To Preserve and Protect

As Collections Manager, I care for boxes of Elizabeth Bull's belongings. From baby caps adorned with microscopic lace and worn by her six children to a metallic embroidered shawl that must have stunned in candlelight to the grandest item - her wedding dress. Young Elizabeth made a wedding dress in 1730 without so much as a potential suitor on the horizon. She was married in 1734 to Roger Price of King's Chapel and set the dress aside until it passed to the bride of one of her sons. And although seams were ripped, hems cut, and drinks spilled in celebration, it was still saved. Bull's wedding dress is an exemplary piece of what is often referred to as school girl embroidery. The term invites us to reflect on the skills affluent young girls were expected to master.

The Bull petticoat, now on display
During conservation of the wedding dress, the petticoat was removed. Hidden for years under a protective layer, the embroidery on the petticoat is even more vibrant and indicative of Bull’s extraordinary talents than the dress. The petticoat, now on display in the museum, allows Elizabeth’s needlework to shine, and shows how even the people who altered the gown still honored her beautiful handiwork.

The Elizabeth Bull exhibit has been supported by the talents of Madelyn Shaw who carved the dress and torso form for the artifacts. Because historic garments were specially made, dress forms in standard sizes definitely wouldn't cut it for exhibit purposes. Etha-foam - an inert foam material - needed to be carved to each garment’s exact dimensions replicating the body of the original wearer. What is more, all exhibit materials that come into contact with historic textiles need to be inert or inactive so that they won’t cause further degradation.

The Bull wedding dress,
packed for storage
For preservation purposes, we have given the dress and the petticoat a separate six month display run in our gallery. The dress and petticoat have been embroidered with a rainbow of colors that can fade when exposed to light. We’ve mitigated exposure through controlling gallery light levels and using specially coated glass on our display cases that hinder exposure to UV light. Thankfully organic dyes are sturdier than synthetic dyes, which became more popular in the 19th century. All of this has eased my mind considerably and has allowed for accessibility to beautiful 18th-century items such as this one.

Despite everything we’ve put in place to protect these items, the mere handling of 300 year old silk increases potential for damage. Collections handling is tricky and although it becomes easier with practice and adhering to basic standards, it is a daunting task. The process usually requires multiple hands to support the garment and collections managers and specialists handle items only when they need to be displayed, conserved, or studied. It is also important to let items rest between these events. Earlier in January, the wedding dress was returned to storage for a good nap and the petticoat was put on display, where it will remain until June. Stop by the Old State House to examine this exquisite artifact in person.

By Tricia Gilrein, Collections Manager