stories from ‘material’ culture

When I first started researching life in eighteenth-century Cork, one of my advisors was an expert in material culture. This was my first foray into the world of materiality and how it can inform our knowledge of history and frankly, I felt it was it waste of my time. As far as I was concerned information came by way or words. What could studying an object tell me?

It was only as my research period due to a close that I began to see the role that objects can play and the stories they can tell. But at heart, I am a two-dimensional girl. I find it hard to ‘read’ a piece of material culture. I prefer my stories to come between the covers of a book.

However, there is a of type of book which, for me, straddles both genres – pattern sample books. These books are basically scrapbooks containing snippets of fabric which salesmen of the time would tout around hoping to get orders.

Some women would keep their own record of fabrics used in their dresses. Marie Antoinette had a ‘wardrobe book’ which was brought to her each morning. It is said she inserted a pin into the fabrics she would consider wearing that day. Loose pins are still being found on her bedroom floor.

Record books were also kept of needle-work skills a young woman might need. Consider this sampler book made by Irish girl, Ellen Mahon from. Here she displays her skills in tatting, buttonholing, quilting, seaming, crocheting, lace-making and knitting in a series of exquisitely made tiny clothes.

For me, I can imagine the stories of the people behind these books. I can visualise how they spent their time and what they might have been contemplating.

There is one last fabric book I would like to share. A book that conjures so many stories. Stories that don’t bear thinking about.

In the eighteenth century many unmarried woman who found themselves pregnant gave their babies away. Many would attach a small snippet of their own dress as a keepsake for their child – some way of leaving a small bit of themselves with their baby. The Foundling Hospital in London kept and recorded these snippets. In 2011, they commemorated these woman and their children in an exhibition and book called ‘Threads of Feeling’.

A selection of these textiles were displayed, with the stories they told of individual mothers and babies, alongside the artist William Hogarth’s depictions of the clothes, ribbons, embroidery and fabrics worn in the eighteenth century. Curator John Styles, Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire describes the power of these humble objects:

‘The textiles are both beautiful and poignant, embedded in a rich social history. Each swatch reflects the life of a single infant child. But the textiles also tell us about the clothes their mothers wore, because baby clothes were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing. The fabrics reveal how working women struggled to be fashionable in the eighteenth century’

Fifteen years ago I had a child out of wedlock. Times have changed since the eighteenth century and it is no longer considered immoral or financially impossible for me to to raise my child alone. I have kept some of her baby clothes and, at times, we look at them together and I tell her stories of when she was younger.

To me clothes tell stories. And finally, I’m beginning to see that everything single object we touch also holds our stories. We just have to take the time to read them.

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