Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Night at the Speakeasy

A few weeks ago, I waved my hair (or made an attempt), rolled my stockings down, and kicked up at the White Lightning Ball hosted by the Greater Boston Vintage Society. It was the bee's knees!

The event took place at the carriage house of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum. Originally built in 1888, the space was perfect for a speakeasy! Jason, our gracious host, put in a huge amount of effort to build some pieces to add to the atmosphere, including a 20s-style roulette wheel, microphones, and jiggering an original still to run water. The props added a lot, and it was a lot of fun to explore everything the event had to offer.

The carriage house in its heyday
I wore a new-ish 20s evening dress I haven't posted about yet, mostly because it's not done. I used the same shot taffeta as the regency dress I whipped together in February, and it is still fabulously magical stuff. Rather than the straight-rectangle shapes I used for the seersucker dress I made this summer, I tried a trapezoid skirt and cut the waistband on the bias to make it a little clingier. I'm really happy with how right for the 20s the silhouette turned out, and once it's trimmed I may actually like it...20s are so not my period! But if it means great cocktails and a lot of dancing, I'll put up with it.

my new (totally untrimmed) shot taffeta dress
I also tried something new with my hair, aiming for those iconic flapper waves. I used an electric 3-barrel crimper on the front sections, which you can sort of see in the picture above. Unfortunately, once my unruly curls started frizzing (the band was too good not to dance!) the effect was way less noticeable. I have some thoughts (thanks to some great advice--thanks Emily!) on what to try next, so I may have give that a shot sometime soon.

waved hair, candy cigarettes, and a real 1920s slot machine
The event was also sponsored by Bully Boy Distillers, a local whiskey distillery. They provided lovely cocktails, and I recommend the brand if you live in the area.

So without further ado, step into the speakeasy with me!

A tin sign protesting the amendment that outlawed alcohol

This banner was strung across the dance floor--are you a member of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment?
The fab cigarette girls were handing out candy cigarettes--I didn't know they still made those!
a crooked cop dealing at the blackjack table

betting at the roulette table

bottles by the still
with a Bully Boy cocktail

our crew, posing with a prop Tommy gun at the "photo booth"--I'm not sure who the gun belonged to, but we (along with a lot of other guests) took turns guarding the moonshine. And it was just as heavy as the real thing, so that took some serious muscle! (which might be why I look ready to 'whack' someone in all the pictures where I'm holding it...) that.

There were two fun performances by the Chifferobes, and I snapped this just before they started

end-of-the-night announcements on one of the reproduction microphones
What a grand evening! If you're in the Boston area, you definitely shouldn't miss the next one...Check out the site link above for the details, and I'll see you there!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

When Reconstructing History is Delicious

I've been thinking about food a lot lately.

illustrations from a 19th c. cookbook
This is probably because I have been travelling a lot, which makes me both acutely aware of how difficult it is to eat enough vegetables when I can't cook, and excited to explore regional cuisines (breakfast tacos in TX, for example). This is probably also because we just had Returning Heroes, and the Regency Weekend is less than a month away, so there has been a lot of discussion lately about refreshments.

Refreshments vary--some balls have big, lavish refreshments, while other balls are more casual--but when CVD aims for flashy food, it's just as much a chance to crack open some food history as it is to crack some eggs. Or 20 eggs. It happens.

Refreshments from the Pride and Prejudice Ball, February 2013

What we eat has changed a lot throughout history, developing to reflect availability of new ingredients, new technologies for cooking, local tastes, and the developing cultural palette. There will always be old recipes that sound sort of terrible to modern sensibilities, but there are TONS of really delicious-sounding recipes that can be explored for all sorts of entertaining, both intentionally historical (like balls) or modern (let's make syllabub the newest potluck sensation!).

The one problem with 19th century recipes is that the context in which they were written and/or published--the measurement systems, baking technology, etc.--is very different than modern expectations. Sometimes, even the "modern versions" of period recipes don't quite work. As I get ready to bake "Dolley Madison Cookies" for the Regency Weekend, I thought I'd share a little bit about the process of reconstructing recipes for a modern kitchen environment.

Here's an example of a sugar cookie recipe from slightly later than FLOTUS Dolley Madison's cookies, but with a very similar description:

"soft cookies," from The Practical Housekeeper and Young Woman's Friend published in 1855
I could probably get a kitchen scale (I used to use one when I was studying in Scotland), but I'm lazy and then I'd have to figure out pints and things, which I am unwilling to do. So I'd much rather modernize this!

There's an article about cookies in Austen's time on the Jane Austen Centre website, and that's where I stole this modernized recipe for Mrs. Madison's cookies from (based on the recipe just below it):

Sugar Cookies
2 cups butter
¾ cup milk
4 cups sugar
1 tsp baking soda
10 egg yolks, beaten
1 tsp cinnamon
10 egg whites, beaten
Flour to suit

To Make Sugar Cakes
Take 3 ale quarts of fine flowre, & put to it a pound of sugar, beaten & searced; 4 youlks of eggs, strayned thorugh a fine cloth with 12 or 13 spoonfulls of good thick cream; & 5 or 6 spoonfulls of rose water; A pound & a quaeter of butter, washt in rose water & broaken in cold, in bits. knead all these ingredients well together . after, let it ly A while, covered well, to rise. then roule them out & cut them with a glass, & put them on plates (a little buttered) in an oven gently heat. all these kinde of things are best when ye sugar & flower are dryed in an oven before you use ym.

The thing is, after making this recipe several times, one thing became clear: there was no way in hell I was going to be able to ever roll these cookies out. They were sticky, the edges always burned, and there was no way they looked nice enough to serve at a public event. Which is too bad, because they are so very perfect as a vessel for syllabub (a period recipe that is basically whipped cream with wine). So I set out to adjust.

Based on period descriptions, I knew these should be closer to a cakey consistency than a sugar cookie consistency--kind of like modern madeleines. With that in mind, I sought to fix the problems I was having with the proportions without actually changing the consistency of my final result, which seemed right. I also tried to figure out a way to make these happen in one bowl, which I failed at slightly, but oh well.

So here is my final result! If you decide to try making these, please let me know how you do...or you could come sample mine for yourself at the Regency Weekend this April.

Dolley Madison's Sugar Cookies for the Modern Baker

2 c. butter, softened
4 c. granulated sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
10 egg whites, beaten to peaks
10 egg yolks, scrambled with a fork
1 tsp. cinnamon
5 1/2 c. flour

Preheat oven to 375.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat egg whites until they reach medium peaks. (For me, this is slightly before I hit meringue territory, so that the whites appear soft but I can still tip the bowl upside-down and nothing falls out.) Gently transfer beaten whites to another bowl for safekeeping, and then add the butter and sugar to the electric mixer bowl. Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, cinnamon, and baking soda.
With the mixer on the lowest possible speed, begin to slowly start to add the whites back in. Once about half have been incorporated, just fold the rest in with a spatula. The goal is to mix as little as possible here.
Add the flour, about a cup at a time, mixing as slow as possible, as little as possible.

Once all of the flour has been thoroughly combined, spoon batter/dough (it should have a slightly in-between texture) in large tablespoons onto greased cookie sheets. Try to keep the blobs as spherical as possible, as this will make the cookies prettier and rounder after they are baked.
Bake for about 8 minutes, adjusting time as needed so that the cookies are baked through but not burnt on the edges.
Let cool in open air for about an hour before storing in your container of choice. Adding waxed paper between the layers also helps keep the cookies from sticking or getting damaged during transport.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Fit's the Key

Last night was Returning Heroes, an annual ball hosted by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers in Holliston. Returning Heroes is super special, because it is the only ball of the year at which period costume is required. It's a lot of fun, Spare Parts is wonderful, and 60s clothes will always be my favorite evening wear. This year was a smaller crowd, but just as lively as always and everyone seemed to have a great time! 

making bowers during the Grand March. What a lovely mix of uniforms and civilian tails!

I've had a lot going on the past couple of months, and I really want to make some new things for the Regency Weekend in April, so I decided not to make anything new for this ball. Instead, I worked on fixing the dress I wore last year--fixing issues is something I rarely do, and I need to get better at making it a habit. What a difference it made!

last year at RH: wrinkly, gap-y bodice
this year: no gaps in the neckline and no wrinkles!

When I originally made my pink plaid ballgown last March, the waist was too long. When the dress was on over my hoops (with the waistline at my waist, where it was supposed to be), there was too much room in the bodice, and it meant the whole bodice was wrinkled and the neckline gaped. To fix it, I should have taken the skirt off the waistband, shortened the bodice, and reattached the skirt higher up...but I really didn't want to do that. I had a lot of trouble cartridge pleating this fabric because my thread kept breaking, and I was afraid undoing the waist seam would ruin the pleats. So instead, I took a tuck out of the waist just above the seam--the adjustment was visible, but I made a quick velvet sash to cover it. Voila! A bodice that actually fits!

a much better fit, and a fabulous sash!
I am always discouraged when I finish a project and it doesn't fit perfectly, but making adjustments is part of why clothes I make for myself could end up fitting perfectly once I fix them. I need to get in the habit of doing that, rather than abandoning the project or learning to live with the bad fit. Lesson learned!

And a few more Returning Heroes shots:

setting up for refreshments

serving Charlotte Russe

group shot!

Friday, February 28, 2014

An Introduction to 19th Century Photography

Browsing posts, Pinterest boards, books, and articles about historical costuming reveals a wide variety of sources we use as inspiration; extant garments, paintings, fashion plates, and portraits are some of the most common. This is true for a lot of periods (although the farther back you go the more scarce extant garments become), because artists have been capturing the human image for centuries and in general we like to be memorably captured in our best clothes.

throwback Thursday: getting captured in our best clothes by eminent "street style" photographer Bill Cunningham in 2012
But something revolutionary happened in the nineteenth century: the process of using a mechanical device to capture an image and, using chemicals and light, create a semi-permanent likeness was developed. In other words, photography was invented. Depending on what you read, there are a lot of dates and inventors associated with the photographic process, and to this day both technology and artistic practices are constantly evolving and experimenting and changing what photography means. This post is just a brief overview, focusing on some highlights that interest me.

19th century tintype, source unknown
The Royal Exchange, London, mid 19th c. by the London Stereoscopic Company
There are two ways of looking at photography as a monumental contribution to our understanding of history (and our ability to re-create it): the subject and the photographer. Most obviously, photographs (or heliographs or daguerreotypes or ambrotypes or tintypes depending on the process used) are taken of something. This allows us, the modern viewer, to see whatever it was that the photographer saw when the image was taken. It might be what our street looked like in the 1860s, what a store might look like, or (of course) what people looked like/wore. Looking at photographic likenesses (rather than paintings or mass-produced illustrations like fashion plates) gives us a chance to inspect details, step into the every day, and witness historic moments.

Mass Ave, Cambridge (right near my house!), mid 19th century, via the Cambridge Public Library Archives
Harvard students at play, 1909, via the Cambridge Public Library Archives
The second way that I find photographs so important for history is what they tell us about the person who took them. In many cases (e.g., studio portraits, journalistic photos), producing images was a trade much the way it is today. But (also like today) photography was also a form of artistic expression, world exploration, and documentation. While certainly there are career photographer’s whose work is important for our understanding of history, I am most fascinated by the world as it was captured by amateurs.

photograph, 1862, by Viscountess Hawarden
children playing, Newcastle, 19th century, photographer unknown
While the roots of modern photography go back as far as the 1810s, it wasn’t until the development of the daguerreotype—the first popular photographic process, named for its inventor Louis Daguerre—and its refinements in the 1840s that portraits could be done relatively easily and cheaply. For the first time, taking a picture of someone or something had a relatively short exposure time and produced a detailed, permanent image. Thanks to the French government’s decision to put the Daguerre process in the public domain, the system took off to capture portraits, scientific findings, astronomical views, urbanization and modern architecture, archeological expeditions, anthropological studies, and an array of artistic experiments over the course of the next two decades.
Salon of Baron Gros, daguerreotype, 1850s via the Met
Two nude women, stereoscopic daguerreotype, 1840s [also they have tiaras!] via the Met
Landscape with cottage, daguerreotype, 1847 via the Met
The Daguerre process used copper plates coated with silver nitrate that were then treated with iodine fumes, exposed to light in the camera, and developed with mercury fumes before being “fixed” with hyposulphite of soda. In the 1850s, the invention of Albumen paper by Louis Blanquart-Evrard introduced the first paper photographic prints. Albumen was cheap, portable, and could be purchased in lard quantities. This further aided the popularity of both professional and amateur photography because while immediate development of the image (and therefore an on-site darkroom) was still required, it made the process cheaper for patrons, more approachable for photographers, and more portable. While not quite as clear daguerreotypes, albumen photographs could have multiple prints of a single image, and they were also much better for pasting into photo albums. While the daguerreotype stayed popular in the US into the early 1860s, albumen paper-printed photographs eventually overtook them it.

"Transporting the Bavaria Statue to Theresienwiese", Albumen print, 1850
As the photographic process became faster, cheaper, and easier over the second half of the 19th century, likenesses became a much larger part of everyday life. New technologies developed better lenses and smaller cameras, while new chemical approaches changed development. Stereoscopic images brought pictures into 3 dimensions. Births, deaths, marriages, and lazy summer afternoons were documented for posterity. Fabulous clothes were captured. We can see many of these images today in archives and online, which is a really neat way to jump into the past.

So I will leave you with a quote to think about, and some images to inspire you. What photographs have shaped your vision of the past? Do you like using them for research?

Photography transcends the bounds of time and space. It enables you to see at great distances things that you could never see, to know things that you could never know, to see events that have passed and no longer exist. “ Grant Romer, PBS

unidentified couple on stilts
Expedition to Egypt, 1850
portable portrait studio, Ireland, c.1870
Bazaar stall, 1867
Read more about the birth of modern photography:

Articles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Louis Daguerre, The Daguerrian Age in France, and photography on Egyptian expeditions

19th Century Photographic Processes and Formats and the Concord Public Library

Monday, February 17, 2014

One Last Dolley Post (for Presidents' Day)

As I was doing research about Mrs. Madison for the ball (and my last post), I happened upon a graphic re-telling of Dolley's most famous FLOTUS adventure for kids.

Yep, this is a thing. And it's part of a series. Has anybody read these? How are they?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Dolley Madison, Social Butterfly and BAMF

Last Saturday was the Dolley Madison ball in Salem, and helping with preparations gave me a chance to learn a little bit more about the eminent first lady. I'm so glad I did!

Dolley Madison
and me!
Wife of President James Madison, Dolley's hosting skills were already well known and respected in Washington by the time she became first lady. During her husband's presidency, Dolley hosted weekly "Wednesday drawing rooms" that brought disparate political and social groups from the D.C. scene together to mingle. What I find especially remarkable is that Dolley didn't leave the networking to her husband--she presided over these evenings, as well as dinner parties and other events, alongside him. She was also the first FLOTUS to use her position for social justice work; while in the White House Dolley founded a D.C. home for orphaned girls. 
In addition to her knack for making enemies talk (even Federalists, the opposing party, attended), Dolley was known for her colorful outfits (including plumed turbans) and colorful menus (including ice cream).
a red velvet dress owned by Dolley Madison, c.1810-20 (via the National Portrait Gallery)

Another portrait of Dolley in a fabulous turban

Dolley was also FLOTUS during the War of 1812, and was living in the White House when it was burned by British forces in 1814. It's worth noting that in addition to living in the White House, Dolley also played a huge role in it's interior completion and decoration--so she probably felt an especially strong sense of ownership for the house beyond it just being a symbol of state. Even so (and despite plans to serve dinner to 40 officers that evening), Dolley kept a clear enough head to prioritize rescuing important state papers and symbols of state (George Washington's portrait) before fleeing before soldiers from the Battle of Bladensburg arrived (they ate Dolley's dinner and looted the house before burning it).

a 19th c. illustration of Dolley rescuing White House documents before evacuating
After James Madison died in 1836, Dolley continued to be a public figure in politics. She was even given a special seat in Congress so that she could be present on the floor for debates. Dolley also continued to advise her successors to the role of FLOTUS in their duties as White House hostess.

an ice cream server from the Madison china collection (via the White House)
So in honor of Dolley Madison, FLOTUS, BAMF, and winning hostess, here are some pictures from CVD's Dolley Madison Ball:

getting up sets for a country dance

dancing the Cottage Waltz

The refreshments table is carried in by two of our dashing gentleman

serving ice cream, a la Dolley!
enjoying refreshments--the cookie in hand is from Dolley's sugar cookie recipe

dancing so fast they blurred!

at the end of the night
My shot blue/gold dress is new--yep, after a week of work travel I decided to spend Friday night (and Saturday morning) making a new dress and baking cookies for the ball. Life isn't fun without sleep deprivation and a chance of not being dressed, right? I kid, but actually I really wanted something new for this ball, and this fabric had been sitting in my stash for over a year. It's such wonderful stuff! I am really looking forward to adjusting the fit (last minute sewing for the win...) and then trimming the hell out of this (bonus: trim will cover up all the fit adjustments), but the shot faux silk is so lovely it really holds its own.

To learn more about Dolley Madison, check out the sources below!

Dolley Madison Biography at the National First Ladies' Library
Saving History: Dolley Madison, the White House, and the War of 1812 at the White House Historical Association
The British Burn Washington D.C., 1814 at Eyewitness to History