, shoe and knee buckles in gold, silver, pinchbeck and enamel.
Magazines and periodicals:
In a collection of family papers we have 11 copies of ‘The Ladies Cabinet’ magazine covering fashion, music and romance. This 1835 edition includes an advert for ‘French and English Corsets’ with the Patent Black which is ‘instantly unlaced in cases of sudden indisposition’. There is also the Elastic Stay which prevents pressure on the chest in the case of pulmonary complaints and the Gestation Stay, which gives necessary comfort and support to ladies during pregnancy. The corset had come back into fashion after the earlier ‘Empire’ gown of the end of the 18th century. The pursuit of this style led to some extraordinary effort; Laver notes in ‘A Concise History of Costume’ (p162) that in one corset advert a mother is advised to make her daughter lie face down on the floor so she might place a foot in the small of her back to obtain the necessary purchase on the laces.
In slightly less restricted attire, a 1928 magazine snippet shows the remarkable speed record-holder Mrs Bruce (see our Principal Archivist’s blog on some of her favourite archives to learn more about Mary Bruce’s extraordinary story). Post war, fashion began to pick up again, and the flared skirt which had lasted throughout the war was replaced by a more cylindrical ‘barrel’ line with shorter skirts (knee length). This can be seen in this sketch where she is described as ‘a picture of practical smartness in her redingote of beige and grey tweed. With it she wears tan gloves and a felt hat to match’.