The Ladies' Tea Guild

Friday, December 28, 2012

Yay! New history research project!

ca. 1840 silk dress in the Metropolitan
Museum of Art.
O.k., I've been volunteering in the Collections Center at the history museum where I'm on staff (in a different department) off an on for the past few years (mostly during the summers), but steadily once a week for the past 6 months.  I'm assisting the Registrar in various tasks having to do with restoring, labeling, identifying, photographing, storing, and making records for various artifacts in the collection.  All very cool because I, as a part-time volunteer, get to work directly with the artifacts with very little supervision (the perks of working with a small museum that is underfunded and understaffed, and yet has a huge collection to maintain).  The Registrar knows of my interest in and experience with historic textiles and fashion history, so he's assigned me to work primarily with the textile items that need processing and care.  It's been really fun and interesting!

ca. 1848 fashion print.
On to the new project: about 2 weeks ago, he e-mailed me to tell me that we'd received a donation of some 19th century dresses from a woman who claimed they had belonged to California's first Governor's wife, and that one had been worn in San Jose, CA (where I live and where the museum is) in 1849 to California's first Governor's Inaugural Ball!  When I got to the museum, I discovered that one of the archives volunteers had already started to research the family story using the materials in our archive at the museum, and had come up empty-handed.  I took a quick look at the dresses; one was a day dress made of a white material with a raised lattice pattern woven in, trimmed in green braid, made in a late 1830s style that had been slightly modified (the top edges of the front-closing bodice neckline had been turned under and sewn down to make a V-shaped neckline) for the 1840s, and a burgundy silk brocade day dress that had originally been hand-sewn in the 1840s (skirt cartridge pleated to bodice at back and side waist, narrow bias-cut sleeves with flared sleeve caps, shallow center-front point at the bodice waistline) but had been re-styled with a sewing machine for the mid 1860s (skirt panels narrowed in front, bodice point tucked behind skirt waistband in front to make a round waistline, and black lace trim applied to imitate a square neckline).  I could see the original style because the fabric hadn't been re-cut when the dress was re-styled, and all the original hand-stitching was still there, or the original needle holes were there marking the seam lines.  The burgundy day dress was supposed to have been worn to the Inaugural Ball, and the only provenance was oral history in the family.  We had to verify that story before I could process the dress and add it to our database of records! 

ca. 1860 fashion plate.
So, the questions I'm asking are: what kind of clothes did the Governor's wife wear in San Jose, and would a day dress have been worn to the Inaugural Ball in 1849?  They pretty much turned over the research to me!  Gold Rush California women, and 19th century fashion are right up my alley, so the search is ON!  This is what we know so far:

1. California's first governor was Peter Hardemann Burnett.  His wife's name was Harriet Rogers Burnett and they came to the Pacific Northwest in a covered wagon around 1842.  The Governor was a successful lawyer and judge in Oregon for several years before coming to California for the Gold Rush with Mrs. Burnett and their 6 children.  They settled in San Francisco shortly after arriving in California.

2. Judge Burnett ran for Governor in October and November of 1849, just after California had achieved independence from Mexico, and was a U.S. Territory.  It's said that he won the election mainly for two reasons: he campaigned a lot with his family among transplanted Oregonians in the gold mines, and his three daughters were teenagers or in their early 20s, while his main opponent was a bachelor.  Apparently, having pretty young daughters in Gold Rush-era California made that much difference! 

3. The November 1849 election also ratified the California State Constitution and chose San Jose as the first State Capitol.  The Legislature was supposed to meet in San Jose in December of 1849, but San Jose didn't have any appropriate public buildings, and no proper hotels or places for the legislators and government staff to live.  San Jose scrambled to get ready, purchasing an unfinished 2-story adobe building that was intended to be a hotel, for the State House, but nothing was finished when the meeting date arrived. The State House was 1 large and 4 smaller rooms on the ground floor, and 1 large room on the upper floor, which was accessed by an outdoor staircase.

4. The winter of 1849 was so rainy, and the roads so flooded and muddy, that only a few legislators had arrived in San Jose by December 15th, the meeting date, and the Legislature couldn't meet until most had arrived -- a week later.  Also, they had to scrounge for places to stay, and the few hotels in the area raised their prices.  According to the Argonaut newspaper (in San Francisco), "No sooner was the Legislature fairly organized than the members began to growl about their accommodations.  They didn't like the Legislative building, and swore terribly between drinks at the accommodations of the town generally." One of the first things they voted on, according to the Alta California newspaper (in San Francisco) was whether or not they should move the Capitol out of San Jose! 

5. Governor Burnett was sworn in on December 20, 1849, after the ceremony had been postponed for several days because of the rain and mud, which made the roads and streets impassible.  The mud was so thick that the legislators couldn't get home over Christmas, and loudly complained.  The only luxury that seemed to be available, was strong drink, so the Legislature of 1849 was nicknamed "The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks." 

6. The Argonaut records, "On the evening of the 27th, the citizens of San Jose having become somewhat alarmed at the continued grumbling of the strangers within their gates, determined that it was necessary to do something to content the assembled wisdom of the State, and accordingly arranged for a grand ball, which was given in the Assembly Chamber."  Governor and Mrs. Burnett hosted the event.  An account of the event from 1871 says: "Ladies were scarce, and of course, the country was raked for senoritas."  The same book (History of San Jose by Frederic Hall) tells that the Spanish ladies wore red and yellow flannel petticoats under their dresses, which showed when they danced and made the American ladies smile at their unfashionableness, but the Spanish ladies were more graceful dancers than the American ladies. 

7. An earlier ball, held that summer in Monterey for the writing of the State Constitution, was recorded by Mrs. John C. Fremont as "requir[ing] creativity [in costume] of the attendees ... A complete [gentleman's] ball-dress was a happiness attained only by the fortunate few. ... The dressing for this ball was a serious matter to these native California ladies.  They had already all these expensive gowns, but they wished something absolutely new and in our fashion. ... [One American-born California lady said] 'Why, I have thirty-seven satin dresses, and no two off the same piece'," when she asked to copy one of Mrs. Fremont's evening gowns, and heard that Mrs. Fremont hadn't brought any evening dresses with her to California.  -- from They Saw the Elephant by JoAnn Levy.

Spanish ladies ca. 1848.
8. The San Jose Evening News ran a series of articles in the 1940s called "When Santa Clara County Was Young" which featured information recorded from interviews with local old-timers.  The November 29, 1941 issue contained an account of the First Inaugural Ball which reads in part: "Invitations to the first inaugural ball in California, which occurred in San Jose, were printed in gold on pink satin. ... Old San Joseans always spoke of Governor Burnett's ball as "the inaugural ball" as if it were the only one which ever took place. ... It was a great occasion.  For years it was unapproached as a social event. Governor and Mrs. Burnett received the guests.  They were assisted by their two daughters, afterwards Mrs. Ryland and Mrs. Wallace, so alike that they could hardly be told apart. ... The invitation list was large.  All the respectable Americans in San Jose were invited, and many of the fashionable Spanish Californians. ... In those days there were no carriages, and so the people who came in from the country either rode or drove ox teams. ... The women wore pointed bodices and ruffled skirts.  Mrs. Buckner's dress was pink silk and low cut. ... Mrs. McCracken wore white muslin embroidered with pink.  The bodice was cut modestly low, and the skirt had three ruffles.  The dress was imported from San Francisco ... [Mrs. McCracken said] that most of the ladies wore white.  According to Mrs. Buckner, the Spanish women were the prettiest at the ball..  They wore rebosos of bright colors which they kept on during the entire evening." 

9. The article from 1941 contains the only description I've seen of what anybody wore to the ball!  The other newspapers in print in 1849 were printing out of San Francisco, and the muddy roads prevented any reports from getting to them and being printed for about 3 weeks; the Argonaut, Alta California, and Pacific News wrote about the ball in January of 1850, and mentioned it in one sentence: basically, "Governor Burnett gave his inauguration speech, and there was a ball in San Jose."

So... at least some women in the area had evening dresses to wear to the ball, and the newspapers of the time advertise all kinds of luxuries for sale from ships in the San Francisco Bay, including silks and fabrics of all kinds, so the women would have had access to appropriate materials for making evening clothes. But I'm still looking for a contemporary account -- newspaper, journal, magazine, letter, etc. -- that mentions what Mrs. Burnett was wearing!  I'll try to take and upload photos of the dress in question at the museum, sometime in January.  The search is still on ... but it's a fun search!
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)