museum collections

A Return to Beauty: Conserving the Price kerchief

A Return to Beauty: Conserving the Price kerchief

A good deal of careful and detailed work goes into returning an 18th century textile to its former glory. In this post, learn more the process of conserving the Price kerchief, which was damaged by a water leak in 2015. 

James Bowdoin and the Boston Massacre

James Bowdoin and the Boston Massacre

In honor of the upcoming 247th anniversary of the Boston Massacre, our staff have placed a portrait of James Bowdoin (1726-1790) on view in Representatives Hall.

Honoring the Legacy of a Black Patriot

Honoring the Legacy of a Black Patriot

In celebration of Black History Month, we are featuring one of three pewter plates belonging to Jeffrey Hartwell, a black man who was born into slavery c. 1751 and served at some of the most important battles of the Revolutionary War. 

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


Out of storage and into the library!

Like most museums, our collection includes a number of beautiful paintings that spend most of their time in storage.  As a way to share these items with the public, we recently decided to move three paintings over to the library!

View of Boston Harbor (1884.0209)
One of the paintings that is now hanging in the library is View of Boston Harbor by John White Allen Scott (1815 - 1907).  Painted in 1853, this painting has been part of the Boston Society's collection since 1884.  It is an oil painting, but was originally done with the intention of being engraved. Scott was a Boston painter and lithographer, known for portraits, landscape, and marine images. He was a friend of fellow artist Fitz Henry Lane (also known as Fitz Hugh Lane). According to The Handbook of the Bostonian Society, Scott and Lane "served an apprenticeship together in the Pendleton shop, and were partners from 1845 to 1847 in a lithographic firm of there own."  (The Pendleton shop refers to the lithographic print shop that was run by brothers William and John Pendleton.)  In the 1853 Boston city directory, Scott is listed as an artist with studio space at 265 Washington Street, but he had previously held space in the Tremont Temple, until it was damaged in a fire in April 1852.

View of Boston Harbor is a large painting that depicts Boston's waterfront in the mid 1800s.  It shows a bustling seaport with horse-drawn carts moving merchandise up and down Broad Street.  A group of men are shown on scaffolding in the right foreground of the image, constructing a new building out of bricks.  Only a few of the buildings in the painting are identified by name, one has a sign reading "Arch Wharf Sail Loft" and the other reads "George H. Gray and Danforth Hardware."  Broad Street was laid out and named in June 1805 and it still exists today, but over the years it has been expanded and cut in places.  This painting provides insight into how the street looked in the 1850s, and the building under construction gives a hint to the changes yet to come to the street.

Our newly refurbished library, with Silva's painting on view
The other paintings on display in the library are Schooner Passing Castle Island by Francis Augustus Silva and Sovereign of the Seas by James Edward Buttersworth. With new items on the walls, we decided that it was about time to freshen up the library a bit. Thanks to a generous donation from one of our long-time members, we were able to paint the walls, install new carpet, and mount special UV window shades that will protect the paintings from light damage.  We're excited about the changes in our library, and hope that our visitors and researchers enjoy the new space as much as we do.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager

Adopt an Artifact!

Lydia Withington map, 1896.0053.001
Do you love revolutionary history and want to help preserve it?  Want to know that your well-meaning gift will make a difference to our museum collection and future visitors? The Bostonian Society has an Adopt an Artifact program where you can give directly to the conservation of specific museum artifacts that our Collections Manager has identified as needing conservation.  Your donation will help to preserve these items for years to come.

To learn more about the program, please visit our website.  On this page, you'll be able to see the artifacts that need to be adopted and learn more about their history and the specific conservation work that is needed.  You'll also be able to see some of the previously adopted artifacts.

If you have questions about the Adopt an Artifact program, please leave them in the comments or contact our Collections Manager directly by email.


A look at the Elizabeth Bull wedding dress

A few weeks ago we introduced you to the love story of Elizabeth Bull and Roger Price and the wedding dress that Elizabeth began working on before they even met.  Have you had a chance to stop by the Old State House to see this exquisite dress in person?  Our visitors have delighted in the opportunity to examine this craftsmanship up close, but if you can't stop by, we hope you'll enjoy this virtual look at the wedding dress and an explanation of  the conservation work that went into making it exhibit ready.

The gown is a circa 1730 wedding dress within the collections of the Bostonian Society. It was originally constructed by Elizabeth Bull, who was born in 1717.   It was acquired by the Society in 1910, gifted by Francis Erving Weston who was the granddaughter of Olivia Price Hall, who was the niece of Elizabeth Bull’s daughter, also named Elizabeth.  According to Francis Erving Weston, Elizabeth worked this dress while at school in 1731.

The garment incorporates a variety of embroidery methods, called crewel work which is typically done in wool on domestic items. The resulting work is intricate and beautiful, and the process highly instructional.

The wedding dress was conserved in 2012. It was dry-cleaned meticulously by hand and vacuumed using mesh as a guard and a low pressure machine. Portions of the dress were stabilized with mesh and the sleeves were fitted with a new silk overlay. A specialty mount was hand carved from inert foam for both the dress and the petticoat. The petticoat was removed from beneath the main skirt during conservation.

We chose conservation rather than restoration. Restoration would have dramatically altered the dress returning it to the original 1730’s silhouette. Serving as a palimsest for succeeding generations, the dress indicates the many Bull women who owned, wore, and cherished it, and this was a story we wanted to tell.

The Elizabeth Bull wedding dress will be on display in the Council Chamber of the Old State House until November.

By Tricia Gilrein, Collections Manager and Exhibitions Coordinator

Elizabeth Bull and Roger Price: An 18th Century Love Story

1910.0050.035
Elizabeth Bull didn’t need to marry for money, but marriage was, of course, in the cards. Such inevitability was central to her education, and her father was invested in the appropriate tutelage. As a merchant working on the family wharf, he was privy to the latest fripperies: sewing patterns from France and bolts of silk and thread from China dyed to match blooms along the Tigris, far from the provincial outpost of Boston. These were the raw materials for a polite education, and a means to an end. When Elizabeth was fifteen - two years before she met Roger Price on a Sunday morning at Trinity Church in 1732 - she began an appropriate assignment: a wedding dress.

Roger was brilliant, if not a bit dour. He didn’t care for his colleagues at Kings Chapel, and after four years as the only commissary to Anglican churches of New England - and almost constant bickering with his Assistant Minister - he booked a one-way fare back to London. On Sunday morning, he found his ship delayed by winds and opted to attend service at Trinity. He was probably not in the best of moods.

That year, Roger’s father wrote to him in Boston warning not to “let his love of a pretty face run away with his decision in choosing a wife.” Clearly, there was something about Elizabeth that cheered him up that morning. It was enough for him to stay and defy his father’s advice. He didn’t return to England for another fifteen years, and then it was with Elizabeth and six children in tow.

The couple married in 1734 after a two year courtship. 1730 to 1734 years is a long time to spend working a wedding dress; a heady preoccupation that surfaces in the garment. It brims with anticipation, recognizable in its precision and steep aspirations; the stitches are perfectly wrought but the ambitious design unfinished. It’s her process which makes the gown so enigmatic. The days spent crafting a vessel for a journey unseen, her dutiful intent to be a good daughter and wife all buoyed by a compulsive talent.

Elizabeth would have been exposed to urban glamor through stores on Kings Street that sold ribbons and high heeled shoes, and the Bull wharf. Prompting her to, in many respects, become a designer. Inspiration was drawn from patterns from Spittafields, cotton palampore from India, and silks from Canton, all indications of a world much larger.

She, most likely, created a robe l’Aiglaise: an open robe style dress with a fitted bodice and a visible petticoat. The style was fit for a French court, hers with wild vines clawing the celadon silk and springing with sunny chrysanthemums and cheerful red buds. Her parents must have delighted in her creativity and commitment. School girl wares were as much of a commodity as all the other trappings of 18th century refinement, even in colonial Boston. Parents proudly hung samplers above mantles and recognized their “educated” daughters as a marker of wealth and sophistication. It would make sense that they would welcome the affections of Roger Price, who was a prestigious figure in town. Elizabeth had already inherited tracks of land after the death of her two brothers, so a good match strictly meant status. This was a lucky circumstance. Money is freedom, and certainly it was liberating for a woman in colonial Boston: Elizabeth could marry for love.

Elizabeth and Roger's daughter, also named Elizabeth, inherited the dress and was probably the first to alter it. She eventually gave it to her niece Olivia Price Hall, and Olivia’s granddaughter, Francis Irving Weston, donated it to the Bostonian Society in 1910. Shortly after, the Society's curator of collections asked an unnamed model to wear it for a Boston Globe photo shoot at the beginning of the 20th century. One wonders if the model knew she would be last to wear it in a string of woman that began with a teenaged girl sewing in a tavern on Summer Street where South Station now stands.

The dress is currently on display in the Old State House, and will be followed by an exhibition of the gown’s petticoat in November. Be sure to plan a visit to see it in person!

By Tricia Gilrein, Collections Manager and Exhibitions Coordinator